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


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

 

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Sarah Lemke

Appearing in the May’June 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

In creating the larger-than-life likeness of Chief Standing Bear for the Nebraska state capitol’s Centennial Mall, sculptor Benjamin Victor felt communion with the late Native American icon. Victor was “captivated” by the principled ways of the Ponca leader, whose eloquent advocacy for his people led to a historic federal court ruling at Fort Omaha that declared the nation’s indigenous peoples to be legally “human” for the first time on May 12, 1879.

“He was a true servant-leader,” Victor says of his subject. “The things he wanted were very basic, inalienable human rights everyone should be afforded. He carried himself with dignity even through demeaning treatment. He had a higher moral code of ethics during a time when the laws were not moral. He had the courage to stand up for right through many injustices.”

Based in Idaho, the Boise State University professor and resident artist felt connected to Standing Bear through every stage of his artistic process—from preparatory research into the famous Nebraskan, through molding his clay form, to casting the Ponca leader in bronze.

“His story and spirit definitely were speaking to me,” Victor says. “As an artist, you try to get that voice through your artwork to speak to viewers who see it. I felt humbled to be working on it. In the sculpture itself, I tried to keep the spirit of Standing Bear alive as much as I tried for an accurate portrait. An accurate portrait is important, but to me a spiritual portrait is just as important. I hope it really inspires other people to study his life. If my work does that, then it’s a success.”

The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and Donald Miller Campbell Family Foundation commissioned the 11-foot-tall sculpture, unveiled Oct. 15, 2017. Then, over the winter, a pair of Nebraska state senators (including Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha) introduced a bill to replace the state’s two sculptures—of J. Sterling Morton and William Jennings Bryan—in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall with those of Willa Cather and Standing Bear. A donor, Donald Miller Campbell, pledged funds for a copy to be made of Victor’s Standing Bear work.

“To have him as a towering icon in the U.S. Capitol would be important. His story should be on the national scale. He should be known in every school,” Victor says.

The artist already has two works in the Hall. One is of Northern Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca on behalf of the state of Nevada. Anything Native holds profound meaning for Victor, as his late step-grandfather was a member of the Juaneño—a coastal California tribe engulfed by Spanish missions.
“It’s always a big deal to me whenever I do a Native American piece that it’s done right and with purpose. I always think of my grandpa when I do them. He liked the images I created of Native Americans with a strong stance and with dignity. That really meant a lot to him. If he’s looking down, he’s really proud of this one.”

Victor’s second sculpture in the U.S. Capitol represents Iowa—Norman Borlaug, the father of modern agriculture’s “Green Revolution.”

Working from photos, Victor “modified” Standing Bear’s pose “to capture a hint of motion,” as if the chief were moving forward slightly. In an attempt to “capture every detail,” he created folds and the look of heaviness in the blanket draped about his subject. Ornamental details included intricate beadwork, a bear claw necklace, and peace medals. Victor symbolized the chief’s dual roles as warrior and ambassador by having him holding an ax-peace pipe.

The bronze is positioned in front of a wall carved with the eloquent words of Standing Bear on trial (as translated by Omaha Native Susette “Bright Eyes” LaFlesche): “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

The project selection committee for the state capitol’s Centennial Mall learned about Victor from George Neubert (director of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum in Brownville, Nebraska), who befriended the artist when he did a commission for Peru State College, where his bronze of a hulking football player adorns the Oak Bowl.

Although Victor originally hails from California, he developed deep roots in the Great Plains while attending Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he discovered his love of sculpture.

“When I picked up clay the first time in college, the medium just clicked for me,” he says. “I felt like the concepts I was trying to get across were very readily expressed in sculpture. I really like the physicality of sculpture, how you move the clay with your hands and manipulate it. I like everything about it. I also work in marble—so I do the subtractive process of carving, the additive process of clay work, and the replacement process of bronze.”

He was still in school when he landed his first big commission—for the Aberdeen airport.

“I had a family to support,” he says. “I worked at the YMCA part-time, took odd jobs, and went to school full time. I was on food stamps and rental assistance. We had nothing. To get the commission was really amazing because you can struggle your whole life as an artist and never get a commission like that.”

Soon thereafter came the Winnemucca project. Demand for his work has never ceased.

“I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make it on my own in my dream field and career,” he says. “It’s a true American success story. I still don’t take it for granted. Every day I get to do this, I feel very blessed. And then to do something inspiring like Standing Bear. What a dream commission to commemorate him and everything he stood for.”

Upon graduating, Victor was a Northern State teacher and resident artist before Boise State courted him.

“They gave me a beautiful studio space and gallery. It’s been a great home,” he says, adding that he maintains close ties with his former colleagues in South Dakota. “I’ve got so many friends there that are just like family.”

Back at his Boise studio, his studio life intersects with students, patrons, and his three children. Meanwhile, he continues to always keep his ears open to the spirits of his subjects.

Visit benjaminvictor.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

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Process equals passion for migrant Bemis resident artist Trevor Amery


Process equals passion for migrant Bemis resident artist Trevor Amery

©story by Leo Adam Biga

©photos by Bill Sitzmann

Appears in the March-April 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine ( http://omahamagazine.com/ )

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts resident Trevor Amery is a well-traveled maker. The sculptor, whose Bemis stay began January 11 and runs through mid-March, has done residencies in Mexico, Hungary and Finland. He’s completed projects in Alaska, Florida and many points in between.

After years on the East Coast, he now makes California home, though he’s often just returning from or embarking on a new art-life adventure. This summer he expects to go to China.

