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Creative to the core: John Hargiss and his handmade world

June 30, 2016 3 comments

John Hargiss comes from a long line of Southern Missouri craftsmen who would never have thought to call themselves creatives, but that’s precisely what they were for the things they made with their hands and for the music they played with those same rough-hewn mitts. The owner of Hargiss Stringed Instruments is a chip off the old block who handmakes custom guitars, violins and mandolins with Old World care and craftsmanship. With those same hands, he makes and does a lot of other things, too, including repairing instruments. He took things to a whole new level recently by restoring an early 20th century vaudeville turned movie theater he discovered laying frozen in time in the complex of adjoining buildings he owns in North Omaha, one of which houses his business. The meticulously restored theater is now hosting live theater, music and assorted other events. Hargiss feels a deep connection to the people and the life rhythms from whence he came. He has found a home for himself and his work in North Omaha. This is my new Omaha Encounter Magazine profile about John and his creative life.His passion for making community in that neighborhood he moved lock, stock and barrel to from Benson is one of the angles I took in an earlier profile I wrote about Hargiss, for The Reader. Link to that earlier story at–

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/12/26/entrepreneur-and-craftsman-john-hargiss-invests-in-north-omaha-stringed-instrument-maker-envisons-ambitious-plans-for-his-new-hargissville-digs/

 

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Creative to the core: John Hargiss and his handmade world

©by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Bill Sitzmann

Appearing in the July-Auguat 2016 issue of Omaha Encounter Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/the-encounter/)

Master craftsman and stringed instrument maker John Hargiss learned the luthier skills he plies at his North Omaha shop from his late father Verl. In the hardscrabble DIY culture of their Southern Missouri hill and river bottom roots, people made things by hand.

“I think the lower on the food chain you are, the more creative you become. I think you have to,” Hargiss says.

He observed his late father fashion tables and ax handles with ancestral tools and convert station wagons into El Camino’s with nothing more than a lawnmower blade and glue pot. Father and son once forged a guitar from a tree they felled, cut and shaped together. The son’s hands are sure and nimble enough to earn him a tidy living at his own Hargiss Stringed Instruments at 4002 Hamilton Street. His shop’s filled with precision tools (jigs, clamps_, many of vintage variety.

Some specialized tools are similar to what dentists use. “I do almost the same thing – polish, grind, fill, recreate, redesign, restructure.”

Assorted wood, metal and found objects are destined for repurposing.

“I have an incredible way of looking at something and going, ‘I can use that.’ Everything you see will be sold or used one way or the other.”

In addition to instrument-making, he’s a silversmith, leather-maker and welder.A travel guitar he designed, the Minstrel, has sold to renowned artists, yet he still views himself an apprentice indebted to his father.

“He just made all kinds of things and taught me how to use and sharpen tools. Being around that most of my life it wasn’t very difficult for me to be like, ‘Oh, that’s how that works,’ For some reason my father and I had a connection. I couldn’t get enough of that old man. He was a mill worker, a mechanic, a woodsman. When he wasn’t doing that he was creating things. He was a craftsman. Everything I know how to create probably came from him. Everything I watched him do, I thought, ‘My hands were designed to do exactly what he’s doing.’ On his tombstone I had put, ‘A man who lived life through his hands.'”

Hargiss also absorbed rich musical influences.

“You were constantly around what we don’t see in the Midwest – banjo players, violin players, ukulele players, dulcimer players. There are a lot of musicians in that part of the world down there. Bluegrass. Rockabilly. Folkabilly, That would be our entertainment in the evenings – music, family, friends. Neighbors would show up with instruments and start playing. Growing up, that was our recreation.”

He feels a deep kinship to that music.

.”The roots of country music and the blues come out of being suppressed and poor,” he says. “All those incredible sad songs come from the bottom of the barrel.”

His father had a hand in his musical development

“My daddy was a good musician and he taught me to play music when I was about 9. By 11 I was already playing in little country and bluegrass bands. I can play a mandolin, a guitar, a banjo, a ukulele, but I’m pretty much a guitar player. And I sing and write music.”

Hargiss once made his livelihood performing. “I like playing music so much. It’s dangerous business because it will completely overpower you. I knew I needed to make a living, raise my children and have a life. so playing music became my hobby. I worked corporate jobs, but I kept being pulled back. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. I’d no more get the tie and suit off then I’d be out in the garage making something else. The day I quit that job I went to my boss and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore, my heart’s not in it. I’m going to start building things.”

