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Duncans turn passion for art into major collection; In their pursuits, the couple master the art of living

July 28, 2019 1 comment

Duncans turn passion for art into major collection 

In their pursuits, the couple master the art of living

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

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Robert and Ksren Duncan

 

When it comes to visual art, there are institutions devoted to its display and then there are Karen and Robert Duncan. Married 50-plus years, the Duncans are serious art collectors whose patronage extends to individual artists, museums, artist residencies and cultural endowments.

The private contemporary collection cultivated by the couple is notable not only for its size (2,000-plus works), but also its” high quality and stylistic diversity,” said Flatwater Folk Art Museum director George Neubert. “I’ve been able to visit numerous private art collections across the United States and Europe,” said Neubert, formerly director of the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, “and many are fantastic. But often they have the same 25 artists. A lot of collections look a lot alike. This does not have that look because of their unique selection and the way they go about it.“Eclectic” is how the Duncans  describe their art trove that ranges across mediums with a strong three-dimensional object emphasis. Neubert joins other veteran art world professionals familiar with the holdings in saying the collection has “national significance.”

Unlike most collections that feature work by a particular artist or cohort, the Duncans have assembled work by many artists spanning the contemporary art scene both geographically and stylistically.

“The only thing they all have is our personal interest,” Robert Duncan said with wife Karen nodding approval beside him in the kitchen of their Lincoln home. “They reflect our personality and who we are.”

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?” Karen asked rhetorically.

Where some collectors retain a consultant to advise selections, the Duncans trust their own instincts. They can’t conceive someone choosing for them.

“That’s no fun.” Karen said.

They also can’t relate to art as a commodity

“We never buy art for investment. Lots of people do, but we don’t,” she said. “We buy art for our own pleasure. Some of our art has increased in value. But we never bought it for an investment. We see something and we have to have it – because we love it.”

Similarly, they don’t purchase a work just to fill a niche.

“We never buy art with a place in mind,” Robert said. “We buy the piece because we love it and we find a place for it or we don’t.”

They generally purchase art from galleries, sometimes directly from artists and other times at auction. The pair travel far and wide visiting museums, galleries, auction houses and artist studios. On their journeys, which have taken them as far as India and China and to the art capitals of the U.S. and Europe, they operate as a team.

“Collecting art is always a joint effort,” Robert said. “We agree on the pieces we’re going to buy 99.9 percent of the time. We won’t buy anything of consequence unless we both agree.”

“If we don’t agree on it,” Karen said, “then we’ll go look at something else.”

“Our tastes have developed together. Forty years is a long time,” Robert said of their collecting experience.

By now, they share the same discriminating eye for what they feel has merit. But they don’t always get it right.

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes, too,” Robert said, “but we get better and better at it. I think both of us have got a really good eye now to collect good art.”

Their alignment is uncanny. “If there’s a roomful of art, he’ll walk around, and I’ll walk around separately, and we find we have the same piece in mind,” Karen said.

While some collectors keep their art out of sight, under close wraps, the Duncans enjoy sharing their treasures with others. When word spread of their collection, they began fielding requests from university art departments for tours. Other groups followed suit. Then, when the couple built an art repository that doubles as their residence, they received overtures from architectural and design schools. Today, the Duncans or their in-house curator Anne Pagel accommodate private tours as schedules allow.

The couple frequently loan out works for exhibitions at museums and galleries.

“Things move all the time,” Karen said. “They’re loaned out all over the place. I don’t worry about them, but I do miss them. You have to have pieces that travel easily. Some pieces are impractical to loan. They’re just too big or too difficult to ship, so they’re here permanently.”

“Sometimes we’ll go for a show (featuring their work). It’s fun to see people experience it,” Robert said.  “And to talk about when and why you bought it,” Karen added.

To share more of their art, the couple developed Assemblage gallery in downtown Lincoln. It’s open only by appointment. To bring art to their hometown of Clarinda, Iowa, they opened the Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum, whose exhibitions include work by artists they collect,

The couple’s art adorns the Lincoln headquarters of Duncan Aviation, the national business jet service and supply company Robert Duncan took over from his father Donald. Robert’s son. Todd Duncan, leads it today. The family-owned company has now reached four generations with grandsons following in the fold.

Duncan art pieces also brighten company facilities in Battle Creek, Michigan and Provo, Utah.

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The Duncans’ Lincoln residence

 

The most impressive receptacle for the art is the Duncan home on the outskirts of Lincoln. The classical structure designed by London-based architect Dimitri Porphyrios was built, per the Duncans’ express wishes, with permanency in mind through quarried stone and other durable materials. The eight-years-in-the-making project is a highly livable edifice that also functions as a gallery with museum-grade lighting, temperature controls and dedicated art spaces.

The house rests on gated property of nearly 40 acres studded with sculptures, including some monumental ones. The house may one day transition from their residence to a fully-dedicated museum. “We’re still talking about it,” Robert said. “We’ve got several options. We haven’t made that decision yet. We need to get busy and bring it to a conclusion.”

The couple keep homes in Mexico and Colorado as well.

Art has been a vital part of their lifestyle for decades but especially since Robert retired from Duncan Aviation 12 years ago. Travel and looking at art has dominated their lives since then.

Selecting a work may come down to a gut feeling, but there’s also research involved.

“I’m the reader of the two of us,” Karen said. “We get all these art magazines and I read them all. Robert’s on the phone talking to artists and planning where we’re going  next, which is as important as all the reading I do.”

The pair also comb art auction catalogues looking for potential buys. “We go through them in detail and mark the pieces we’re interested in or that are similar to pieces we have so we can do price comparisons,” he said. “Art shows are another great way to educate yourself because you see thousands of different pieces – many by artists you’ve never seen before.”

