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Artist Erin Blayney: The Great Reveal

August 3, 2018 1 comment

Artist Erin Blayney

The Great Reveal

Originally published in September-October 2016 issue

of Omaha Encounter magazine

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 

For visual artist Erin Blayney, who grew up in the great outdoors, it’s all about light and space. She has plenty of both at her Old Market apartment that doubles as her studio.

Natural light from six large, south-facing windows cascades over her easel and houseplants. “Not only is that perfect for the type of lighting I need to do my best work, it’s healthy for my overall well-being,” says Blayney.

erinblayney2Exposed brickwork, high ceilings, and an open floor plan contribute to a sense of spaciousness. Extra-wide windowsills provide great perches for her collection of succulents.

“I love nature and the outdoors,” she says. “This apartment allows me to integrate that love into my living quarters, and not feel cramped or experience cabin fever.”

Her spot above Urban Abbey in the historic Windsor Hotel building puts her right in the thick of things. “The Old Market for me is very welcoming, unique, and nourishes a diverse group of people of all ages and backgrounds,” she says. “It’s urban yet has some aspect of a small neighborhood as well.”

A Florida transplant and Art Institute of Chicago graduate, Blayney creates figurative drawings and paintings. She previously worked as an art preparator for California museums.

Her mother preceded her to Omaha to be near a sister, and Erin followed. “My mom lives three blocks away from me, so it’s wonderful to conveniently meet for coffee or go for a bike ride together,” she says.

This self-described “people person” is drawn to the human form. She variously works from live models or photographs.

“Drawing and painting people, mostly gestural, seems to be pretty consistent for me,” she says. “It’s capturing the physicality of a person expressed through facial expression or movement. I love capturing the realness of their character, even if it’s subtle.”

Recently, Omaha restaurant mogul Willy Theisen commissioned her portrait of his granddaughter for his new Paragon eatery in Dundee.

When approaching a new work, she says, “I never know how it’s going to look, so it’s a little adventurous. If I stop thinking about what I’m doing and just let it flow, it comes out naturally. That ‘diving into it’ mindset is what I have to be in for the work to really evolve. It’s mysterious.”

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Blayney’s work is not all figurative. “Occasionally, I’ll do still life,” she says, gesturing to an in-progress oyster shell rendered in a swirl of pastels. She is contemplating an oceanic-themed series motivated by her love of the water, marine life, and nature.

“I was brought up on water. I swam in the Gulf of Mexico. So that’s in my bones.”

In Omaha, she has twice worked at Jun Kaneko’s studio (most recently in 2006 as a painting assistant). Of the celebrated artist, she says, “We had a good connection. He’s very quiet, polite, observant, receptive. He was very trusting of me. Like when I did some mixing of colors, pigments—he trusted my instincts. I’m not a ceramicist, but I felt in my natural element.”

She feels at home in Omaha, where she says, “The connections I’ve made are so important.” The same for her day job at Alley Poyner Macchietto, where she curates art shows. She admires the local art-culture scene.

“I feel the creative community in Omaha is very supportive rather than super competitive. The friends I’ve made here are very authentic, genuine, and loyal.”

She enjoys what the Bemis and Joslyn offer as well as how “smaller, contemporary, progressive galleries like Project Project and Darger HQ are pushing the envelope. I’m a huge fan of Garden of the Zodiac. 1516 Gallery is just gorgeous.”

In the spring of 2016, Petshop Gallery in Benson exhibited her portraiture work. She regularly shows in the Bemis Benefit Art Auction and had a piece in the October 28 show (she described the colorful abstract portrait as “a little mysterious looking”).

Blayney also contributed to the Old Market Art Project; hers was one of 37 banners selected (from nearly 300 submissions) to be displayed outside the Mercer Building as renovations followed the M’s Pub fire.

“It’s an abstract painting that took forever,” she says. “There’s a lot going on in it. Finally, it just came together. I collaborated with another artist in the process of painting it, and then I finished it.”

She sees many opportunities for local artists in Omaha, but there is room for improvement, too. “There’s definitely room to grow—I’d like to see even more galleries because there’s so much talent here,” she says.

Going into the fall, several commission projects were “consuming” Blayney’s time. Her projects come from anywhere and everywhere. “Lately, it’s been more people coming to me and asking either for a portrait of themselves or of a family member. I can be surprised. I’ve given my card to someone and then a year later gotten a commission. It’s unpredictable.”

