Posts Tagged ‘Jun Kaneko’

Opera Omaha co-production of “The Magic Flute” casts enchanting spell

February 25, 2013 1 comment


Let me start by saying that I don’t know enough about the art form of opera to intelligently review an opera, any opera, but I do know a thing or two about theater, and opera is music theater.  For what it’s worth then I can add my enthusiastic thumbs up to the new Opera Omaha co-production of The Magic Flute.  I saw the Sunday, Feb. 24 matinee performance at the Orpheum Theater and I can report that the aspects of the show that I knew the most about going in, which were also those that I most anticipated, namely artist Jun Kaneko‘s designs, beautifully complemented and propelled the music and story.   His animated set designs and costume designs were highly expressive yet never detracted from the music or the action.  His work truly helped to set the mood and to draw us in into the emotional life of characters and incidents.  The other aspects of the produciton looked and sounded just as pleasing to me as the designs did and they all worked in unison together to cast an enchanting spell.  It was a thoroughly delightful experience that I had the pleasure of sharing with my girlfriend, Carole Jeanpierre, who has a lovely operatic voice and is composing an original opera of her own.  More to come on all that in future posts.

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

February 1, 2013 7 comments

Opera and Omaha may not be synonymous in your head but this grand and venerable art form and this conservative Midwest city have quite a relationship.  In fact, Opera Omaha has a reputation for groundbreaking work that you wouldn’t expect from a company its size and or from this part of the country but for many years now Opera Omaha has taken on ambitious productions, staged American and world premieres, and given the stage to phenomenal artists.  In recent years the organization has developed a relationsip with Omaha-based and internationally acclaimed artist Jun Kaneko, whose designs for an original Opera Omaha production of Madama Butterfly drew raves and toured the nation.  Now, Opera Omaha has partnered with several other companies to have Kaneko design a new production of The Magic Flute and it too is setting the opera world abuzz.  My Metro Magazine cover story about Kaneko and his Magic Flute follows.







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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Magazine


A new Opera Omaha co-production of Mozart’s masterwork The Magic Flute featuring costumes, sets and animations three years in the making by internationally acclaimed Omaha artist Jun Kaneko is making waves in the opera world. Following performances on both coasts the opera comes home to the Orpheum Theater February 22 and 24.

Flute finds Opera Omaha in good company

Opera Omaha’s among five producing partners of this Flute, whose world premiere last June in San Francisco earned raves for Kaneko’s boldly imaginative designs. The coproduction of San Francisco Opera, Opera Carolina, Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha and Lyric Opera Kansas City is expected to draw national attention here.

Not since the Kaneko-designed Puccini classic Madama Butterfly in 2006 has the metro’s hometown opera company been in the spotlight like this. Executive director Roger Weitz says sharing the production with the likes of the prestigious San Francisco Opera “puts us on a similar footing as these major opera companies,” adding, “It maintains and furthers Opera Omaha’s reputation as a company known for quality, exciting, adventurous new work. Companies of our size aren’t always able to be that adventurous and cutting edge and Opera Omaha has a reputation over its history of national and world premieres, commissioning artists like Jun Kaneko and launching singers like Rene Fleming.”

He suggests Flute represents the best Omaha has to offer:

Great cities have great arts and the fact that Opera Omaha can be a producer of great art is really important. We’re a cultural exporter, and that’s great for Omaha.”

Collaborating with others also has “a practical” side. “When you think about these amazingly complex and expensive operas in these big houses, we could never afford to have the kinds of production values we have in this without combining our resources together and entering into a coproduction,” he says.






Kaneko’s process

The visual palette that stands this Flute apart is entirely Kaneko’s and only came to him after he repeatedly immersed himself in the opera’s music.

“I listened to it at least twice a day for two or three months,” Kaneko says. “That’s the only way I know how to start an idea for opera – in a very true, direct way. Without music there’s no opera anyway. You can’t help it, that is the foundation.  And, sure, theater, the visual part of it, the set and costume designs, those things are part of it but music has to be the starting point.”

Much of his process involves leaving himself open to inspiration.

“My way of working is pretty much intuitive. I don’t have any (preconceived) ideas when I start. You start developing an idea and it’s just like a big river running in front of you. You cant say stop and say, ‘I’ll be back tomorrow and start again from that point.’ It doesn’t work that way in my mind. Once it gets going you have to go with it.”

The concept for the seamless projected animations that distinguish his Flute revealed itself as he searched for a way to streamline the many set changes he felt interrupted the opera’s flow.