Once doing their due diligence, they plunge into major art markets, such as Art Basel Miami, an immersive, weeks-long exposure to countless works.

Staying abreast of trends, Karen said, “keeps you busy.” “India is one of our favorite destinations.” she added. The couple has traveled there four times. “This last trip to India,” she said. “we spent every day looking at art for three weeks.” They only took a break at the urging of a fellow traveler worried they were near exhaustion.

The intrepid couple will be off to Paris Photo at the Grand Palais in November.

They prefer traveling with others when possible.

“We are very good friends with Marc and Kathy LeBaron, who also collect contemporary art. We travel and do all kinds of art things together,” Karen said,

“They’re 10 years younger than we,” Robert said of the LeBarons, ” and they will say to this day we were their mentors.”

The Duncans acknowledge not everyone has the means to pursue their passion the way they do.

“We’re fortunate we have the time and the resources to travel,” Robert said.

Art networking leads to unexpected connections.

“We were introduced through a gallery to a sculptural collector in Cleveland,” Robert explained. “En route there Karen and I went to an art function we support in Chicago, where we met 50 artists. Then we went onto Cleveland to meet this guy, who has an incredible collection. He’s going to come out here and see our collection sometime and we’re going back to visit him again. Then we’re going to Yale University to view its collection and a new storage facility we want to see.

“It just goes on and on.”

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Karen’s children’s book, Chica

 

On one of the couple’s visits to Mexico Karen adopted a stray puppy she named Chica. The dog’s become such a fixture in their lives that she recently published a children’s book called “Chica.” Duncan wrote it and Omaha artist Joe Broghammer illustrated it.

Of all the couple’s myriad art activities, repurposing the former Carnegie library in Clarinda into a museum is “the most gratifying,” said Robert.

“We were both born and raised in Clarinda. We love it,” Karen said. “I practically lived in the library. I rode my bike there almost every day. So when that building came up for auction, it was ‘my’ building.”

The Duncans purchased it for $33,000 and spent much more renovating it. The museum opened in 2014. Thousands of people visit it every year.

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Clarinda Csrnegie Art Museum

 

Clarinda holds memories for the couple, including farm pond skinny dips. The former Karen Kent was a music prodigy. She’s a concert-level pianist. Robert applied his entrepreneurial innovation at Duncan Aviation.

“I’m more creative and imaginative than I am a professional manager,” he said. “A lot of the things Duncan has done were ideas for new businesses I created that really developed into major parts of the business. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

His parents were adventurous enough to learn to fly. That led Donald Duncan to purchase surplus government aircraft and resale them. He became a Beechcraft, then Learjet distributor. That morphed into having the first Learjet authorized service center. Today, Duncan Aviation is a leader in the repair, maintenance, overhaul, refurbishing, painting of business-class jets.

Robert learned the business from the ground up.

“I pumped gas. I flew charters, I sold airplanes.”

Karen’s family, meanwhile, were not risk-takers. She doesn’t recall much adventure growing up.

“My parents worked all the time. We didn’t go anywhere. I wanted to go, I wanted to spread my wings. So I married this guy, and we did, didn’t we,” she said, nudging Robert.

“The thing I’m most grateful for,” said Robert, “is that we both have a sense of curiosity and …” “Fearlessness,” Karen said. It shows up in the wanderlust that’s seen them make cross-country treks by air and motorcycle – he’s a licensed small jet pilot and a Harley rider – and to follow their art quests to exotic locales.

“One of our first travels was to Spain.” Karen recalled. “It was there we went into the first gallery we’d ever been in together. We met the artist. He had a book with his art. We bought his book and a piece of his Spanish Impressionist art. I still kind of like it. I wouldn’t buy it today, but it’s not a bad painting.

“Robert hand-carried it home. That was our first piece and after that we hit the galleries and museums hard.”

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Duncan Aviation

 

Just as Duncan Aviation started small in a single office before growing to 2,000-plus employees at dozens of sites, the art collection began humbly and grew over time. Watching each evolve has been satisfying.

“In business we’ve really been opportunists,” Robert said. “All along we’ve taken advantage of opportunities and we’ve made good decisions. We’ve made some bad ones, too. You don’t hear about those, but they cost money and time. But all in all we’ve always been steps forward with perhaps one back.

“This is something pretty terrific we’ve put together. The team there now – led by our son Todd as chairman and Aaron Hilkemann as president – is taking the company to much greater levels than I did when I was there. What that means to me is that we have a great culture and great people. In the business we certainly learned to keep our eyes and ears open and look for opportunities, and we definitely do that in the art world now.”

Ever since they began collecting in earnest, the Duncans have made a point of meeting as many of the artists they patronize as possible.

“It personalizes our collecting,” Robert said. “It personalizes art,” added Karen.

Recently, an artist they visited in Mexico said something that resonated with them. “He told us.,you collect experiences,” Karen said, There’s a story behind every artist they meet. “In fact,” Robert said, “we’re seriously considering doing a book sharing the stories of our encounters with artists and our relationships with them.”

“Some of them are really worth reading.” Karen said.

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John Robert Weaver, self-portrait

 

Years ago they learned of a brilliant but sour Nebraska artist, John Robert Weaver, who’d completed a huge canvas and desperately needed a buyer for it.

“We bought it because it’s an amazing painting.” Karen said.

Thus began an association with the mercurial Weaver. who painted several commissions for the Duncans. Then he disappeared from their lives until Karen happened upon him one day in public.