Some journeys have proved transformative. In the course of the 2011 Finland sojourn, fate or circumstance intervened to change his practice from painting to sculpture. He had just left his former risk-adverse life as an admissions counselor at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore to heed the very advice he gave students – to live freely and fearlessly. He’d no sooner broken away from his own safe, prescribed higher ed rut to go to far-off Finland, when, en route, all his oil paints were confiscated by airport security.

There he was, adrift in a strange country, unequipped to create in the manner he’d come all that way to do.

“I didn’t have a lot of money to go and buy all new oil paints in one of the most expensive countries in the European Union,” Amery says. “I just had to figure out how to start making.”

Enraptured by the dense forests of the residency’s idyllic rural setting and the ubiquitous, large firewood piles he saw outside every home, he surrendered the idea of painting to create instead in wood. It helped that he had an extensive woodworking background.

“I started splitting wood to understand it as a material. I’d wake up and split as much wood as I could handle and I learned so much more about it than I ever did working in a wood shop. I started doing these stacked firewood piles. I made a 12-foot tall spinning wood pile on a children’s merry-go-round as a kinetic permanent sculpture. I did a 6-foot-by-6 foot-by 6-foot cube of firewood on a floating dock in the middle of the lake outside the old schoolhouse I stayed in. I went into town to do woodpiles in urban niches – between buildings and mailboxes – and left them to be reclaimed.”

His “big epiphany” happened paddling wood out to the floating dock in the lake.

“I had this eureka moment of, ‘Wow, this could be my work. I don’t have to sit in a studio illustrating an idea with oil paint – I can actually be out in the world engaging nature and people, having the social aspects I crave.'”

For Amery, the journey in the making is everything.

“I just like process – problem-solving, engineering new solutions and stuff like that. I do have an interest in DYI culture, which also informs my practice. I grew up with two older brothers who were always taking apart and rebuilding cars, so I inherited a little bit of that interest. My mom’s an antique dealer. She deals in country rustic. She rewires lamps and reupholsters chairs. That kind of problem solving has always been in the family.”

Since Finland, Amery’s gone on to cast pieces of firewood in porcelain stoneware. This past summer in Wyoming he taught himself how to make his own charcoal using wood. While assisting with the set-up of a towering geodesic installation there, he salvaged a broken sledgehammer handle made of ash and converted it into a 30-inch, hand-hewn spoon sculpture in whose bottom he carved a tiny geodesic dome.

“Function plays a role in the work,” he says. “But this object also now has a really important history to it. I love the kind of shift in value that comes with provenance of objects and materials that I use. Because of a personal story with it, it has this new significance.”

He’s always searching for materials at Habitat for Humanity Restores, thrift shops, junkyards and wherever his eyes and curiosity lead him. Chance encounters turn into conversations that find him walking away with lessons and scraps for his sculptures.

 

In 2012 he came back from a residency in Hungary only to find himself “back to square one” in his work. Absent a project, he thought long and hard about finally realizing something he always wanted to make: a boat. Made of wood, of course.

“After some research, I set out to build my own Aleutian- style kayak, and I did. I made all the ribs out of green bent branches I cut in the woods in Maine.”

The design for the 17-foot vessel came from a downloaded PDF.

“The first year after I built it, I kind of denied its function. I was more interested in its making, its coming into being, the history of it. I built part of the frame in Maine and then drove it to Michigan, where it spent a year with me as this omnipresent dope object I couldn’t finish because I didn’t have the space to do it. It hung above me in the apartment making me feel bad for not working on it. I eventually brought it back to the east coast and then came to Calif. with it, where I finished it. But I was still using it as this studio-exhibition object and skirting its function. Then I decided I have to put it in the water.”

He secured a grant for a performative project whereby he drove the kayak all the way to Alaska to make its inaugural launch off the Homer Spit. He documented the experience with his Mamiya C330 camera.

On-site, he split a log to make his own paddle from tree branches. When the moment arrived to place the kayak in its heritage waters, he was overjoyed this object that traveled so far with him “actually worked great.”

The kayak trekked with him again when he took part in the Performance is Alive satellite art show in Miami.

“I kayaked through the different waterways of Miami to document the coastline and the relationship of these important spaces to water recreation and the city’s economy and looking at how this essentially sea level city will eventually be underwater.”

He successfully negotiated the voyage, only to have curator Quinn Dukes ask him go out again and finish in South Beach. Tempting fate, Amery recalls, “I went across the channel out into the ocean like a fool. Everything was gong fine actually and then the ocean floor dropped off at this one place that turned the ocean into a washing machine. This wave came from behind and capsized me many football fields away from the coastline. I thought I was done for. I was just this little head bobbing in the water. I tried flagging down a passing yacht but it cruised by. Finally, a jet skier who just happened to be out in the ocean jumping off waves, saw my waving arms and rescued me by throwing me a towline.”

Amery’s kayak and camera both survived the mishap.

“Out of all that came a whole new body of work of wooden wave sculptures I call ‘Capsized.'”

The artist is approaching Omaha the way he does all his residency stops – “keeping that opportunity for discovery.” “A huge part of it is what comes out of the relationships in a place,” he says. “Yes, the landscapes inspire me but also the people and the conversations.”

By the end of his Bemis stay, he expects to have worked on his sleeping bag forms and ‘Capsized’ wave series and to have responded to what he found here.

“Re-contextualizing or reorienting is one of the most important things for me,” he says.

But “allowing who you are to come out in the work as honestly you can” is where it’s at,” he adds. “The most authentic self you can have in the work is the real goal.”

Visit trevor-amery.com.

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