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Sculptor Benjamin Victor gives shape to Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s enduring voice


Sculptor Benjamin Victor gives shape to Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s enduring voice

 

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Sarah Lemke

Appearing in the May’June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

In creating the larger-than-life likeness of Chief Standing Bear for the Nebraska state capitol’s Centennial Mall, sculptor Benjamin Victor felt communion with the late Native American icon. Victor was “captivated” by the principled ways of the Ponca leader, whose eloquent advocacy for his people led to a historic federal court ruling at Fort Omaha that declared the nation’s indigenous peoples to be legally “human” for the first time on May 12, 1879.

“He was a true servant-leader,” Victor says of his subject. “The things he wanted were very basic, inalienable human rights everyone should be afforded. He carried himself with dignity even through demeaning treatment. He had a higher moral code of ethics during a time when the laws were not moral. He had the courage to stand up for right through many injustices.”

Based in Idaho, the Boise State University professor and resident artist felt connected to Standing Bear through every stage of his artistic process—from preparatory research into the famous Nebraskan, through molding his clay form, to casting the Ponca leader in bronze.

“His story and spirit definitely were speaking to me,” Victor says. “As an artist, you try to get that voice through your artwork to speak to viewers who see it. I felt humbled to be working on it. In the sculpture itself, I tried to keep the spirit of Standing Bear alive as much as I tried for an accurate portrait. An accurate portrait is important, but to me a spiritual portrait is just as important. I hope it really inspires other people to study his life. If my work does that, then it’s a success.”

The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and Donald Miller Campbell Family Foundation commissioned the 11-foot-tall sculpture, unveiled Oct. 15, 2017. Then, over the winter, a pair of Nebraska state senators (including Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha) introduced a bill to replace the state’s two sculptures—of J. Sterling Morton and William Jennings Bryan—in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall with those of Willa Cather and Standing Bear. A donor, Donald Miller Campbell, pledged funds for a copy to be made of Victor’s Standing Bear work.

“To have him as a towering icon in the U.S. Capitol would be important. His story should be on the national scale. He should be known in every school,” Victor says.

The artist already has two works in the Hall. One is of Northern Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca on behalf of the state of Nevada. Anything Native holds profound meaning for Victor, as his late step-grandfather was a member of the Juaneño—a coastal California tribe engulfed by Spanish missions.
“It’s always a big deal to me whenever I do a Native American piece that it’s done right and with purpose. I always think of my grandpa when I do them. He liked the images I created of Native Americans with a strong stance and with dignity. That really meant a lot to him. If he’s looking down, he’s really proud of this one.”

Victor’s second sculpture in the U.S. Capitol represents Iowa—Norman Borlaug, the father of modern agriculture’s “Green Revolution.”

Working from photos, Victor “modified” Standing Bear’s pose “to capture a hint of motion,” as if the chief were moving forward slightly. In an attempt to “capture every detail,” he created folds and the look of heaviness in the blanket draped about his subject. Ornamental details included intricate beadwork, a bear claw necklace, and peace medals. Victor symbolized the chief’s dual roles as warrior and ambassador by having him holding an ax-peace pipe.

The bronze is positioned in front of a wall carved with the eloquent words of Standing Bear on trial (as translated by Omaha Native Susette “Bright Eyes” LaFlesche): “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

The project selection committee for the state capitol’s Centennial Mall learned about Victor from George Neubert (director of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum in Brownville, Nebraska), who befriended the artist when he did a commission for Peru State College, where his bronze of a hulking football player adorns the Oak Bowl.

Although Victor originally hails from California, he developed deep roots in the Great Plains while attending Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he discovered his love of sculpture.

“When I picked up clay the first time in college, the medium just clicked for me,” he says. “I felt like the concepts I was trying to get across were very readily expressed in sculpture. I really like the physicality of sculpture, how you move the clay with your hands and manipulate it. I like everything about it. I also work in marble—so I do the subtractive process of carving, the additive process of clay work, and the replacement process of bronze.”

He was still in school when he landed his first big commission—for the Aberdeen airport.

“I had a family to support,” he says. “I worked at the YMCA part-time, took odd jobs, and went to school full time. I was on food stamps and rental assistance. We had nothing. To get the commission was really amazing because you can struggle your whole life as an artist and never get a commission like that.”

Soon thereafter came the Winnemucca project. Demand for his work has never ceased.

“I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make it on my own in my dream field and career,” he says. “It’s a true American success story. I still don’t take it for granted. Every day I get to do this, I feel very blessed. And then to do something inspiring like Standing Bear. What a dream commission to commemorate him and everything he stood for.”

Upon graduating, Victor was a Northern State teacher and resident artist before Boise State courted him.

“They gave me a beautiful studio space and gallery. It’s been a great home,” he says, adding that he maintains close ties with his former colleagues in South Dakota. “I’ve got so many friends there that are just like family.”

Back at his Boise studio, his studio life intersects with students, patrons, and his three children. Meanwhile, he continues to always keep his ears open to the spirits of his subjects.

Visit benjaminvictor.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

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Photographer Jim Scholz and his lifelong mission to honor beauty

April 27, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Photographer Jim Scholz and his lifelong mission to honor beauty

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2018 issue of the New Horizons

 

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Photographer Jim Scholz of Omaha finds beauty wherever life takes him. The 73-year-old former Roman Catholic priest began making images growing up in the St. Cecilia Cathedral neighborhood.

“I started shooting pictures in high school for the yearbook and ever since it’s been a real passion and interest for me,” he said

He recalls “the magic of that first print when I put the white piece paper in the developer and an image actually came up on it.” It happened in the Cathedral High darkroom. From that moment on, he said, “I was forever hooked by the magic that this is more than just reality. It’s a powerful thing.”

“I started off with a 35-millimeter camera because everybody had one. You could buy the film pretty inexpensively. You could develop the film in your own darkroom. I shot with that for a long time.”

He was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming during the Second World War. His father saw U.S. Army duty in the Pacific. After WWII, his father was offered a job with an Omaha company. Jim was 5 when his family moved here. His father worked management jobs at various Omaha firms. His stay-at-home mom eventually went back to work in her chosen field, dietetics, at area hospitals.

Serving a higher purpose

Scholz kept right on developing his photographic eye at seminary in Denver, Colorado, doing graduate work at Creighton University and serving metro parishes as an Archdiocesan priest.

“It was always a hobby.”

He doesn’t say it, but there’s a sacred dimension to capturing the essence of humanity and nature. As a priest ministering to his flock, he was called to mirror Christ’s unconditional love and to share the liturgy’s sublime peace. As a photographer, he reflects back what people project or see. Sometimes, he shows what they’ve never seen before. Surely, there’s something inspirational, perhaps even spiritual in that.

Omaha fashion designer Mary Anne Vaccaro admires his fidelity to beauty.

“Jim is very grounded and spiritual. As a photographer he embraces his creative gift with love, discipline and respect. He sees beauty in unexpected and unlikely places. His attention to detail and quality is amazing. His passion for his work drives him to excellence.”v

Tom Sitzman, owner of Connect Gallery in Omaha, sees in Scholz’s photography the same sensitivity and compassion that infused his ministry.

“I first knew Jim as my pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Omaha. His homilies were conversations, not lectures, filled with examples of everyday people living everyday lives. Those sitting in the pews could see themselves in those situations of the human condition – funny, sad, enlightening, tragic and giving – knowing he understood. His photography is deeply rooted and grounded in Jim the man and priest. They depict everyday events we too often take for granted. A moon rise over the city. Dark, foreboding storm clouds moving across a still sun-lit hay meadow, An old timber building. Jim knows where to stand to get the feel of size and distance as well as where the light is coming from. They are the works of a well-trained eye that knows how to compose a scene with his camera the way he did with words in a homily.”

