Rock photographer Janette Beckman keeps it real;Her hip-hop and biker images are at Carver Bank in Omaha, where she’s doing a Bemis residency
Here’s my Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) cover story on famed rock photographer Janette Beckman, whose images of punk and hip-hop pioneers helped create the iconography around those music genres and the performing artists who drove those early scenes. She’s been visiting Omaha for a residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, working on a portrait of the city. An exhibition of her photos of hip-hop pioneers and Harlem bikers is showing at the Carver Bank here through the end of November.
Rock photographer Janette Beckman keeps it real;Her hip-hop and biker images are at Carver Bank in Omaha, where she’s doing a Bemis residency
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Photographer Janette Beckman made a name for herself in the 1970s and 1980s capturing the punk scene in her native London and the hip-hop scene in her adopted New York City.
Dubbed “the queen of rock photographers,” her images appeared in culture and style magazines here and abroad and adorned album covers for bands as diverse as Salt-N-Pepa and The Police. Weaned on Motown and R & B, this “music lover” was well-suited for what became her photography niche.
She still works with musicians today. She’s developing a book with famed jazz vocalist Jose James about his ascent as an artist.
Her photos of hip-hop pioneers along with pictures of the Harlem biker club Go Hard Boyz comprise the Rebel Culture exhibition at Carver Bank, 2416 Lake Street. Beckman, documenting facets of Omaha and greater Neb. for a Bemis residency, will give a 7 p.m. gallery talk on Friday during the show’s opening. The reception runs from 6 to 8.
The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts stint is her first residency.
“This is a new experience. It’s very refreshing. It’s kind of nice to get away from your life and open up your mind a little bit,” says Beckman, who describes her aesthetic as falling “between portrait and documentary.” “I truly believe taking a portrait of somebody is a collaboration between you and the person. I really like taking pictures on the street. I don’t want hair stylists and makeup artists. I don’t tell people what to do. I want to document that time and place – that’s really important to me. I want it to be about them and their lives, not about what I think their lives should be.”
Carver features a personal favorite among her work – a 1984 photo of Run DMC shot on location in Hollis, Queens for the British mag Face.
“They were just hanging out on this tree-lined street they lived on. I said, ‘Just stand a little closer,’ and they did. I love this picture because it expresses so much. It’s a real hangout picture and such a symbol of the times, style-wise. The Adidas with no laces, the snapback hats, the gazelle glasses, the track suits. It just expresses so much about that particular moment in time. And I love the dappled light on their faces.”
Run DMC, ©Janette Beckman
Salt-n-Pepa, ©Janette Beckman
She made the first press photo of LL Cool J, complete with him and his iconic boom box. She did the first photo shoot of Salt-N-Pepa while “knocking about” Alphabet City. In L.A. she shot N.W.A. posed around cops in a cruiser just as the group’s “Fuck tha Police” protest song hit.
She says her hip-hop shots “bring up happy memories for people because music is very evocative – it’s just like a little moment in time.”
The early hip-hop movement in America paralleled the punk explosion in England. Both were youthful reactions against oppression. In England – the rigid class system and awful economy. In the U.S. – inner-city poverty, violence and police abuse.
“Punk really gave a voice to kids who never really had a say. Working-class kids and art school kids all sort of banded together and started protesting, basically by being obnoxious and writing punk songs that were kind of like poetry, expressing what their lives were like. There was the shock factor of wearing bondage apparel and trash bags, putting safety pins in their noses. Really giving the finger to Queen and country and all that history. It was like, ‘Fuck you, it’s not that time, we’re fed up and we’re not going to take it anymore.'”
Her introduction to hip-hop came in London at the genre’s inaugural Europe revue tour.
“No one knew what hip-hop was. It was just the most amazing show. It had all the hip-hop disciplines. So much was going on on that stage – the break dancers and the Double Dutch and Fab 5 Freddy, scratching DJs, rapping, graffiti. All happening all at once. It blew me away.
“I met Afrika Bambaataa, who’s pretty much the father of hip-hop.”
Weeks later she visited NYC and “there it all was – the trains covered in graffiti, kids walking around with boom boxes, people selling mix tapes on the street. I got very involved in it.”
“New York was broke. Politically it was a mess. These kids had no future. Hip-hop gave this voice to the voiceless. They were singing ‘The Message’ (by the Furious Five). Where I was living there really were junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. It was no joke. You could see it unfolding in front of you and yet there was this vibrant art scene going on. Graffiti kids stealing paint from stores, breaking into train yards at night and painting trains in the pitch dark to make beautiful art that then traveled like a moving exhibition around New York. It was just fantastic. A real exciting time.”
She got so swept up, she never left. When big money moved in via the major record labels, she says. “everything changed.” She feels hip-hop performers “lost their artistic freedom and that almost punk aesthetic of making it up as you go along because you don’t really know what you’re doing. They were just experimenting. That’s why it was so fresh.” She expected hip-hop would run its course the way punk did. She never imagined it a world-wide phenomenon decades later.
“In the ’90s with Biggie and people like that it got massive. People are rapping in Africa and Australia. Breakancing is bigger than ever now..”
While capturing its roots she didn’t consider hip-hop’s influence then. “I was just in it doing it. I was just riding the wave.”
Portraying folks as she finds them has found her work deemed “too raw, too real, too rough” for high style mags that prefer photo-shopped perfection. “I don’t really believe in stereotypes and I don’t believe in ideals of beauty.” She’s even had editors-publishers complain her work contains too many black people.
Go Hard Boyz biker club pic, ©Janette Beckman
Beckman’s surprised by Omaha’s diversity and intrigued by its contradictions. She’s shot North O barbershops, the downtown Labor Day parade, her first powwow, skateboarders doing tricks at an abandoned building and a South Omaha mural. She’s looking forward to taking pics at a rodeo and ranch.
She came for a site visit in July with one vision in mind and quickly had to shift gears when she began her residency in August.
“I wanted to photograph people on the street in North Omaha and I found there’s nobody on the street, so I had to try to wiggle into the community.”
Her curiosity, chattiness and British accent have given her access to events like the Heavy Rotation black biker club’s annual picnic at Benson Park. That group reminded her of the Ride Hard Boyz she shot last summer in New York.
“I was riding in the flatbed of an F-150 truck driven by one of the guys down this expressway with bikers doing wheelies alongside, All totally illegal. It was the most exciting thing I’ve done in years. Although it’s rebel in a way, the club keeps kids off the street and out of drugs and gangs. They’re the greatest guys – like a big family.”
The end of Sept. she returns to the NewYork “bubble.” An exhibit of her photos that leading artists painted on, JB Mashup, may go to Paris. She’s photographing a saxophonist. Otherwise, she’s taking things as they come.
“I try not to make too many plans because they tend to get diverted.”
Rebel Culture runs through Nov. 29.
View her Omaha and archived work at http://janettebeckman.com/blog.
Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area
The following cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a group of artists looking to take things to the next level at the Carver Bank cultural center and residency program in North Omaha has received some nice buzz. The four artists couldn’t be more different from each other. Each is doing his or her own thing and having success with it but they themselves and others feel there’s room for them to grow and to make an even bigger splash. It will be interesting to observe what they do individually and collectively from this point forward.
The inaugural resident artists at the Carver Bank cultural center couldn’t be more unalike in some ways and more congruent in others.
Carver is the new Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and Rebuild Foundation endeavor at 2416 Lake Street that houses a Big Mama‘s Sandwich Shop, a gallery- performance space and artist studios. Artist and urban planner Theaster Gates of Chicago is the facilitator-instigator of the project. Caver is one of several projects he’s done through his Rebuild Foundation that repurposes abandoned structures in inner cities to house art-culture activities that engage with community.
Each Omaha native participant was selected in line with Carver’s mission of providing work spaces and showcase opportunities for underserved artists of color whose creativity deserves wider support and recognition
The artists cut across a wide range of disciplines and starting with the Carver’s March 29 grand opening they’ve been displaying their respective chops in performances, readings, exhibitions.