“He looked as bad as that dog I picked up in Mexico,” she said. “I mean, he was in terrible shape – coughing, sick. He smelled.”

Then there was his abrasive personality.

“He was mean and rude. But he was a great painter. I thought, nobody’s going to care about him if he dies tomorrow, and we’ll have lost one of Nebraska’s best artists. I thought somebody needs to do something. So I bought him a house and furnished it and moved him in it. I took care of him for years and provided all the things he needed to work.”

The Duncans also funded the creation of a retrospective exhibition and catalog of his work and a feature-length documentary of his life. Weaver, who died in 2018, would likely have never enjoyed such recognition in his lifetime without their intervention.

More recently, the Duncans have fallen head over heals with the work of husband and wife artists Charley Friedman and Nancy Friedemann of Lincoln.

“We love the two of them,” Robert said.

Adopting artists “is Karen’s charity,” Robert said, adding, “She likes to do help individuals where she can see the impact.” She works with a Lincoln group that gives at-risk children piano lessons. She not only helps provide lessons but she’s purchased pianos for kids to practice on in their own homes.

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A sample of the Duncans’ sculpture garden

 

The couple’s patronage of Nebraska art is legendary. They’ve been major supporters of the Sheldon Museum of Art and the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and the Kaneko in Omaha.

“We both love the University (of Nebraska’s) art department,” Robert said. “Great people there. We have a lot of respect for them.”  “We buy their art, too,” Karen said.

The couple are ambassadors for Nebraska art. “There’s so much in Nebraska,” Robert said. “It’s very rich.”

The Duncans gave California artist Joseph Goldyne a sample of the state’s visual art scene after he arrived for the opening of his exhibit in Clarinda.

“He was amazed,” said Karen. Such reactions are typical of artists who come here for the first time and expect a cultural wasteland. “They just underestimate us so much.”

Another expression of the couple’s generosity is their Duncan Family Trust, which supports education and aviation-related endeavors. Daughter-in-law Connie Duncan manages it.

“The company funds part of that and part is supported by funds we’ve set up at the Lincoln Community Foundation,” Robert explained. “People apply to it. The most important part of that is an employee scholarship fund.”

For all their good works and all the jobs created by Duncan Aviation, the thing that most intrigues people about the couple is the collection they’ve built. It’s a never-ending source of inquiries from scholars, collectors and journalists. Robert Duncan has a theory why he and Karen took it to so emphatically.

“I know that both of us have a collecting gene, We have collecting in our souls because as children we collected (her, butterflies; him. cereal box prizes). As adults, we collect a lot of things.”

Her first edition American novel collection numbers some 10,000 volumes. She has a large handwoven basket collection.

Her own literary efforts didn’t begin with the children’s book. She earlier authored “Pieces of Me,” a book meant only for her grandchildren. “It’s vignettes from my life. I wanted them to know I was once their age and i did some stupid things just like all teenagers do.”

“If I can get myself organized I’m thinking of doing a second Chica book about her Nebraska friends (the fox, raccoon and hawk Chica frolicked with on the property).

The collecting gene seems inherited by the Duncans’ two adult children, Todd and Paige.

“They have an interest and they both collect,” Robert said. “I don’t think they’re interested in shouldering the burden of this collection.”

“No,” added Karen. “Besides, they’ve got our art in their houses. We said, come pick out whatever you want, and they picked out good pieces. They grew up surrounded by it. They knew what to pick.”

As the collection’s grown ever larger, Karen said, “this has all gotten very complicated.” Thousands of works, multiple sites, plus storage, security, insurance details. They stay at it though because it’s still “fun.”

Collecting keeps them engaged with all the research and travel required. The 76-year-olds not only preach the benefits of mental and physical activity, they live it. He still rides motorcycles and pilots planes. She’s turned weight-lifting for exercise into competing in powerlifting meets. She’s also a gourmet cook and an expert at Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging).

Much like the work they collect, they are singular in their boundless curiosity. Mastering the art of living may be their greatest legacy.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Expressionistic images by Elisa Morera Benn

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

 

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Expressionistic images by Elisa Morera Benn

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Costa Rica native Elisa Morera Benn of Omaha has been making art infused with the colors and passions of her tropical Central American homeland since childhood.

“All my life my surroundings have been full of contrasts. Shades of green, red, orange, a whole range of intensities and feelings. It is impossible to separate artists from their visual and emotional environment,” she said.

She’s one of four siblings born to a customs agent father and stay-at-home mother.

“My father worked hard to give his children a private education. He later managed to open his own business.”

Benn studied with masters. Each gave her something that grew her as an artist.

“With Francisco Alvarado Avella, I learned the eroticism that always covered his paintings. With Soraya Goicoechea the realism of the portrait. With Max Rojas, the use of expressionism. With Isabel Naranjo, realism. With Rodolfo Rocha, I learned how to mix all these techniques.”

Her work’s shown internationally at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France and at galleries and museums in Fabriano, Italy, Juarez, Mexico, Toronto, Canada and Houston, Texas.

Since moving to America with her husband, Dr. Douglas Benn, an adjunct professor at the Creighton University School of Dentistry, she’s consistently shown her work in Nebraska. She recent exhibited at the Artists Cooperative Gallery in the Old Market. She has work at the Burkholder Project in Lincoln. She’ll show some pieces at her studio during the Hot Shops open house in December.

She and her husband reside in a near downtown home accented by her own art and by artwork they’ve collected. The couple met five years ago in Costa Rica when he visited there. They married three years ago.

Benn was no stranger to America, where she traveled on school vacations and visited an aunt in Florida.

“Once I moved here, I fell in love with Omaha, which is full of art.”