Scholz ministered in Elgin, Nebraska and at St. Bernards, St. Cecilia and St. Leo in Omaha. The parish he served longest at was Sacred Heart in North Omaha, where he helped found Heart Ministry, which has grown to serve residents needs in the city’s most poverty-stricken neighborhood.

“I feel lucky to have been not only in that space but other parishes where I served or other jobs that I worked at. When you’re around someplace for awhile you’re hopefully going to make a contribution and I feel good about when I look back at something that helped people and continues to help people.”

Scholz received the 1995 Omaha Archdiocese Sheehan Award (then-the Presidential Citation) recognizing clergy as outstanding leaders in their communities.

Sacred Heart years

During his 1981 to 1998 Sacred Heart tenure, he took over an integrated parish in decline, its ranks thinned by white flight. Mass attendance was abysmal. Gospel already had a hold there, thanks to Father Tom Furlong introducing it in the ‘late ’60s-early ’70s.

“It was a very conservative, quiet little neighborhood parish,” Scholz recalled. “Most of the members were longtime parishioners, many of them quite elderly. Physically, the place was dilapidated. I felt we had to do something dramatic.”

He got the idea for more spirited, gospel music-based “uplifting liturgies” from an inner city parishes conference in Detroit. He was by impressed how churches in similar circumstances turned things around with the help of gospel. He saw the music as a homage to black heritage and a magnet for new members.

“What the music said was we are reaching out to your traditions and we’re trying to make you feel comfortable to come to our church,”

Scholz found a first-rate choir director in Glenn Burleigh, under whom the church’s full-blown entry into gospel began at the Saturday night Mass. The 10:30 Sunday liturgy remained ultra-traditional and sparsely attended.

“Six months later we’d gone from a Saturday service with 30 to 35 people, with hardly any music, to standing in the aisles full with a wonderful ensemble,

“Glenn wrote special music almost weekly for the service. People started to come out of the woodwork once the word got out. It was such a refreshing thing.

“We didn’t grow exponentially in black membership, although we did grow some. What we grew in was white membership.”

When Burleigh was hired away by a mega-Baptist church in Houston, Scholz tapped his assistant, William Tate, to take over. Scholz recruited a new choir director, Mary Kay Mueller, to energize the 10:30 Sunday service. For inspiration, he referred her to The Blues Brothers. So it came to pass the movie’s Triple Rock Church became a model for the expressive Sacred Heart liturgy. No, Scholz weren’t interested in “people doing somersaults down the front aisle. But he wanted “to come up with that spirit.” Unbridled. Joyous. Free. “We really need to come alive here,” he told Mueller. Thus, the Freedom Choir was born. The rest is history as that rollicking Sunday service began packing the pews and still does three decades later.

An abiding passion for photography 

All the while Sacred Heart grew its base, Scholz made photographs.

“When I had a little time off, an afternoon, or before I’d go to bed at night I’d probably spend the last half hour of my waking life that day by reading about photography or studying photographers like Ansel Adams and all these heroes of mine.

“The more you get into it then you start studying other people’s work and you try to emulate what they do and improve what you do. Ansel Adams wrote a series of books on the camera, the lens, photo development and so on. I checked them out of the library a number of times and studied these things to learn how he developed film and how he arrived at his vision.”

Other photographers Scholz has admired and studied include Wynn Bullock and Edward Weston.

Scholz followed his cleric calling for 27 years. After much deliberation and prayer, he shed the collar in 1999. He is still Catholic and regularly attends Mass. Now, he’s nearing 20 years in his second career as a full-time architecture, portrait and fine art photographer.

He describes his own aesthetic this way: “Probably at the baseline is a sense of beauty, whether color or color harmony or composition or subject. That would be the underlining thing. I love landscapes. I love abstracts, I love people, you name it.” He finds beauty in it all. “There are certain patterns hardwired into the fabric of our beings that produce pleasure, and we declare them beautiful. This is also true of music and other art forms. We are better because of what Michelangelo and Beethoven created and left to us;”

Ideas for projects are not hard to come by.

“I probably have more imagination than time. Every now and then I’ll get cranked up about a certain theme or methodology. I started a project photographing Omaha and Nebraska artists a few years ago. I just wanted to do that. I know a number of artistsand i started taking their picturesI’m about half way through that and hopefully I’ll have a show.

He envisions an exhibition in which each of his artist portraits is displayed next to a work by the artist, whether a sculpture or painting or whatever it might be.

“I’ve talked with a couple gallery owners about it. It might also be a book. We’ll see what happens.”

Catherine Ferguson is among the artists Scholz has photographed. He’s also photographed her work.

“Jim and I worked together to produce photographs of my stacked glass series,” Ferguson said. “He is a generous artist ready to help another artist see their vision realized. Jim is a patient, calm, gentle perfectionist. He gives me all the time necessary to have the prints exactly as I want them, no hurry, no pressure. I feel he is under-recognized as an artist in our community.”

Another artist friend is Shelly Bartek.

“I’ve known Jim from the time he was a priest at Sacred Heart to now where he is a successful national photographer,” Bartek said. “He is an authentic, all-around photographer serving to bring his clients the best quality images that represent their brand. His personal

passion to create art in his work has inspired us all through his concept and technical perfection.

“Best of all, he’s a great friend.”

About a decade ago, Scholz collaborated with writer Leslie Little on a museum quality book about Paris.

“I made the Paris Icons book images during two short visits to the city in 2007,” Scholz said. “It then took several months to edit, layout and in general prepare for print. The result was well received and we were awarded three international awards for the publication.

“It is always a joy to produce something of beauty that people appreciate.”

By choice, he’s not little documentary work on the gritty margins of life. “That’s a whole journalistic approach I respect greatly – it’s just not me. I like to show the best of people.” That includes showcasing the works of makers’ hands. Then there’s the joy he takes in picturing the natural splendor of God’s handiwork.

Expanding and honing his vision

Shooting Opera Omaha rehearsals and productions has deepened a long-held appreciation for music.

“What it’s done is it’s really stretched me in terms of my knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the whole operatic canon. My vision has been broadened.”

Photography has opened new vistas for him.

“If I never made another photograph, if I never went click again, I still think my life would be much richer because as I look at the world I see things that before I would never have noticed. The angle of the light or the color or whatever. There’s a whole bunch of stuff I would never have paid attention to, but the discipline of seeing as a camera sees forces you to see these things.

“I can sit an airport waiting for a plane for two hours and not be bored at all because I’m looking all around, seeing a grandma with little kids, the light coming in the windows, the big airplane rolling up on the tarmac outside. All this stuff.”

Cultivating a vision of what he wants to shoot and executing that vision, he said, is “a process.”

“It’s a lot more the work you put into it then the gizmo that goes click. The ultimate satisfaction is the process itself – getting to see things maybe in a little bit unique way and presenting them so that people say, ‘Oh, look at that, I never noticed that, I walked by this every day and never saw it.’ It’s finding what’s interesting.

“You’re expressing it from your perspective. You bring a whole life history and all kinds of things to color that.”

Photographers like him prefer to say they “make” rather than take photos.

“There’s a distinction.” Scholz said/ “You see something and you have a vision of how you want to present it.”

He saw in his mind’s eye what he wanted to achieve with his portrait of the late sculptor John Walz before ever shooting anything. “I had a vision of what I wanted to present, so I exposed the film to achieve that and I printed the print to achieve that.”

Walz turned a former Burlington Railroad Station power plant into his home-studio.

