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Leonard Thiessen social justice triptych deserves wider audience

January 21, 2017 2 comments

There is a compelling social justice triptych by the late great Nebraska artist Leonard Thiessen that should be more widely seen. Every year around Black History Month I encourage folks to visit the worship space that houses the piece for the express purpose of taking in the powerful images and ideas expressed in the work. The piece is called “Crucifixion” and it can be found affixed to a wall just inside the sanctuary at Church of the Resurrection, a small but mighty Episcopal faith community at 3004 Belvedere Boulevard directly across the street from Miller Park and just northwest of 30th and Kansas. The blended congregation is a mix of African-Americans, Caucasians and Africans.

The Thiessen work is not like anything you’d expect to find there or in any worhsip place for that matter. “Crucifixon” juxtaposes jarring, disturbing scenes of lynching, gas attacks, warmaking, want, industrialization and propoganda with the crucified Christ. Passages drawn from scripture proffer warnings about sins against our fellow man and being led astray by false prophets. These abnomitions are leavened by promises of recknoning and salvation. Thiessen created the triptych many decades ago but it is still relevant today in its rumination on things that instill fear and conflict in the hearts and minds of human beings and that cause us to look to a redemptive Higher Power for mercy and justice.

The words that appear at the bottom of the panels read:

“In time of peace, men suffer from drouth and want. Fear not, for I am with thee. I will bring they seed from the Earth.”

“They are made with machines, slaves of other machines. Be strong, fear not, your God will come with recompense.”

“Other men incite them to persecution and destruction. Keep ye judgment and do justice for my salvation is near.”

“From all sides their faith is confused and confounded. Behold, I create new heavens and a new Earth and the former shall not be remembered.”

The artist created “Crucifixion” in memory of his aunt, Wilhemina Berg, who was a member of the former St. John’s Church before it merged with St. Philip”s to create Church of the Resurrection,  The work is an example of Thiessen’s ability to employ and transform classical forms into modern interpretations. The piece is regarded as one of Thiessen’s most important.

In an interview shortly after his retirement, Thiessen said he had worked to “break down the idea that the arts were the prerogative of the elite. Nowadays the arts, like boating, skiing, tennis and wines, are all for the person in the street.”

Thiessen spoke four languages and was particularly known for his wit, often trying to slip puns past his editors at the Omaha World-Herald, for whom he was an art critic. Over the years, he taught at many area institutions, including Creighton, UNL and UNO.

He is classified as belonging to the period as the First Nebraskans, an era in Nebraska’s art history from 1901 to 1950 when the various forms of modernism were flourishing.

His vision and passion for the arts in Nebraska laid an influential foundation.

A good way to see the triptych and get a sense for the church where it’s displayed is to attend a service there. The 10 a.m. Sunday service is an intimate experience animated by the choir most Sundays and the guest band ReLeaseT the third Sunday of the month. On Feb. 26 come to Soul Food Sunday for some great eats. But whenever you come, make sure you see the triptych.

Link to the Church of the Resurrection website here:

http://coromaha.episcopal-ne.org/

 

triptych2

 

Link here to a Museum of Nebraska Art page devoted to Thiessen:

https://mona.unk.edu/collection/thiessen.shtml

Here is an extended bio of the artist copied from the MONA page:

Leonard Thiessen was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. His family was small and his paternal ancestry had roots to the Swedish and German pioneer settlers of Grand Island, Nebraska. For a very short time, the family lived in Grand Island where, as a boy, Thiessen was employed in the mail department of The Grand Island Independent newspaper. His parents, Charles Leonard Thiessen and Jean Louise Berg Thiessen, together with his mother’s favorite sister Wilhemina, were all involved in various creative endeavors and had a profound influence on Leonard’s development. His father worked in the printing industry and introduced the young Leonard to the trade. Jean was a talented self-taught artist in her own right who produced on-edge felt mosaics that are fine examples of early 20th century fiber art. (MONA has seven pieces of her work in its collection.) The Thiessens were involved in Omaha’s music, dance, and theater groups and deeply connected to the neighborhood Episcopal Church. They were not wealthy but had many friends in the community and had an impressive social calendar.