As a girl in Costa Rica a school teacher and a newly arrived classmate from Cuba affirmed her talent.

“All my life I have painted and drawn,” said Benn, who found her voice in art.

“My formal studies were in architecture but I didn’t finish. But always the drawing was in my blood,”

Like any artist, she finds inspiration in many sources. The paintings of Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt and his use of gold leaf foil are particularly influential.

“Klimt’s symbolism seems extraordinary to me – the way he uses symbolism and geometric patterns, which I always use in my work.”

Expressionism best describes her style, though she incorporates elements of surrealism as well.

“We live in anxiety about humanity’s increasingly discordant relationship with the world and accompanying lost feelings of authenticity and spirituality. I am an expressionist and as such support the rebellion to be free from academic restrictions. I want to be free in the way I express myself.”

The style fits her temperament and vision.

“These techniques were meant to convey the emotional state of my feelings and my art reacting to the anxieties of the modern world with all the problems of this particular period of time. This style allows me to have that freedom of expression.

“True art always causes an emotion in the spectator. When I succeed in transmitting the feeling I want to reflect in my painting to the viewer then I feel I have achieved my goal.””

She often deals with women’s emotional states in her work.

“Capturing the emotions and feelings reflected in a face is a challenge. I achieve feeling THROUGH a painting. Reflecting the model’s expression of joy, sadness, excitement, sensuality, for me is a challenge that I like.”

When dealing with women subjects she uses eroticism to capture mood and atmosphere.

“Why not? These feelings are part of human beings.”

After all, she said, seduction and mysticism are well known ways to captivate viewers.

“There are many ways to convey eroticism,” she said. “All of Georgia O’Keefe’s work is wrapped in eroticism and sensuality in a very subliminal way. Then there are the very criticized erotic drawings of (Gustave) Courbet’s realism, which is not my message, nor my style. I prefer the model of the painting have the expression and leave the rest to the imagination.

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Benn’s imagination sometimes supplies the human figures in her work. Other times she works from live models.

“The imaginary models are easier to work with. When one makes a painting of a live model, more is known by friends and family, so the level of accuracy has to be higher, which is more difficult. Normally everyone has a mental image of how we see ourselves, so to satisfy the model and also make the painting in your style, it’s quite a challenge.”

She makes her paintings directly on wood and enjoys the texture the surface gives her work.

“I really like how the lines of wood are mixed inside the face of my paintings. When I paint on canvas, the backgrounds go with the personality of the models. For example, I painted a friend who is a metal sculptor, so her surroundings have to be where she was born here in the USA and what she does.”

Visit http://www.artistamorera.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Life Itself XIV: Art stories through the years

August 4, 2018 Leave a comment

Life Itself XIV: Art stories through the years

Brigitte McQueen Shew

 

 

Free North Omaha Summer Arts Crawl features variety of art forms – Friday, August 10 at select North 30th Street Corridor venues

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/07/25/free-north-omaha…-corridor-venues

Process equals passion for migrant Bemis resident artist Trevor Amery

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/08/process-equals-p…ist-trevor-amery

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

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/05/01/sculptor-benjami…s-enduring-voice

Mural Man – Artist Mike Giron captures heart of South Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/05/02/mural-man-artist…t-of-south-omaha

A Fluid Life: Dana Oltman Goes With the Flow

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/08/03/a-fluid-life-dan…es-with-the-flow

New Artist Residency Program at El Museo Latino supports the practice of local Latino artists

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/10/new-artist-resid…l-latino-artists/

Art in the heart of South Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/09/22/art-in-the-heart-of-south-omaha

 

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©“Crucifixion”  triptych by Leonard Thiessen

 

 

 

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

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/06/26/brigitte-mcqueen…unity-engagement/

South Omaha Museum: A melting pot magic city gets its own museum

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/04/13/a-melting-pot-ma…s-its-own-museum

Artist Erin Blayney: The Great Reveal

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/08/03/artist-erin-blay…the-great-reveal/

Omaha Fashion Week & SAC Federal Credit Union: Building the fashion eco-system via business focus

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/08/05/omaha-fashion-we…a-business-focus

Leonard Thiessen social justice triptych deserves wider audience

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/01/21/leonard-thiessen…s-wider-audience

 

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img_4248 ©Crosses and prayer stations by Pamela Jo Berry and pottery by Katie Cramer

 

 

Harmonious, luminescent pairing of art – “Prayer” and “Share” – on exhibit at Florence Mill ArtLoft Gallery

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/09/12/harmonious-lumin…-artloft-gallery

Mural project celebrates mosaic of South Omaha culture

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/19/mural-project-ce…th-omaha-culture/

 

 

Los Dias de Los Muertos festival offers three weeks of exhibits and events

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/16/los-dias-de-los-…ibits-and-events

My Joslyn Art Museum Community Pick is Thomas Hart Benton’s “The Hailstorm”

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/08/03/my-joslyn-commun…s-picked-and-why

Bright Lights: Teen designer Ciara Fortun mines Filipino heritage in Omaha Fashion Week collection

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/29/bright-lights-te…-week-collection

 

Yolanda Diaz success story with Little Miss Fashion nets her new recognition

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/05/yolanda-diaz-suc…-new-recognition

Yolanda Diaz works on a skirt in her Little Miss Fashion shop in Omaha. (©Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

 

 

The Designers: Omaha’s Emerging Fashion Culture

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/02/02/the-designers-om…-fashion-culture

A Passion for Fashion: Omaha Fashion Week emerges as major cultural happening

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/21/a-passion-for-fashion

Coming Home: Watie White’s public art installation tells stories of North Omaha home and family

