My good acquaintances Rudy and Llana Smith have a daughter named Quiana who has inherited their talent and drive and gone them one further by pursuing and realizing her dream of a musical theater career in New York. This profile of Quiana for The Reader (www.thereader.com) expresses this dynamic young woman’s heart and passion. It’s been a few years since I’ve spoken with her, and I’m eager to find out what she’s been up to lately, and how she and her father are coming along on a book project about African-American stage divas. Quiana is to write it and Rudy, a professional photographer, is to shoot it. Her mother, Llana, is a theater person, too — writing and directing gospel plays. My story on Llana Smith is posted on this site and I will soon be adding a story I did on Rudy Smith. They are a remarkable family.
Quiana Smith’s Dream Time
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Once the dream took hold, Quiana Smith never let go. Coming up on Omaha’s north side she discovered a flair for dramatics and a talent for singing she hoped would lead to a musical theater career. On Broadway. After a steady climb up the ladder her dream comes true tomorrow when a revival of Les Miserables open at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Q. Smith, as her stage name reads, is listed right there in the program, as a swing covering five parts, a testament to her versatility.
Before Les Miz is over Smith will no doubt get a chance to display her big, bold, brassy, bodacious self, complete with her shaved head, soaring voice, infectious laugh and broad smile. Her Broadway debut follows featured roles in the off-Broadway Fame On 42nd Street at NY‘s Little Shubert Theater in 2004 and Abyssinia at the North Shore Theater (Connecticut) in 2005. Those shows followed years on the road touring with musical theater companies or doing regional theater.
Fame’s story about young performers’ big dreams resonated for Smith and her own Broadway-bound aspirations. As Mabel, an oversized dancer seeking name-in-lights glory, she inhabited a part close to her ample self, projecting a passion akin to her own bright spirit and radiating a faith not unlike her deep spirituality. In an Act II scene she belted out a gospel-inspired tune, Mabel’s Prayer, that highlighted her multi-octave voice, impassioned vibrato and sweet, sassy, soulful personality. In the throes of a sacred song like this, Smith retreats to a place inside herself she calls “my secret little box,” where she sings only “to God and to myself. It’s very, very personal.” Whether or not she gets on stage this weekend in Les Miz you can be sure the 28-year-old will be offering praise and thanksgiving to her higher power.
It all began for her at Salem Baptist Church, where her grandmother and mother, have written and directed gospel plays for the dramatic ministry program. At her mother Llana’s urging, Smith and her brothers sang and acted as children. “My brothers got really tired of it, but I loved the attention, so I stuck with it,” said Smith, who began making a name for herself singing gospel hymns, performing skits and reciting poetry at Salem and other venues. She got attention at home, too, where she’d crack open the bathroom window and wail away so loud and finethat neighborhood kids would gather outside and proclaim, ”You sure can sing, Quiana” “We were just a real creative house,” said Quiana’s mother.
Quiana further honed her craft in classes at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre and, later, at North High School, where music/drama teacher Patrick Ribar recalls the impression Smith made on her. “The first thing I noticed about Quiana was her spark and flair for the stage. She was so creative…so diverse. She would do little things to make a part her own. I was amazed. She could hold an audience right away. She has such a warmth and she’s so fun that it’s hard not to like her.”
Still, performing was more a recreational activity than anything else. “Back then, I never knew I wanted to do this as a career,” Smith said. “I just liked doing it and I liked the great response I seemed to get from the audience. But as far as a career, I thought I was going to be an archaeologist.”
She was 15, and a junior at North, when her first brush with stardom came at the old Center Stage Theatre. She saw an audition notice and showed up, only to find no part for a black girl. She auditioned anyway, impressing executive director Linda Runice enough to be invited back to tryout for a production of Dreamgirls. The pony-tailed hopeful arrived, in jeans and sweatshirt, sans any prepared music, yet director Michael Runice (Linda’s husband) cast her as an ensemble member.
Then, in classic a-star-is-born fashion, the leading lady phoned-in just before rehearsal the night before opening night to say she was bowing out due to a death-in-the-family. That’s when Mike Runice followed his instinct and plucked Smith from the obscurity of the chorus into a lead role she had less than 24 hours to master.
“It was like in a movie,” Smith said. “The director turned around and said to me, ‘It’s up to you, kid.’ I don’t know why he gave it to me to this day. You should have seen the cast. It was full of talented women. I was the youngest.” And greenest. Linda Runice said Smith got it because “she was so talented. She had been strongly considered for the role anyway, but she was so young and it’s such a demanding role. But she was one of those rare packages who could do it all. You saw the potential when she hit the stage, and she just blew them out of the theater.”
What began as a lark and segued into a misadventure, turned into a pressure-packed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only did an already excited and scared Smith have precious little time to steel herself for the rigorous part and for the burden of carrying a show on her young shoulders, there was still school to think about, including finals, not to mention her turning sweet 16.
“The director wrote me a note to let me out of school early and he came to pick me up and take me to the theater. From 12 to 8, I was getting fitted for all the costumes, I was learning all the choreography, I was going over all the line readings, I was singing all the songs, and it was just crazy. A crash course.”
Smith pushed so hard, so fast to nail the demanding music in time for the show that she, just as the Runices feared, strained her untrained voice, forcing her to speak many of the songs on stage. That opening night is one she both savors and abhors. “That was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “It was the best thing because if it wasn’t for that experience I’d probably be digging up fossils somewhere, which isn’t bad, but I wouldn’t be fulfilled. And it was the worst because I was so embarrassed.”