Thiessen attended Omaha’s Miller Park Public School and St. John’s Protestant School and graduated from Central High School in 1919. His school years were privileged with experiences that helped to foster his development as an artist. While in high school, he decided to follow formal study in the visual arts and began to draw cartoons and illustrations for the school newspaper. During his teen years, he worked as an office assistant for an architectural firm in downtown Omaha, a job that offered a perk that proved helpful to his future employment. During his free time, Leonard would sit and read the collection of architectural books found in the office. After graduation he worked for the Omaha Bureau of Advertising and Engineering editing illustrations and photographs for an agricultural livestock catalog.

He attended the University of Omaha (now University of Nebraska at Omaha) for three semesters in 1921 and 1922 studying journalism and fine arts and producing illustrations and graphic layouts for the University newspaper The Gateway. During this time, he worked as a gallery assistant for the Art Institute of Omaha which was located on the top floor of the old public library building designed by Thomas Kimball. Thiessen became disillusioned with the University’s conservative art courses and left Omaha to continue his studies in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln from 1925 to 1926. He was not interested in “serious painting” and majored primarily in design and architecture. His professors were the artists Dwight Kirsch, Louise Mundy, Francis Martin (a contemporary of the portraitist J. Laurie Wallace), and Emily Burchard Moore. In the 1920s, Lincoln, Nebraska was an incredibly fervent environment. Some of Thiessen’s circle of friends and classmates included artists as well as writers and intellectuals among them Katherine “Kady” Faulkner, Louise Austin (who had studied in Munich with Hans Hoffman), Mari Sandoz, Weldon Kees, Loren Eiseley, and Dorothy Thomas. In the late 1920s, Thiessen pursued a highly successful commercial career as an interior designer and decorator with several design and architectural firms in Lincoln and Omaha. Additionally, he did freelance work and began to receive commissions as a mural painter. Later he studied at the museums of New York City, Boston, and Miami with his Aunt Wilhemina.

In 1929, while on a trip to Paris, Thiessen learned of the stock market crash in the United States and decided to stay in Europe. He enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris where he studied drawing and painting for one summer and later moved to London to study at the Heatherly School of Art. While in London, Thiessen studied wood engraving and graphics. In 1932, he applied and was accepted at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and studied with Otto Skold who later became the director of the National Museum at Stockholm. At the Academy, Thiessen studied the classical manner, graphic arts, and the traditional forms of fresco and mural painting. He described himself as a “designer of interiors and mural painter in the Middle West, U.S.” Taking several short breaks in between his studies to return to the United States, he finally received his diploma in 1938. While in Sweden, Thiessen made a trip to Tallin, Estonia, to sketch the local architecture.

After returning to the United States in the late 1930s, he found that demand for interior decorators had fallen with the depression. He used his charm and talent to persuade the editors of the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star to allow him to write an arts review column. He became the Omaha World-Herald’s first art critic and his now legendary column first appeared in 1939 and continued on and off for the next 30 years.

He had exhibitions at Morrill Hall, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1938 and Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum in 1940. He also resumed his friendships with artist Milton Wolsky and Alysen Flynn. Later he accepted a position in Des Moines as Iowa’s State Director of the Federal Artists and Writers Program of the Works Projects Administration in 1941. The program employed 300 people and Leonard supervised over 100 individuals in eight departments. Thiessen left Iowa in 1942 to join the Army and was officially promoted to the Office of Intelligence in 1944. Because of his training in architectural design and graphic arts, Thiessen was particularly suited for the position of draftsman in the intelligence department. He studied and made reports of pertinent visual data, maps, and serial photos during the war. He was stationed in Kettering, England, the place that would become the subject of many of his works on paper.