“That sort of bothered me, that it’s not graceful enough, so I started to think, Can I do something to change all that? That’s how I started to think about projection. I started to play with that idea and after a couple months it just made sense for me to get that basic movement of the opera change really smooth using projection.”

Omaha’s Clark Creative Group animated his abstract paintings.

“I wasn’t trying to do something new or crazy,” Kaneko says. “At first the producers weren’t sure. They felt this might really be too much. So we had a lot of discussions and finally they said, ‘We think we can handle it.'”

The technical challenges of realizing his vision are immense. A state-of-the-art projection system must work in concert with the lighting, the music and the action on stage to create a harmonious balance with his cascade of images.

“To me, all of those elements have to work as one piece. I’m always thinking about the total stage,” says Kaneko.

He made sketches, he worked with a scale model maquette of the stage and saw digital renderings of his designs. When he finally saw them full size,, he says, “It really surprised me. It was much better than what I thought.”







A mosaic completed and brought to life

“I think he really has created among the most spectacular evenings in the theater I’ve been a part of,” says Flute stage director Harry Silverstein. “The movement of these spectacular animations he’s done have the effect of a painting unfolding. It’s a combination of stunning artistry and real technical brilliance that brought this production to the stage.”

Weitz says Kaneko and Silverstein pushed things to such a limit creatively and technically that it made him and his fellow opera company directors nervous.

“Because he’s such a unique artist and his Flute designs are so new we just weren’t sure. But it’s beautiful. The digital projections are on these large floor-to-ceiling screens and these images are all moving – swirling, dripping – and they’re so well done. The images and costumes are so vibrant and crisp. It’s just like a living, breathing Kaneko. You got the sense you were witnessing something new. People were just enthralled.”

The thunderous reception that followed, including a standing ovation for Kaneko, affirmed for Weitz “this is what Opera Omaha could be doing and should be doing. It was just a warm, exciting feeling. I thought, Wow, wait till it comes to Omaha.”

The wait is over. For tickets, visit or call 402-346-7372.

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

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 12th & Lea...

Image via Wikipedia

This was one of three stories I did during my incredibly short-lived stint writing for Star City Blog ( 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 (


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 Bemis got its start in the nearby Bemis Bag Company building. Four artists formed the center in 1981, including internationally renowned ceramicist Jun Kaneko and Ree Schonlau, now Ree Kaneko.

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 or call 402-341-7130.

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

August 1, 2010 2 comments

Nymphaea lotus.

Image via Wikipedia

Opera Omaha has a history of drawing attention for its innovative programming and collaborations. In recent years, the company has caused a splash by commissioning renowned artists outside the opera world to design sets and costumes for productions of classic operas.  First, the company had internationally acclaimed ceramicist Jun Kaneko, who lives and works in Omaha, design for Madama Butterfly.  Then, the company had noted sculptor and installation artist Catherine Ferguson of Omaha design for Aida.  I missed out on an opportunity to write about Kaneko and his Butterfly, and so when the chance came to profile Ferguson and her work on Aida, I leapt at it, and the following article is the result.  The article is another example of my plugging into an artist’s passion and expressing that to a general readership.  This is the first time the story’s been republished since its original appearance in the New Horizons a couple years ago.


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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


The boundless limits of Omahan Catherine Ferguson’s art may be traced to a childhood that fostered her ever inquisitive nature.

When Opera Omaha commissioned the noted installation artist and sculptor to design the sets and costumes for its new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida she did what she always does for a project — search out every source to inform it.

That meant close studies of the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, viewing a King Tut exhibit, reading books, watching productions of Aida and listening to the opera over and over and over again. Her research led her to the primary motif for her designs — a recurring hieroglyph of the blue lotus, actually blue water lily. It’s found in a pillar or column called the djed and in all manner of Egyptian artifacts, from pottery to jewelry to tombs.

“Once you start looking at Egyptian artifacts you find the lotus almost everywhere in different forms,” she said. “It’s just embedded in lots of place. Very stylized.”

The blue lily holds a yellow golden center remindful of the sun, which ties into the myth of an Egyptian King transfigured into a sun god, Ra. She found another deity, Ptah, also associated with the flower. Ferguson said the opening of the lily’s bud during the day, its closing at night and its reopening at dawn symbolized for Egyptians the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Regeneration. It all fit the structure of Aida, whose first two acts chart the ascendance of the King and future sun god, while the last two acts, what Ferguson calls Verdi’s “lunar acts,” reflect the veil of conflict and tragedy that befall the central characters.