In true trouper tradition, Smith and the show went on. “What a responsiblity she carried for someone so young, and she carried it off with all the dignity and aplomb anyone could ever want,” Linda Runice said. Smith even kept the role the entire run. The confidence she gained via this baptism-by-fire fueled her ambition. “I told myself, If I can do this, I can do anything,” Smith said. Runice remembers her “as this bubbly, fresh teenager who was going to set the world on fire, and she has.”
To make her Broadway debut in Les Miz is poetic justice, as that show first inspired Smith’s stage aspirations. She heard songs from it in a North High music class and was really bit after seeing a Broadway touring production of it at the Orpheum.
“It was my introduction to musical theater. I fell in love with it,” she said. “I already had a double cassette of the cast album and I would listen to this song called ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ over and over. It was sung by Patti Lapone. I tried to teach myself to sing like that. When I finally met her last year I told her the story. That song is still in my audition book.”
Smith dreamed of doing Lez Miz in New York. Ribar recalls her telling him soon after they met, “‘One day I’m going to be on Broadway…’ She was bound and determined. Nothing was going to stop her. So, she goes there, and the next thing you know…she’s on Broadway. With her determination and talent, you just knew she was right on the edge of really brilliant things in her life. I brag about her to the kids as someone who’s pursued her dream,” he said. Stardom, he’s sure, isn’t far off. “Once the right role shows up, it’s a done deal.”
A scholarship led her to UNO, where she studied drama two years. All the while, she applied to prestigious theater arts programs back east to be closer to New York. Her plans nearly took a major detour when, after an audition in Chicago, she was accepted, on the spot, by the Mountview Conservatory in London to study opera. Possessing a fine mezzo soprano voice, her rendition of an Italian aria knocked school officials out. She visited the staid old institution, fell in love with London, but ultimately decided against it. “The opera world, to me, isn’t as exciting and as free as the musical theater world is,” she said. “Besides, it was a two or three-year conservatory program, and I really wanted the whole college experience to make me a whole person.”
Her musical theater track resumed with a scholarship to Ithaca (NY) College, where she and a classmate became the first black female grads of the school’s small theater arts program. She also took private voice and speech training. At Ithaca, she ran into racial stereotyping. “When I first got there everybody expected you to sing gospel or things from black musicals,” she said. “Everything was black or white. And I was like, It doesn’t have to be like that. I can do more than gospel. I can do more than R&B. I can do legit. I really had to work hard to prove myself.”
Her experience inspired an idea for a book she and her father, Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith, are collaborating on. She interviews black female musical theater actresses to reveal how these women overturn biases, break down barriers and open doors. “We’re rare,” she said of this sisterhood. “These women are an inspiration to me. They don’t take anything from anybody. They’re divas, honey. Back in the day, you would take any part that came to you because it was a job, but this is a new age and we are allowed to say, No. In college, I would have loved to have been able to read about what contemporary black females are doing in musical theater.” Her father photographs the profile subjects.
She’s had few doubts about performing being her destiny. One time her certainty did falter was when she kept applying for and getting rejected by college theater arts programs. She sought her dad’s counsel. “I said, ‘Dad…how do I know this is for me?’ He was like, ‘Sweetheart, it’s what you breath, right?’ It’s what you go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah…’ ‘OK, then, that’s what you should be doing.’ And, so, I never gave up. I kept on auditioning and I finally got accepted to Ithaca.”
Smith has worked steadily since moving to the Big Apple. Her credits include speaking-singing parts in productions of Hair at the Zachary Scott Theatre and The Who’s Tommy at the Greenwich St. Theatre and performing gigs in five touring road shows. Those road trips taught her a lot about her profession and about herself. On a months-long winter tour through Germany with the Black Gospel Singers, which often found her and her robed choir mates performing in magnificent but unheated cathedrals, she got in touch with her musical-cultural heritage. “Gospel is my roots and being part of the gospel singers just brought my roots back,” she said.
New York is clearly where Smith belongs. “I just feel like I’ve always known New York. I always dreamed about it. It was so easy and comfortable when I first came here,” she said. “Walking the streets alone at 1 a.m., I felt at home, like it was meant to be. It’s in my blood or something.”
Until Fame and now Les Miz, New York was where she lived between tours. Her first of two cross-country stints in Smokey Joe’s Cafe proved personally and professionally rewarding. She understudied roles that called for her to play up in age, not a stretch for “an old soul” like Smith. She also learned lessons from the show’s star, Gladys Knight. “She was definitely someone who gave it 100 percent every night, no matter if she was hoarse or sick, and she demanded that from us as well,” Smith said, “and I appreciated that. The nights I didn’t go on, I would go out into the audience and watch her numbers and she just blew the house down every single night. And I was like, I want to be just like that. I learned…about perseverance and about dedication to the gift God has given you.”
For a second Smokey stint, starring Rita Coolidge, Q. was a regular cast member. Then, she twice ventured to Central America with the revues Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber andBlues in the Night. “That’s an experience I’ll never forget,” she said. “We went to a lot of poor areas in Guatemala and El Salvador. People walk around barefoot. Cows are in the road. Guns are all around. We performed in ruins from the civil wars. And there we were, singing our hearts out for people who are hungry, and they just loved it. It was a life-changing experience.”
She loves travel but loves performing more in New York, where she thinks she’s on the cusp of something big. “It’s a dream come true and I truly believe this is just the beginning,” said Smith, who believes a higher power is at work. “I know it’s not me that’s doing all this stuff and opening all these doors so quickly, because it’s taken some people years and years to get to this point. It’s nothing but the Lord. I have so much faith. That’s what keeps me in New York pursuing this dream.”