In the 1950s, Thiessen made another trip to London, returning to the United States to serve two years as director of the Herbert Memorial Institute of Art in Augusta, Georgia. In the 1960s, Thiessen took several other trips to Europe and returned to Nebraska where he immediately continued his involvement with the Omaha World-Herald, the Joslyn Art Museum and the Sheldon Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. By this time he was recognized as the authority on Nebraska’s developing art history and served as editor of the catalogue, Nebraska Art Today, by Mildred Goosman, curator at the Joslyn Art Museum published in 1967. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Nebraska Arts Council becoming its first Executive Secretary (a position now known as Executive Director) from 1966 to 1975. In addition, he taught classes at Isabella Threlkeld’s studio in Omaha for eight years. He became a close friend and professional colleague of the professors at Kearney State College (now University of Nebraska Kearney) and encouraged the establishment of the Nebraska Art Collection in the 1970s. He served on the board of the Museum of Nebraska Art for over ten years and was one of its founding members. In 1972 Thiessen received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Creighton University and was honored with the first Governor’s Arts Award in 1978. His work can be found at Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln; Kansas Wesleyan University, Salina; the Alfred East Gallery, Kettering, England; the Herbert Memorial Institute of Art, Augusta, Georgia; and in many private collections

Thiessen lived in Omaha, Nebraska, for most of his adult life. He eventually converted two upstairs rooms of the now famous house on Stone Avenue for his studio. Artwork dominated both floors, much of it his own. Thiessen remained a bachelor his entire life, and had an amazing number of friends and colleagues from the various Nebraska arts communities. He was respected by many prominent Nebraska artists who honored him by making him the subject of their work including Kent Bellows, Bill Farmer, Larry Ferguson, Frances Kraft, Paul Otero, John Pusey, and John Thein.

Leonard Thiessen died March 27, 1989.

The Museum of Nebraska Arts holds 109 works by Leonard Thiessen in addition to archival material.

Researched and written by Josephine Martins, 2002

NOTE: Biographical information was derived from a variety of sources, including unpublished biographical notes by William Wallis, 2001,  a recorded interview with Thiessen by Gary Zaruba, 1983 and compilations by COR member Keith Winton.

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Generosity at Core of Anne Thorne Weaver’s Life, Giving Back to the Community Comes Second Nature to Omaha Woman Whose Live-out-loud Personality is Tempered by Compassion and Service

April 21, 2012 4 comments

Omaha, a city with a very high capita rate of millionaires, is known for its unusually generous philanthropic community and while the names of a dozen or more major philanthropists here are quite familiar to anyone who keeps up with local news there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of other donors in the metro whose name recognition is far less despite the fact their support is every bit as significant as their more publicized counterparts.  Until assigned to do the following story on Anne Thorne Weaver I admit I never heard of her, which is understandable since I neither regularly travel in or report on the blue blood circles of Omaha.  It turns out she’s someone I and a lot of other Omahans should know about since she does a lot to support some of the very institutions that contribute to the quality of life here.  If her only claim to fame was signing checks, that would be one thing.  But it turns out she’s a vital, interesting person quite apart from her giving.
Anne Thorne Weaver

 

 

Generosity at Core of Anne Thorne Weaver’s Life, Giving Back to the Community Comes Second Nature to Omaha Woman Whose Live-out-loud Personality is Tempered by Compassion and Service

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in Metro Magazine

 

Anne Thorne Weaver has known privilege and pain but like a real-life Auntie Mame she views the world as a banquet to be sampled.

A giving heart

The adventurous traveler and enthusiastic hostess says, “I’ve had a really a good life. I’m one of these few people that would go back to the beginning and live it all over again.” The generous Weaver has spent her adult life volunteering with local service clubs and nonprofits in order to better her adopted hometown.

When most persons her age defer to the next generation, she’s still an active board member and patron with various organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Museum of Nebraska Art and the Nebraska Methodist Hospital Foundation. Her work on behalf of causes earned her the 2011 Junior League of Omaha Distinguished Sustainer Award and community service awards from the WCA and Methodist Hospital Foundation. On June 5 the Women’s Center for Advancement’s 25th Tribute to Women recognizes her community philanthropic efforts.

“It came as a big surprise to have been selected,” she says.

She’ll arrive at the program from her summer sanctuary in Okoboj, Iowa. As soon as the evening’s over, she’ll head straight back to her beloved lakeshore cottage. It takes a lot to get her to leave the retreat, where she’s known to throw a party or two. Not even weddings or funerals can pry her away, unless it’s a close friend or family member, “For this though I’m leaving Okoboji, that’s how honored I am,” she says.