It turned into his business.

Hargiss directly traces what he does to his father.

“I watched him repair a guitar he bought me at a yard sale. The strings were probably three inches off the finger board. I remember my daddy taking a cup of hot coffee and pouring it in the joint of that neck and him wobbling that neck off, and the next I knew he’d restrung that guitar. I think that’s when I knew that’s what I’m going to do.”

The memory of them making a guitar is still clear.

“The first guitar I built me and my daddy cut a walnut tree, chopped it up and we carved us a dreadnaught – a traditional Martin-style guitar. I gave that to him and he played that up to the day he died.”

 

Hargiss Encounter III

 

Aesthetics hold great appeal for Hargiss.

“I’m fascinated by architectural design in what I create and in what I make. I study it.”

He called on every ounce of his heritage to lovingly restore a vaudeville house turned movie theater he didn’t know came with the attached North O buildings he purchased five years ago. The theater lay dormant and unseen 65 years, like a time capsule, obscured by walls and ceilings added by property owners, before he and his girlfriend, Mary Thorsteinson, rediscovered it largely intact. The pair, who share an apartment behind the auditorium, did the restoration themselves.

The original Winn Theatre opened in 1905 as a live stage venue, became a movie theater and remained one (operating as the Hamilton and later the 40th Street Theatre), until closing in 1951. Preservation is nothing new to Hargiss, who reclaimed historic buildings in Benson, where his business was previously located. At the Hamilton site he was delighted to find the theater but knew it meant major work.

“I’ve always had this passion for old things. When we found the theater I remember saying, This is going to be a big one.”

Motivating the by-hand, labor-of-love project was the space’s “potential to be anything you want it to be.” He’s reopened the 40th Street Theatre as a live performance spot.

Hargiss is perpetually busy between instrument repairs and builds – he has a new commission to make a harp guitar – and keeping up his properties. Someone’s always coming in wanting to know how to do something and he’s eager to pay forward what was passed on to him.

The thought of working for someone else is unthinkable.

“I get one hundred percent control of my creativity. I’m not stuck, I’m not governed by, Well, you can’t do it this way. Of course I can because the sound this is going to produce is mine. When you get to control it, then you’re the CEO, the boss, the luthier, the repairman, the refinisher, the construction, the engineer, the architect. You’re all of these things at one time.”

Besides, he can’t help making things. “There’s a drive down in me someplace. Whatever I’m working on, I first of all have to see myself doing it. Then I go through this whole crazy second-guessing. And then the next thing I know it’s been created. Days later I’ll see it and go, ‘When did I do that?’ because it takes over me and it completely consumes every thought I have. I just let everything else go.”

Creating is so tied to his identity, he says, “It’s not that I can’t find peace or can’t be content” without it, “but by lands I like it.”

Visit http://www.hargissstrings.com.

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Master of many mediums Jason Fischer

March 9, 2016 4 comments

It must be a decade ago or so now that I first met a remarkable cadre of creatives through the Loves Jazz & Art Center.  Felicia Webster.  Michelle Troxclair.  Neville Murray.  Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru.  Frank O’Neal.  And Jason Fischer.  Jason was making three-dimensional art pieces then in addition to doing graphic art, photography, film, and video production work.  He’s always had a really good eye and instinct for composition, colors, lighting, and all the different elements that go into making arresting visuals.  At his old Surreal Media Lab studio on the lower floor of Leola’s Records & Tapes I sampled some street documentaries he was making back then.  We talked about collaborating one day.  Perhaps we may still. He’s come a long way.  His clients today include some of Omaha’s top for-profit and nonprofit organizations.  His poverty documentary “Out of Frame” has opened eyes and provoked conversations.  His art films are powerful, personal testimonies.  This is my B2B Omaha Magazine profile of Jason.

 

 

 Jason Fischer, ©photo by Bill Sitzman

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Master of many mediums Jason Fischer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the March-April 2016 issue of B2B Omaha Magazine

 

The design team for Omaha’s bold “We Don’t Coast” campaign included 30-something-year-old Jason Fischer, owner of boutique marketing-branding firm, Surreal Media Lab.

“It’s great to know it’s been used so well and been so widely accepted,” Fischer says of the slogan.

This master visual stylist grew up drawing, airbrush illustrating and acrylic painting. Then he turned to graphic art. He taught himself photography, film-video production, software programming and computer coding as digital, Web-based platforms came in vogue. All the while, he fed wide-ranging interests in art, culture, media, history.