Visit erinblayney.com for more information.

Encounter

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A Fluid Life: Dana Oltman Goes With the Flow

August 3, 2018 1 comment

A Fluid Life

Dana Oltman Goes With the Flow

Originally published in November-December 2017 issue of Omaha Encounter magazine

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 

 

 

 

Fluid.

That’s how digital graphic designer and fine art painter Dana Oltman describes her aesthetic.

As art director for Identity Marketing Group (she was previously at Rebel Interactive) she fulfills client project wishes. She says her branding design work consistently features “minimal, simple, clean” looks that, well, flow.

“Fluid is what I love,” she says. “Fluid is where I’m at now.”

Her abstract expressionistic fine art, especially her poured art work, is all about the swirls and natural organic fades of liquid flows.

“Most of the paints I use are acrylics,” she says. “which have as their base water, and so they’re very fluid.”

She invariably listens to music when painting in order to activate or induce that state of flow.

“What I do is based on whatever mood I’m in,” she says. “While design is very rigid—I like to have a plan and justify everything I do—painting is exactly the opposite. I like to work with the medium, just pick a paint, pick some colors, and basically put it on a surface and see what it does. It’s very much working with my medium to get random results, trying to affect it minimally as I go, letting gravity and fluid dynamics do the rest. It’s all very in the moment.”

If she does manipulate the image, she says, it’s for texture, and in those cases she may apply etching materials, resin, linoleum carvers, and even a culinary blow torch.

The images she creates on masonry board or wood panels and, occasionally, on canvas are often expressions of things found in nature–everything from nebulas in outer space to severe storm skies.

Her favorite skies appear after a storm at sunset. “The clouds are stacking up to the east after they’ve already moved through and the sun is shining from the west and you have orange, yellow, purple, red—which is my favorite color palette,” she says.

Her natural hair color is red, and she often sports highlights in different shades from her favorite palette.

In August, she drove to Beatrice, Nebraska, to catch the total solar eclipse, and she knows it’s only a matter of time before it shows up in one of her paintings.

Music is another source of inspiration for Oltman, 26, who loves going to local live shows and festivals.

Occasionally, her work is featured at local concerts and entertainment events. She did a live painting of a musician at an Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards showcase.

She’s also taken on art projects for local bands, including an album cover for The Big Deep.

Some of her paintings can be seen at Curb Appeal Salon & Spa in the Old Market. A broad sampling of her work is available on her website, danaoltman.com.

Additionally, she draws and makes photographs, which she shares on her Instagram page.

Other influences and inspirations range from high fashion to poetry. She did a multi-week study abroad in Japan learning that country’s visual culture. The Japan immersion naturally showed up in her work, and she intends returning one day.

She’s also a Francophile who’s visited Quebec, Canada, and France. She expects taking ever deeper dives into French culture and returning to France—the home base for her favorite art movement: Impressionism.

Oltman grew up in Bennington, Nebraska, and graduated with a fine arts degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She draws a clear distinction between graphic design and art activities. She loves both, but one’s her job and the other’s purely for pleasure. She likes the balance of producing on a schedule as part of an office team and creating art alone when she feels like it.

“Since I don’t have art hooked to a vocation, it’s in my court totally. I don’t have to rely on anyone,” she says. “If I don’t want to make stuff, I don’t make stuff. If I do, I do. It’s just totally free.”

On the design side, she’s finding her most satisfaction working on websites.

“It”s such an advancing field,” she says. “Websites are so versatile, and you can do so many things. And it’s just so nuanced. It’s a really pretty time for web design.”

Motion graphics and animation are two new areas she’s learning fast. Coding is another.

“I enjoy learning new things,” she says.
“I’m a learner.”

Oltman enjoys the meet-ups that the local American Institute of Graphic Arts chapter puts on, including BarCamp.

She also stays connected to the design community via social media.

As a self-identified millennial, she admits, “I definitely fit the label in respect to being super connected online, being liberal, wanting a meaningful career that isn’t too constricting and gives me creative output, focusing on experience over material things in life, etc.”

A couple years ago when legalizing same-sex marriage was struck down in Nebraska, Oltman made a graphic of the Husker “N” with the Human Rights Campaign logo imposed in it. “I’m for causes that focus on equal human rights,”
she says.