 

 

An Okoboji sunrise, ©edithmyrant,blogspot.com

 

 

Plaudits are not why she helps others but if her example can spur others to follow her lead then she’s glad to be in the spotlight. By responding to needs she gets something in return more meaningful than any accolades. “When you give, everything is given back,” she says Besides, she adds, “I enjoy the people with whom I work a lot, I really do. I’m not going to do something if I don’t enjoy it. I only work on it when it’s going to be fun.”

Some of her favorite things

Knowing first-hand the critical difference volunteers make in fulfilling the mission of nonprofits, she says, “just imagine what this town would be like without volunteers. I mean, everything would be closed – the libraries, the hospitals…” She credits the Junior League for its volunteer training and placement activities.

Refined in many ways, she’s also never outgrown her tomboy nature and love of nature. “My big passion is the Humane Society,” she says. Still an “Iowa girl” at heart, she enjoys the simple pleasures of the state fair.

Her appreciation for both fauna and the finer things is seen in her Loveland neighborhood home, where art objects share space with pets. She’s devoted countless hours to supporting the arts. “I am on the opera board and the symphony board and I love them both,” she proclaims. A relative newcomer to the Omaha Community Playhouse board, she says, “I’m finding it really interesting.”

She previously volunteered with the Joslyn Women’s Association and the Durham Museum, whose original board she served on.

“Another one of my great loves is the art center up there,” she says, referring to Pearson Lakes Art Center in Okoboj, where she supports several things close to her heart. Nearby Spirit Lake is home to a favorite worship place, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. “I really love that little church,” she says. Weaver belongs to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha.

An inveterate seeker with a burning curiosity, Weaver’s extensive travels have taken her to Timbuktu, New Guinea, the Galapagos Islands and the Grand Canyon.

A helping hand

She likes aiding people get where they want to go, too. In her work with the Patriotic Committee of the National Society of Colonial Dames she helps award scholarships to Native American nurses serving reservations and helps send an essay contest winners to a Congressional Seminar in Washington D.C. “It’s a wonderful opportunity and a life changing experience for these kids,” she says.

She chaired the volunteer bureau Junior League Omaha once co-sponsored. For JLO’s Call to Action program she served on a team of ombudsmen. “We had to learn where everything was in Omaha that could assist people. If somebody had trouble or a dispute, we would tell them where to go to get it resolved.”

Her giving back is an expression of the saying that to whom much is given, much is expected. Born into a Mayflower family of self-made and inherited fortunes in Des Moines and Chicago, she harbors deep respect for American history and ideals.

Formative years

As a child she was immersed in history living at Terrace Hill, a circa 1860s mansion  with 90-foot tower overlooking downtown Des Moines. The home was once the residence of the Hubbell family, whose late tycoon patriarch, F.M. Hubbell, is her great-grandfather. The National Historic Place home is now the Iowa governor’s residence. She’s pleased it’s well preserved. “They’ve done a beautiful job on the restoration. It never looked that good when we lived there. It was just home.”

Terrace Hill

 

 

After her folks split she was shuffled between two sets of grandparents. “They were two totally different worlds,” she says. “In Des Moines I could wear blue jeans and men’s shirts. But in Chicago I couldn’t leave the house without wearing a hat and gloves and having my nose powdered.”

Her grandparents set a model for philanthropy she’s followed.

Despite being an only child, she recalls Terrace Hill as anything but lonely. She had the run of the place and its extensive grounds. Adventure was everywhere.

“It was just a wonderful home to grow up in. My cousin Patty and I spent a lot of time together. We’d run up in the tower and hop out on the roof. We just jumped all over the place. We spent quite a bit of our time in the pool. We were like fish.”

For company there were also the servants, “and I loved them,” says Weaver. “Two couples had been there 40 years, so they were my family. I’d take my meals with them in the dining room.”

A life well lived

Not everything’s been rosy. Growing up, her parents were largely absent. Her only marriage ended in divorce, though she and her ex remained friends. One of the couple’s four children took his own life at age 21.

Today, she’s alone but hardly lonely. She entertains at home. She attends social and civic engagements galore. There’s her volunteer activities. Breakfast with the girls. Doting on her pets. She goes on excursions whenever she feels like.