“I just wanted to do something creative for a living. It’s nice to be able to have these disciplines and ultimately connect all these dots. I think that’s what really helps me be successful in the marketing-branding area. My brain lives on the big picture scale.

“I like the challenge behind the collaboration of taking what a client wants and creating something that is me but that captures their vision.”

His diverse clients span the metro but he he’s done “a body of socially conscious work” for the Urban League of Nebraska, No More Empty Pots, Together, the Empowerment Network and others. Other clients include the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

“At one point I was asked by a few community leaders to get involved. I would be the fly on the wall at meetings and events. That led to opportunities. I really care about community and want to see changes. Everybody has their own part they play. I’m just doing my piece, using what my calling is, to be an advocate the best way I can.

“I am really inspired by the work these nonprofits are doing.”

His feature  documentary Out of Frame gives voice and face to Omaha’s homeless. His short docs Project Ready and Work Their Best won festival awards. His new art film, I Do Not Use, puts images to Frank O’Neal’s powerful poem decrying the “n” word. He’s in-progress on another feature doc, Grey Matter, about being biracial in America.

Fischer’s M.O. is “asking the right questions and getting people to tell their own story,” adding, “I go in with the end in mind but I’m fluid enough to be open to the unexpected. Then it’s piecing it together.”

He’s known tough times himself. Raised by a single mom who labored hard to make ends meet, he used that work ethic to build The Lab. Then a burglary nearly wiped him out. Insurance didn’t cover the loss.

“It put me at ground zero. I was fortunate to have enough resources to get a loan through the SBA (Small Business Administration).

He moved his business from North O to the Image Arts Building’s creative hub at 2626 Harney Street.

“If it hadn’t happened I feel like I would still be stuck doing the same thing, smaller jobs, just turning the wheel. The move brought greater expectations and bigger opportunities to express myself and raise the bar. Before, it was more the hustle of making the dollar. Then it switched from dollars to passion. I think the passion part has definitely shown through and propelled the work and the business.”

Recognition has come his way, including the Chamber’s Business Excellence award. He looks to “leverage” his success “to open doors and opportunities” for fellow creatives via a for-profit community collaborative space he’s developing.

Visit http://surrealmedialab.com/.

 

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Frank O’Neal in I Do Not Use

 

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad: Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

September 15, 2015 1 comment

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad are so over being known as openly gay siblings and that is of course a credit to them and how it should be.  But if you’re a journalist assigned to cover them as I was for this story then that facet of their identity and being, even though it’s just one facet, has to be addressed.  Why?  Well, it is a part of their humanity.  It is also a point of curiosity and interest that cannot be denied or ignored or wished away.  And so so this story about Jocelyn and Deven attempts to strike a balance in its portrayal of them, neither spending too much space or giving too much attention to their sexual orientation nor avoiding it.  In fact, I decided to broach the subject and their matter-of-fact, it’s-no-big-deal attitude about it right up front.  My Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) profile of this dynamic brother and sister – he is a champion dancer and she is an emerging singer-songwriter – hopefully establishes them as compelling, destined-for-big-things individuals you should know about not because they happen to be gay siblings but because they have much to offer with their talent and intellect.  Something tells me we will be hearing from them as time goes on and as they hone their fabulousness and reach ever greater heights.

 

 

Muhammads

Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad

Creative Siblings Move Past Labels to Make Their Marks

August 26, 2015
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Since coming out a few years ago, Jocelyn and Deven Muhammad have been known as “the gay siblings.” But as a LGBT Nebraskans profile put it: “That’s one of the least interesting things about them.”

Jocelyn’s a promising singer-songwriter with an old-soul spirit. A May graduate of Millard South, where she was named prom princess, she can be found performing her sweet-sad love tunes on Old Market street corners and at open mic nights around town. Her from-the-heart work, some featured in YouTube videos, has attracted the attention of the music industry. She recently sang during open mic sessions at the legendary Whiskey a Go-Go in L.A. and the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. She plans to return to L.A. this summer.

Her goal is to write hit records. She’s currently creating songs for what she hopes is her debut album on a major label.

Deven has been selected as a touring performing artist with The Young Americans, a nonprofit group founded 50 years ago to promote understanding and goodwill through the arts. The charismatic junior-to-be at Midland University in Fremont recently helped his school’s competitive dance team win two national titles with his dynamic hip hop, jazz, and pompom routines.