“I thought, well, this is the perfect imagery I’ve been searching for,” she said. With such “ubiquitous” symbols at her disposal, she said, “I just went with it. Amazingly, we don’t know of any other Aida that used the lotus as its central design motif.”

Designing Aida meant many meetings with stage director Sam Helfrich, a collaboration that tested each artist, as it was his first time working with a nontraditional opera designer and Ferguson’s first time designing an opera. Ferguson, a self-described “moderate opera fan,” was somewhat familiar with Aida, having seen previous productions. The “huge challenge and responsibility” of undertaking the design for “this iconic piece,” as she calls it, was both daunting and exhilarating. Two years steeping herself in all things Egyptian and interpreting Verdi’s masterwork is just the kind of pursuit she enjoys.

Catherine Ferguson’s Aida designs for Opera Omaha production

That same sense of wonder is what’s compelled her to travel down the Amazon, visit Mexican ruins, tour the great sites in the Western European capitals, document the gardens of Italy, Japan and China, explore grottoes and immerse herself in the prehistoric earthen effigy mounds of the Midwest. The mounds’ animal-shapes, which she variously describes as “subtle” and “beautiful,” appear in several of her sculptures. “I have a very strong affinity for them,” she said. The elongated Oropendola bird nests she saw in South America show up in her work. The gardens and grottoes she photographed informed her own installations, as they are all “places that capture you for the moment and separate you from all the busyness that’s going on” outside.

She attributes this unquenchable thirst for experiential quests that feed her art to the environment she grew up in, which she said nurtured a desire for “constant exploration” and “lots of freedom to do that.” Born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, Catherine and her older brother enjoyed an Arcadian youth in the 1950s. Their mother was a housewife trained as a teacher and their father a traveling typewriter salesman who later opened his own typewriter and accessories store.

“Growing up we lived in a neighborhood on the west side of Sioux City — only a couple blocks from open, uncultivated, untilled wild spaces,” she said. “There was a big hill called Mayflower Hill covered with these little purple mayflowers, and with the long prairie grasses on it. We would take cardboard boxes up there and slide down that hill — that’s how long those grasses were. It was fabulous.

“There was a wild plum thicket with bittersweet vine growing all over it. Over the years kids had tunneled into this thicket. There were chambers in the thicket where people played. Every season we were up there for something else. In the summer we were there playing. In the fall there was all the bittersweet to pick. And in the winter we took our sleds up there…We were outside all the time. That was a very wonderful place.”

Ferguson said the thickets and chambers of her youthful idylls “show up in my work a lot.” Her sprawling, multi-layered, organic installations, some filling entire rooms, are sacred sanctuaries filled with symbolic elements. The works often contain hidden, recessed spaces viewers come upon as they walk through them. Natural and synthesized sounds and light sources add more texture. She’s collaborated with composer-electroacoustic musician Mario Verandi on five installations.

Her sculptures, too, express elemental-spiritual dimensions. The sculptures are in a variety of materials. The visceral experience of her works encourages exploration and discovery. Her environments and objects evoke communion with spirit and nature, heaven and earth, themes consistent with an interest of hers — alchemy.

Much of her art is about transformation or transcendence and the interplay of the real with the ethereal in arriving at some purity or truth or harmony, which is a description of alchemy. Creativity, too.

“That stuff is fascinating,” she said. “Alchemy is what artists do all the time. You’re taking scraps of stuff that don’t have any meaning by themselves particularly but then you kind of wash away and get rid of the extra bits…You’re always looking for the core — and that’s what the alchemists were doing. They were looking for the Philosopher’s Stone at the heart, whatever that was.”

She likes how installations break down the elitist barriers of art that imply, she said, that “only certain people can understand it, only certain people can see it. That it’s in museums — it’s walled off.” She also likes the fact installations invite people to literally enter the work itself and, thus, respond to it in ways that are self-reflexive. As she told Joel Geyer in the NET documentary Is it Art?:

“I think with installation work…you’re not learning so much about the artist as possibly about yourself. It’s almost like having a script written but you’re the viewer. You’re also the actor, and it becomes your scene to develop once you’re in there. That’s what I’m shooting for in my work. What more do you want from art than to make you more conscious of yourself and your relationship to others? What more could one ask for? That, in itself, is beautiful.”