“I don’t know where the time goes,” she says.

Her bucket list includes touring the American West’s national parks and Ireland.

A matriarch in age if not spirit, she recently celebrated her Almost 80 birthday bash with friends in Des Moines. The progressive party moved from the botanical gardens to an art center to a country club to Terrace Hill.

“The joy to me is, they say you can’t go home again, but I can.”

As part of an unbroken lineage of service she feels responsible “to prepare whoever follows you to do an even better job than you have done.”

For Tribute to Women tickets  call 402-345-6555 or visit http://www.wcaomaha.org.

The Real McCoy: Artist Bob Weaver Charts His Own Hard Course as a Regional Master

May 1, 2010 14 comments

I cannot remember how I first heard about the supremely talented and irascible artist Bob Weaver, but I am glad I did, because he proved a remarkably colorful profile subject. To say that he was reluctant to do the interview would be a gross understatement. Some patrons and friends of his prevailed upon him to meet with me, and then when he showed up he was as agitated as a caged animal. More than once I thought he was going to bolt from his chair and out of the room mid-interview. His general agitation and frequent use of foul language was expected and so none of it really threw me, and besides I knew it would be good for the story.

 

Bob Weaver’s self-portrait

 

 

The Real McCoy: Artist Bob Weaver Charts His Own Hard Course as a Regional Master

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in a 2006 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Hard as flint. Variable as slate. He is John Robert Weaver, American artist. Too formal a name really for this “old school” codger, who’s just a “country boy” at heart. Bob Weaver’s more like it. No, better leave it at just Weaver. Direct, yet enigmatic, like the proud, profane, sensitive, soulful man he is. Like the visceral paintings, drawings and prints this Nebraska artist’s been creating for decades. Works that so powerfully capture the animus of figures or objects that the viewer is forced to confront the vital life force behind them.

That life force belongs to Weaver, as expressed through the strokes, splays, daubs, lines and cuts he makes, and the intrinsic energy of the image/subject itself. Like a method actor, he channels the essence of a subject through his art to create an honest representation of all that’s bound up in it, internally and externally.

At age 73, this quintessential working artist with a well-deserved reputation for being difficult may be at the peak of his creative powers. Former Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery director George Neubert says Weaver’s art reflects “the best of time and place in this region.”

Admirers say Weaver’s never wavered from what one calls his “whole-hearted independent spirit.” He’s not compromised his work, as friend Samina Quareshi Shepard says, to reflect “fad or fashion” or to appease “critics or evaluations.” An old grad school chum calls him “driven.”

Weaver is, noted artist Keith Jacobshagen says, “an authentic person and a painter.” Indeed, Weaver’s remained true to his calling — only he refers to it as “the curse”  — despite what he describes as a life of “pain, poverty and purgatory.” As veteran Weaver observer Danny Lee Ladely says in a new film about the artist, “He is his work and he lives his work.” Uncompromising in his art and his life. “Yeah, that word’s gotten me in a lot of trouble in the past,” Weaver told The Reader. “Uncompromising. Rebellious. Non-conformist. A lot of other adverbs and adjectives, too.”

“He’s a rather extraordinary personality,” said Norman Geske, another former Sheldon director. “I don’t think he’s the least bit a conventional artist. Over the years, he gets better and stronger all the time. All of his work has one quality, and that’s intensity. There’s nothing superficial or decorative about it and I think that reflects his very personal stance on almost any subject. He’s a very perceptive person. He paints what he sees…the truth.”

 

 

 

Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery

 

 

 

His portraiture can render subjects, including himself, in merciless detail. His craggy face a bearer of deep wounds. As patron Karen Duncan said, “They’re not smooth, sweet little things. They’re painful. You either love them or hate them.”

Whatever the subject, Weaver first studies it, draws it, photographs it, so as to absorb it. Then, and only then, does he feel he can expressively interpret it.

If Weaver’s name is unfamiliar, it’s because he doesn’t play the game. He likes recognition for his work, which is widely collected, but abhors “all the horseshit” that goes with openings, curators, art dealers, collectors and reporters.