“I did the photo shoot with him part way through the remodel,” Scholz said. “I wanted to show him in his art creation, but we wanted a little mystery, so that’s why his face is a little in shadow.”

Contrasting elements can communicate mystery, energy, texture, whimsy, depth of perception, the passage of time, et cetera.

“I like to work with the idea of the human figure and the natural world,” Scholz said,

For an image he made of footprints in the sand at Canon Beach on the Oregon coast, he explained, “I wanted it to convey the essence of nature and humanity. The ocean is kind of symbolic of the timeless and I had to wait for somebody to walk along the beach to produce footprints, which get washed out with the next wave or two. That’s a story about how nature is constantly washing over us.

“As humans, we think we’re so important but in the big picture we’re real new on the scene and we probably won’t last all that long either. We’re just a little part of that from the beginning-to-the-end scenario.”

For a picture he made of a nude young woman lying on a fallen redwood tree in a Big Sur Coast grove, he wanted the contrast of “the old rugged, hard-edged woods and the softness of the young human figure.”

“That was done very deliberately to hopefully make the image strong.”

On a trip to Chatterbox Falls, British Columbia, he captured for posterity a sublime setting he awoke to,

“My friends, Ron and Judy Parks, rented a Nordic Tug for the summer to explore the coast and invited me to join them for a few days. We docked there for the night and in the morning I liked the reflections from the rain on the dock and the movement of the water. I made the picture with the falls in the background.”

During a Colorado sojourn he set out to photograph one of the state’s most prominent mountains, Longs Peak.

“Since the Forest Service does not allow camping there we had to leave the parking lot at midnight and climb all night to get there just before dawn. It was cloudy at sunrise but just for a moment the clouds partially broke and I was able to get the shot.”

 

Intuitive and intentional

Sometimes, the opportunity for a picture appears as he’s driving to or from an assignment.

“I was coming from Kansas City and I took the back roads and just about sunset I saw this partially plowed wheat field with terraced ridges in a pattern. So I stopped and took a picture. But the sky was very dull – there was nothing. Driving back, I was thinking, what can I do with this? Then I decided to put a woman’s flowing hair in the sky.”

He secured a model for the shoot at his studio. He made the image and overlaid it in the picture of the field.

“That was fun. I think that sort of thing makes the image richer.”

Manipulating images on a computer or in the darkroom, he said, “is just a creative tool.”

“People have the idea that in an earlier era of photography, working in the darkroom was somehow pure. Okay, it wasn’t, it never was. As long as I can darken this part and lighten that part (or crop or burn or do any number of things to manipulate an image), it’s a subjective, editorial process.

“Just the act of making a picture, you choose what to include in the frame and what not. My act of putting a frame around that image begins to edit right there.”

He embraces today’s digital tools.

“What I love about PhotoShop is that now I can do things that even in my wildest dreams in the darkroom I couldn’t achieve. For instance, I have an image of an abandoned ore processing plant high in the Colorado back country that’s been a favorite in galleries. I made it with an eight by ten camera and black and white film. I worked and worked in the darkroom to get all the various tonalities but it was hard because the inside of the building was kind of dark.

“Well, you can only burn an edge so much in the darkroom.”

For this oversized image, he placed his developing tray on the floor and angled the enlarger on the print.

“I’m crawling down there, lightening this part and darkening that part, but you could only go so far and you couldn’t change the focal contrast. With PhotoShop you can adjust the tonality and contrast. The nice thing is once you get done, two years or 20 years from now when you hit print it’s still going to come out the same.Or you can change it.”

“I had an early ’90s show of my work in Omaha. One of the prints was very successful in terms of sales. It also happened to be a print that involved six different negatives at various exposures in the enlarger. The original print probably took me six evenings from seven to midnight and now I suddenly had orders for 10 more. By the time I got done with that whole thing, I was spent and none of the prints were exactly the same because you couldn’t exactly get it the same.”

Whether intuitive or intentional, he’s after the same result – to distill beauty and endow permanence to an ephemeral moment.

Finding a niche

Scholz depends on what he earns photographing for his living. He started his own business, Scholz Images, in 1999. He works from a high-ceilinged downtown studio with ample natural light. It’s outfitted with lights, tents, screens, filters, cases and framed prints.

Most of his time is spent not on making photographs but scheduling. marketing, billing and other business matters. Finding and juggling projects isn’t easy.

“If you’re doing it on your own, you’re always kind of dancing between jobs. It’s a constant changing. When I first started the business I wanted to mostly go in the fine art direction. What i found is that in order to really make a living at it I had to have an additional niche and architecture became the thing I gravitated toward. I realized it was something I could do and it’s a good market. The architecture puts bread on the table and allows me to pay the mortgage and that sort of thing.”

He’s shot for Omaha firms Holland Basham Architects and HDR, for Lincoln-based Clark Enersen Partners and for Denver-based Fentress and Ruggles Mabe.

Fentress flew him to Quantico, Virginia for a week’s shoot at the National Museum of the Marine Corps and to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for an even longer shoot of the Central Terminal Expansion.

Traveling for his work brings it’s own challenges.

“When you travel a lot you get to sleep on airport floors, have bears come into your camp in the middle of the night, have flat tires on cactus in the back country, be in the center of a bison herd, have foreign police order you to not use your tripod. Just the usual stuff.”

When not flying, he travels to assignments via his trusty Chevy Silverado.

“I find I make my best photos when I have my camera and tripod with me. It can be anywhere that the moment presents itself.”

For most clients, he’ captures objective reality, though he sometimes heightens things via filters and strobes.

“With the commercial work I do, I’m called to record what’s there. Architects like to see all the bricks and everything the way it is. I then like to think of it the way a filmmaker does – how’s this going to look when the sun goes down and there’s still some light in the sky. You’re alway working with light.”

Another major commercial client is J & J Flooring Group, which has sent him on various assignments.

“It’s very challenging to get really interesting pictures of carpet.”

Buildings are easier. For his architectural work, he used to shoot with four by five film.

“In those days if you could get eight pictures a day you were doing really good, especially with color because you had to use several different filters.”

Though there’s little call for it now, he’s fond of large format film photography because he can attain certain qualities with it he can’t in smaller formats or digitially. He first moved to the bigger format in 1980.

“My father built a wooden kit for my four-by-five inch camera. I used that for years. Then I thought, well, if four-by-five is good, then eight-by-ten must be better, so I eventually bought an eight-by-ten.”

He admits he’s “a gear-head” like most photographers when it comes to camera gadgets.

What the large format offers in quality it sacrifices in efficiency.

“The tradeoff is, if you get the image perfectly you’ve got great quality to work with, but you can only make a small number of images, whereas with a smaller camera you might be able to get a hundred images in the same amount of time. So you have to pick your tool for what you want to do

“The larger format allows for more clarity and tonality. You can make increasingly large enlargements that still look good. But it comes at a great cost. The equipment is expensive but the really big cost is hauling it around because it’s heavy and awkward. It’s really tough flying. I much prefer to drive – that way I can load up the truck with lighting gear and I don’t have to worry about it being broken or arriving late or getting lost. When I fly, it really has to get edited down to the very essentials, plus backup. You cant check it – it will end up broken or lost. I carry it on board and stow it overhead.”

Old habits die hard.

“I sometimes think about getting rid of the four-by-five and eight-by-ten but occasionally I do have a client that comes along that wants something in large format film and I’m one of the few guys left that can do it.”

In order to stay current, he’s adapted to digital cameras.

He’s remained true to certain brands.