Seeking answers to universal questions became a habit instilled in her by the nuns who taught her at the former Rosary College, now Dominican College, in Chicago and by the Jesuits at Creighton University. These educators demanded rigorous analysis and independent thought in the pursuit of shaping the whole person.

“The nuns encouraged us to develop our minds and to express our unique selves.  We didn’t use the term feminist but they had the same philosophy about the role of women in society as the feminists espoused later,” she said.

She majored in English and minored in journalism. Art was the furthest thing from her mind. Well, not exactly. While studying in Chicago she became a habitual visitor to the Art Institute. “I’d take the L downtown and just walk around in awe. It was kind of a self-education in art,” she said. When she moved to Omaha to attend Creighton “she was really interested” in art but at that time the school lacked an art department. “I know I would have taken art courses if they had.” She continued her self-education at the Joslyn Art Museum.

Still, she said, “I was not even expecting to ever get into the art world.” There were creative aspects to her early jobs. “My first job was working for WNAX radio station up in Yankton (S.D.),” she said. “It was fun. I was writing commercials…”

She was then engaged to her husband, Terry Ferguson, who was studying at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. Eager to join him, she moved to D.C., where she lived and worked in the mid-1960s. She did public relations for the U.S. Army Map Service, then engaged in satellite mapping of the moon and, she suspects, America’s Cold War enemies. She joined the federal Office of Economic Opportunity in downtown D.C. which put her near some of the capitol city’s finest art venues, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection.

“My work site was in between the two, so on my lunch hour I’d walk to one or the other,” she said. “Then on the weekends we’d often go to the Museum of National Art. We spent a lot of time there.”

By 1967 she and Terry moved back to Omaha, where he worked as a staff lawyer with the Legal Aid Society. He later served with the prestigious Kutak Rock Law Firm and as a senior attorney with Peter Kiewit Sons Inc. before joining the Fraser Stryker Law Firm. He’s also an adjunct professor in the Creighton Law School.

She was pregnant with their first son, George Ferguson, now a filmmaker who occasionally collaborates with his mother on her installations. The couple’s other son, Adrian Ferguson, is an Omaha architect who sometimes assists his mother in setting-up her installations.

While she was more and more inclined toward art, she said her emerging artistic sensibility “wasn’t really an epiphany moment” but more a matter of “backing into it.” She was a young housewife and new mother and to occupy herself she began taking art workshops. One in sculpture. Another in batik.

“The batik seemed at the time the easiest to deal with,” she said, “in that I could work right in my kitchen and I could get everything I needed at the Hinky Dinky. The paraffin and the dye. Old sheets I had at home.”

A phone call in the late ‘60s changed her life.

“One day Ree Schonlau called me and said, ‘I want to get together a group of people to start a craftsmen coop.’”

Schonlau was a potter and then-new University of Nebraska at Omaha art graduate with a vision for establishing what became the Craftsmen Guild in the historic warehouse district south of downtown. The once thriving wholesale produce market was in decline, its early 20th century brick buildings mostly abandoned. Where most people saw decay the Mercer family, who owned property there, and a few other visionaries like Schonlau saw potential.

Ferguson fell in with these bohemian pioneers to help transform the area into an arts-cultural haven known as the Old Market. The Craftsmen Guild, along with the Omaha Magic Theatre and the French Cafe, presaged all that’s followed.

The building Schonlau eyed, at 511 South 11th Street, now houses La Buvette amidst a string of eateries, shops and galleries. Then, however, the Market was mostly vacant. Schonlau, Ferguson, et all, joined forces to turn the vision into reality. They were young, energetic, idealistic. Together they transformed the Greenberg Produce Co. into an arts studio, complete with kilns for firing pottery.

“It was all cold lockers. The windows were all bricked up. We did a lot of manual labor and then other labor was hired,” Ferguson said. “We had a patron, Tom Davis, who helped us with part of that.”

This was the start of a most successful career by a contemporary Nebraska artist. Ferguson’s earned critical accolades and prized commissions. She cleaned up at the recent Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. Her work’s widely collected and exhibited. Several of her sculptures adorn prominent public sites, including Totem in front of the W. Dale Clark Library and Sky Fin on the south side of the Qwest Center. Her installations have been showcased at the Joslyn, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery.

Her life as an artist all began with that small coterie of fellow travelers similarly afflicted with the curse or the gift of feeling compelled to make art.