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/02/07/coming-home-wati…-home-and-family

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

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/09/24/art-and-communit…ines-urban-tales

 

Home exterior art installation by Watie White

 

 

The Artist in the Mill: Linda Meigs brings agriculture, history and art together at Florence Mill

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/08/01/linda-meigs-brin…at-florence-mill/

Opera Omaha enlists Jun Kaneko for new take on “The Magic Flute” –  co-production of Mozart masterpiece features stunning designs setting the opera world abuzz

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/02/01/opera-omaha-enli…pera-world-abuzz

Isabella Threlkeld’s lifetime pursuit of art and Ideas yields an uncommon life

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/isabella-threlke…an-uncommon-life

 

Isabella (Byrne) Threlkeld

Isabella Threlkeld

 

 

Omaha arts-culture scene all grown up and looking fabulous

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/03/06/omaha-arts-culture-scene-grows-up

Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/05/20/artists-running-…new-life-to-area

Carver Building rebirthed as arts-culture haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis reimagine North Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/12/05/carver-building-…gine-north-omaha

North Omaha synergy harkens new arts-culture district for the city

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/26/a-synergy-in-nor…ict-for-the-city

 

Inaugural group of Carver Bank resident artists

 

 

Change is gonna come: GBT Academy in Omaha undergoes revival in wake of fire

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/14/a-change-is-gonn…the-wake-of-fire

Community-builders Jose and Linda Garcia devote themselves to a life promoting Latino art, culture, history

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/09/30/community-builde…-culture-history

The Wonderful World of Artist and Social Entrepreneur Jeffrey Owen Hanson

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/01/01/the-wonderful-wo…frey-owen-hanson

Matter of the heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s love for community brings art fest to North Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/08/08/pamela-jo-berry-…-in-diverse-work

Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/12/26/old-market-pioneer-roger-durand

 

©Work by Wanda Ewing

 

 

Wanda Ewing Exhibit: Bougie is as Bougie Does 

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/12/08/wanda-ewing-exhi…s-as-bougie-does

Color Me Black, Artist Francoise Duresse Explores Racial Implications 

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/17/color-me-black-a…ications-of-race

Artist-Author-Educator Faith Ringgold, A Faithful Conjurer of Stories, Dreams, Memories and History

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/18/artist-author-ed…ries-and-history

Old Market-based artist Sora Kimberlain: A life in art

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/20/old-market-based…in-a-life-in-art

Artist Claudia Alvarez’s new exhibition considers immigration

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/23/artist-claudia-a…ders-immigration

For artist Terry Rosenberg, the moving human body offers canvas like no other

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/23/for-artist-terry…as-like-no-other

 

 

©Works by Terry Rosenberg

 

 

Fine art photographer Vera Mercer’s coming out party

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/02/18/artist-vera-merc…coming-out-party

Exhibit by photographer Jim Krantz and his artist grandfather, the late David Bialac engages in an art conversation through the generations

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/28/photographer-jim…-the-generations/

 

A very young Jim Krantz with iconic mentor, Ansel Adams, ©photo Jim Krantz

 

Touched by Tokyo: Hairstylist to the Stars Tokyo Stylez

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/27/touched-by-tokyo…ars-tokyo-stylez/

The Troy Davis Story: From Beyond the Fringe to Fringes Salon

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/12/27/the-troy-davis-s…to-fringes-salon/

Hair stylist-makeup artist Omar Rodriguez views himself as artisan

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/05/13/hair-stylist-mak…mself-as-artisan/

Young artist steps out of the shadows of towering presence in his life

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/03/a-young-artist-s…ence-in-his-life/

Eddith Buis, A Life Immersed in Art

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/11/eddith-buis-a-life-immersed-in-art/

Artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes explores the lamentations and celebrations of Jamaican revival worship

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/28/artist-bernard-s…-revival-worship

 

Flow with the Rhythm, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes (the Lamentations and Celebrations of Jamaican Revival Worship) -“The intention is to show where we gather our strength in all the trials and tribulations we have to endure. The strength comes from the commonality of our spiritual seeking. That’s one of the reasons I group the figures together and put them kind of like solid. They feel like one. You need all these bodies together to evoke the strength of what it takes to have a spiritual community.":

©”Flow with the Rhythm” by Bernard Stanley Hoyes

 

 

Catherine Ferguson’s exploration takes her to Verdi’s “Aida” and beyond

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/01/artist-catherine…-aida-and-beyond

Therman Statom works with children to create glass houses and more

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/glass-artist-the…kids-art-brigade

Blizzard Voices: Stories from the Great White Shroud

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/07/27/blizzard-voices-…eat-white-shroud

African presence in Spanish America explored in three presentations

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/25/african-presence…ee-presentations

Jose and Linda Garcia find new outlet for their magnificent obsession in the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/25/jose-and-linda-g…-of-the-midlands

Timeless Fashion Illustrator Mary Mitchell: Her Work Illustrating Three Decades of Style Now Subject of New Book and Exhibition

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/01/07/timeless-fashion…k-and-exhibition/

 

Mary Mitchell in her studio, @photo Jim Scholz

 

 

A Passion for Conservation: Tara Kennedy

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/11/25/a-passion-for-co…ion-tara-kennedy

Nancy Kirk: Arts maven, author, communicator, entrepreneur, interfaith champion

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/21/nancy-kirk-arts-…erfaith-champion

Art as revolution: Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art reimagines what’s possible in North Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/25/art-as-revolutio…e-in-north-omaha

“Portals” opens new dimensions in performance art – Multimedia concert comes home for Midwest premiere