Program director Jessica Scheuerman says the artists “care deeply about the cultural resurgence of the Near North Side,” adding, “In addition to their individual practices, they have quickly taken to the role of host and are developing public programming that will enrich the space throughout the year and expand the roster of artists presented in the space.”
Shannon Marie is a 20-something hip hop and R&B artist. The single mom works full time to support her dream of making it big out of her hometown.
Dereck Higgins, 58, is a pioneer of the Omaha alternative music scene as a bass player, drummer and arranger. This champion of psychedelia recently left his career as a licensed mental health professional to devote all his energies to his art.
Bart Vargas, the lone visual artist of the group, is a 40-year-old art educator and creator of salvage-based paintings and sculptures.
Portia Vivienne Love, 56, is a sometime singer and full-time poet and writing workshop presenter now also penning murder mystery short stories and novels.
Three of the four have close ties to the symbolically potent 24th and Lake area. Once the commercial-entertainment hub of the local African American community, its live music scene used to draw national artists. Love’s late father, saxophonist Preston Love Sr., cultivated his music passion there as a fan and player. The catty-cornered Loves Jazz & Arts Center is named after him. Higgins’ late father, James “Red” Higgins, was a contemporary of Love’s and also haunted the Deuce Four.
Marie, who’s real name is Ennis, grew up a few blocks from Carver. She’s adamant about developing a national name for her writing and singing.
“I’m definitely confident about it,” says Marie, who’s produced several mix tapes. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s where you want to go. I can make it happen.”
If it doesn’t happen here she may leave to try her hand elsewhere, though she admits she needs more polish.
“I feel like I need to be more prepared before I step out with the big dogs.”
She got serious about rapping as a junior at Benson High School. Her early professional forays taught her lessons about not selling out.
“I would contact promoters and they’d just kind of brush me off like, ‘Who is this chick?’ Now when they have something going on I’m one of the first people they contact. I’ve gained their respect. They’ve seen the growth and they know I have people backing me.”
Her YouTube videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. Her Omaha fan following is such she gets recognized most everywhere she goes.
Gone are the days when promoters tried extracting sexual favors from an aspiring newbie. “It’s a male-dominated industry and sometimes guys look at females like a piece of meat. You have to be confident to let people know, Hey, you cant treat me like this. Now they’re like, ‘She’s just about her business. She’s not about sleeping her way to the top.’
“I kind of had to learn the hard way in some cases. I still have to learn a few things.
But it’s a lot better now than me being naive and saying, ‘OK, let’s just do music.’ All that glitters isn’t gold.”
A dispute with a local record label resulted in some of her original music being withheld from her. She’s moved on.
She plans a Carver event featuring herself and other empowered women who’ve overcome obstacles. She’s also planning a listening party for her new work.
“Now I’m here, I’ve got my opportunity, everything is still possible.”
Working alongside fellow residents who are “so different,” she says, “is going to be interesting.” She adds, “We really do vibe together. There’s going to be positive stuff going on. I want to support everybody and I want them to support me, too.”
She feels the love from friends, family and fans. “Everyone is excited for me.” She terms the multicultural turnout for Carver’s grand opening “a beautiful thing” and encourages all of Omaha to support its programs. “It’s for everybody.”
She’s eager to add to the area’s rich music legacy, saying, “Now it’s our time.”
Dereck Higgins is intent on opening the Carver to a broad range of artists and audiences.
“It only makes sense that if Im going to be down here I try to get some of the people that work with me everywhere else to work with me down here,” says Higgins, who jams with Nik Fackler as part of InDreama. Higgins is presenting a Night of Sound Exploration with saxophonist and electronic musician Curt Oren from 7 to 9 p.m. on June 7.
Higgins, who has his own DVH Records label and an extensive vinyl collection, makes trippy music that draws on traditional instruments as well as a panoply of electronic and ambient sounds.
“It’s personal, that’s ultimately what it is,” he says, “and that’s probably why I’m not more commercially along the way because I don’t know what genre to be in and I’m not interested in it and I don’t like it. When people say to me, ‘I don’t know what you are,’ that’s a great compliment and I want to stay there.”
Since walking off his 30-year job at Community Alliance in 2012 he’s made music his number one priority.
“I’ve always been a real artist-musician but a hobbyist. Making the break from the job and now doing this Carver thing is really allowing me to embrace truly, fully the role of artist-musician. I’m very thankful. This is a luxury. I can come down here and I can work, experimenting with music and sound ideas at my makeshift little audio studio. I’m already working on my next album.”
He creates the collage artwork that adorns his album covers.
“I’m broker now than I’ve ever been as an adult but I’m happier,” says Higgins, who along with his fellow artist residents receives a $500 a month stipend.
It’s no coincidence that Bart Vargas, the lone Carver resident artist who’s not African American, though his dreadlocks often prompt people to assume he is, makes art from salvaged materials. Just when it looked like his life was a thrown-away bust, he found salvation.
Growing up in a chaotic home with a mentally ill mother and alcoholic father Vargas sought refuge in art. “I escaped through drawing,” he says. “Drawing was a way to have control over something and make believe and go other places. When I was 16 I was young, angry and confused and this other family saw the situation and offered me a safe place and took me in. So I have my biological family and what I consider my real family – the family I associate with all these years later.”
Vargas, a Nebraska Air National Guard veteran, feels his salvage art parallels the Carver project and its adaptive reuse of the long abandoned Carver Savings & Loan building and plans to revitalize other long vacant North Omaha properties.
“Everything has a potential. The only place trash is made is in our head…when we decide something no longer has value.”
Bemis chief curator Hesse McGraw says the hope is that by nurturing artists Carver “can generate some cultural heat and create a magnetic lure in North Omaha.” Another hope, he adds, is for their work “to have an impact on public perception of the neighborhood. Imagine when the Near North Side is again known as a place that artists live and work, and where we all can be part of that resurgence.”
A self-described “mixed blood” who’s white and Mexican and not sure what else, Vargas used some of his Carver money to take DNA tests to determine his ethnicity.
“I’ve thought about doing this identity painting after finding out what my genetic markers say I am.”
Or he might adapt a painted words series he began s few years ago to express musings about “my American muttness.”
The University of Nebraska at Omaha and Metropolitan Community college art instructor says he’s already made word paintings “specific to this place or neighborhood,” adding, “I want this part of the city to become part of the work I do here. Before I even moved in I painted ‘Carver.’ My goal is to cover the walls in my little corner in Yeses. To have this wall of positivity. I want to start it out with really good energy.”
Portia Love understands why she’s identified with her father, whose band she sang with for several years, but music was his thing, not hers.
“The writing thing is mine,” says Love, who retreated into words and stories as an “introverted” adolescent and began winning recognition for her work at Marian High School.
She went on to work in and teach human services but always wrote on the side. As a veteran artist with Why Arts she conducts writing workshops for people with disabilities. She also holds workshops through the Bemis.
She’s self-published two books of poems, Eclipses of the Sun and Redefinition. She creates poems by commission for clients, placing her original works in designer boxes, frames and photo albums.
WriteLife is publishing her debut novel, The Men’s Club, as well as a book of short stories, High Heel Shoes, Bright Red Lipstick and Strange Love.
Carver appeals to her for practical reasons.
“I went after it for the working space and the recognition. I’m real if nothing else. I tear my house up doing this stuff. Now I have a studio to work out of. This is my time for me and my writing. This is an opportunity that I hope is going to put me to another level. i hate anybody trying to put limitations on me and what I do.”
Moving artists along is part of the idea.
“We hope this opportunity provides a crucial jump for the residents and that they are able to move their artistic practices to new levels,” says McGraw.
Love says Carver’s location is “significant,” adding, “The whole thing is significant. I love that Hesse (McGraw) said the Bemis cannot be this white organization that ignores the fact there are people of color in this city with talent. And yes this is the perfect place for it, 24th and Lake. I think about my dad and how much he would have loved coming through here wearing the hell out of everybody. I think he would be so overjoyed to see me excelling at something that was not his.”