“It was a real good, exciting time,” Ferguson said. “That was my first studio outside the home. It was the first time I ever worked around other artists. Everybody else had a degree in art. They were very encouraging. It was a lot fun. I treasure most the opportunity that time gave me to meet other artists and have a studio in an unconventional milieu, a milieu conducive to experimenting. My studios have all been in locations that had some ‘grittiness’ and that has been helpful to me.”

Her spacious, airy, utilitarian studio the past 25 years is a brick building at 26th and Leavenworth Street, the former Warner Auto Shop. Windows in the renovated space let in lots of natural light. Drawings and mockups for her Aida designs are displayed amid work tables, plants and sculptures. The studio’s situated in an area slowly emerging as an artists’ community.

Ferguson honed her art and deepened her knowledge by attending workshops, reading art books and viewing exhibitions. She said she sought out workshops to cultivate “particular skills I wanted. They were very helpful. They all seemed to come at a good time. I spent some time in Iowa City one summer. The workshop was taught by a man who worked for Jack Lenor Larsen, a fabric designer. The instructor realized that a lot of his artist friends in New York were starting to work with fabric and that interested him and he talked about it a lot.”

Screen-printed fabrics were among the early forms-materials she worked in. She said the young lions of American art at the time, artists like Claes Oldenberg and Robert Rauschenberg, “were all bringing in materials that were nontraditional. Oldenburg’s soft sculptures particularly influenced me.”

This period, Ferguson said, is when she “really started thinking about the difference between craft and art. Certainly that was the time when there was this opening, this shift when the line between craft and art became less distinct. I think the difference, if there is one anymore, is the intention of the maker. A craftsman is very interested in how an object functions and its beauty, and an artist is generally more interested in other qualities such as an idea they want to convey. It’s tricky to distinguish between them these days.”

One of her early works, from the ‘70s, was a meat counter, all sewn in vinyls, with a light inside illuminating various cuts. Hanging above the counter was a stylized profile drawing of a woman that pulled apart in sections, ala a puzzle.

“It was a very feminist statement about fragmentation, about being pulled in lots of different directions and having lots of different roles,” she said.

For a long time Ferguson was reluctant to call herself an artist. When she finally felt comfortable, she said, “it was liberating…empowering.” Despite all her success she still battles doubts and insecurities, sometimes even telling herself, “I’m not going to do this anymore.” She said. “It’s only at the point when I can honestly say to myself, ‘You really don’t have to do this anymore,’ that I can then do it again.” She said these anxiety jags “happen less frequently now. Maybe I finally surrendered. Maybe I kind of expect to be doing this forever.”

As she and her art evolved Ferguson fixed on new directions. Some things remain constant.“ I’m a kinesthetic-type person,” she said. “I like materials. I do like form. I like large forms. I like the interaction of the human body to an object or form.” She loves dance and often draws on dance rhythms-movements in her work.

Catherine Ferguson’s sculpture garden at the Millard South Library

Her penchant for searching out new stimuli and connecting the dots to arrive at new insights has never left her. Every project elicits new creative responses.

“When I’m in a project I’m in a kind of heightened state of alertness — a receptive state,” she said, “and the physical world is more exciting to me.”

Ideas come to her “out of the blue,” sometimes in dreams, “because you’re alert and you’re in a different state,” she said. “You just see things you would normally drive right past. That I think is actually the crux of what keeps me making art.”

She admits she gets bored without some new subject to investigate or thread to unravel. Much of her work in the ‘90s was concept-laden and she’s now actively working to get away from that kind of over-intellectualizing.

“I am actually consciously trying to be unconscious.”

An example of her attempt to be more spontaneous, more instinctual is the set of torso drawings she did during a Bemis Center residency a couple years ago. “I had no idea what I was going to do. I just stepped up to the paper and started drawing. I didn’t think about it. I just jumped in. I’d like to work more and more that way.”

Speculating on the appeal of this approach, she said, “Perhaps after working as a concept-based artist it seems more risky to work intuitively without a preconception, and for that reason the possibility is more and more intriguing.”

That said, she acknowledges “it’ll be hard to suppress” her “research-bent.”

Just as Ferguson’s become a major artist, her old colleague, Ree Schonlau, made her own mark as founder of the Bemis artists colony — now the Bemis Center — in the Old Market, where artists from around the U.S. and the world come for residencies. Among those to do a residency there was the Japanese ceramic master, Jun Kaneko, whom Schonlau married. The couple have converted several buildings in and around the Market into studio, exhibition and storage spaces for his world-renowned work. Their much-anticipated Kaneko Museum is on the way.