While not a headliner with her name emblazoned on marquees just yet, she’s sure she has what it takes to be a leading lady, something she feels is intrinsic in her, just waiting for the chance to bust on out. “I’m a leading lady now. I’m a leading lady every day. Yes, I say that with confidence, and not because I’m so talented,” she said. “It’s not about having a great voice. It’s not about being a star. It’s about how you carry yourself and connect with people. It’s about having a great aura and spirit and outlook on life… and I think I’ve got that”
Her busy career gives Smith few chances to get back home, where she said she enjoys “chilling with my family and eating all the good food,” but she makes a point of it when she can. She was back in September, doing a workshop for aspiring young performers at the Hope Center, an inner city non-profit close to her heart. She also sang for a cousin’s wedding at Salem. On some breaks, she finds time to perform here, as when featured in her mother’s Easter passion play at Salem in 2004. She’d like one day to start a school for performing arts on the north side, giving children of color a chance to follow their own dreams.
Occasionally, a regional theater commitment will bring her close to home, as when she appeared in a summer 2005 production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coatin Wichita. Despite lean times between acting-singing gigs, when she works with aspiring youth performers for the Camp Broadway company, Smith keeps auditioning and hoping for the break that lands her a lead or featured part on Broadway, in film or on television. She’s not shy about putting herself out there, either. She went up for a role opposite Beyonce in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls, the other show she dreams of doing on Broadway. She can see it now. “Q. Smith starring in…” She wants it all, a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy. A career acting, singing, writing, directing, teaching and yes, even performing opera.
Smith’s contracted for the six-month run of Les Miz. Should it be extended, she may face a choice: stay with it or join the national touring company of The Color Purple, which she may be in line for after nearly being cast in the Broadway show.
That said, Smith is pursuing film/TV work in L.A. after the positive experience of her first screen work, a co-starring role in the Black Entertainment Network’s BETJ mini-series, A Royal Birthday. The Kim Fields-directed project, also being packaged as a film, has aired recently on BET and its Jazz off-shoot. A kind of romantic comedy infomercial for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the project also features Gary Dourdan from CSI and gospel artist David Hollister.
The Royal Birthday shoot, unfolding on two separate Caribbean cruises, whet her appetite for more screen work and revealed she has much to learn. “It was absolutely beautiful. We went horseback riding, para-sailing, jet-skiing. I had never done any of those things,” she said. “I learned a lot about acting for the camera, too. I’m very theatrical, very animated in it. It doesn’t need to be that big.”
Should fame allude her on screen or on stage, she’s fine with that, too, she said, because “I’m doing something I truly love.” Besides, she can always find solace in that “little secret box” inside her, where it’s just her and God listening to the power of her voice lifted on high. Sing in exaltation.
- A reawakening for ‘Dreamgirls’ (sfgate.com)
- Phylicia Rashad, Anna Deavere Smith to Star in Washington Productions (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Grows in New Directions (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevyn Morrow’s Homecoming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
I first wrote about Omaha photographer Monte Kruse more than 20 years ago, and even in all the intervening years and stories and personalities I’ve come across, he still rates as one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever met. One day I will post that story, as it’s always been one of my favorites — I think because of the subject and for the way I captured the essence of his otherness. Monte definitely marches to his own drummer. Like a lot of creatives, some can find him strange or difficult, but that’s just Monte being Monte. Of his talent, there is no question. When I encountered that first time he was doing great humanistic work and as I recall more or less living out of his car, flitting between places and assignments. He’s come a long way since then. The last time I ran into him, which was for the following story, he had a downtown loft that served as both residence and studio. I believe he’s still there, but I don’t know for sure. What I do know for sure is that wherever Monte lands he’ll always find a way to do things his own way.
This blog also contains stories of mine about several other Omaha-based photographers, including Jim Hendrickson and Don Doll, who are friends and mentors of Kruse, as well as Rudy Smith, Larry Ferguson, and David Radler. By the end of the year I will be posting a major piece on 2010 World Photographer of the Year Jim Krantz. Additionally, the blog features pieces on many filmmakers, including Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler, Dana Altman, Jon Jost, John Landis, Joan Micklin Silver, Gail Levin, and Charles Fairbanks.
Photographer Monte Kruse Pushes Boundaries
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Omaha photographer Monte Kruse muses about his darkly erotic work “pushing the limits” and getting “him noticed” he sounds every bit the impetuous artist that he is. A sensualist in his life and in his art, Kruse makes striking nude images that actually fulfill his expressed intention to “stretch the bounds” with “edgy work” that elicits strong responses from viewers.
The large-format black-and-white images, which explore the male and female body in evocative contexts, have attracted the very attention he seeks via a slate of local gallery showings displaying his work and the recent gift of one of his prints, Debris IV, to the Joslyn Art Museum permanent collection. While holding court at an Old Market bistro one spring night, the enigmatic Kruse discussed what lies behind the improvisational approach and primal effect he has hit upon with his latest series of nudes.
“I was making money shooting standard portraits but I said to myself, ‘I’m not doing anything that stirs interest or makes people think. How can I do that?’ And I thought, ‘Well, the best way to do it is to photograph the nude, but not the classical nudes of beautiful bodies entwined on a beach with the ocean in the background. Instead, I wanted to do something more like snapshots — images that come out of found moments that have some mystery to them.’ So, I looked at a lot of film noir. I liked the darkness and the moodiness of it. The mystery of it. The detective-style quality to it. And that’s what I was searching for,” he said that night above the din of the busy bistro.