“I settled in on Nikon for whatever reason and have stayed with it because once you invest in a bunch of lenses then you can use them forever. I can still shoot with the Nikon lenses I got back in the 1960s. I don’t use them all that often anymore, but I can still use them on the camera because they never changed the lens body.”

Standing out from the crowd

For portraits, he uses whatever best serves the subject. A favorite portrait is of a corporate CEO whom Scholz wisely took out of the stuffed shirt, sterile office setting for something more fun and authentic.

“The guy needed a picture for an annual report. I could see in talking to him he just wasn’t into it at all, so I asked, ‘What do you like to do? ‘ He said, ‘I just bought a motorcycle and I like to ride it Sunday afternoons. I said, ‘Okay, let’s do that.” I sat in the back of a pickup with my camera and his wife drove. We were over in Iowa and we drove maybe 30-40 miles down the highway with his hair blowing in the wind. I made lots of pictures in black and white. The whole thing was stronger to me in black and white.

“Later, I decided I wanted a little more drama, so I put the clouds in. The only parts of the image that are in color is the burnt orange gas tank and front fender. It was a custom color designed just for that particular motorcycle. I like black and white because color sometimes is so pretty people stop there without looking deeper, where with black and white you’re reduced to light and dark contests that make your image pop.”

After decades making pictures for public display, Scholz is a fixture on the local photographic scene.

“In general, I think the photographic community here is pretty open and receptive. Most people like each other and get along.”

He counts as peers such well known shooters as Larry Ferguson, Andrew Baran, Monte Kruse. Patrick Drickey, Kat Moser and Sandy Aquila.

He’s talked shop with Omaha native Jim Krantz, who now enjoys a national and international reputation based out of Chicago.

“One of the local people I really admire is Vera Mercer,” Scholz said, “Her work to me is outstanding. I really love what she does.”

His work has shown at Gallery 1516 and Connect in Omaha, at the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and at galleries in Kansas City, Missouri, Santa Fe, New Mexico and other locales.

His work is in public and private collections around the nation and even in in other countries.

Photography equals opportunity 

He makes images to be seen. Naturally, he likes it when people respond favorably to his work. Another fringe benefit of shooting for hire is gaining entree to people and places he’d otherwise not get.

“Being a photographer often times opens doors to things. You get admitted to a lot of places and things you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. For instance, maybe 15 years ago I got a call from a company here in town sponsoring ex-president Bill Clinton to give a keynote talk at an event in Aspen, Colorado. They wanted a lot of pictures of bill involved with people, so they flew me out to Aspen to do that. I spent three days with Bill. Hilary (Clinton) was there. I made all the pictures. Well, this repeated itself in Miami, once here in Omaha, and several times in Aspen.

“That’s not a world I would normally have access to at all, but it was really fun. I remember once in Aspen Bill got there in the afternoon. He was pretty tired having been on the road a lot. He checked into the hotel and decided he wanted to go for a walk downtown. He didn’t get more than a block when he was surrounded in this park by a hundred mothers with little kids. You could see him getting energized. It was fun to see over the course of several events how he would wk with crowds. He had a magic about him

“I remember prior to a cocktail party and dinner he was keynoting there were some guys waiting for his arrival and they were talking about how when they saw Bill Clinton they’re going to give him a piece of their mind. Well, Bill shows up and if by magic those guys are the first people he walks up to. He’s got his hand around one guy telling him a joke and within 10 minutes he totally won them over. I saw that hundreds of times.”

Being a photographer also means forever chasing perfection that can’t be attained.

“My photographer friends and I all know there are certain images meant to tease us into spending a lot of time and effort but we never quite get them. They’re always just a little beyond us.”

Scholz feels it’s good to have something to chase just beyond your grasp in order to stay sharp and hungry. “If you could roll a 300 game every time you bowl, you wouldn’t bowl. It wouldn’t be any fun. It’s the same thing with golf and shooting par.”

The same when making pictures.

“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Hits and misses come with any creative art. There are times where from start to finish you work it right through and, boy, the whole thing just comes out great.”

The magic of first seeing an image he’s just made still enthralls him. Hooked for life.

Visit http://www.scholzimages.com.

Process equals passion for migrant Bemis resident artist Trevor Amery


Process equals passion for migrant Bemis resident artist Trevor Amery

©story by Leo Adam Biga

©photos by Bill Sitzmann

Appears in the March-April 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine ( http://omahamagazine.com/ )

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts resident Trevor Amery is a well-traveled maker. The sculptor, whose Bemis stay began January 11 and runs through mid-March, has done residencies in Mexico, Hungary and Finland. He’s completed projects in Alaska, Florida and many points in between.

After years on the East Coast, he now makes California home, though he’s often just returning from or embarking on a new art-life adventure. This summer he expects to go to China.

Some journeys have proved transformative. In the course of the 2011 Finland sojourn, fate or circumstance intervened to change his practice from painting to sculpture. He had just left his former risk-adverse life as an admissions counselor at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore to heed the very advice he gave students – to live freely and fearlessly. He’d no sooner broken away from his own safe, prescribed higher ed rut to go to far-off Finland, when, en route, all his oil paints were confiscated by airport security.

There he was, adrift in a strange country, unequipped to create in the manner he’d come all that way to do.

“I didn’t have a lot of money to go and buy all new oil paints in one of the most expensive countries in the European Union,” Amery says. “I just had to figure out how to start making.”

Enraptured by the dense forests of the residency’s idyllic rural setting and the ubiquitous, large firewood piles he saw outside every home, he surrendered the idea of painting to create instead in wood. It helped that he had an extensive woodworking background.

“I started splitting wood to understand it as a material. I’d wake up and split as much wood as I could handle and I learned so much more about it than I ever did working in a wood shop. I started doing these stacked firewood piles. I made a 12-foot tall spinning wood pile on a children’s merry-go-round as a kinetic permanent sculpture. I did a 6-foot-by-6 foot-by 6-foot cube of firewood on a floating dock in the middle of the lake outside the old schoolhouse I stayed in. I went into town to do woodpiles in urban niches – between buildings and mailboxes – and left them to be reclaimed.”

His “big epiphany” happened paddling wood out to the floating dock in the lake.

“I had this eureka moment of, ‘Wow, this could be my work. I don’t have to sit in a studio illustrating an idea with oil paint – I can actually be out in the world engaging nature and people, having the social aspects I crave.'”

For Amery, the journey in the making is everything.

“I just like process – problem-solving, engineering new solutions and stuff like that. I do have an interest in DYI culture, which also informs my practice. I grew up with two older brothers who were always taking apart and rebuilding cars, so I inherited a little bit of that interest. My mom’s an antique dealer. She deals in country rustic. She rewires lamps and reupholsters chairs. That kind of problem solving has always been in the family.”

Since Finland, Amery’s gone on to cast pieces of firewood in porcelain stoneware. This past summer in Wyoming he taught himself how to make his own charcoal using wood. While assisting with the set-up of a towering geodesic installation there, he salvaged a broken sledgehammer handle made of ash and converted it into a 30-inch, hand-hewn spoon sculpture in whose bottom he carved a tiny geodesic dome.

“Function plays a role in the work,” he says. “But this object also now has a really important history to it. I love the kind of shift in value that comes with provenance of objects and materials that I use. Because of a personal story with it, it has this new significance.”

He’s always searching for materials at Habitat for Humanity Restores, thrift shops, junkyards and wherever his eyes and curiosity lead him. Chance encounters turn into conversations that find him walking away with lessons and scraps for his sculptures.

 

In 2012 he came back from a residency in Hungary only to find himself “back to square one” in his work. Absent a project, he thought long and hard about finally realizing something he always wanted to make: a boat. Made of wood, of course.