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/06/portals-opens-ne…midwest-premiere

Open Minds: “Portals” explores human longing in the digital age

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/15/open-minds-porta…-the-digital-age

 

©Triptych designed and painted by Bro. William Woeger

 

 

Soon Come: Neville Murray’s passion for Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its role in rebirthing North Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/28/soon-come-nevill…hing-north-omaha

Inner City Art Exhibition Tells Wide Range of Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/01/an-inner-city-ex…range-of-stories

Art from the Streets

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/01/art-from-the-streets

Manifest Beauty: Christian Bro. William Woeger devotes his life to Church as artist and creative-cultural-liturgical expert

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/27/manifest-beauty-…-cultural-center

Photographer Larry Ferguson’s work is meditation on the nature of views and viewing

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/21/photographer-lar…iews-and-viewing/

Frederick Brown’s journey through art: Passage across form and passing on legacy

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/22/frederick-browns…ing-on-of-legacy

 

 

 

 

Jazz and blues artist Frederick J. Brown displays his painting “Stagger Lee,” in Kansas City, Mo.

 

 

A stitch in time builds world-class quilt collection and center-museum

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/21/a-stitch-in-time…nd-center-museum

Once More With Feeling: Loves Jazz & Arts Center back from hiatus 

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/05/once-more-with-f…back-from-hiatus

Adventurer-collector Kam-Ching Leung’s Indonesian art reveals spirits of the islands

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/14/adventurercollec…s-of-the-islands

 

 

©Indonesian art piece, collection of Kam-Chieng Leung

 

 

Kent Bellows Legacy Lives On

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/13/bellows-legacy-lives-on/

Kent Bellows: Soul in Motion

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/21/kent-bellows-soul-in-motion

Rebecca Herskovitz forges an art family at Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/13/rebecca-herskovi…-for-visual-arts/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

©Self-portraits by Kent Bellows

 

 

Art for Art’s Sake: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/21/art-for-arts-sak…ontemporary-arts

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson on his vagabond life and enigmatic work

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/30/combat-sniper-tu…d-enigmatic-work

Naturalist-artist John Lokke – In pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and In the footsteps of Karl Bodmer

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/naturalist-artis…s-of-karl-bodmer

 

©Painting by John Lokke

 

 

Art Missionaries, Bob and Roberta Rogers and their Gallery 72

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/art-missionaries

Photographer Monte Kruse pushes boundaries

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/22/photographer-mon…ushes-boundaries

From the Archives: Photographer Monte Kruse works close to the edge

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/13/from-the-archive…lose-to-the-edge

Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter


Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter

©by Lei Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Giving Voice to the VoicelessDon Doll, SJ

Since first picking up a camera in the 1960s while ministering to residents of Sioux reservations in South Dakota, the Rev. Don Doll of Omaha has become a well-traveled, award-winning photojournalist. The Jesuit priest is perhaps best known for chronicling the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people’s attempts to integrate traditional ways in nontraditional times. Two acclaimed books, Crying for a Vision (1976, Morgan and Morgan) and Vision Quest (1994, Crown), depict the suffering and resurgence of these Indian cultures through his haunting pictures and his subjects’ stirring words.

For a pair of National Geographic spreads he lived with Yupik Eskimos and Athapaskan Indians to record the daily rituals of native societies far outside the mainstream. For the Jesuit Refugee Service he captured the human toll exacted by land mines in Angola and Bosnia and the wrecked lives left behind by civil strife in Sri Lanka. For yet more assignments he went to Cambodia, Belize, the Dominican Republic and other remote locales to document the disenfranchised.

“I’ve thought of myself as giving voice to people who normally don’t have a voice,” said Doll, a fine arts professor at Creighton University, where he holds the Charles and Mary Heider endowed Jesuit Chair. “My work has generally been about other cultures — about how other people live and work. It’s been about telling people’s stories and breaking some stereotypes. As a priest, I’m formed by the faith I’ve grown into and one of the foundations of that faith is to have special appreciation for other people. And I think when you point a camera at someone it should be a loving look at that person.”

A master still photographer, Doll’s images are notable for their clarity, power and depth. Portraits, like the enigmatic ones for Vision Quest, are among his favorites. “I love making insightful pictures of people that reveal something of their character, but leave a question mark. I think any good portrait has a bit of mystery and ambiguity in it. Without raising that question, it becomes boring.”

A New Path
Major publications have long sought Doll’s talent, but he has remained selective about the projects he takes. Until recently, he used a 35-millimeter Leica to tell his stories. Now, at 63, an age when most artists slip comfortably into a safe niche, he is reinventing himself as a videographer.

While far from abandoning still work, he now mainly works in digital video and, along with writer Elizabeth O’Keefe, a former student of his who is publications coordinator for the U.S. Jesuit Conference, he is beginning to make waves in this new field. A story he shot and that he and O’Keefe edited and produced appeared on ABC’s “Nightline last year. The story, “Finding Ernesto,” grew out of a report the pair prepared in El Salvador on the efforts of Jesuit priests to reunite loved ones separated during the civil war there. A second story by the team — this one chronicling a Jesuit priest who is a kind of Martin Luther King figure in India — is being considered for future “Nightline” airing.

The El Salvador and India pieces are installments in a larger, multi-media documentary project by Doll and O’Keefe called The Jesuits: Two Thousand Years After Christ, which illustrates the Jesuit order’s mandate of working toward social justice and respecting other cultures. Additional stories for that project include a biography on Society of Jesus founder St. Ignatius, which sent the filmmakers to Spain and Italy last spring, and a look at the Jesuit presence on the reservations, which brought Doll back to his old stomping grounds.