The result, he explained, “is photojournalism, combined with mystery writing, imbued with a mood. It’s the kind of work not typically seen. It’s not real pretty. It’s dark, it’s personal, it’s edgy. It’s not so much about the person as it is the moment — the specific truth of the moment. I don’t want anything posed. I go in without any preconceived ideas, except to bring out a certain element of intrigue. It’s like a diary. It’s my experience with that person in that moment. There’s one like that of me and my girlfriend naked in a hotel room. It just happened. Another time, someone I was with took a shower and, boom, I shot it. Once, in a hotel, a person opened a window across the way and I said, ‘That’s it — I’ve got a photograph.’”
Striving for verisimilitude, Kruse often uses found locations and objects rather than sets or props, relying on available light and “a gut feeling.” When not shooting in a studio, he employs minimal artificial lighting and staging. The idea, he said, is to let the process be as natural and instinctive as possible. “I’m photographing without safety nets. I don’t want to do things that are going to be perfect. I don’t want to have it all sketched out. The more off-handed I get, the better I get. I let the subconscious free. I want to be surprised by my own images. The whole thing is just moving and keeping your energy flow up and shooting different angles and not being afraid to take chances. It’s like jazz — it moves from one thing to another. It’s free-flowing. It just goes.”
Later that same night in the Old Market Kruse retreated to his spacious Bemis loft apartment/studio, where he showed some acquaintances the very pictures he was describing. Upon seeing the pulp-fiction-like images, the assembled agreed the photos capture private, unguarded moments suggestive of any number of storylines or histories.
Snapped amid such naturalistic settings as bedrooms and bathrooms, the images offer views of nude individuals and couples in intimate, impromptu moments of a post-coital nature, although nothing overtly sexual is revealed: the shape of a voluptuous woman leaning with a nonchalant attitude in a hallway; a half-glimpsed man standing over a woman lying on her back in bed, gently stroking her pelvis; a well-hung man descending a staircase; a woman with a full bush getting dressed. The pictures, both stark and dreamy, offer a post-modernist’s view of the human form and make the viewer acutely aware of his/her role as voyeur and as purveyor of certain attitudes.
Janet Farber, associate curator of 20th century art at Joslyn Art Museum, said, where images of “the traditional nude” focus “on the beauty or the form of the human body in an isolated context,” Kruse’s images explore the nude in “contextual-narrative” ways that imply certain socio-psychological-sexual dynamics. She said his interest in evoking an atmosphere imbued with subtext is achieved in various ways.
“He’s really paying attention to the range of tones and the intensity of black and white. He creates a tension within the image that allows room for the viewer to bring something to it or add something to it in terms of the implied action. One of the ways he does that is by leaving important bits of information out. Quite often his models are anonymous or somehow their identity obscured. I think that’s part of the effect that brings into play the imagination of the viewer.”
Kruse said his increasing output of male nudes, which has included pictures of gay men interacting, compel people to confront things they may rather avoid, such as homophobia. “I’m not necessarily trying to shoot provocative images, but let’s just say the male nude is always something a little bit scarier. Anytime people see the male nude then all of a sudden there’s the assumption that you or the subject is gay, which doesn’t matter. People are going to bring those attitudes. But with my new series I’m trying to evoke some political questions about what love is and isn’t and what’s wrong with viewing the male body and what’s wrong with the gay culture. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with it.”
He said by presenting the male nude in different ways, he hopes people see beyond questions of sexual proclivity and instead view the male body as a natural and legitimate subject and one not yet exploited or perverted like the image of the female body. “When people ask, ‘Why are you interested in the male nude?, I say, ‘Well, because it’s beautiful.’ The female nude has been done to death. It’s a cliche. The male body has just as much validity as the female body. It’s just me pushing the parameters a bit. I take these snapshot-like images and blow them up into huge prints that people are forced to confront on a wall, where they’ll love it, hate it, whatever.”
Carol McCabe, who has printed many images by Kruse at her Professional Darkroom Services, said she saw the artist go through a phase where he ratcheted up the emotional tenor of his work to the point of shock value. She said where his work was once “more literal and straightforward” it now displays a “much more formal, sophisticated” and subtle interplay between elements in tension, whether shades of light and dark or moments of action and repose.
She said while “there’s a lot of physical power in the images, a big piece of what he wants to do is create ambiguity, as seen by his interest in androgyny. I think he pushes the envelope with his work more than anyone else I’ve seen in Omaha. He brings a passion and honesty and compassion to his work that makes people respond.” McCabe said Kruse is also meticulous, going to great pains to study how master visual artists have used light and paying close attention to every detail in the darkroom.
During a recent shoot in a side corridor at the Bemis building where he resides, Kruse photographed a nude male in a series of primal, pent-up “action” scenes against the backdrop of a brick wall. Beyond some minimal track lighting overhead, the only fill light Kruse brought to the location was something he calls “my genius light.”
Without any firm idea of what he would shoot, Kruse tried conjuring some compelling image into being out of thin air. He moved everywhere in the tight space, searching for angles, compositions, shadows, texture, depth, mood, feeling. He had the model, Greg, try any number of clinging, crouching stances along the wall, having him insinuate his body like a snake slithering across a rock face. In some cases he had Greg hoist himself up on a lead pipe and then twist his body and turn his face from the lens. In others, he had him make like he was scaling the wall, ala Spider-man, or else like a cat burglar or prowler caught with his pants down.