Lately, he’s gotten more attention than he wants, making him more skittish than ever, as the result of a recent retrospective exhibition and a new documentary film and book focusing on him and his art. The 2005-2006 exhibit, John Robert Weaver: American Artist – A Retrospective, had the distinction of showing, concurrently, at two Nebraska museums — the Sheldon in Lincoln and the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA) in Kearney. The same titled book, with 600 Weaver images, has just been published by MONA. The new film Sleep Under the Sea is director Bob Starck’s intimate portrayal of Weaver. Shot cinema verite style, Stark said the film is “a little bit rough…a little bit crude, like Bob Weaver is.” It premiered at Ladley’s Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln. No Omaha screening is set yet.

As Weaver and the hard life’s he’s lived cannot be separated from his art, projects like the film and book dredge up a heavy past he’d rather forget.

The cruelties of a rural Missouri, Depression-era farming family that didn’t understand him. An aborted Marine Corps hitch. The “outlaw days” that got him incarcerated. The women. The feuds. The tirades that saw him “shit can” his work — “I was notorious for tearing up my work.” The jobs he took, from tarring roofs to plumbing to pumping gas, to support himself — “I mean, you name it, I’ve just about done it, including the bad shit,” by which he means his part in a Butler, Mo. bank robbery he was implicated in when barely out of his teens and was pardoned for a few years later. Working in unheated downtown studios, dingy two-room apartments, decrepit barns. Selling his work for “a steal” to help make ends meet.

“Between the documentary, the book and the retrospective. it’s been a mess…All the petty jealousy, politics, incompetency, it’s left a bad taste in my mouth. I wish I had never done any of it. The work is all that is important to me. I like my work. That don’t mean I don’t have to work for it, because I do work my ass off,” he said.

 

Bill Kloefkorn-Nebraska State Poet

Robert Weaver
b. 1935, Stillwater, Kansas
Medium: ink, marker
Date: 1984

 

 

He resists any intrusions into his rather solitary life.

“Even after the shows and all this stuff, there’s always, it seems like, bullshit coming back, and goddamn, it just never ends,” he said, shifting uneasily in his seat during a recent interview, his mouth working his trademark toothpick to a nub.

He only agreed to speak with The Reader after his patrons, Lincoln, Neb. millionaires Robert and Karen Duncan, perhaps the state’s leading private art collectors, prevailed upon him to do so. He put off the meeting for weeks, and then only reluctantly met at the main office of Duncan Aviation, the Lincoln company Robert Duncan founded and still runs today.

“I don’t like interviews. And this is probably, hopefully, my last fucking interview,” said Weaver, whose nervous agitation makes him squirm, seemingly ready to bolt from his chair at any moment. “I don’t like to talk art… or what I do…or the creative process. It don’t mean I can’t. I just don’t like to. I never have. You either like my work or you don’t, and that’s the bottom line really.”

Lean and angular, like the arrowheads he collects, he prefers blue collar clothes or fatigues to anything dressy, like “the ritzies” wear. He both is and is not what he appears to be. His coarse speech, furrowed brow, macho pose and stubborn ways belie a vulnerable man who wears belligerence as both a badge of honor and as an armor of defense. His wary gait and gaze are that of a man chased by demons.

He hates being analyzed or reduced to labels like this. He resents old indiscretions being thrown back in his face. It’s why he doesn’t easily trust others. The abrasive front keeps folks at bay. As George Neubert says, “He tests you. He tests your interest. He tests your commitment, and I don’t think that’s all bad. It eliminates the riffraff…the frivolous.” Burned enough times before, Weaver reveals little about “the bad shit.”

“In a situation, they’ll fucking use it against you in a minute. I mean, almost anybody. Friends. Family. I’ve been through that. It leaves a mark,” Weaver said.

He can alienate people by the things he says and does. He and Bob Starck, the maker of Sleep Under the Sea, haven’t spoken for months after a series of disagreements over the film. Starck, who considers Weaver “a genius,” chalks it up to “Weaver just being Weaver.”

Before taking questions for this story, Weaver delivered a declaration of principles that basically said, Here I am. Take me or leave me. If you don’t like it, fuck-off.