How he came to photograph old friends in video after portraying them in stills is emblematic of his need to find new means of expressing himself and his faith. The ever-inquisitive Doll attended intensive professional workshops on Web publishing and DVD production. Part of his motivation to learn new forms was to introduce his students to Wed design, a class he has taught at Creighton, and to gain more personal expertise making CD-ROMs.

“I began to learn that just having pictures and type on a page is not enough. You also need sound and video. I saw people multi-purposing their material — interviews, photographs or whatever — and publishing them in different media.” Attracted by that idea, Doll incorporated his Vision Quest work, both the images he made and the sound recordings of interviews he conducted, into a CD-ROM but found many interviews unusable due to excessive ambient noise. “I resolved the next time I did any project the sound was going to be outstanding.” Under the instruction of veteran videographers Doll not only learned state-of-the-art audio but, much to his surprise, developed an affinity for making moving pictures.

Making Moving Pictures

Transitioning from the still to video format has meant learning a whole new set of techniques, realities and assumptions.

“Video is a storytelling medium. It’s more about the words than it is about the pictures. Before, I was making good pictures that almost supplanted the words,” he said. “Now, I’ve had to learn how to shoot a sequence — with a wide shot, a medium shot and a close up — and how to cover sequences and how to do interviews and how to put it all together. The guys who have been doing this for 20 years know a lot of tricks I certainly don’t. But I think the advantage I have is the compositional, lighting, and story skills I bring. I’m aware of every visual detail in the frame. I know how to layer a picture with meaning in every corner.”

Overall, he described as “exciting” his adventure in video. Gone, however, are the days when he could quietly insinuate himself into a scene and be an inconspicuous observer with only his small hand-held camera in-tow. Now, he lugs around a big, clattering batch of audio-visual devices that require more set-up, more cooperation, more planning.

For his first video project Doll chose a familiar subject — the reservations. Today, after completing several pieces, he feels he is hitting his stride. “I think I know how to shoot good video now. I’m getting some nice stuff. And I’m finally feeling comfortable editing, which is a whole other skill dealing with time and sound and pacing. The audio cut goes down first and then the pictures are dropped in, which is just the complete opposite of how I worked before. Have I found my voice totally in this new medium?  I’m not sure. But the beauty of digital video is that you hear people talk — in their own voice — with real fervor and passion. That’s a powerful tool for people who have something to say.”

Just Doing It
The new technology also allows anyone with the ability to bypass traditional media paths and produce Hollywood-Madison Avenue quality video on their own home studio set-up. Doll shoots with a Canon XL-1 digital video camera-sound system and edits on a dual processor Macintosh G4 (“my souped-up personal computer”) with Apple Final Cut Pro software. “We produced a program for ‘Nightline’ on it, and they were blown away,” Doll said. “Now, you can conceive a project or story or idea and, with a few thousand bucks, actually go out and do it. You can produce professional videos or movies or broadcast television programs. DVD technology is going to be really big. We’ll see a whole new generation of filmmakers.”

Currently on a leave of absence from teaching, Doll plans wrapping-up the Jesuit project (to be released as a DVD) by July and returning to the classroom next fall brimming with new ideas. “That’s how I’ve always done things. I teach for three or four years, then I take off to go do something and then I reflect on that and bring it back to the teaching experience. It’s a mutually enriching process.” As for new photo shoots, he said, “With this endowed chair I have the resources to go photograph anywhere in the world I want if I find a story I want to cover. I have the luxury of going where my heart is. It’s kind of sweet.”

Finding home: David Catalan finds community service niche in adopted hometown of Omaha

February 1, 2018 2 comments

Finding home: David Catalan finds community service niche in adopted hometown of Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon appearing in El Perico

David Catalan long searched for a place to call home before finding it in Omaha four decades ago.

Born in San Diego, Calif. and raised in Arizona, the former business executive turned consultant has served on many nonprofit boards. It’s hard to imagine this sophisticate who is so adroit in corporate and art circles once labored in the migrant fields with his Mexican immigrant parents. It’s surprising, too, someone so involved in community affairs once lived a rootless life.

“My whole life had been like a gypsy. I was a vagabond because traveling from place to place and never really having a fixed home – until I came to Omaha with Union Pacific in 1980.. I chose to stay even after I left U.P. because I really felt at home here and still do after all those years wandering around.”

Vagabundo, a book of his own free-style verse, describes his coming-of-age.

Catalan, 76, grew up in a Tucson barrio immediately after World War II. His father worked in the copper mines. When Catalan was about 13, his family began making the migrant worker circuit, leaving each spring-summer for Calif, to pick tomatoes, figs, peaches and grapes and then returning home for the fall-winter.

“I didn’t really feel I wanted to get stuck in that kind of a destiny,” he said. “Maybe escape is too rough a word, but I had to get away from that environment if I was going to do anything differently, and so I left and went to live with a sister in the Merced (Calif.) area.”

He finished high school there and received a scholarship to UCLA,

“I was the only one in the family that actually completed high school, let alone college.”

He’d long before fallen in love with books.

“That led me to realize there was more I could accomplish.”

While at UCLA, a U.S. Army recruiter sensed his wanderlust and got him to enlist. He served in Germany and France. He stayed-on two years in Paris, where an American couple introduced him to the arts.

“It was a big awakening for me,” he said.

Back in the U.S., he settled in Salt Lake City, where he was briefly married. Then he joined U.P., which paid for his MBA  studies at Pepperdine University. Then U.P. transferred him from Los Angeles to Omaha.