In a photo session Kruse charms his model like the seducer he is in order to get the results he wants. “You’ve got to be able to read people. You have to become their friend for that moment. You have to develop that trust. You have to be alert. You have to be open. You have to take risks.” he noted. In an almost constant patter, he reassures and directs his subject: “Beautiful, hold it right there. Bring your legs down. Bring ‘em up. Now, a little bit further down. Throw your head back. Yeah, that’s it. It’s gorgeous.” He also exchanges quips. “You kind of look like Jesus up there,” he told Greg, who at the time clung from a wall with his arms splayed out. “I’m feeling a lot like him right now,” answered a flushed Greg.
A frequent model for Kruse is Claudia Einecke, Curator of European Art at the Joslyn. Recently, she dropped over Kruse’s place while he was shooting painter Helen Braugh. After finishing with the petite and politely British brunette Braugh, he turned his attention to the sleek, blond Einecke, a German emigree who oozes a pouty sexuality without trying. As she nonchalantly sat on the arm of an easy chair, hands propped on her knees and long legs opened, Kruse clicked away from the floor with his Canon AE-1 camera. He also favors a Pentax 645.
Einecke described what it’s like being the object of his intense gaze: “Although it looks like he’s just waiting for something to happen,” she said, “there is an energy and a tension there because he’s making those things happen. It’s always impressive and interesting to see Monte at work and the concentration he brings to it. He’s always looking for the unplanned. Usually, his best photos come out of moments he recognizes that you and I would probably not see as photographs. Monte reminds me that at first I thought his new work was just awful, but now that I’ve gotten used to these images there are some that I think are really lyrical, beautiful and gentle.”
In some recent images, Kruse goes for extremities — capturing the taut muscles and bulging veins of, for example, Greg straining to support himself at the Bemis. “Where before I was dealing in found moments,” Kruse said, “now I’m trying to step-up the intensity. I’m after something real urban, real dark, real menacing. I’m pushing the model to the extremes. I’m capturing the pain, the tension, the exertion, the danger. I want to make it real hip, real cool, but not contrived.” In other shoots he’s done along these lines, he achieves ambiguity in images of naked men caught leaping through the air without a familiar context to ground their actions in. The models “are not objects,” Einecke said, “but are subjects in a narrative. You don’t know what’s going on, but you feel something is going on.”
For Kruse, photography is all about the possibilities it affords as a medium of self- expression and personal growth. The life of this former Iowa farm boy was transformed when he turned his back on a promising baseball career while a Creighton University student in the 1970s to pursue photography. With world-renowned photojournalist Don Doll and sculptor Richard Hunt as mentors Kruse developed into a sought-after image maker adept at capturing poetic human scenes for such diverse sources as news publications, galleries, corporations and private clients.
In the photo-journalistic vein, he has documented AIDS patients, homeless individuals, developmentally disabled residents and poverty-stricken natives of foreign lands. For the art market, he has shot a wide variety of stunning nudes. For a personal series of artist portraits, he has photographed such leading lights as author Studs Terkel, the late actor Jason Robards and filmmaker Sydney Pollock.
Ever the iconoclast, Kruse long ago eschewed a mainstream career for independence. His romantic idea of being an artist found him living out of his car between assignments and adventures in Israel, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. He took his obsession with photography to the limit. “If I had a choice between buying film and food, it was generally food, but it was a really close call. I’ll be honest — I stole, I cheated, I lied — I did everything to keep going. And now I’m in a position where I don’t have to do that. I’m not as desperate as I was.”
With age and maturity he now lives a settled life, supporting himself by working as a hotel doorman. This solid foundation actually frees him to experiment more with his work. “Before, I was so desperate to please and to get other jobs that I’d shoot this stereotypical stuff. My photography was based on pictures I’d seen. Now, I’m doing individual images that are uniquely my own. I’m less self-conscious. I’m more confident. If I don’t want to work with you, I can say the two magic words in the English language, ‘F_ _ _ you.’ Plus, I can create here. When I lived in other places, like New York, I couldn’t create because I was so caught up in just surviving and making the rent. Here, I can shoot all day long.”
Finally, Kruse feels photography is what ultimately defines who he is and what his legacy will be. “I pick up the camera, man, every day. I shoot images every day. I’ve shot countless images in my life. My photos are like a diary of my life. I can look back at photos I shot years ago, and it’s like yesterday. They’re proof of my existence on earth. I think the last picture I’ll take, if I can, is of all the people gathered around my bedside.”
- Fashion, photography and the art of the nude (thestar.com)
- ‘Censor This’ erotic photography exhibit in Harrisburg draws critics before it opens (pennlive.com)
- Marie Claire: Nude Is The New Black, If You’re White, That Is [Color Patterns] (jezebel.com)
- Exploring the Female Nude (thelastnoel.blogspot.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition One Person, One Image at a Time (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Fighters have always had a certain appeal, whether doing their fighting in the street or in the ring or, since the advent of mixed martial arts events, in the octagon. Houston Alexander of Omaha has pretty much done it all and he’s turned his talent for fisticuffs, combined with his good looks and charisma, into a bit of a run in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, although he ended up losing more than he won. He’s also a radio DJ, graffiti artist, self-styled hip-hop educator, and man-about-town, making him more than the sum of his parts. The following story I did on him for The Reader (www.thereader.com) hit just as he was on his way up, and even though his star has since dimmed, he’s a survivor who knows how to work his image. He and his family didn’t like some of the things in my story, but he also knows that comes with the territory.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Ultimate fighter Houston “The Assassin” Alexander of Omaha is being a good soldier for the photo shoot. Stripping down to his trunks, he poses in the middle of a south downtown street one late summer afternoon. He’s asked to look menacing, hardly a stretch for the chiseled, tattooed, head-shaved graffiti artist-street thug turned Ultimate Fighting Championship contender. He remarks about “those guys looking out those windows” at his half-naked ass, meaning inmates at the Douglas County Correctional Center peering out the razor-wired windows of the facility just down the block. He once peered out those same windows upon this very street.