Catherine Ferguson sculpture  outside the W. Dale Clark Library

Ferguson has remained friends with Schonlau.

“Ree and I have a good connection, not only because of our studio history in the ‘70’s but because her daughters Susan and Troia and my son George have known each other from age 6 from playing in the studios. All these children of Craftsmen’s Guild members went to Central High School and remain good friends today.”

Kaneko is someone she’s gotten to know well over the years. Around the time she got the Aida commission Kaneko was receiving plaudits for his design of Opera Omaha’s Madama Butterfly.

“I’d had many conversations with Jun during his process. He said many times, ‘I never thought it would be this much work.’ So I knew it was lot of work.”

When Aida was offered her, she was taken aback, especially when told Opera Omaha wanted a nontraditional interpretation of a classic work for which, she said, “people have such expectations. People who’ve never seen Aida feel like they’ve seen Aida. It definitely gave me pause and left me without speech,” she said. “I asked for a month to think it over. It was a huge decision to make.”

She consulted a good friend she attended high school with, Denes Striny, who’s made a career as an opera singer, voice coach and director. “I said, ‘Denes, would I be crazy taking on a new and minimal Aida?’ He said, ‘I definitely think you should do it. You can do it.’ He was very encouraging.”

Emboldened, she signed on. Sure enough, Aida stretched her in ways she never imagined. “I haven’t worked this hard for this big a period of time. Two years. Most of my other projects maybe were six months. There were moments when I thought, ‘Huh?’ I mean, I was just terrified. There still are doubts,” she said.

To inspire her designs she listened to recordings of Aida while working. She won’t know for sure how her sets and costumes will be perceived until the April production. “The proof is in the work,” she said.

Perhaps the most taxing aspect of the entire process was the costuming.

“The costumes have so much concept embedded in them. They have to tell so much. They are really storytellers in themselves,” she said. “I had no idea they would take up so much labor trying to differentiate them so that the audience would know who belongs to what group, whether the Egyptians or the Ethiopians, and what their status is within that group.

“I wanted the costumes to have definite shapes you could read from a distance and to be fairly sculptural, too. I tried to keep them simple but not so simple they weren’t interesting.”

Building costumes that met all those demands yet weren’t overly stiff, unwieldy and costly proved a fine line. Selecting the right colors and fabrics took a long time. She made trips to New York to look at fabric swatches but ended up getting the fabrics from a little shop right here in Omaha.

She’s pleased with the finished costumes.

“They’re gorgeous,” she said.

Designing the sets proved more comfortable for Ferguson, who’s used to working on a large scale and using different materials. Even though she’d never worked on an opera, her installations are a kind of “theater.” As she did with the costumes she incorporated hieroglyphic imagery into the temples and columns she designed.

The process entailed many discussions with stage director Sam Helfrich about the story, the characters and how the designs might best express them. The artists didn’t always agree. Whenever their interpretations conflicted she knew, bottomline, “it was his call.” Although she’s cooperated on projects with other artists before her work with Helfrich was something new. “It’s been a true collaboration where there’s been a lot of back and forth and creating things together. My creating things and then his reacting to them.”

Attending to all the details meant traveling to Salt Lake City to see the costume mock-ups, Portland, Ore. to see the sets under construction and New York City to meet with Helfrich and lighting director Robert Weirzel.

The indoor floral show Nature’s Inspiration at Lauritzen Gardens through May 11 keys off Ferguson’s Aida designs. A faux Nile is adorned with tropical plant life and her blue water lily artwork. Adding to the anticipation about Aida, she’s made presentations on her designs. She’s anxious for all the build-up to end and for her sets-costumes to finally breath on stage, in performance, before live audiences.

been so time-consuming it forced Ferguson to put many projects on hold. Now that the opera’s being mounted she can resume attending to them.

“I have requests for sculpture commissions and I am eager to do more drawings. Before Aida, I had started working on some smaller sculptures using wax and excelsior that were cast in bronze and I want to explore that medium more. I’ll be working with the torso theme again and drawing but with more color. Aida rekindled my enthusiasm for color.”

Someone she’s bound to work with again is Les Bruning, an Omaha sculptor and foundrer who’s fabricated or cast most of her metal sculptures. “He’s been a mentor and a tremendous resource for me,” she said. “He’s the most generously spirited artist I know.”

Once all the Aida hoopla’s done, she’ll be back working in the quiet solitude she’s accustomed to. Away from the spotlight, she’ll follow her muse wherever it leads.


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