“I never had a sense of knowing my neighbors, having some continuity in terms of schools and experiences, so I felt like I had missed out by not having had that identity with place and community. When I came to Omaha, I loved it, and U.P. really promoted employees getting involved in community service.

“Doing community service, being on nonprofit boards  became an identity for myself.”

Upon taking early retirement, he worked at Metropolitan Community College, in the cabinet of Mayor Hal Daub and as executive director of the Omaha Press Club and the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands.

“I threw myself into the nonprofit world.”

He’s served on the Opera Omaha, Omaha Symphony and Nebraska Arts Council boards.

He cofounded SNAP! Productions, a small but mighty theater company originally formed to support the Nebraska AIDS Project.

“Omaha was the first place I saw a couple friends die of AIDS and that was a real revelation for me. That got me working to do some fundraising.”

SNAP! emerged from that work.

“I was the producer for almost every production the first few seasons. The audience base for SNAP! is a very accepting part of the community. It was gratifying. It’s been very successful.”

His interests led him to South Omaha, where he helped found El Museo Latino. More recently, he helped get the South Omaha Museum started. He also served as president of the South Omaha Business Association.

“I got involved with a lot of economic development.”

He wrote and published Rule of Thumb: A Guide to Small Business Marketing.

He’s “very proud” both SNAP! and El Museo Latino, whose vision of Magdalena Garcia he caught, “are still going strong and still serving the community.”

Each time he gets involved, he said, “it isn’t planned – the need arises and I’m there willing to help work to make it happen.”

“Doing all this work helps me feel I am a part of a dynamic community. That’s what really drives me, motivates me and makes me feel very positive.”

He’s involved in a new project that dreams of building a 300-foot tall Nebraska landmark destination to be called “Tower of Courage” at the intersection of 13th and I-80 across from the Henry Doorly Zoo.

“We’re in the process of trying to acquire the land. It’ll be a place for culture-history exhibits all focused on the rich cultural and historical history of Neb. and the region.”

Meanwhile Catalan has his own consulting company helping nonprofit and small business clients with strategic planning and grant-writing.

He’s also active in the Optimist Club.

“I’ve lived a full life. I’ve met so many wonderful people. I can navigate around many communities because of the the work I’ve done and the people I’ve met.”

He’s doing research for what may be his third book: weaving the story of a pioneering Jesuit priest from the same Sonora. Mexico hometown Catalan’s mother was born in and near where his father was from, with the history of area Indian tribes and his own family.

He’s traveling this winter to Sonora – not to escape his roots but to discover more about them.

He’s written about his family in Vagabundo and in poems published in the literary journal, Fine Lines.

“I think I’m creating a David Catalan space of my own I never had growing up.”

Terence Crawford, Alexander Payne and Warren Buffett: Unexpected troika of Nebraska genius makes us all proud

August 19, 2017 1 comment

Terence Crawford, Alexander Payne and Warren Buffett:
Unexpected troika of Nebraska genius makes us all proud

©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Terence “Bud” Crawford has fought all over the United States and the world. As an amateur, he competed in the Pan American Games. As a young pro he fought in Denver. He won his first professional title in Scotland. He’s had big fights in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in Orlando, Florida, in Arlington, Texas. He’s showcased his skills on some of the biggest stages in his sport, including the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and New York City’s Madison Square Garden. He’s even traveled to Africa and while he didn’t fight there he did spend time with some of its boxers and coaches. But he’s made his biggest impact back home, in Omaha, and starting tonight, in Lincoln. Crawford reignited the dormant local boxing community with his title fights at the CenturyLink Center and he’s about to do the same in Lincoln at the Pinnacle Bank Arena, where tonight he faces off with fellow junior welterweight title holder Julius Indongo in a unification bout. If, as expected, Crawford wins, he will have extended his brand in Nebraska and across the U.S. and the globe. And he may next be eying an even bigger stage to host a future fight of his – Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium – to further tap into the Husker sports mania that he shares. These are shrewd moves by Crawford and Co. because they’re building on the greatest following that an individual Nebraska native athlete has ever cultivated. Kudos to Bud and Team Crawford for keeping it local and real. It’s very similar to what Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne from Omaha has done by bringing many of his Hollywood productions and some of his fellow Hollywood luminaries here. His new film “Downsizing,” which shot a week or so in and around Omaha, is about to break big at major festivals and could be the project that puts him in a whole new box office category. These two individuals at the top of their respective crafts are from totally different worlds but they’re both gifting their shared hometown and home state with great opportunities to see the best of the best in action. They both bring the height of their respective professions to their own backyards so that we can all share in it and feel a part of it. It’s not unlike what Warren Buffett does as a financial wizard and philanthropist who brings world-class peers and talents here and whose Berkshire Hathaway shareholders convention is one of the city’s biggest economic boons each spring. His daughter Susie Buffett’s foundations are among the most generous benefactors in the state. He has the ear of powerbrokers and stakeholders the world over Buffett, Payne and Crawford represent three different generations, personalities. backgrounds and segments of Omaha but they are all distinctly of and for this place. I mean, who could have ever expected that three individuals from here would rise to be the best at what they do in the world and remain so solidly committed to this city and this state? They inspire us by what they do and motivate us to strive for more. We are fortunate that they are so devoted to where they come from. Omaha and Nebraska are where their hearts are. Buffett and Crawford have never left here despite having the means to live and work wherever they want. Payne, who has long maintained residences on the west coast and here, has never really left Omaha and is actually in the process of making this his main residence again. This troika’s unexpected convergence of genius – financial, artistic and athletic – has never happened before here and may never happen again.

Let’s all enjoy it while it lasts.

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

June 26, 2017 1 comment

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.

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