About his art, he said, “I do things I have experience about or know something about and I do a lot of work in a lot of different mediums. I feel uncomfortable even talking this kind of stuff,” he said, clearing his throat and wringing a pair of gloves he kept putting on and taking off. “The last time (a Lincoln Journal-Star story), I got shot down with a bunch of bullshit that came from other sources besides myself. It really left me in a bad frame of mind. I went through this shit 50 years ago (when he was “discovered” as an ex-con artist with a big talent) and, you know, I didn’t need the past coming back again. All of this is cheap, sensational bullshit, which I don’t really like. I know what I am and what I’ve done and what I’ve been, and it’s always there. I live with that. It gets into my work, whether I want it to or not, and I know that.

“But I don’t like to talk about it. I didn’t start school (at the Kansas City Art Institute) until I was 25, after I’d been out in the big bad world or school of hard knocks or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “And I’m 70 years old now and no quedan muchos días para comprar (there’s not many shopping days left). And I get more aware of that every day.”

Spanish colors his graphic language. He’s been to Mexico — “I like it there”  — and Day of the Dead imagery pops up in his work.

Plagued by “a shot disc” and pinched nerve he originally injured sky diving and aggravated over many years of physical labor, he’s been unable to work much since the flurry of activities surrounding the exhibit, film and book. Surgery’s in order, but he’s putting it off as long as he can. He swims to get his back “into shape, so I can get back doing my work. I want to do some work bad.”

 

 

File:Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA).jpg

Museum of Nebraska Art

 

 

As recently as six years ago he still painted houses to get by. That, along with tackling large-scale art works that require him to climb ladders or woodcuts that demand he get on his hands and knees, takes its toll.

“It’s physical. It’s hard. Age compounds that, too,” he said.

Time-consuming, too. Karen Duncan said he’s “very slow, very deliberate, very methodical. Very particular.”

A painter first and foremost, he mostly works in oil on canvas these days. Also a lithographer, he produces woodcuts and etchings. Drawing, whether in pencil, pen, ink, marker or charcoal, is the foundation of his portrait/figurative work.

“It’s important for me to draw. I like to draw. I need to draw. I always have.”

His well-used sketchbooks reveal studies of those things that catch his eye and stir his soul. “He’s affected by everything around him,” Duncan said. Faces. Bodies, at rest or in motion. Women, lots of women. Nudes. Erotica. Indelible characters, male and female, whose distinctive features he embellishes. Animals and nature.

Stylistically, his work is most often categorized as expressionistic. But art terms are so many dodges and distractions as far as he’s concerned.

“I mean, it gets to be all relative, you know, because you still use brushes and you still use paint. That’s where it begins and ends. And there again, you like or you don’t like, it works or it don’t work.”

On the sheer range of Weaver’s subject matter, Geske says in the film: “Everything appeals to him. His appetite is just as broad as it can be.”

“Well, I’ve always had that type of thing,” Weaver told The Reader. “I couldn’t play one sport. I had to play four sports. If there had been more, I would have tried those, too. Each medium is different and each sport is different from the other one. It’s the same kind of drive that you have for that stuff. I wanted to be a baseball player…a cartoonist…a wildlife illustrator.”

He was drawing from the time he was a boy. His earliest influences the comic books and cartoons he read. His farmer father offered no encouragement. His mother, some. Weaver knew he wanted a life different than theirs.

Running with the wrong crowd got him in a jam he ended up doing time for. Art was and continues to be his salvation.

“If I hadn’t got in the racket I’m in now, I’d probably of wound up in the pen for the rest of my life or dead or both,” he says on screen. He confirmed to The Reader, “Oh, yeah, definitely, that’s an honest statement. Going to school, I came close going back (to the pen) a couple times. There was one (incident) that was maybe my fault, but the other ones were other people’s fault. But that don’t make any difference. They (the law) don’t give a fuck about that.”

Surrendering to his craft isn’t so much by design as directed.

“I don’t think you have any control over that at that point. I think once you’ve got the curse, you don’t really have any choice. Once the dye is cast, it’s all gonna be, for bad, for good, for in-between. It’s kind of fatalistic, but I’ve seen a lot of examples where that’s true, especially my own.”