Love’s hosting a poetry reading from 3 to 6 p.m. on May 25. She’s invited her fellow resident artists to add their distinct flavors.
Carver events are free and open to the public.
For Carver updates visit carverbank(at)bemiscenter.org.
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Omaha Legends: Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame Inductees Cut Across a Wide Swath of Endeavors
Every city of any size has its movers and shakers and star performers in the world of commerce. One function of a chamber of commerce is to recognize its local impact players. It’s no different in my city, Omaha, or with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, which has a Business Hall of Fame for just this purpose. The following story, to appear in the April issue of Metro Magazine, provides mini-profiles of the latest crop of hall inductees, whose diverse cross-section of endeavors proves there are all manner of ways to make a difference in the commerce of a city. Most of those being honored are not well known outside of Omaha, but both couples being inducted this year are: Paul and Lori Hogan have created a mega national and international business in their heavily franchised Home Instead Senior Care, complete with a line of books and videos, all of which taken together have helped them nearly corner the market on nonmedical home services for seniors; Jun and Ree Kaneko are, outside of Warren Buffett and Alexander Payne, Omaha’s superstar residents for his much-in-demand sculpture and opera design work and for her artist residency administration expertise and, as a couple, for their much admired community art and creativity projects, including the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and the KANEKO Open Space for Your Mind complex.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in Metro Magazine
The latest Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame inductees include a publisher, a PR maven, a businessman-turned-politician, two couples following their passion and “a cotton-picker from Texas” who turned sundries into gold. An April 24 Holland Performing Arts Center gala honors these legends.
Bob Hoig was bumming around New York City when he wound up in the Daily News building. He had no intention of being a journalist, but he needed a job, so he applied. The next thing he knew he was a copy boy. Thus began a 56-year and counting journalism career that’s wend its way from New York to Miami to Nebraska, where the Kansas-Colorado native had roots.
After reporting stints with United Press International and the Omaha World-Herald and editing the Douglas County Gazette, he formed the Midlands Business Journal in 1975 with Rapid Printing owner Zane Randall.
“I felt this market needed a niche paper that looked into small business success stories. That’s something nobody was doing at the time. All this came in the face of many prophecies of doom,” says Hoig, who went solo when Randall bowed out.
Hoig had confidence in his own abilities. “I’ve always been a good salesman and I think I’m a good enough writer and editor that I had the components you need to start a successful paper,” he says. Besides, he knows how to balance a ledger.
The veteran publisher has had hit and miss publications and he’s always learned from his successes and failures.
Satisfaction, he says, comes from “producing a good product that will survive, employ people and not be a burden on anyone,” adding. “I find this work very ennobling because it keeps me alive, involved and thinking.”
When Linda Lovgren left an ad agency to launch her own Lovgren Marketing Group in 1978 she says, “It never occurred to me I could fail. I just kind of looked at it as this is the next step in what I’m going to do, and if it works out that is spectacular, and if it doesn’t there will be another door opening.”
Going in business for herself, she says, was “a defining moment. It takes time to grow a business, to grow relationships, and one connection leads to another connection. It’s this large linkage you begin to build.”
With few women entrepreneurs around, her mentors were all men, among them then-Chamber president Bob Bell. She went on to be the Chamber’s first female president in 2003. She advises aspiring entrepreneurs find the right balance between work and family, just as she did as a new wife and mother.
The Iowa native’s long given back to her adopted Nebraska, volunteering with the State Fair board, Nebraska Kidney Foundation, Mid-America Boy Scouts of America and Habitat for Humanity,
She says she derives satisfaction from meeting the needs of clients, staff and family and “knowing you have accomplished something that has made a difference for all of those people.”
Heeding his older brother’s advice, Mike Fahey made “the most important” decision of his life when he moved here in 1971 to complete his education at Creighton University. It set him on a path to become an entrepreneur and two-term Mayor.
“It taught me you should never stop trying to improve yourself,” he says.
His next turning point was starting his own business, Land Title Company. “That certainly changed my entire life. It put me on the road to success. No longer was I working for a paycheck per se, I was really trying to build a business. There’s a lot of risk in that but I had confidence in my abilities. It taught me right away you’re only as strong as the people you have around you and I was very fortunate to get myself surrounded by some really good people.”
He regards growing his business his biggest success. “It brought me the greatest joy and with that it brought success. Creating jobs for other people was very rewarding as well.”
He says he applied a maxim from business to the mayor’s office: “Surround yourself with smart people, give them all the authority they need to do their jobs, and then hold them accountable for their outcomes. You get better results.”
He’s proud to have moved Omaha forward with signature projects like the CenturyLink Center and Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. Today he chairs the Omaha Community Foundation and sits on several boards. “Community service is a great way to pay back a city that’s been extremely good to me and my family,”
Paul and Lori Hogan
A confluence of events led Paul and Lori Hogan to conceive Home Instead Senior Care. As he learned the franchise model working for Merry Maids he noticed his failing grandmother rebound with the help of family caregivers.
“I saw that you didn’t have to be doctor or a nurse to really have a huge impact on someone’s health, particularly a senior,” says Paul. “That experience helped me see the opportunity that existed. Back when we started there were just two options for seniors needing support, a nursing home or your daughter’s home. Now there’s a whole proliferation of options. We’re one of them. Preparation and opportunity met, and we took the risk.”
Lori says having a passion for what they consider their mission is part of their success. Another is filling “a real need” among seniors. Quality caregivers and franchisees are critical, too.
Paul credits mentors Tom Guy and Dallen Peterson of Merry Maids with helping make Home Instead a reality. But
The company’s success has allowed the Hogans to pay forward their good fortune through the Home Instead Senior Care Foundation, the Center for Successful Aging and various resources for family caregivers. “When you are given much, much is expected,” says Lori, “and we really feel it is important to give back to our community and we’re so grateful we’re able to do that.”
Jun and Ree Kaneko
The former Ree Schonlau was an Old Market pioneer when artist Jun Kaneko came at her invitation. Among the few who saw potential for the old wholesale produce district, she established the Craftsmen Guild and Alternative Worksite, Artist-in-Industry Program. Jun shared her vision and the couple formed the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, whose artist residency program is world-renowned.
More recently they opened KANEKO, a complex of creativity spaces.
Together, they’ve helped grow and put the Omaha arts community on the map. She’s one of America’s leading art residency advocates and experts. He found a nurturing place for his art in Omaha, where he’s developed his studio. Omaha is where he first made his popular dangos and began designing for operas.
They appreciate this community making their endeavors possible. “We’ve had patrons who are very inspiring and supportive, that believe in us and stand behind what we’re trying to do even though they know it’s a tough row and maybe a little avant garde,” she says. “Jun feels extremely fortunate, as I do, to be able to have realized those dreams here.”
She says there’s also pride in being recognized “as catalysts” for attracting commerce and attention to Omaha and for spurring the dynamic cultural renaissance the city’s enjoying. “Any mature city’s going to have the arts involved in it and now we have enough. I’m really pleased to see what’s happening. The cultural in-fill has finally caught up with those of us who were out here hanging on.”
Their multi-phase KANEKO project is a gift. Says Jun, “I always wanted to return something to this country. Lots of people helped me to be what I am now, so I feel I need to contribute something back. The best thing we know is creative activity” and thus their “open space for the mind.” He expects the organization and its mission “will keep progressing.”
The son of a Texas migrant worker, D.J. Witherspoon was a teacher and coach in the Longhorn State before moving to Omaha in the Dust Bowl years and founding Gibson Products Company with his father-in-law. Witherspoon’s purchase of Marks Distributing Company introduced him to his future business partner, Nebraska native Lee Wegener, and together the two men formed Pamida, a chain of discount general merchandise stores serving rural America.
Pamida was a play on his three sons names: Patrick, Michael and David.