“After some research, I set out to build my own Aleutian- style kayak, and I did. I made all the ribs out of green bent branches I cut in the woods in Maine.”

The design for the 17-foot vessel came from a downloaded PDF.

“The first year after I built it, I kind of denied its function. I was more interested in its making, its coming into being, the history of it. I built part of the frame in Maine and then drove it to Michigan, where it spent a year with me as this omnipresent dope object I couldn’t finish because I didn’t have the space to do it. It hung above me in the apartment making me feel bad for not working on it. I eventually brought it back to the east coast and then came to Calif. with it, where I finished it. But I was still using it as this studio-exhibition object and skirting its function. Then I decided I have to put it in the water.”

He secured a grant for a performative project whereby he drove the kayak all the way to Alaska to make its inaugural launch off the Homer Spit. He documented the experience with his Mamiya C330 camera.

On-site, he split a log to make his own paddle from tree branches. When the moment arrived to place the kayak in its heritage waters, he was overjoyed this object that traveled so far with him “actually worked great.”

The kayak trekked with him again when he took part in the Performance is Alive satellite art show in Miami.

“I kayaked through the different waterways of Miami to document the coastline and the relationship of these important spaces to water recreation and the city’s economy and looking at how this essentially sea level city will eventually be underwater.”

He successfully negotiated the voyage, only to have curator Quinn Dukes ask him go out again and finish in South Beach. Tempting fate, Amery recalls, “I went across the channel out into the ocean like a fool. Everything was gong fine actually and then the ocean floor dropped off at this one place that turned the ocean into a washing machine. This wave came from behind and capsized me many football fields away from the coastline. I thought I was done for. I was just this little head bobbing in the water. I tried flagging down a passing yacht but it cruised by. Finally, a jet skier who just happened to be out in the ocean jumping off waves, saw my waving arms and rescued me by throwing me a towline.”

Amery’s kayak and camera both survived the mishap.

“Out of all that came a whole new body of work of wooden wave sculptures I call ‘Capsized.'”

The artist is approaching Omaha the way he does all his residency stops – “keeping that opportunity for discovery.” “A huge part of it is what comes out of the relationships in a place,” he says. “Yes, the landscapes inspire me but also the people and the conversations.”

By the end of his Bemis stay, he expects to have worked on his sleeping bag forms and ‘Capsized’ wave series and to have responded to what he found here.

“Re-contextualizing or reorienting is one of the most important things for me,” he says.

But “allowing who you are to come out in the work as honestly you can” is where it’s at,” he adds. “The most authentic self you can have in the work is the real goal.”

Visit trevor-amery.com.

A series commemorating Black History Month – North Omaha stories Part III

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
 
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part III –  history, art, music, theater, film, culture, entertainment, society
 

Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue Lion digs to expand community engagement


Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue Lion digs to expand community engagement
©by Leo Adam Biga

Brigitte McQueen Shew so believes the arts can promote social justice she founded and directs The Union for Contemporary Art as a resource supporting artists in their practice and as a change agent engaging underserved North Omaha. Last year, The Union moved from cramped 2417 Burdette Street quarters in northeast Omaha to much larger new quarters at the nearby renovated Blue Lion Center.

Once that occurred, the organization’s already full program slate increased, as didl the number of people it serves.

Union artist studio and coop spaces, exhibits, youth activities, mural projects, community garden, tool lending library and neighborhood potlucks expanded with the fall move to the Blue Lion and courtyard at 24th and Lake. With the move, The Union is now an anchor at the intersection of a once thriving black business corridor and live music scene finally emerging as a new arts and culture district.

Going from 3,000 to 16,000 square feet has enlarged adult and youth spaces and thus allowed greater capacity and participation. There are dedicated facilities for graphic art, printmaking, ceramics, fiber arts, woodworking, cooking. Instead of leasing a storefront for its Wanda Ewing Gallery, the organization has a permanent gallery for curated shows in its new home. A mixed use space doubles as a black box theater hosting performances by Union’s newly formed Performing Arts Collective. Under the direction of Denise Chapman, the Collective stages African-American theater, dance, spoken word and music events.

The two-story, brick. century-old Blue Lion housed many enterprises, including McGill’s Blue Room, before going empty in recent years. Its new life is made possible by the Sherwood Foundation, whose purchase and renovation was expressly for the Union. McQueen Shew coveted the building as her organizatIon’s home. “It perfectly fit us,” she says.

Seizing the moment
“The Union has been a key player in the revitalization of the Blue Lion,” says former board member Julia Parker, Omaha Small Business Network (OSBN) executive director. “This is a culturally significant building known as a gathering place in North Omaha and the home of small business and job creation. The reopening of the Blue Lion is yet another indicator North 24th Street is being reactivated as an arts, culture and small business district.”

That district already includes Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Carver Bank. It also encompasses the Omaha Star, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, OSBN and the former homes of the Great Plains Black History Museum and the Dreamland Ballroom. The recently opened Fair Deal Village Marketplace features cargo container spaces for micro entrepreneurs and artists.

All of this is in addition to major construction projects on North 30th Street, including Highlander Village, three new Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus buildings and a new mixed-use of the former Mr. C’s site. Together with new housing developments, the Nelson Mandela school, the North Star Foundation campus, No More Empty Pots, the 40th Street Theatre, North O’s long dreamed of revitalization is taking shape.

“It’s our moment,” McQueen Shew says. “More money is coming into the community than has happened in years. I think it’s an amazing thing that’s happening and if you look at 24th and Lake, it’s the hub that connects everything together. This is our moment and if we don’t seize it then it just quiets down again. This is the time. That’s why it’s so important to me and why I push so hard.”

Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. executive director Othello Meadows, whose organization is developing Highlander, says, “There’s this culmination of a lot of things happening at once and I think there’s definitely pressure to continue to move the ball forward. We’re not going to be satisfied with the status quo. We’re looking at new and innovative ways to address old problems. The point really is to continue to push and learn and get better at serving the community. A lot of people are saying, ‘Let’s try something different’ or let’s do something in existence before but do it better.”

Even with all these currents, McQueen Shew says, “so much more needs to happen in making it a place people want to live, such as dealing with food policy issues. North Omaha is one of Nebraska’s largest food deserts. How do you expect families to move into this community and set down roots if you can’t even get food? There’s lots of vacant land that needs developing. There’s lots of things we’re lacking on an infrastructure level. We need to coalesce behind real economic development. We also need to train the next generation of leaders. Who will they be? Those conversations need to be tackled now because there are eyes on North Omaha in a positive way that weren’t on this community before, and that’s exciting.”

She insists the arts will drive people to North 24th but once there they need other gathering places to hang out, such as eateries and coffeehouses. Meadows agrees arts-entertainment amenities are essential. “In a healthy community you have multiple avenues of self-expression and self-actualization for people to explore their interests and to fulfill who they are,” he says.

Stakeholders see retail commerce flowing in North Downtown, Midtown, Benson and South Omaha but still lagging on North 24th.
“I’ve started pointedly asking investors, developers and realtors why they don’t think this of this neighborhood or community for development” McQueen Shew says.

Art as social change
That she and The Union are players in this equation is unexpected given the organization launched only six years ago and its leader got fed up with Omaha the first time she lived here A journalist by training and trade, McQueen Shew worked for a national magazine when she arrived in 2001 at the urging of an artist friend residing here. She liked the local arts scene and the people but she hated the segregation that excluded persons of color from opportunities that, by contrast, were open to everyone in New York City, where she’d lived, and in Detroit, where she grew up.

She left Omaha dismayed by its racial inequity, but returned to do something about it. She asked people hard questions.