His art bloomed in jail (he even began an art club behind bars) but really flourished at the art institute, where he was a student with Quareshi and Jacobshagen in the ‘60s. Later, he did grad studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said it was at the institute that for the first time “I really felt I could paint a little. I remember when I thought that and the feeling I had about it. The art institute was probably the best period of my life in that sense.”

 

Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

Robert Weaver
b. 1935, Stillwater, Kansas
Medium: lithograph
Date: 1965

 

 

The institute’s where he lost much of his early work and nearly lost his life, too. One spring day, the smell of something smoldering filled a building on campus he was working in. But the source of the odor couldn’t be found. By night fall, Weaver was still inside and oblivious to the fact the structure was by then ablaze.

“It was really getting smoky. I started to leave, but I couldn’t make it it was so smoky. Then I started crawling to get to my paintings or whatever. I don’t know what I was trying to do. I went back. I tried to get out of one door, but it was locked, and I finally found another one and got out.”

Outside, a crowd watched as the fire raged. He joined the throng, but could only think about his endangered work. Then, as if the devil himself spoke, a lick of fire rained down on his precious paintings.

“There was a big glow in the wall by where my paintings were. I mean, fuck. I’ve never seen anything as weird as that in my life. All of a sudden this flame just jumped out of the wall right on top of my work. It was just like something out of a fucking comic book.”

Or the Bible, someone suggests. “Oh, yeah, ciento por ciento (one hundred percent),” he says, laughing.

Seeing his work about to burn up was too much for him to stand.

“I just yelled and kicked this big fucking plate glass window in and was trying to get in and grab this painting…but they all grabbed me…After the fire was put out and the smoke cleared, I went in and got it. That was the only one I saved and at that time that was my perfect painting. The fire scorched it, but I cleaned it up and varnished it. It was in the MONA show and it really looked good.”

Ask him what a perfect Weaver painting is, and he pretends to be annoyed, saying. “You’re on thin ice. Boy, that’s a loaded question. Goddamn. You know, that’s all. Perfect’s a false word anyway. What the fuck do you want to paint for if they’re all going to be perfect? It’s so fucking relative.”

So, you inquire, How do you know when you’re satisfied with a work? “You just know,” he replies again, tiring of the questions. “I’ve liked paintings at the time I’ve done ‘em and then later I’ve shit canned ‘em. And there’s some I’ve destroyed I wish I hadn’t of, and some I did that I’m glad I did. I know some artists who’ve never thrown anything away, and they should have.” Satisfaction, he said, is ephemeral. “That’s always short lived.”

Suggest the high of creation is rooted in the moment, and he reminds you, “Well, the moment gets into days and years and that kind of thing. I worked on my big airplane painting about a year and on my train painting five years.”

But he acknowledges his work means everything to him. In the film, he and others remark on how hard it is for him to let go of the work, even when it leaves his possession. “I care what happens to my work. I mean, they may own it, but it’s still my fucking work.” On-screen, he’s shown going up to a tractor painting of his on display in a public place and the sensual pleasure he takes from the tactile act of feeling it, caressing it, as he would a woman. “I do that,” he said.

“Are you about done with this bullshit?” That’s Weaver’s way of saying his patience is at an end. You tell him that’s all there is. “Yeah, it’s getting a little bit thin, too,” he says by way of commentary. And with that, the gangly artist ambles off, throwing darting, sideways glances, as if to avoid an ambush. Perhaps he’s off to go “rockin’” on Yankee Creek, the retreat he escapes to when he wants to be “alone,” searching for rocks and Indian artifacts. Like he says on screen, “As long as I can do this, I don’t need no fucking shrink.”

You get the feeling all he needs is the sanctuary of the outdoors and his studio. Alone, with his palette of paints, he mixes colors and takes brush to canvas, feeding off the rush and angst of a new creation he will invariably fight with and swear at. It’s just the piss-and-vinegar tonic for this ever restless seeker. “I feel if I don’t die first and I get through some of this bullshit, I’ll be back,” he vows.

Geske says of Weaver and his art: “Painting is like his breathing. It’s that natural, instinctive and positive.”

“He never quits, no matter what,” said Bob Starck.

And this, for better or worse, is the gospel according to Weaver.

 
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