The company’s strategic expansion went viral in the 1960s and ’70s. Witherspoon, the cotton-picker from Texas, and Wegener, the corn-picker from Nebraska, followed a proven formula of acquiring existing businesses in underserved locales and converting them into Pamida stores. Known as an inspirational leader, Witherspoon engendered loyalty among his employees, many from rural backgrounds like his own.
Witherspoon, the company’s majority stock holder, sold Pamida to its workers through an employee stock option plan in 1981. He retired as chairman and enjoyed a life of conspicuous consumption and philanthropy.
Reservations for the 6 p.m. gala dinner and 7:30 p.m. induction ceremony are due April 17 by registering online at OmahaChamber.org/HOF.
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Legacy is a powerful thing, and when the shadow cast by a an older, highly accomplished figure looms large it can be a paralyzing specter of expectation to live up to for a young person following in those footsteps. In the case of the late celebrated realist figurative artist Kent Bellows, his larger-than-life presence in life and in death has not stymied the emergence of his talented nephew, Neil Griess, who is very much charting his own path as an artist to be watched. The following piece I did on Griess for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared three years ago, fast on the heels of Griess, then a high school senior, winning the same national award his uncle Kent Bellows had won 40 years earlier. Now, Griess is a college senior at the University of Nebraska, where he’s a studio art major, and is once again making waves with his work. Griess, who like his uncle did creates elaborate sets for his hyper-realistic paintings, had a work selected for a show at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha in early 2011 and another of his works has been selected for a new show, The Fascinators, the inaugural Charlotte Street Biennial of Regional BFA/MFA Candidates at La Esquina in Kansas City, Mo. You can read a short piece I did about Neil’s famous uncle, Kent Bellows, on this blog.
©Neil Griess, “Site Measure” (2010), oil on panel
A Young Artist Steps Out of the Shadows of a Towering Presence in His Life
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If 18-year-old award-winning visual artist Neil Griess of Omaha feels pressure to live up to the legacy of his maternal uncle Kent Bellows, he doesn’t betray it. Work by Bellows, the late American master of figurative realism, is in major private/public art collections. We’re talking the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.
In 2005 Bellows died at age 56 of natural causes in his Leavenworth Street studio/home, now preserved by the Bellows Foundation as an education center. The Omaha iconoclast was a player in New York art circles via his association with the Tatistcheff and Forum galleries. His paintings/drawings sold out wherever they exhibited. Interest in his work continues high.
A May Westside High School grad, Griess has far to go to reach such status, but perhaps not as far as you’d think. With his parents Jim and Robin Griess and his Westside art teacher Shawn Blevins on hand at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on June 15, Griess accepted the Portfolio Gold Honor in the national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which included a $10,000 cash prize. Griess, one of 12 Portfolio Gold winners from around the nation, trod onto the hallowed stage to accept the award. The presenter draped a large gold medal over him as the full, black tie-attired house applauded.
Forty years earlier Bellows won in the same competition. Other name artists have won, too, including Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol. The recognition brought Bellows scholarship opportunities at prestigious art schools. Griess too has been deluged with offers. Bellows studied at then-Omaha University. Starting in the fall, Griess will study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln under realist painter Keith Jacobshagen, a friend of Bellows.
What makes the prospect of Griess’s future development alluring is that he works in the same style as Bellows did — meticulous realism. Their dense work renders persons, objects, settings in such rigorous detail that it draws viewers into an infinite space invested with meaning. With almost any Bellows, Griess said, “it feels like you can get lost in it.” Even up close, he said, “you can’t really derive how he did it.” The technique and the process are as invisible and ineffable as Bellows was enigmatic.
Griess said he’s always been drawn to realism. “Yeah, I always thought realistic work is the direction I would want to go if I continued art,” he said. He can’t exactly pinpoint why. “I don’t know. It’s interesting,” he said, “because you’re not trying to reproduce this object or this person…but more capturing it, I suppose, in a specific moment, a specific point in time.” Or as Bellows once put it in an interview, the goal is to capture what’s beyond the photograph to “what is actually happening…to capture the subject’s soul…the subject’s inner life.”
“And that’s something I wanted to try to do with the eight paintings for my portfolio,” Griess said. “I think if something’s rendered so fully and to its ultimate height, it feels like you can enter the work and like feel that draped cloth in a piece,” he said, referring to a Bellows print on the wall of his home, the image’s tactile realism begging to be touched.
©Neil Griess, “Placemats” (Charrette), 2011, courtest newsroom.unl.edu
Naturally, Griess aspires to reach the mastery of Bellows, but by no means does he intend to be an imitator.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve tried to emulate him, although in certain instances I was when I was like really young, drawing based off some of the nudes he had done,” a smiling, nearly blushing Griess said, wiping his soft brown bangs from his face.
He’d especially like for his work to attain the openendedness that Bellows captured. In a Bellows work no single prescribed meaning is imposed on the viewer; rather the image invites viewers to glean their own meanings.
“That’s a quality I want to develop myself,” Griess said.
The process Griess uses to create his own work, much of it completed in a small, well-lit downstairs home work space he calls “thrown together” but that is neatly arrayed with brushes, pencils, acrylic paint tubes, is in the vein of photo-realism. He first photographs his subjects and with the resulting image as a guide he uses a pencil to map out the canvas before painting.
“I always paint based off pictures (photographs),” Griess said. “I grid everything out. I take that approach. Laying out a painting you still need to draw. It’s an important skill for getting things right when you finally start painting.”
The artist applies a clear plastic grid over a printed out photo of his subject and with a pencil divides the surface into squares running the length and width of the image. He transfers his grid to a board, which is what he paints on these days. He begins by drawing the major shapes or forms contained in each square onto the board before applying brush to paint and brush strokes to board.
“I pretty much just figure out where one square in the picture would be on the board and then from that one square I go to the next one” and so on, he said. “I add the smaller details later.”
Griess shares many predilections his late uncle indulged, including a love of film, a fascination with the fantastic, a passion for creating elaborate sets or backdrops for his work, although to date Griess has only employed sets to stop motion animation, and an interest in action figures and miniatures. Then there’s the fact Griess is left-handed, just as Bellows was.
“A lot of things line up like that,” Griess said. “Because I know he’s done all this great work it’s kind of like me now trying to discover what things I’m interested in beyond his work…to decide what I’ll ultimately be doing in my art. Of course this is an influence I’ll always keep while doing it.”
©Neil Griess, “Untitled” oil painting
The art strain runs deep, as Griess’s maternal grandfather was a commercial artist and watercolorist, his mother is a watercolorist, one brother is a ceramicist/sculptor and another brother writes computer video game programs. “So I come from a long lineage of artists or creative thinkers,” Griess said.
Growing up, Griess was exposed to dozens of Bellows prints that adorn the walls of the family home. One of the nephew’s favorites, Nuclear Winter, is displayed in his bedroom. He felt drawn to Bellows as any adolescent would to a cool adult doing his own thing. “I admired him so much. He was probably the most charismatic, funny, interesting person that I know or probably will know,” Griess said.
The parallels between the two were obvious two weekends ago in New York City. It was the kid’s first time in the Big Apple, where in a whirlwind few days his path intersected with the path Bellows took in setting the art world on fire.
Just as Bellows attracted notice beyond his years, once cultivating Warren Buffett and his late first wife Susan Buffett as patrons, Griess, too, found himself the center of attention from older admirers at a post-awards dinner. The scene was the ritzy Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. There were congratulations, even autograph requests. “I got some very great compliments,” Griess said. Among the well-wishers was New York thespian Jason Butler Harner, who hosted the awards.
“He seemed very enthusiastic and impressed by my work, so that was great,” Griess said of Harner. “One of the guys that asked for my autograph said everyone was kind of talking about my work specifically, and that was nice. One woman actually came up to me and said my work brought tears to her eyes because of how young I am and I’m able to produce work like that.”
The plaudits began the night before, at Reeves Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, where selections of work by Griess and other Portfolio gold winners were shown. It was then, Griess said, that Alliance for Young Artists & Writers Chairman Dwight E. Lee “told me how much he loved my work.” At dinner the next night, Griess said, “he gave me his card and said if I should ever want to sell art work I should contact him.” Westside teachers and others have expressed interest in buying Neil’s work.