“When I got here it was like, ‘Well, this is just the way it is, this is the way it’s always been.’ And so I started asking why. Why have you never crossed Cuming Street? Why don’t you ever go over there? Why did this happen? How has this been allowed to go on?”

It took her awhile to find the right advocacy-activist vehicle. Her failed Pulp store in Benson nearly cost her everything. Then she ran the Underground Gallery at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts before a new idea overtook her: starting a North Omaha-based organization to address chronic studio space shortages and limited access to equipment and to engage residents through programs. The Union name reflects her interest in community, inclusivity, unity and sharing.

Among Omaha residencies The Union uniquely requires fellows do a community service project in North Omaha. McQueen Shew feels it’s vital artists give back, connect with community and demystify the arts. She believes deeply in fellows being social practice artists who do public work with some greater purpose. The Union’s Neighborhood Tool Library began as a project by then-fellow Kjell Peterson. During their residency Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette worked on their sustainable foods documentary Growing Cities and formed Truck Farm, a mobile urban farm ed program operating independently today.

“Having artists engaged and visible in the community gives North Omaha residents a chance to meet artists and talk art and to find out it’s not all about sacred spaces but really a part of everybody’s life,” says McQueen Shew.

She’s aware most fellows get their first real taste of North Omaha during their residency and she’s confident they leave with changed perceptions and broader knowledge.

Before doing her Union fellowship artist Shea Wilkinson says she was “completely ignorant of what was in North Omaha” but the experience so inspired her that she’d North Omaha her home. “I love my home and my neighborhood there. One hears a lot about the crime but rarely does one hear the things that make it an area worth investing in. I have lived here three years now and love seeing the positive changes happening.”

Artist Angela Drakeford grew up in North O but she says her Union residency helped her “think about the realities of what it meant to be a black artist in America,” adding, “I started not only to think about who I was and who my audience was but also what my obligations were as an artist. The Union has a very radical mission to help empower the community. Honestly, I would not be the artist and person I am today without this fellowship. It was truly a transformational experience.”

Embracing, implementing, fine-tuning a vision
The first person McQueen Shew shared The Union’s radical concept with, Katie Weitz, caught her vision and got the Weitz Family Foundation to back it. Not everyone was supportive. “I had donors tell me I was committing career suicide when I started The Union – that no one would follow me over here and no one would come.” She ignored the naysayers. “Maybe it’s just about tenacity.” Grants came in. She took a year to flesh out the idea and to devise a strategy for making The Union, launched in 2011, sustainable. At the start it was just herself at the repurposed former food bank on Burdette. As more funding’s come, she’s added staff and programs.

For a small nonprofit with a short history the organization’s made a large impact and won over many fans. So much so it isuccessfuly realizing a $5 million Growth Campaign to support its operations and programs.

Board chair Mary Zicafoose, a textiles artist, admires how McQueen Shew has “carved out a template for an organization designed to uniquely serve the community and become a unifying bridge for the arts for the entire metropolitan area. Many hundreds of metro area citizens and arts supporters have broken bread and attended Union community events that previously had never ventured farther north than Cuming Street. That’s powerful in itself. It’s mission is to unify our greater community through the arts and that is what it does program by program, artist by artist, exhibition by exhibition.”

Zicafoose has an insider perspective on how McQueen Shew has gained so much traction so fast for the organization and its niche.

“The Union’s mission and Brigitte’s vision is a story about understanding one’s purpose, seizing opportunity, taking action and then moving forward without hesitation. Her vision and attitude is simply quite contagious. Hence, the great interest, growth, stellar track record and support of this project. Brigitte is also an articulate and accomplished networker.”

No More Empty Pots executive director Nancy Williams says, “Brigitte is genuine. She has a rich history and eloquently shares her experiences. Brigitte is also generous. Brigitte has many talents and knows how to effectively leverage those talents for The Union. She is focused and reaches out for help when needed.” When McQueen Shew put out a call for folks to clean up the current site shortly after moving in, Zicafoose says “It was transformed in one weekend with the sweat equity of a hundred community volunteers.”

Zicafoose marvels at all the organization does. “It’s really quite shocking the amount of programming that has emerged from this small building, lovingly worked and reworked, to make every inch of precious space be of purpose. The move provides more appropriate and much needed additional space for existing programs to expand and thrive as well as allow new programs to be born. Its strategic location makes it a natural hub and meeting place.”

Seventy Five North’s Meadows appreciates that The Union is “a constant and consistent presence” instead of a “one-off” project. He adds, “What I love about Brigitte and what she’s doing is that she’s made a commitment to this neighborhood and to being there all the time. Having access to explore art is an amazing opportunity for this community, whose population is often forgotten about.” For a community that’s had many promises made and unfulfilled it was important McQueen Shew and the Union develop trust and Meadows says that’s happened. “People know she’s there for the right reasons.”

Prospect Village Neighborhood Association’s Rondae Hill is impressed by how The Union’s partnered on art-infused beautification projects, including a mural, bus benches and a redesigned park, in her area.
“Prospect Village appreciates everything the Union has helped to start in our neighborhood. The mural brought new life to an old building that started a ripple effect of prosperity. It has now become the center of our neighborhood and brings pride to the area.”

Not everything The Union’s done has succeeded but it’s small and nimble enough to try new things. Three areas where McQueen Shew feels it’s fallen short is connecting with area residents, helping artist fellows with their community service projects and integrating exhibition themes across all programming. To strengthen those elements she’s hired Nicole Caruth as director of pedagogy and public practice.

“Nicole joined our staff to help ensure all of our programs revolve around our commitment to social practice,” McQueen Shew says.
“Even though we were in the community people still saw us as Other. We were still missing the opportunity to connect. We had to fix that.
Here at The Union we do everything as a team, so we had conversations about that disconnect. Nicole comes from that background. She has the resources and the networking connections
to be in tune with community.

“It’s about being flexible, realizing the gap and then going back and fixing it,. You have to be willing to jump off and readjust the course. It’s probably easier for The Union to do that than it is for an organization thats been around 40 years. Almost everything we do is a grand experiment. If we do it once and it works, awesome, let’s keep it. If it fails, then we’ glean some knowledge and let it go. We’re in an amazing position to do that.”

Forging a more perfect Union
The Union name is apt because in classic union organizing style, McQueen Shew came to Omaha as an outside agitator to build solidarity around addressing certain disparities.

“It’s just such a simple premise – that you can use the arts as a vehicle for social justice and to effect change in your community. That you can put things in place to uplift your local artists but at the same time be working to make some headway into ridiculous issues with segregation in this community. No one else was putting those two things together. They were two very separate issues and I don’t think people we’re seeing the connection,” she says.

She’s coalesced like-minded people around the mission.

“I may have been the one to stand up and wave the flag but if other people weren’t willing to fall in line with that then it never would have happened. The Union wouldn’t exist without people willing to take a leap of faith on this idea the arts can be more than just something you look at on a wall. I’m just fortunate the people with the means to help us get there also felt it a risk worth taking.

“People have made sacrifices to do this with me. Our program manager Paige Reitz took a crazy cut in salary to be here because she believed in the work I was doing. Paige was not the only staff member to take a pay cut to work with us. Actually the majority of my staff did. People willing to sacrifice something of their own to put into this dream is really how tTe Union has continued to grow.”

The Growth Campaign, which went public last summer, closed in early 2017. Its millions have helped boost employee salaries in addition to increasing the budget and solidifying things moving forward.

Public celebrations of that growth happened in October when the organization held open houses and special events at the Blue Lion. Since then, McQueen Shew and staff have been proudly welcoming visitors to their new digs and the community’s new gathering place.