“I was inside the cage in ‘97. I just got through beating up a cop and they took me down,” he says matter-of-factly. “The cop tried to grab me and I swung back and hit the guy. It was illegal what he was trying to do to me in the first place. He was trying to beat me up. I didn’t get charged for hitting a cop. I got charged for something else. I did like six months.”
It’s not his only run-in with the law. He alludes to “a whole bunch of domestic,” referring to disturbances with a woman that police responded to.
The fact he has a record only seems to add to his street cred as one tough M.F.. His fans don’t seem to mind his indiscretions. Passersby shout out props. “What’s up, Houston Alexander?” a guy calls out from his sedan. Another, on foot, invites him to a suburban sports bar where, the homey says, “they all love you out there.”
Now that Alexander is a certified UFC warrior, he’s handling all the hoopla that goes with it like a man. He seems unfazed by the endorsement deals, sponsorships, personal appearance requests, interviews, blog appraisals and fan frenzy demands coming his way these days.
Increasingly recognized wherever he goes, he eagerly acknowledges the attention with his trademark greeting, “What’s up, brother?” and firm handshake, giving love to grown men and boys whose star-struck expressions gleam with admiration for his fighting prowess. The African-American community particularly embraces him as a home boy made good. A strong, hard-working single father of six who came up an urban legend for his scribbing and street fighting. He’s one of their own and it’s them he’ll most be representing come next fight night.
Barely three months have passed since his furious UFC debut on May 26, when the light heavyweight put an octagon whupping on contender Keith Jardine at UFC 71 in Las Vegas. After getting knocked down in the first 10 seconds, Alexander quickly regrouped. His relentless pressing style backed Jardine against the fence, where he unleashed a flurry of knees, elbows, uppercuts and hooks to score a technical knockout. Now Alexander’s primed for his next step up the sport’s elite ladder.
He and his local coaching-training team led by Mick Doyle and Curlee Alexander, the same men who got him ready for his dismantling of ”The Dean of Mean“ Jardine, left for Great Britain on Monday to make final preparations for a September 8 clash with Italian Alessio Sakara on the UFC 75 card at London’s O2 Arena.
Doyle, a native of Ireland, is a former world champion martial arts fighter. His Mick Doyle Mixed Martial Arts Center at 108th and Blondo is the baddest gym around. He’s trained and worked the corner of several world champs. Curlee Alexander, a cousin of Houston’s, is a former NAIA All-America wrestler at UNO and the longtime head wrestling coach at North High School, where he’s produced numerous individual and team state champions.
Houston Alexander when to North, but other than brief forays in wrestling and football, he didn’t really compete in organized sports, unless you count weight lifting and body shaping. He was a two-time Mr. North. There was never enough money or time, he explains. By high school he was already a burgeoning entrepreneur with his art and music. Besides, he said, “I always had responsibilities at home.” But everyone knew he was gifted athletically.
The way Doyle puts it, Alexander’s “a freak” of nature for his rare combo of power and speed. The 205-pounder can bench press more than twice his body weight, yet he’s not muscle bound. He’s remarkably agile and flexible. Alexander came to him a “raw” specimen, but with abundant natural talent and instincts. Alexander knows he has a tendency to resort to street fighting, but Doyle recently reassured him by saying, “Everything we’re showing you sticks because it’s brand new. It’s not really replacing anything that anyone else taught you.” A blank slate.
“He wants to learn,” Doyle said. “He’s very confident, but he’s grounded. It’s a joy to coach someone like him.”
Curlee Alexander, a lifelong boxing devotee, has rarely seen the likes of his cousin, who’s made this old-school grappler a UFC convert. He, too, tells Houston not to change what’s worked, street fighting and all, but to harness it with technique. When Houston came to him eight months ago asking that he condition him, Curlee was dubious. Houston’s work ethic won him over. “He’s certainly determined.” His dismantling of Jardine convinced him he was in the corner of a special athlete.
“It was the most amazing night as far as being a coach I’ve ever had. All the things we had worked on were coming to fruition. He was doing it. He put all this stuff together at that moment. Incredible.”
For his part, The Assassin credits his coaches with getting him to the next level.
“Without Mick and Curlee, there’s no me. I had the raw skills, but they’re fine tuning what I have to turn me into this champ I need to be,” he said. “I love those guys. They’re the real deal. No joke. They know what they’re talking about. I do whatever they tell me to do. There’s no getting away with anything, brother, believe me. But I wouldn’t want to cheat myself anyway.”
With their help, he said, “I’m more technical and all the power and strength I have is programmed a whole different way. More controlled. But don’t get it twisted. If I need to turn it up and go hard in the paint, it can easily change.”
A win Saturday night should put the fighter in the Top 10 and that much closer to what some anticipate will be a world title challenge within a year. Doyle told Alexander as much after an August meeting to breakdown the tape of the Jardine fight. “I told you this would be a two-year process. We’re only three months into this deal and look how much better you’ve gotten. Just think in another year where you’re going to be. You’ll be able to get in the ring with Wanderlei Silva (the legendary Brazilian world champ, late of the PRIDE series, now a UFC star).”
“We understand the window of opportunity on this thing is short,” Doyle said. “We want to get it there.” Asked if Alexander’s age, 35, is part of the urgency, he said, “Maybe some of it. If he gets an injury he’s not going to heal like a 25-year-old. He’s got some years left, but let’s get him the money. He’s got six kids.”