“I’m actually selling paintings this summer,” Griess said. “I’ve sold one already, so I’m starting to learn how it feels to part with something.”
As if that wasn’t enough, the June 14 issue of USA Today reproduced one of his paintings to illustrate a Life Section story on the awards. “The one picture they chose was mine — my painting Pool Boy,” Griess said. “That was a really nice surprise. My dad ran up and down the floors in the hotel acquiring more” copies.
Pool Boy is one of many self-portraits and portraits Griess has executed. Portraiture was a favorite form for Bellows as well. One difference is that while Bellows was known for a dark, brooding nature that made him look severe if not downright scary, Griess has a sweet face and demeanor. That’s not to say there wasn’t whimsy in Bellows or his work or that Griess and his art is all peaches and cream.
The award, the praise, the contacts, Griess said, “are obviously great exposure for me and a great thing I can put on the resume. I would say it’s probably the best recognition I could have received operating within a high school.”
Griess submitted eight works to the Scholastic competition but gave little thought to winning, as he photographed his entrees himself and the images he submitted were less than flattering to the works themselves.
“Because of the fact I did not have great pictures of these paintings I submitted, I kind of dismissed the idea that anything would happen with this,” he said. “But then I got the call (saying he’d won) and I couldn’t really believe it for a good amount of time. I was basically sitting at home on a Friday night when I got this call out of the blue. I was pretty unprepared…Surprisingly. I think I handled it well, although afterwards I was like shaking in disbelief for 15 minutes.”
The artist created his winning series for Westside’s Advanced Portfolio class, which he said allows student artists rare autonomy in finding their vision-voice.
“Not many high school classes give you that much freedom in developing your own line of thinking for a series of paintings…I think it kind of helped me develop my own thinking for how I want to approach my art,” he said. “In the typical class you kind of just think in terms of the assignment and what they’re expecting you to see as the outcome, not how you would best display your own ideas or get your own point across.”
Griess hit upon the theme of high contrast at night, playing with different light sources. Some of the inspiration for what’s depicted in the work, he said, comes from Russian fairy tales — “I’ve always been interested in fairy tales” — and some of it comes from what was going on in his life at the time. His girlfriend, Erica, a film studies major at Northwestern University, is the subject of more than one work. She’s a casual portrait study in a piece called “Home Again” and her absence informs another piece in which an anxious Griess cowers on his front porch, alone at night, a doll seen inside a window providing no solace.
“With some of my paintings I first kind of get like this mental image and then when I’m painting it, even weeks after, I start to think about why I needed to do that or what was the significance of it,” he said.
©Kent Bellows’s self-portraits
Just as Bellows sought out great art in his travels, Griess spent his weekend in New York soaking up treasures at the Met. He and his folks also made special visits there and to the Forum gallery to see Bellows’ work in each venue. The splendor of it all, Griess said, “made me want to go back home and start working again.”
Griess didn’t need all the hype to feel an artistic kinship to his uncle. He just wished Bellows could have been there. “I was probably more wishing he could have been involved in this with me and seen the work I did to win this award,” he said. He regrets too never discussing their shared sweet affliction. “I was a shy kid and probably still am. I wouldn’t have necessarily been ready to talk with him about art or these other interests we shared,” Griess said. “Now I would say I would definitely be ready to talk to him about things.”
It’s probably unfair to say Griess lived in the shadow of Bellows, but Bellows was a giant among artists and a looming presence in the life of the the sensitive young artist-nephew. A legacy he could not escape. Griess wasn’t necessarily a slacker before Bellows’ death, but then again he acknowledges he didn’t exactly apply himself to his art. When Bellows passed, Griess suddenly got busy, approaching his own art with a greater sense of urgency.
“After his death is when I really started to get serious about drawing and painting and that’s when I started to do better things and win awards,” Griess said. “I realized he would no longer be there to kind of give me advice or look at what I’m doing, so in some strange way that pushed me, It was kind of a way to deal with it. I mean, also I realized I need to be doing this for myself, too.”
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I was asked by Metro Magazine to write a 20-year retrospective piece on the Omaha arts-culture scene and the story that follows is the result. The story is my take and the take of a few others on the city’s creative community, which by almost any measure has experienced a maturation and flat-out growth that has drawn attention near and far, including a widely read and circulated piece (“Omaha Culture Club”) by Kurt Andersen in the New York Times a few years ago. Yeah, Omaha has indeed grown up a lot in the space of a generation and today is much more the cosmopolitan metropolis of its aspirations than it was 20 years ago. I anticipate that growth to continue too. Omaha is still a city without much of an image outside Nebraska, particularly on the coasts, but it is increasingly getting known for its sophisticated, even world-class arts-cultural offerings among the cognoscente. If you’re still doubtful and skeptical about that, then simply check out some websites devoted to Omaha or better yet the next time you’re traveling cross country don’t simply fly over or drive over without giving the place a second thought, stop here and stay awhile and see for yourself just what Omaha has to offer.
Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)
Twenty years ago Omahans grumbled about there not being enough to do here. For a city searching for an image in a flyover state straining to retain its best and brightest and attract new talent, it sounded an alarm.
Seemingly, Omaha arts-culture plateaued. Major players retrenched while smaller, newer ones tried finding their way. It appeared Omaha collectively lacked the vision or confidence to enhance its horizons. The status quo went stale.
Then, whether by design or coincidence, Omaha enjoyed a renaissance in the space of a single generation. This flowering shows no signs of slowing down.
“Over the last 20 years Omaha has grown up a lot and the arts have grown up with it,” said Todd Simon, an Omaha Steaks International executive and a major arts funder. “There’s certainly a lot more variety and a lot more choices for our community. Any night of the week you can open up the newspaper or go on the Web and you can find something of interest to you. Whether it’s music, art, film, live theater, there is something for everyone every night of the week in Omaha now.
“If you’re bored here it’s because you’re not breathing. If you can’t find something to do in Omaha right now, shame on you.”
Saddle Creek Records executive Jason Kulbel was among those bemoaning the lack of options. No more.
“Simply put, there’s more to do now,” he said. “There’s so many different things to pick and choose from. Whatever interests you, whatever your thing is, it’s here now. It’s really cool.”
He champions the live indie music scene now having more venues and he embraces the festivals that have cropped up, from MAHA to Playing with Fire to the newly announced Red Sky Music Festival.
Kulbel and SCR colleague Robb Nansel have added to the mix with their block-long North Downtown complex. It includes their company headquarters, the Slowdown bar-live music showplace and the Film Streams art cinema. Together with the new TD Ameritrade ballpark, Qwest Center Omaha, the Hot Shops Art Center and the Mastercraft art studios, anchors are in place for a dynamic arts-culture magnet akin to the Old Market.
From the opening of the downtown riverfront as a scenic cultural public space to the addition of major new venues like the Qwest and the Holland Performing Arts Center to the launching of new music, film and lit feasts to the opening of new presenting organizations, Omaha’s experienced a boon. Major concerts, athletic events and exhibits that bypassed Omaha now come here.
Artists like world-renowned Jun Kaneko put Omaha on the map as never before. The indie music scene broke big thanks to artists recording on the Saddle Creek label. Alexander Payne immortalized his hometown by filming three critically acclaimed feature films here. The Great Plains Theatre Conference brought Broadway luminaries in force.
The Old Market solidified itself as a destination thanks to an array of restaurants, shops, galleries, theaters and creative spaces. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the Blue Barn Theatre and the Omaha Farmers Market became anchors there. Omaha Fashion Week and the Kaneko added new depth.
Omaha Performing Arts president Joan Squires said she’s seen “a huge change” since arriving eight-plus years ago from Phoenix to head the organization, which programs the Holland and the Orpheum Theater.