Mural Man – Artist Mike Giron captures heart of South Omaha


Murals are the great mash-up the art world. Their size and themes lend themselves to big, bold visions landing somewhere between paintings, posters and frozen film images characterized by dynamic swirls of figures, places, events and symobls. Mike Giron is one of Omaha’s busiest muralists and he’s the subject of an Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.comprofile I wrote that appears in the May-June 2017 issue. Giron’s work for the ongoing South Omaha Mural Project has taken him and his partner artists deep inside that district and its ethnic neighborhoods. But he does more than murals. He makes studio art and he also teaches art at Metropolitan Community College. And he helped design the exhibition spaces for the recently opened South Omaha Museum. 

 

 

Mural Man

Artist Mike Giron captures heart of South Omaha

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.com

Visual artist Mike Giron’s creative life spans studio practice, teaching, and working with A Midsummer’s Mural and South Omaha Mural Project teams.

“In my studio work, I have no idea what’s going to happen—I just go. I’m not forcing or insisting on anything. The work creates itself in some crazy way,” Giron says. “When it comes to murals, it’s a lot more deliberate. You have to propose a design before you begin. So, I live in these two different worlds, and I think it’s keeping me balanced.”

The New Orleans native came to Omaha in the early 1990s by way of Colorado, where he met his ex-wife, an Omaha native. After her father died, the couple moved here with the intent of restoring her family home, selling it, and returning to Colorado. But Omaha proved a good place to raise their two children, so they stayed.

Giron, 45, taught art at Bellevue University and ran the campus gallery. Today, he’s a Metropolitan Community College adjunct instructor.

Without knowing it, he prepared to be a muralist through his experience painting Mardi Gras floats in New Orleans. Walls are not so different from float structures—they’re big and imperfect. And just as he used cut-out panels on floats, he does the same with murals.

“The Polish mural is the clearest example,” he says. “There was a downspout, a chimney, and a fence around an air conditioning unit, and we used cut-outs to hide those things. It gave a 3D pop-up look effect. It also breaks the frame to extend beyond the box of the building.”

Patience is a virtue for a muralist.

“Murals take a long time—maybe two months,” he says. “Unless you really practice your Zen, you’ve got to make it enjoyable to keep on doing it every day.”

The social contract of public art and the collaborative nature of murals means you’d better like people. He does. You’d better like working big, too.

“Once you experience large-scale production, it’s hard to go back to small paintings,” he says. “Although I still consider myself a studio painter, there’s also something about doing large work. You can’t help but see a wall and go, ‘Oh, that would be perfect for this statement.’ And then the physicality of the work feels good. You’re carrying stuff all the time; you’re up and down ladders. The brush strokes are not just a flick of the wrist.”

But Giron says the real reason he and his fellow muralists do it is because “we’re channeling the voices of people who can’t do this, and we take pride in that.” He says, “We feel good about delivering something that people feel does express them.”

The process for the South Omaha murals involves deep community immersion.

“The more you immerse and personally connect with the people on a street level, the more you’re going to be trusted by that community, and the more they’ll open up and allow you in,” he says.

The South O murals feature diverse looks.

“Some fall into naturalism, and others go into some other place,” he says, “That’s interesting to me because it’s not the same. Rather than a signature style, I would prefer they look like they were done by different people.”

They are. Giron works with Richard Harrison, Rebecca Van Orman, and Hugo Zamorano. Neighbors contribute stories and ideas at community meetings. Residents and students participate in paint days and attend unveiling celebrations.

The works are an extension of the new South Omaha Museum, whose director, historian Gary Kastrick, conceived the murals project. Giron serves on the museum board. He enjoys digging through Kastrick’s artifact collection and preparing exhibits, including a replica of an Omaha Stockyards pen.

The idea is for the museum, the murals, and Kastrick’s history tours to spark a South O renaissance keying off the district’s rich heritage and culture. Muralists like Giron share a bigger goal to “make Omaha a destination for public art.” He says murals are a great way to enhance the city’s visual aesthetic and to engage the community. Besides, he says, murals “demonstrate to the public there is an arts community here” in a visible way galleries cannot.

Giron is impressed by the Omaha arts explosion. “There’s so much going on and so many young artists hitting the scene making a big impact,” he says.

Meanwhile, he continues to create studio art. His series On the Brighter Side of Post-Apocalyptic Minimalism employed fire-singed materials to make their satirical marks.

“With the process-oriented stuff I’m doing now, there’s a huge amount of variety, even though I’m just using grids,” he says, explaining that his personal artworks have moved away from rules of perspective and representational dictates of realism.

“When you don’t use any of that, all you have is the process and the visual reality of things—line, shape, value, color, texture, and space,” he says. “When you start playing in that area, where there’s no limits in terms of defining what things should be or should look like, you find it’s actually inexhaustible.”

He intends to follow “the course of my curiosity,” adding, “If you are really free as an artist, then you just follow whatever’s interesting to you.”

New murals keep beckoning, though. “I get pulled into all this work. You set yourself up for a fall, but the fall is where all the good stuff happens,” he says.

Having completed Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, Mexican, Metropolitan Community College, and Magic City murals for the South O project, Giron and company are now working on a Croatian mural. Irish, Italian, African-American, and Stockyards murals are still to come.

Visit amidsummersmural.com for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Leonard Thiessen social justice triptych deserves wider audience

January 21, 2017 1 comment

There is a compelling social justice triptych by the late great Nebraska artist Leonard Thiessen that should be more widely seen. Every year around Black History Month I encourage folks to visit the worship space that houses the piece for the express purpose of taking in the powerful images and ideas expressed in the work. The piece is called “Crucifixion” and it can be found affixed to a wall just inside the sanctuary at Church of the Resurrection, a small but mighty Episcopal faith community at 3004 Belvedere Boulevard directly across the street from Miller Park and just northwest of 30th and Kansas. The blended congregation is a mix of African-Americans, Caucasians and Africans.

The Thiessen work is not like anything you’d expect to find there or in any worhsip place for that matter. “Crucifixon” juxtaposes jarring, disturbing scenes of lynching, gas attacks, warmaking, want, industrialization and propoganda with the crucified Christ. Passages drawn from scripture proffer warnings about sins against our fellow man and being led astray by false prophets. These abnomitions are leavened by promises of recknoning and salvation. Thiessen created the triptych many decades ago but it is still relevant today in its rumination on things that instill fear and conflict in the hearts and minds of human beings and that cause us to look to a redemptive Higher Power for mercy and justice.

The words that appear at the bottom of the panels read:

“In time of peace, men suffer from drouth and want. Fear not, for I am with thee. I will bring they seed from the Earth.”

“They are made with machines, slaves of other machines. Be strong, fear not, your God will come with recompense.”

“Other men incite them to persecution and destruction. Keep ye judgment and do justice for my salvation is near.”

“From all sides their faith is confused and confounded. Behold, I create new heavens and a new Earth and the former shall not be remembered.”

The artist created “Crucifixion” in memory of his aunt, Wilhemina Berg, who was a member of the former St. John’s Church before it merged with St. Philip”s to create Church of the Resurrection,  The work is an example of Thiessen’s ability to employ and transform classical forms into modern interpretations. The piece is regarded as one of Thiessen’s most important.

In an interview shortly after his retirement, Thiessen said he had worked to “break down the idea that the arts were the prerogative of the elite. Nowadays the arts, like boating, skiing, tennis and wines, are all for the person in the street.”