The Sakara-Alexander tussle is key for both fighters. Doyle calls Sakara “a stepping stone” for his fighter, whom he said must “prove the Jardine thing wasn’t a fluke.” He describes it as “a make or break fight” for Sakara, who’s coming off two straight losses at 185 pounds. “He’s gotta win to stay in the UFC. Sakara’s in the way of bigger and better things, so he’s gotta go.”
Cool, suave, laidback, playful. Quick to crack on someone. Alexander’s extreme physicality manifests in the way he grabs your hand or brushes against you or delivers none too gentle love taps or engages in horse play. When he needs to, he can turn off the imp and attend to business. He’s all, ‘Yes, coach…‘Yes, sir,’ with his trainers, putting in hour after hour of roadwork, skipping rope, weight lifting, calisthenics, stretching, grappling, sparring and shadow boxing under their watch.
For months he’s trained three times a day, up to six to eight hours per day, six days a week, devoting full-time to what not long ago was just “a hobby.” He’s disciplined and motivated enough to have transformed his physique and refined his fight style. After years of itinerant club fighting, all without a manager or trainer, only himself to count on, he began formal, supervised training less than a year ago. He worked with Doyle a few weeks before the Jardine clash, which also marked the first time he prepped for a specific foe and followed a nutritional supplement regimen. By all accounts he followed the strategy laid out for him to a tee.
“I have no problem working,” he said. “I’ve been working all my life.”
Doing what needs to be done is how he’s handled himself as an artist, DJ, father, blue collar worker and pro fighter. Whatever’s come down, he’s been man enough to take it, from completing large mural projects to getting custody of his kids to donating a kidney to daughter Elan to breaking a hand in a bout yet toughing the injury out to win. “Most people don’t know I’m fighting with one kidney,” he said. He’s paid the price when he’s screwed up, too, serving time behind bars.
The UFC is all happening fast for Alexander, which is fine for this dynamo. But the thing is, he’s come to this breakthrough at an age when most folks settle into a comfortable rut. No playing it safe or easy for him though. The truth is this opportunity’s been a long time in the making for Alexander, who enjoyed local celebrity status way before the UFC entered his life.
The veteran Omaha hip hop culture scion, variously known as Scrib, FAS/ONE and The Strong Arm, has always rolled with the assurance of a self-made man and standup brother. All the way back to the day when he protected the honor of his siblings and cousins with his heavy fists, first on the mean streets of East St. Louis, Ill., then in north O, where his mother moved he and his two younger siblings after she left their father. Alexander was all of 8 when he became the man of the family.
“I’m the oldest, so I was always expected to be the leader of the whole bunch. See, I’ve fought all my life, and that’s no exaggeration. It was always a situation where I couldn’t walk away, like somebody putting their hands on my girl cousins. I got into a lot of fights because of my brother,” he said. “I don’t interfere with no one’s business, but if you put your hands on my family, then it becomes my business. A lot of people got beat up because of that.”
Respect is more than an Aretha Franklin anthem for him.
“I don’t go around disrespecting people unless they disrespect me. There’s always a line you can’t cross.”
Growing up in a single-parent home, he started hustling early on to help support the family. What began as childhood diversions — fighting and music — became careers. When he wasn’t busting heads on the street, he was rhyming, break dancing, producing and graffiti tagging as a local hip hop “pioneer.” His Midwest Alliance and B-Boys have opened for national acts. He had his own small record label for a time, His scrib work adorns buildings, bridges and railroad box cars in the area. He mostly does murals on commission these days but still goes out on occasion with his crew to scrib structures that just beg to be tagged.
It wasn’t until 2001 he began getting paid to fight, earning $500-$600 a bout. He estimates having more than 200 fights since then, of which he’s only been credited with seven by the UFC, sometimes getting in the ring multiple times per night, on small mixed martial arts cards in Omaha, Lincoln, Sioux City, Des Moines. These take-on-all-comers type of events, held at bars (Bourbon Street), concert venues (Royal Grove), outdoor volleyball courts, casinos, matched him against traditional boxers as well as kickboxers, wrestlers and practitioners of jujitsu and muay thai.
“I fought everybody, man. I fought every type of fighter there is,” he said. “Fat, short, tall. I fought a guy 400 pounds in Des Moines. Picked him up from behind and slammed him on his neck and beat him senseless. I’m a street fighter, man. When you street fight you don’t care what size and what style. It don’t matter.”
There were times he’d MC a rap concert and fight on the same venue. “Dude, it was funny, man, because first people would see me on stage saying, ‘Hey, get your hands in the air,’ and then five hours later I’m kicking somebody’s ass in the ring.”
MMA promoter Chad Mason, who promoted many of Alexander’s pre-UFC matches, confirmed the fighter saw an inordinate amount of action in a short time.
“Sometimes he was doing two-three fights in a night. He’d do ‘em in Des Moines and then turn around two days later and go to Sioux City and fight a couple more times there. So there were times he probably had six fights in a week,” Mason said. “Of course everybody he fought wasn’t top of the line competition, but he was beating Division I college wrestlers, pro boxers, pro kick boxers, guys that had years of experience. They could come out of the woodwork to just try against Houston, and he’d beat ‘em. I mean, he’d knock ‘em out.”
By Alexander’s own reckoning his personal record was fighting and winning five times in one night in Sioux City.
“I was feeling it that night. It was just crazy, man.”
He began fathering kids 15 years ago and now has custody of his three boys and three girls, by three different mothers. Four of the kids are from his ex-wife of 10 years. He, his kids and his hottie of a new girl friend, Elana, share a three-room northwest Omaha apartment until he finds the right house to buy. He has the perfect crib in mind — a three-bedroom brick house with wood floors.