“The first time I drove in from the airport the Qwest Center didn’t exist, the Holland wasn’t here, a lot of the small groups weren’t around. If you were looking for things to do and it wasn’t the Orpheum or a few other places, it was limited. Now on any given night the breadth of what you can do is exciting. There’s a synergy about it that’s reaching all segments of the audience.”
Omaha native Rachel Jacobson left New York to launch Film Streams, one of several attractions that’s taken things to a new level.
Growing up here, she said, “there was a lot of good stuff to do but nothing really bringing people to town or being talked about in the national and international press, other than Chip Davis. Today, the Omaha arts community is strong, it’s alive, it’s visceral, it’s something we’re known for worldwide. Musicians continue to move here from other cities to make their home here because of Saddle Creek Records. Visual artists move here because of the Bemis and Jun and Ree Kaneko. New galleries are opening up all the time.
“It has really blown up in the best way.”
Established organizations have shown new life. Joslyn Art Museum built a huge addition designed by noted architect Sir Norman Foster. It’s since added a pair of sculpture gardens. The Durham Museum underwent a refurbishment and gained Smithsonian affiliation. The Omaha Children’s Museum found a new home and completed extensive renovations. The Omaha Community Playhouse redid its theater and lobby spaces. The Henry Doorly Zoo built the Lied Jungle, the Desert Dome, the Lozier IMAX Theater and other new attractions.
The Bemis expanded its gallery exhibition schedule and educational programming as well as added the Underground and the Okada. Now it’s poised for new growth.
Old venues received serious makeovers. An Orpheum renovation allowed the largest touring Broadway shows to come. The city spent millions in renovating Rosenblatt Stadium, in turn helping it become a national icon.
Existing organizations found new digs.The Omaha Symphony made the Holland its home. The Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater moved into the old Astro (Paramount) movie house, renamed The Rose, and became the Omaha Theater Company.
Popular events drew ever larger crowds, such as Jazz on the Green, the Cathedral Flower Festival, the Summer Arts Festival and the CWS.
Even with all the new options, it didn’t appear as if Omaha reached a saturation point. Using the Holland and Orpheum as examples, Joan Squires said the presence of these two venues has only increased patronage.
“When you open a major facility and you bring in new arts offerings the community continues to lift up,” she said. “It broadens and really makes more things possible. In the last five years we’ve reached 1.7 million people. We’ve seen nights where both buildings sold out and there’s a lot of arts going on at other facilities all at the same time, and there’s an audience for everybody.
“We’ve got a growing and thriving arts community. I think it’s very encouraging.”
Funder Dick Holland describes the arts as “an economic engine” and “a big part of the community.”
Great Plains Theatre Conference artistic director Kevin Lawler, a Blue Barn founder, has seen a more adventurous scene develop.
“There are several new generations of artists making work in all genres and receiving support and interest from their peers and others,” he said. “This heralds the beginning of a new, vibrant era for arts and culture here. That small group of philanthropic leaders who have been supporting the arts in Omaha for years have enabled enough fertilization for this new blossoming to begin.
“When we began the Blue Barn there were almost no theaters willing to take on new, challenging work as a regular part of their seasons. Now, there are a number of groups that follow this path.”
Lawler notes there “is a new generation of artists staying in Omaha to make work because they feel there is enough energy in the community to support and respond to their work. I feel this trend reflected not only in theater, but all the arts.
“There are stages to the cultural life of a city. Omaha is in a blossoming stage. It is a rare and exciting time to be here.”
The linchpin behind this growth is private support. “Omaha has an exceptionally generous philanthropic community that understands the value of investing in its cultural institutions,” said Bemis director Mark Masuoka, adding that funders here appreciate the fact the arts “improve quality of life.”
He said the Bemis is close to reaching its $2.5 million capital building campaign goal “thanks to several generous gifts from local foundations and individuals.”
What losses there were sparked new opportunities. After years of struggle the Great Plains Black History Museum rebounded. When Ballet Omaha folded Omaha Performing Arts brought in top dance troupes and Ballet Nebraska soon formed. The Omaha Magic Theatre closed only to birth new ventures. The Indian Hills Theater was razed but Omaha movie houses multiplied. The Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts arose after its namesake’s tragic death.
The recession impacted large and small organizations alike.
Todd Simon said, “Many not-for-profits have struggled and I think they’ll continue to struggle in these economic times, but I also think there is a dedicated group of supporters in our community who will step up to fill the gaps.” These lean times, he said, encouraged “many organizations to get smarter in how they use resources and how they collaborate with each other, where they leverage the talent and the resources they have. I think that trend will continue.”
Dick Holland said few cities can boast Omaha’s philanthropic might. He favors a public-private coalition to undergird and concentrate arts funding.
By any measure, it’s been an era of net growth for the creative community and leaders see more progress ahead thanks to a spirit of innovation and support.
“A strong legacy of investing in the arts here has been established and I believe it will continue to proliferate,” said Rachel Jacobson. “We’ll see new initiatives develop, especially arts in education and social-community development arts projects. There are a lot of high-energy, incredibly innovative people who have a huge heart for this city and will make a strong commitment.
“Just in the last month I’ve heard about wonderful projects in the works. I’m excited for the next 20 years.”
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I did this story a couple years ago for the Jewish Press about Rebecca Herskovitz and her work as education coordinator at the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts in Omaha. She’s no longer with that organization but she’s still very much a part of the Omaha art scene, and the studio center where she did work is in the news because it recently had its grand opening and because work by its namesake, the late great American realist visual artist, Kent Bellows, is featured in an exhibition this fall at the Joslyn Art Museum. Check out my other articles about Bellows, his legacy, and the studio center on this blog site.
Rebecca Herskovitz Forges an Art Family at Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
If the art world has missionaries than Rebecca Herskovitz has found her calling as an art educator helping young people explore their creative potential.
She doesn’t look much older than the kids she works with at the new Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts, 3303 Leavenworth St., where she’s education coordinator. She came to Omaha from San Francisco a year ago to fill the post and after months of planning she launched the center’s first after school classes in early September with 21 students.
Two 16-week semesters are offered per year.
The education program matches students from metro area high schools with professional working artists in classic apprentice-style mentoring relationships.
The center, whose classes are being held at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in the Old Market until the center’s permanent home undergoes renovation, is named after the late Omaha realist Kent Bellows. The noted Bellows, the subject of a future Joslyn Art Museum retrospective, was well-known for supporting young artists. His studio space on Leavenworth serves as the administrative base for the Kent Bellows Foundation and mentorship program.
Omaha native Anne Meysenburg, a University of Nebraska at Omaha grad, is executive director of the Bellows foundation and the Studio/Center for Visual Arts.
The studio where the iconoclastic Bellows lived and worked will eventually host classes and gallery shows once the interior is renovated. Largely preserved the way the artist left it, the studio will also be an archive for scholars. For now, field trips bring the kids on site to the Bellows space,. Everything from his eclectic personal belongings to elaborate backdrops he made to sayings he scribbled on walls adorn the converted storefront studio. It’s sacred ground for communion/inspiration.
“You feel like this is a place where something very special has been happening,” Herskovitz said there recently, “and to emulate that place of creativity and to be inhabiting it is absolutely contagious. It will be exciting to teach classes upstairs where those installations are and where the shrine that Kent made is. You can just feel it’s a place where magic was taking place. For kids to walk in there every day will be an enchanting thing. I’m very excited about that.”
Meanwhile, Miss Becca, as she calls herself, leads her young charges in the bowels of the Bemis building at 724 So. 10th St. The basement’s formerly blank walls and exposed pipes-vents have been transformed into dynamic spaces for hanging art made by students and their mentors. She encourages students to make the environment their own — a living, evolving expression of themselves.
“I want them to take ownership over those spaces and I believe in the art space becoming to a certain extent an art piece itself over time. You just want a space that feels alive.”
With just the right amount of evangelical zeal, Herskovitz is the Pied Piper for this new arts program whose mission is to live up to the standards of its legendary namesake and his fierce creative independence. An independent thinker herself, the Bellows position allows her to design programs from scratch that give students outside-the-box opportunities for artistic growth.