At UNL she was one of several art students who created a mural portrait of George Flippin, the first African-American athlete of note at the university. The mural adorns the campus multicultural center.

When not doing pro bono work for things she believes in, she donates to the American Civil Liberties Union and to disaster relief funds.

In whatever she does, she follows her passion. Her personal credo-tagline says it all:

“Doin’ me a life.”

This article appears in the November/December 2017 issue of Encounter.

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

May 1, 2018 1 comment

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.

 

Process equals passion for migrant Bemis resident artist Trevor Amery

March 8, 2018 1 comment

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.

Mural Man – Artist Mike Giron captures heart of South Omaha

May 2, 2017 1 comment

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 2 comments

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.

Art and community meet-up in artist’s public projects; Watie White mines urban tales

September 24, 2014 1 comment

Omaha-based artist Watie White is making a name for himself in part through his public art projects that reflect the stories of urban neighborhoods and communities. This is a Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) piece I did about his 2014 public art projects in Omaha. You can find on this blog a story I wrote last year about a similar project he did.

 

Watie White Exhibit

 

 

Art and community meet-up in artist’s public projects; Watie White mines urban tales

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

 

Omaha artist Watie White’s humanist public art projects reveal the narratives of transitional urban neighborhoods. The dynamics of locations and the people living there shape his site-specific works.

Three 2014 projects, one completed and the others in-progress, all connect to community organizations whose social justice missions “align” with his own.

“The kind of organizations I am most attracted to are the ones who make a splash with a handful of incredibly passionate people that affect the lives of many families,” he says.

His new All That Ever Was, Always Is exhibition at two abandoned homes slated for demolition in northeast Omaha continues his work with Habitat for Humanity. In 2013 he repurposed an empty home in the same area with original paintings symbolizing the family that lived there and the neighborhood it was part of. He installed prints in the window frames. After the exhibit came down, the condemned house was razed. A vacant lot sits in its place awaiting a new build.

Habitat executive director Amanda Brewer says White’s projects add depth to the agency’s blight remediation work: “They celebrate the rich history that comes with older homes and neighborhoods. The time and respectfulness he puts into getting to know the neighbors, the history of the neighborhood and involving neighbors in his project strengthens Habitat’s efforts to involve the entire neighborhood in our work.”

The house(s) Habitat loans him – for his new project he tackled side by side houses at 1468 and 1470 Grant St. – become cultural excavation sites and art canvasses. He insinuates and immerses himself by doing interviews with neighbors and, where possible, with folks who lived in the dwellings, combing through contents for artifacts and narrative clues, taking photos, using subjects as models.

All of it inspired 51 original paintings he made for the two current structures. Acrylic vinyl prints were installed since July 19 and remain up through year’s end. The houses will then be razed for new homes to go up in their place. His assistant Peter Cales salvaged materials to make benches and tables as communal gathering spots. White’s planning public dinners and conversations at the site.

Dialogue’s a hoped-for by-product of the The Wheels Keep Turning murals Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska commissioned him to create. The agency provides legal, education, advocacy services for immigrants. The murals will go in immigrant-rich areas in South Omaha, North Omaha, Benson and Little Italy. White describes the subjects as “inspirational people every day making a positive influence in their neighborhood.”

 

 

 

 

 

Elisha Novak. JFON program director and mural project coordinator, says the murals are intended to shine a positive light on immigrant contributions and to empower more immigrants to share their stories.

“We will also host a series of public meetings, discussions and lectures around the unveiling of the murals to engage the public in a constructive dialogue about immigration-related issues. Additionally, we hope to increase awareness of immigrants and their needs, while incorporating a path to services through JFON.”

Among the models are 78-year-old Mexican immigrant Ramona Silva Gonzales and South Sudan refugee Mary Aketa George, a program officer with the Southern Sudan Community Association. White’s drawing on Ramona’s recollections of her and her cousins picking flowers in the fields of the farm she grew up on and singing ranchera songs. He’s incorporating Mary’s memories of the harsh refugee camp life she endured and how the experience motivated her to help people.

White hopes his murals, including one up at JFON, 2414 E St., “shifts the perception of what the immigrant and new Nebraskan face is.”