In high school he starred in musical theater before becoming the first male dance team member and being voted Mr. Millard South. At Midland he was crowned Freshman Homecoming Prince.

These creatives fiercely support their individual expressions and dimensions. For a long time it was Deven who sang and Jocelyn who danced. As kids they became determined to swap lives.

“What I love about us is that I know she’s the singer of the family and she knows I’m the dancer…and we kind of leave it as is,” Deven says. ”We do our own thing, we have our own thing, so we don’t get jealous of each other. But we also love to share what we’re doing.”

The siblings not only identify as gay, but also Caucasian, African-American, and Chinese. They have encountered racism, both subtle and overt. Through everything, including a childhood when their father wasn’t around much and they made do with less than their friends, these two have been simpatico. Of course, the siblings also sometimes stole each other’s clothes.

“We feed off each other and we respect one another,” Jocelyn says. “We’ve always had each other. We have this bond. He’s always pushed me. He’s very real, very blunt. He’ll tell you what’s up.”

Though brutally honest about her first vocalizing attempts, he worked with her. Most of all, he reminded her they come from a loving family that supports whatever interest any member follows.

“He showed me there’s no such thing as trying,” she continues. “You do it or you don’t do it. That’s what he’s done with his dancing. He’s very inspiring. I look up to him a lot.”

Tough love is necessary if you expect to get better, Deven says. “That’s why I’m hard on her on some things and that’s why people are hard on me. I love being pushed, I love reaching for a new goal.”

Though not surprised by Jocelyn’s success, he’s impressed by how far his little sister has come since picking up the guitar less than three years ago.

“She’s growing up really fast. She holds herself very well. She’s different every time I listen to her. It’s literally a whole new voice. Jocelyn is making strides like it’s nobody’s business. She’s doing what she feels she needs to do to succeed.”

Jocelyn has surrounded herself with veteran musicians who’ve taught her stagecraft and the business side of music. She considers the defunct Side Door Lounge, where she played extensively, “the best schooling I’ve ever had in my life,” adding, “Just being there experiencing everything, meeting musicians, having jam sessions—that one venue changed the rest of my life.”

Deven’s refined his own craft through dance camps and workshops.

“I know if I want something in life I have to work for it,” he says. “I love that the things I have are because I worked my ass off for it. I’m very appreciative of what I have. That’s really shaped who I am.”

As life’s grown more hectic between rehearsals, school, and work, the release that comes in dance, he says, is more precious than ever.

“It kind of makes me forget about everything going on in life,” he says. “It’s the one thing I love to do.”

When the vibe’s just right during a set, Jocelyn gets lost in the music, deep inside herself, connecting with the audience.

“It just makes you feel your highest self,” she says. Jocelyn feels the chances coming her way are, “happening for a reason. You create your own destiny and your own luck.”

Muhammads

A Creative Class Den: Mastercraft Building Finds New Life as a Creatives Community

February 2, 2012 3 comments

There was a time not so distant in Omaha’s past when the city held a less than enlightened view of old buildings.  Many a grand and historic structure was lost due to apathy or outright shortsightedness, with the greatest travesty being the razing of a huge swath of late 19th and early 20th century warehouses in a great urban valley called Jobbers Canyon.  A new appreciation and vision for preserving, restoring, and giving new life to historic buildings is evidenced throughout much of the inner city.  One such reclamation project is The Mastercraft building in North Downtown.  My story that follows is not so much about owner Bob Grinnell’s acquisition of the abandoned former furniture manufacturing plant and his making needed repairs and improvements to it, but about the creatives who have inhabited the immense space and made it a collective or communnity of like-minded independent entrepreneurs.

 

 

A Creative Class Den: Mastercraft Building Finds New Life as a Creatives Community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in Omaha Magazine

 

Mastercraft has joined Saddle Creek Records, Slowdown, Film Streams, Hot Shops and Creighton University as North Downtown anchors turning a once forlorn urban terrain into a vital creative class corridor.

Since its flex-spaces opened two years ago the renovated Mastercraft Building, 1111 North 13th Street, has become home to 20 mostly creative-based small businesses. For decades the three-block long, circa 1941 structure housed the Mastercraft Furniture manufacturing company. The loft-style modular layout boasts high ceilings, skylights, exposed rough sawn lumber joists and concrete floors reminiscent of the Old Market’s industrial-warehouse spaces. The cool, classic, retro aesthetic appeals to artists and entrepreneurs. The ample free parking, easy Interstate-airport access and reasonable lease rates, plus a perch right in the heart of trendy North Downtown, are magnets, too.