“I think I was ready to do something a little bit different — that allowed me to write my own curriculum,” said Herskovitz, who was teaching visual art at a special ed school in San Mateo, Calif. and making her own art before arriving in Omaha.
“When I’m making art and when I’m teaching it’s kind of the same feeling. It’s the feeling of when you have a calling — when everything else kind of fades away and you feel excited and don’t want to think about anything else, almost to the extent where you forget to think about other things and two hours pass and you realize you haven’t moved from the same position.”
Prior to San Francisco, the Newton, Mass. native taught art at a public high school (in Worcester) while earning her master’s in education. When she read about the Bellows opportunity she knew it was the right niche for her.
“I really gravitated towards the mission, which is so linked to creativity, and that really fit with my own teaching philosophy,” she said. “And then I just really loved the idea of a new arts organization just getting started. It’s a really special thing to be part of making a place that you would have wanted to be in when you were in high school. I wish there had been a program like this for students interested in the visual arts. And as a teacher I wish I had been in an area where there was a program like this for me to recommend my students to.”
She said breaking away from the prescribed confines of public school educational approaches is what the Bellows project is all about. It’s liberating for Herskovitz and her students to not be driven by the kind of test score mentality and conventional thinking that she said results in “very limiting” curriculum in the public schools. Instead of “putting up obstacles to people having innovative thought,” she said, the Bellows model Is “founded on the idea of finding and nurturing those individual creative sparks in young people.”
Unlike a public school setting, where she said kids are apt to “get lost” in large classes, the small Bellows program ensures “individual attention.” “The student-teacher ratio is extremely close and that’s vital. That’s what’s going to allow us to give something to different to kids than what they can normally receive.”
The task of selling this new program to high school art teachers, who’ve become her best recruiters, proved difficult at first. Herskovitz received few replies to an e-mail she sent teachers over the summer announcing the program. She finally got the captive audience she craved when invited to make a presentation to teachers during an OPS professional development day.
“It took a little while to explain what we’re doing and it took teachers a little while to realize this is something really new and really different,” she said.
Before long, she was invited to classrooms to make her pitch directly to students, who she said quickly recognized the program’s benefits. More than 50 applied. She was prepared to start the program with 12, but, she said, “we had so many fantastic applicants that we’re above and beyond that with 21 kids.” A whole new class was conceived to accommodate the larger than expected numbers.
As anticipated, a large number of students are from Omaha Central, whose downtown location is mere blocks from both the Bemis and the Bellows studio. Other schools represented include Bryan, Burke, Westside, Duchesne and Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln. She feels students will come from a wider geographic area once the program offers transportation.
A goal for a diverse student mix has been met.
“We wanted our program’s demographics to look like OPS’ demographics and we match up perfectly with that,” she said. “My vision of a really healthy classroom is one where there is a lot of heterogeneity of all things — in terms of learning styles, ethnicities, ages and the neighborhoods they come from.”
What does she look for in prospective students?
“We’re just looking for a creative energy and kind of a passion for trying new things and wanting to have a role in their own education. We’re not looking for past experience. We’re not looking for some particular skill-set.”
The selection process involves an essay and an interview. She makes a point of meeting applicants’ parents or guardians.
“I think parent support is a huge deal.”
She encourages parents to visit the site “to know where they’re kids are going to be hanging out.”
Herskovitz enjoys being on the ground floor of something different and she senses students and parents do, too.
“I think it’s a completely new take on arts education,” she said. “This is a place where you get to feel safe. This is your creative family, your artistic community. We’re continuing what Kent showed all of us — this very powerful form of teaching, which is the mentoring relationship. I hope our mentors push students to find their own footsteps.”
She believes the mentoring component is what distinguishes the Bellows program from other enrichment programs.
“It’s a program that takes place after school but it’s not a typical after school program,” she said. “Students are having the opportunity to work with professional artists in very close ratios one-on-one, where the emphasis in really on creative thinking and problem solving, and I think that focus is really different from a lot of other programs.
“I think the most powerful learning experiences happen when you’re able to have a mentor who stays with you and I think what allows teenagers to really open up is knowing that adult is going to be with them for as long as they want them to be. And our program is built so we can continue those relationships for as long as the student wants to be there participating in it.”
The art educator spent a fair share of her time in Omaha the past year steeping herself in the local art scene, casting her eye for potential mentors among the area’s deep pool of working artists. Her first crop of mentors represents a cross-section of Omaha’s best and brightest. There’s Mexico native Claudia Alvarez, a ceramicist, longtime art instructor and former Bemis resident artist. There’s Omaha native Bill Hoover, a painter, writer and musician who also works with kids at Liberty Elementary School. There’s Jeff King, a graffiti, street-inspired painter whose work incorporates text. King conducts art workshops with kids at Norris Junior High. And there’s painter Caolan O’Loughlin, an Irish emigre who’s done curatorial-consulting work for the Bellows and who has a teaching background.
Herskovitz completes the Bellows mentoring staff. Guest artists also make presentations-demonstrations. Bemis curator Hesse McGraw contributes to some classes. Herskovitz has students utilize the Bemis as a kind of living laboratory and resource center by studying-critiquing the art displayed in its galleries, poring over books in the well-stocked art library and visiting resident artists’ studios.
“The Bemis has been very generous,” she said in making its facilities available.
It may be a temporary home, but the Bemis couldn’t be a better fit. “It just matches up so well with our mission,” she said. “I can’t imagine a better set-up than to have art students immersed in a contemporary arts center where professional international artists are living and working.”
Even when the Bellows studio is in use she foresees the Bemis continuing to play a role in the program. It adds another layer of experience and can help the program accommodate more students in the future.
The historic Old Market and its rich social-cultural milieu becomes another venue for art stimuli. Mentors also bring students to their own studios and to the studios of other artists throughout the city and they make gallery visits together.
Herskovitz said she and her fellow mentors seek to deconstruct assumptions about education by finding teachable moments in all kinds of situations or settings.
“I think there’s a huge myth that you can’t teach art and I think it’s because of the way people think about teaching. They think of it as training or instilling this knowledge when really it’s more about facilitating thinking.”
What she’s in the process of trying to build is an environment where “young people become a learning community and bounce ideas off one another,” she said. “There’s a way to do that and with my curriculum that’s what we’re aiming to do. It’s structured within that to meet the individual needs of students.”
Sometimes, students work with mentors in workshop fashion on specific techniques or tasks, she said, and other times they break off to work on their own individual projects. Teachers move around the room, sharing observations and comments with students. Whenever possible, students interact with one another.
“Equal to what you see is what I hope you feel — that this is a place where these students feel really comfortable and can be themselves,” she said. “My goal is to create an art learning family. This is their chance, if they want to be someone different than they are in school, to be different when they’re here. If they need a different type of learning environment I hope this can provide that for them.”
She’s devised a sequence of programs/classes to engage students of varying abilities and interests.
“The artist-in-residence program is for older kids who are more advanced and are really ready to have more independent studio time and to meet one-on-one with a professional mentor. The studio thesis class is meant for 9th and 10th graders who feel themselves being pulled by the arts and are still kind of finding their voice. That’s more of a small group setting where kids can talk to each other and mentor each other along with the teacher.”
The gallery internship program provides students opportunities for organizing-curating-marketing student-mentor exhibitions. The program’s first exhibit, Versa Vice: Reflections of an Underground Society, opens Friday, Dec. 19 at the Bemis Underground. This showcase will reflect the work students have been making in class and the collaborative projects they’ve participated in with fellow students and mentors.
Ideally, Herskovitz said students will participate in several if not all of the program’s classes, progressing from beginner to advanced sessions, along the way getting exposed to different mentors and their varied philosophies, techniques, styles.
Although she didn’t have anything like the Bellows program in her upbringing, Herskovitz had her art-loving family.
“Both of my grandparents on my dad’s side were very involved in the arts community. Growing up I would be set free to make art projects,” she said.