He’s placing the murals near where the subjects’ live. Ramona’s will be at the Intercultural Senior Center she’s found a second home at.

White’s inCOMMON Community Development project, You Are Here, will feature Park Avenue district murals and prints along that mid-town drag, plus a 100-foot tall banner mural on the Park North public housing tower, 1601 Park Ave., all reflecting diverse residents’ lives. Jay’s an itinerant musician with dreams of his own nightclub. Anthony’s a street activist-poet spitting do-the-right-thing rants.

inCOMMON director Christian Gray says the art’s meant to reduce the “disconnection and marginalization” public housing residents often feel,” adding, “This goal connects closely with InCommon’s mission of uniting and strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods in its effort of including-incorporating public tower residents within the life of the surrounding community.”

White knows the banner mural will draw much attention.

“It’s a resident community and people walk that neighborhood and this thing is just going to be gigantic. It’s going to loom over that neighborhood. It will inevitably be what everyone takes out of that community. It’s going to be so much louder than anything else. It will be the largest thing I’ve done. It feels like a lot of responsibility.”

His challenge is finding the right aesthetic-content balance. He wants the banner to feel of the community, not imposed on it. Neither too rosy, nor too negative but a “powerful” evocation of “personal, lived experiences – I want it to have that feeling their voice is in it.”

Park Avenue’s similar to the North Omaha section he’s worked in. Both feature compromised, underserved neighborhoods. He came to do houses in North O when he couldn’t find suitable mural spaces there.

“I was wanting to work in that community but there aren’t traditional walls to work on.”

When Habitat offered him condemned homes, he says, “I was like, ‘Yes, that gets me there, I can do something with that.'”

Paintings in the studio become something different installed behind broken glass in the distressed neighborhoods they reflect and inhabit.

“There is no way to see them in the same way when you drive through the neighborhood to get there. You park, you maybe say hi to the people sitting across the street, maybe people come over. All that changes those paintings a lot.”

Once in place the images generate questions and conversations, For him, it’s about connecting to the neighborhood and adding benefit to it.

“There’s a distinct shift in the community that starts with the people that had something to do with it. They then kind of own that space and that neighborhood in a way they didn’t before. For the models there’s a certain self-esteem boost from having their head be five feet tall in some capital A art that ends up in the paper. Part of this process is getting people to tell me their stories they don’t think are important and then have me treat them as important.”

The resulting media coverage gives subjects, their stories and neighborhoods a new currency, he says.

“All those things I feel like make this project better.”

As a white affluent artist dropping in on black poverty, he relies on partner organizations with deep stakes there to open doors for him.

“It gives me legitimacy in a community that is not mine. it allows me to have conversations with these people.”

 

The Reader Sept. 25 - Oct. 1, 2014

 

Still, it takes time to build trust and rapport.

“It took the people on that 1400 block of Emmett a little while to kind of warm up to me and tell me those more true and awkward stories. It was several interviews in before I heard about the Hell’s Angels on the block and the role they played. They provided a safe space, they threw these parties and events that built community. The people really liked them. There was never a problem or racial issue with them.”

A neighbor, Miss Maybel, was inspired enough to start her own motorcycle club.

White traced the 1468 house to the family that last lived there, the Tribbles, whose matriarch, Jessie Tribble, was a single mother with aspirational dreams for her children.

Not everything White uncovers is positive.

“In doing these I feel like as an artist I have an obligation to express as much of the truth as I can find. Inevitably that leads me having to figure out what to do with unpleasant things.”

A daughter, Oretha Walker, confided a brother’s in jail for murder. White expressed in images positive and negative things about him. InCOMMON’s Gray says White’s careful handling of personal narratives like this dovetails with its own community listening approach.

“We believe under-resourced neighborhoods are rich with people who have dreams, talents and stories that can be leveraged toward community change and transformation. Watie has a highly unique talent for calling out these dreams and stories from within the communities he works.”

White also put in images discoveries from the 1470 house. An absentee owner rented it out as a daycare, then it was abandoned, then gutted by fire. A 1918 playbill from the long defunct corner Grand Theatre shows up as cinema bathing beauties. A piece of wall paper with John White penciled-in – the artist’s father’s name – gave Watie White permission to integrate his father and son in images.

Follow the artist’s projects at watiewhite.com.

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