Thiessen spoke four languages and was particularly known for his wit, often trying to slip puns past his editors at the Omaha World-Herald, for whom he was an art critic. Over the years, he taught at many area institutions, including Creighton, UNL and UNO.

He is classified as belonging to the period as the First Nebraskans, an era in Nebraska’s art history from 1901 to 1950 when the various forms of modernism were flourishing.

His vision and passion for the arts in Nebraska laid an influential foundation.

A good way to see the triptych and get a sense for the church where it’s displayed is to attend a service there. The 10 a.m. Sunday service is an intimate experience animated by the choir most Sundays and the guest band ReLeaseT the third Sunday of the month. On Feb. 26 come to Soul Food Sunday for some great eats. But whenever you come, make sure you see the triptych.

Link to the Church of the Resurrection website here:

http://coromaha.episcopal-ne.org/

 

triptych2

 

Link here to a Museum of Nebraska Art page devoted to Thiessen:

https://mona.unk.edu/collection/thiessen.shtml

Here is an extended bio of the artist copied from the MONA page:

Leonard Thiessen was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. His family was small and his paternal ancestry had roots to the Swedish and German pioneer settlers of Grand Island, Nebraska. For a very short time, the family lived in Grand Island where, as a boy, Thiessen was employed in the mail department of The Grand Island Independent newspaper. His parents, Charles Leonard Thiessen and Jean Louise Berg Thiessen, together with his mother’s favorite sister Wilhemina, were all involved in various creative endeavors and had a profound influence on Leonard’s development. His father worked in the printing industry and introduced the young Leonard to the trade. Jean was a talented self-taught artist in her own right who produced on-edge felt mosaics that are fine examples of early 20th century fiber art. (MONA has seven pieces of her work in its collection.) The Thiessens were involved in Omaha’s music, dance, and theater groups and deeply connected to the neighborhood Episcopal Church. They were not wealthy but had many friends in the community and had an impressive social calendar.

Thiessen attended Omaha’s Miller Park Public School and St. John’s Protestant School and graduated from Central High School in 1919. His school years were privileged with experiences that helped to foster his development as an artist. While in high school, he decided to follow formal study in the visual arts and began to draw cartoons and illustrations for the school newspaper. During his teen years, he worked as an office assistant for an architectural firm in downtown Omaha, a job that offered a perk that proved helpful to his future employment. During his free time, Leonard would sit and read the collection of architectural books found in the office. After graduation he worked for the Omaha Bureau of Advertising and Engineering editing illustrations and photographs for an agricultural livestock catalog.

He attended the University of Omaha (now University of Nebraska at Omaha) for three semesters in 1921 and 1922 studying journalism and fine arts and producing illustrations and graphic layouts for the University newspaper The Gateway. During this time, he worked as a gallery assistant for the Art Institute of Omaha which was located on the top floor of the old public library building designed by Thomas Kimball. Thiessen became disillusioned with the University’s conservative art courses and left Omaha to continue his studies in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln from 1925 to 1926. He was not interested in “serious painting” and majored primarily in design and architecture. His professors were the artists Dwight Kirsch, Louise Mundy, Francis Martin (a contemporary of the portraitist J. Laurie Wallace), and Emily Burchard Moore. In the 1920s, Lincoln, Nebraska was an incredibly fervent environment. Some of Thiessen’s circle of friends and classmates included artists as well as writers and intellectuals among them Katherine “Kady” Faulkner, Louise Austin (who had studied in Munich with Hans Hoffman), Mari Sandoz, Weldon Kees, Loren Eiseley, and Dorothy Thomas. In the late 1920s, Thiessen pursued a highly successful commercial career as an interior designer and decorator with several design and architectural firms in Lincoln and Omaha. Additionally, he did freelance work and began to receive commissions as a mural painter. Later he studied at the museums of New York City, Boston, and Miami with his Aunt Wilhemina.

In 1929, while on a trip to Paris, Thiessen learned of the stock market crash in the United States and decided to stay in Europe. He enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris where he studied drawing and painting for one summer and later moved to London to study at the Heatherly School of Art. While in London, Thiessen studied wood engraving and graphics. In 1932, he applied and was accepted at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and studied with Otto Skold who later became the director of the National Museum at Stockholm. At the Academy, Thiessen studied the classical manner, graphic arts, and the traditional forms of fresco and mural painting. He described himself as a “designer of interiors and mural painter in the Middle West, U.S.” Taking several short breaks in between his studies to return to the United States, he finally received his diploma in 1938. While in Sweden, Thiessen made a trip to Tallin, Estonia, to sketch the local architecture.

After returning to the United States in the late 1930s, he found that demand for interior decorators had fallen with the depression. He used his charm and talent to persuade the editors of the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star to allow him to write an arts review column. He became the Omaha World-Herald’s first art critic and his now legendary column first appeared in 1939 and continued on and off for the next 30 years.

He had exhibitions at Morrill Hall, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1938 and Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum in 1940. He also resumed his friendships with artist Milton Wolsky and Alysen Flynn. Later he accepted a position in Des Moines as Iowa’s State Director of the Federal Artists and Writers Program of the Works Projects Administration in 1941. The program employed 300 people and Leonard supervised over 100 individuals in eight departments. Thiessen left Iowa in 1942 to join the Army and was officially promoted to the Office of Intelligence in 1944. Because of his training in architectural design and graphic arts, Thiessen was particularly suited for the position of draftsman in the intelligence department. He studied and made reports of pertinent visual data, maps, and serial photos during the war. He was stationed in Kettering, England, the place that would become the subject of many of his works on paper.

In the 1950s, Thiessen made another trip to London, returning to the United States to serve two years as director of the Herbert Memorial Institute of Art in Augusta, Georgia. In the 1960s, Thiessen took several other trips to Europe and returned to Nebraska where he immediately continued his involvement with the Omaha World-Herald, the Joslyn Art Museum and the Sheldon Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. By this time he was recognized as the authority on Nebraska’s developing art history and served as editor of the catalogue, Nebraska Art Today, by Mildred Goosman, curator at the Joslyn Art Museum published in 1967. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Nebraska Arts Council becoming its first Executive Secretary (a position now known as Executive Director) from 1966 to 1975. In addition, he taught classes at Isabella Threlkeld’s studio in Omaha for eight years. He became a close friend and professional colleague of the professors at Kearney State College (now University of Nebraska Kearney) and encouraged the establishment of the Nebraska Art Collection in the 1970s. He served on the board of the Museum of Nebraska Art for over ten years and was one of its founding members. In 1972 Thiessen received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Creighton University and was honored with the first Governor’s Arts Award in 1978. His work can be found at Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln; Kansas Wesleyan University, Salina; the Alfred East Gallery, Kettering, England; the Herbert Memorial Institute of Art, Augusta, Georgia; and in many private collections

Thiessen lived in Omaha, Nebraska, for most of his adult life. He eventually converted two upstairs rooms of the now famous house on Stone Avenue for his studio. Artwork dominated both floors, much of it his own. Thiessen remained a bachelor his entire life, and had an amazing number of friends and colleagues from the various Nebraska arts communities. He was respected by many prominent Nebraska artists who honored him by making him the subject of their work including Kent Bellows, Bill Farmer, Larry Ferguson, Frances Kraft, Paul Otero, John Pusey, and John Thein.

Leonard Thiessen died March 27, 1989.

The Museum of Nebraska Arts holds 109 works by Leonard Thiessen in addition to archival material.

Researched and written by Josephine Martins, 2002

NOTE: Biographical information was derived from a variety of sources, including unpublished biographical notes by William Wallis, 2001,  a recorded interview with Thiessen by Gary Zaruba, 1983 and compilations by COR member Keith Winton.

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