John Henry Muller’s website design firm, What Cheer, was already in NoDo when in need of larger digs his biz became the first Mastercraft tenant in 2010.

“We loved the building. The raw industrial feel piqued our interest, but it wasn’t until hearing owner Bob Grinnell’s vision and passion for refurbishing this old beast of a building that it became a serious consideration for us,” says Muller.

Ben Drickey, who just relocated his Torchwerks motion image studio there, says besides being “a stylin’ hip place…it’s a rare and exciting opportunity for people to be a part of revitalizing their city, and I’m very happy and proud to be a part of it.”

Unlike the self-contained Old Market and its dense development, North Downtown is a sprawling patchwork. But there’s little doubt it’s emerged as a major cultural district in its own right. Music, film, art, design, education, athletics and hospitality all maintain a strong presence there. The district’s most public venues, TD Ameritrade Park, the CenturyLink Center, Lewis & Clark Landing and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, are destination attractions.

It’s also a residential neighborhood with Creighton student housing, Kellom Heights, the TipTop, Omaha Riverfront condos and Saddle Creek live-work spaces.

The Mastercraft adds to this mix a burgeoning creative collective under one roof.

“It’s a very engaged community and you can’t stay an outsider for very long,” says Megan Hunt, owner of CAMP Coworking, a venture she opened there after “immediately falling in love” with the site. “I knew that coming into the North Downtown community on the ground floor would be a wise business move, and working in this neighborhood during such high growth has been really beneficial.

“It’s grown into a really creative and nurturing place to work,” says Hunt, who also operates her Princess Lasertron custom bridal design business from there.

A common corridor and shared entry connect the various businesses, whose doors are almost always open to walk-in traffic and impromptu interaction.

“The building is wide open and it just sort of exudes this creative energy,” says Grain and Mortar graphic design owner Eric Downs. “There’s a great collaborative atmosphere that happens. We can walk out into the hallway and ask anyone, ‘Are you guys dealing with this? Do you ever have this problem?’ You don’t get that anywhere else. We go to lunch all the time as groups. If things slow down we go out and play in the hallway, literally, bringing out skateboards and scooters.”

Frisbee, too.

©photo princesslasertron.com

 

 

“There’s always people popping in and out of each other’s studios to say hello or ask questions,” says Dave Nelson, owner of youth branding agency Secret Penguin. He says he most enjoys “being around like-minded people and friends.”

“Everyone here kind of understands each other,” Downs says.

Don’t get Downs wrong, it’s not all about playtime. “We work really hard,” he says, “but it’s fun to know that a break from work is right out the door or right down the street. That definitely goes a long way to keep you creatively charged.”

Nelson says, “We’ve created areas within our own studio to draw, to skateboard, to swing on swings, to read books and any other thing you need to do to get your creative mind going in a productive way.”

The camaraderie extends to serious business to business commerce. Hunt says when she needs photography or graphic design, she calls on neighboring businesses specializing in those services.

Cross-referrals happen all the time.

“As creatives our world revolves around referrals,” says Downs. “We’re very sensitive to that fact. The ultimate compliment you can give someone is to refer business to them, and that’s definitely the case here. It’s just an unspoken understanding that that’s what we do for each other.”

“When you work so closely with people, you really appreciate and respect their businesses,” says Hunt.

“There is an eclectic mix of professionals around and the building is becoming quickly populated with talented entrepreneurs. We jive well with those individuals and we all have benefited from having each other’s business around,” says Bill Sitzmann, a partner in Minorwhite Studios photography.

“The vibe of the building reflects how we like to work,” says Muller, who likes its “vibrant, inviting atmosphere.”

Building owner Bob Grinnell doesn’t take credit for this creatives haven but he welcomes it and sees ever growing interest in the site. With 140,000 square feet to lease, he can accommodate dozens more businesses.

Downs considers Grinnell an ideal landlord. “What is extremely attractive is that he’s here every day. We like the way he runs the building and engages with the businesses here,” says Downs. “We feel like he has our best interests at heart.”

Mastercraft tenants hold occasional public events. Each second Friday CAMP hosts an open creative work time from 6 p.m. to midnight.

For the complete tenant directory and tour-leasing info, visit http://www.themastercraft.com.

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