It was in high school her own passion for art bloomed and that’s one reason why she enjoys working with that age group. “I got very involved and inspired. I just couldn’t stop doing it.” Her dual passion for teaching began about the same time when she taught in an after school program.
She said even though her therapist parents, younger brother and extended family “don’t always understand my art, they have been so supportive. I feel really lucky for that.”
Before accepting the Bellows job Herskovitz researched Omaha’s arts community and she came away impressed. Now that she’s here carrying the banner for an arts organization bearing the name of an Omaha art icon she has an even deeper appreciation for things.
“Now being part of it it’s really wonderful to know these different organizations and different figures. I think maybe because of Omaha’s size you really can know people in the arts community and you really can make relationships. In San Francisco that was much harder. There wasn’t that sense of a supportive community. It was still kind of strangers operating in their own spheres.”
Omaha’s small-town-in-the-big-city character is just what Herskovitz has been searching for in forming an art family away from home.
“I love being here.”
- Art Lesson plans for Gifted Students (brighthub.com)
- Debate rages over arts curriculum (theage.com.au)
- Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
This was one of three stories I did during my incredibly short-lived stint writing for Star City Blog (www.starcityblog.com). The subject of this piece is an anchor institution in the cultural hub of Omaha, the Old Market, the former wholesale produce center that’s been preserved and its century-old warehouse buildings repurposed as galleries, shops, eateries, apartments, and condos. The Bemis is housed in one of those warehouses. The Bemis always seems ahead of the curve when it comes to the art scene, and after a few wandering years it has rebounded stronger than ever. It’s a visionary place and in a very short article here I try to give a flavor for what makes it a dynamic space for artists and for visitors alike. I would like to write a more in-depth piece about it, perhaps next year when it celebrates its 30th anniversary.
Art for Art’s Sake: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally posted on Star City Blog (www.starcityblog.com)
At the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha’s historic Old Market district, the phrase Artists Matter is reality, not slogan. Going on 30 years now, the Bemis has been Omaha’s conduit to the modern art world by nurturing exceptional global talent.
Its renowned International Artist Residency program brings diverse artists to live and work there each year. A busy exhibition schedule of 20-plus shows presents work across a wide range of media by visiting and local artists. Admission is free.
Progressive live music performances occur at the Bemis and its adjacent installation/work site, the Okada. Community art projects serve as catalysts for collaborations between artists and the public. Art talks promote artist-audience dialogues.
The Bemis Center is housed in the 19th century McCord-Brady building at 724 South 12th Street. The five-story, 110,000 square foot structure is among the Market’s many landmark red brick mercantile warehouses repurposed as a cultural facility.
The center’s hub is its coveted residency, which began as a summer artist-in-industry program. It was still a new concept then. By the mid-‘80s, the Bemis operated year-round. The last two decades has seen an “explosion” in artist colonies nationally, said Bemis executive director Mark Masuoka.
From then till now, the center’s hosted nearly 700 artists from 34 countries. At any given time six to eight artist fellows are in residence, each with a spacious live-work loft. Artists, who receive a $750 a month stipend, plus supplies, stay from a month to three months. New fellows as of August include painter Myung-Jin Song from Seoul, South Korea, photographer Cybele Lyle of Oakland, Calif. and interdisciplinary artist Michael Beitz from Buffalo. They joined artists from Florida and Philadelphia.
Former fellows who’ve made Omaha home include Christina Narwicz, Littleton Alston, Terry Rosenberg, Jim Hendrickson. Steve Joy, Therman Statom and Claudia Alvarez.
Masuoka said interest in the program keeps rising, with 1,000 applications for 24 available spots each year. The Honolulu native said a planned expansion will accommodate additional artists. He goes back with the Bemis to the ‘80s, as a Jun Kaneko assistant and artist-in-residence. That history, plus art management stints in Las Vegas and Denver, gives him a perspective on what makes the Bemis special.
“The Bemis continues to amaze me as an organization, not just because of what we’ve been able to accomplish but because we’ve stayed true to our mission,” he said. “The more we grow and mature as an organization what becomes evident is that we really understand what artists need and provide support for that activity.”
He said the Bemis is rare in granting artists the freedom to create or research or just be.
“It comes from our having been founded by artists. Because of that, we really understand what artists need and we’re prepared and willing to do whatever it takes as an organization to tell artists, yes,” said Masuoka. “I think many times in our society and within even the art field there are so many reasons not to pursue a project or not to support an individual artist. What we continue to strive for is to find ways to support artists. At the core of it is why the organization exists — to help artists realize or actualize their ideas. I think it makes Bemis unique not just in the country but in the world.”
Lincoln collector Robert Duncan is part of a star-studded board that includes the artist Christo.Residency program manager Heather Johnson said the Bemis provides “a gift to artists.” That includes the sanctuary of their second-floor live-work studios, usually off-limits to the public. “It’s meant to be a place for artists and their process. We don’t make any expectations or assumptions or judgments about their process and what that should look like or shouldn’t, so it’s very self-directed, and artists love us for that.”
“That gift of time and space we talk about is critical,” said Masuoka. “It advances careers, it advances ideas, and it sort of reinstills and reconfirms to artists that they’re important to our culture.”
Masuoka said the only requirements of fellows is to make a presentation and to donate a piece. Otherwise, the Bemis culture is hands-off.
Bemis curator Hesse McGraw, who’s worked at galleries in New York City and Kansas City, Mo., said, “What distinguishes the Bemis Center from other arts institutions is that what drives it is the activity of artists and the work they’re doing right now. We really try to think of it as a laboratory for artists. The residency program is focused on supporting an open process.”
McGraw, who curates shows in the center’s three main galleries, said, “The exhibition program tries to carry that sensibility through to the presentation of the work.” He said the Bemis encourages artists to do what they couldn’t do in a different context or setting. “We really try to find ways of supporting them, whether curatorially, logistically, financially, to build-out projects significant in their career and in their practice.”
All this creativity brings a dynamic energy to the space and to the community, challenging the status quo and thereby enriching viewers.
“It’s an expression of this attitude about finding new ways and having the ability to look at things differently,” Masouka said. “Artists see things differently, they look at possibilities other people don’t see, and through that you increase the imagination about what is possible. Programs like the Bemis Center support individual artists, nurture creativity, but also really showcase the value of what artists bring to our society.”
The Bemis is intentional in fostering artist-led discussion through events like its First Thursday ArtTalk lecture series and cutting-edge exhibitions.
“The exhibition program is an opportunity to have conversations and dialogue with the public about contemporary art and its relationship to anything in public life or the city or a myriad of social and cultural issues,” said McGraw.
The current Hopey Changey Things group show (through Sept. 4) is an ironic riff on American society as expressed in photographs, videos and installations. McGraw said pieces variously posit an apocalyptic vision for wiping the slate clean, an absurdist’s view of our current cultural moment and a radical pragmatism for reinventing places.
“I think things we’re particularly excited about now are artists working across disciplines and at some level of social engagement,” he said. “I feel like it empowers audiences to think about contemporary life.” Always, he said, the Bemis looks “at how can we utilize the projects to create a perpetual sense of surprise” within the “intensive introspection and ecstatic spectacle” of contemporary art.
A venue for doing that is the Bemis Underground, a subterranean but warm space connecting local and visiting artists with each other and with the community via exhibitions, talks, art trivia quizzes and even potluck suppers. “It sort of ties everything together,” said manager Brigitte McQueen. “It’s very welcoming down here. The openings have huge traffic.”
Together with the adjacent Kaneko – Open Space for Your Mind and nearby studios, galleries and theaters, the Bemis Center continues being a mainstay in the Old Market art scene.
The Bemis is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For exhibition and event details or to schedule tours, visit www.bemiscenter.org or call 402-341-7130.
- Current Motion, First New York Solo Exhibit of Hawaiian Artist, Carol Bennett Opens in Public Art Space in Manhattan (prweb.com)
- Artist-in-residence wraps up with exhibit (knoxnews.com)
- Redux seeking artists and artist wannabes (charlestoncitypaper.com)
- Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)