As a single daddy he has a new appreciation for raising kids. He makes it work amid his training and other commitments with some old-fashioned parenting.
“My kids have structure. It’s all military style. We have to do everything together. We all have breakfast together. We all sit down at the table together for dinner. It can’t work any other way,” he said.
Between school and extracurricular activities, he said, “I try to keep them as active as I can.” He helps coach his boys club football team, the Gladiators. One girl’s in ballet, another in basketball. “I’m always moving, so they’re always moving.”
He vows his children, ranging in age from 15 to 4, are his prime motivation for making this fight thing pay off.
“I want to win to secure a financial future for my kids’ college education. Again it always goes back to the kids.”
To makes ends meet he worked on highway construction crews for nearly 10 years. Until the UFC discovered him, he was perhaps best known locally for his radio career, first at Hot 94.1 and now at Power 106.9, where he does everything from sales to promotions to engineering to hosting his own independent music show on Sunday nights.
He’s also an educator of sorts by virtue of his long-running School Culture Shock Tour that finds him presenting the history of hip hop to students.
Whatever it takes to put food on the table, he does. “I’m a hustler, man. This is true. That’s why I have Corn Hustler on my forearms,” he said, brandishing his massive, graffiti-inked limbs. “That’s a street term. I stay busy. I have always kept busy.”
He strives to be “well-rounded” and therefore “I’m always in that mode to where I’m doing something to better myself.”
Always looking for fresh angles, a pro sports career is right up his alley with its marketing possibilities and mix of athletics and entertainment. Besides catching on like wildfire, the sport is a crowd-pleasing showcase for men wishing to turn their cut bodies, mixed martial arts skills, macho facades, charismatic personalities and catchy names into national, even international, brands. Having built to this moment for years, he leaves little doubt he’s ready to take advantage of it, confident he will neither lose himself if he succeeds nor crash should he fail.
“I give myself five or six years, maybe more than that if I keep training and don’t get hurt. (Randy) Couture is 43 and he fought a younger guy and whupped his ass. If it doesn’t work out with the UFC, who cares? I was never a UFC fan anyway.”
Would he ever return to those $500 paydays in Sioux City? “Yeah, in a hearbeat. Why not? I love fighting, man. That’s the whole thing — I love fighting.”
What is it ultimately about fighting that’s such a turn on?
“I think it’s the rush,” he said. “I know have the ability to beat the guy, but it’s still the rush of not knowing. You’re out there to prove to this guy that you know how to whip his ass. You think Jardine had remotely in his mind he was going to get done like that? I don’t think so. But I knew. Because I know deep down in my heart what type of abilities I have.”
As he says, the UFC was never really his goal until promoter and friend Chad Mason hooked him up with fight manager Monty Cox. What little Alexander’s seen of the competition out there doesn’t impress him. No high octane attacks like his.
“I never really watched the UFC. When I started watching it all I saw was this assembly line of guys. I really haven’t seen anyone come with it or bring it. Maybe the guys they bring in are not as passionate about it as I am. I really love fighting. When I get in the ring I love doing it, so I’m going to bring it to the guy 110 percent. If a guy’s trying to slack off on me and he wants to me wear me down, nu-uh, we’re going to pick up the pace a little bit and we’re going to go at it.
“If you want to try to wrestle and do all that, OK, that’s fine, but you’re going to get kneed and you’re going to get elbowed and you’re going to get disrupted.”
Mick Doyle’s Kickboxing and Fitness Center
Disruption could be his alter ego name inside the octagon. It’s a mantra for what he tries to do to opponents. “Always disrupt, man, always disrupt,” he said. “To where they can’t think, because if you can’t think, you can’t react. That’s been my concept through the years,”
He said a quick review of the Jardine fight will reveal “I had hands in his face all the time. I was so close to him to where he couldn’t use those long arms, and I kept applying the pressure. Like my coaches said, ‘Always apply the pressure,’ and that’s what I did with that guy. I kept him disrupted.”
Alexander puts much stock in his “explosiveness.” “Once a guy tries to attack me,” he said, “my counter moves are so swift and fast and powerful, that definitely we’ll take the guy out. They’re all in short bursts.”
Doyle doesn’t even want Alexander thinking about leaving his feet. He wants him to dispatch Sakara on Saturday night the same way he did Jardine — standing straight up, his trunk and feet forming a triangle base, throwing blunt force trauma blows with knees, elbows and fists. Back in July Doyle told his fighter, “Just like in the Jardine fight, you don’t need to go to the ground. We’re going to knock the guy out or make the referee stop it. That will get you a title quicker. He’s gotta go.”
“That’s our motto for 2007 — he’s gotta go. He’s in the way. The Italian guy has got to go. Chow, baby,” Alexander said of Sakara. “I really want to go in and knock this guy out or really do something bad to him. I want people to be scared when they look at the footage. I want to show them what I’ve got.”
In his soft Irish brogue Doyle explained to his fighter how keeping an element of mystery is a good thing.
“Dude, if you go out there and knock this guy out, people are still going to wonder, What else can Alexander do? You know what, let them try to find out. If we can finish this guy on our feet, let’s do it. You don’t need to show people any more of your game than what is necessary to get the job done — until you come up with an opponent who makes you show more,” he said. “Keep it simple.”
Doyle, a Dublin native who came to America in ‘86, has tried to prepare Alexander for any technical tricks opponents might try to spring on him. He’s had him go toe-to-toe with athletes skilled in boxing, wrestling, kicking, you name it, bringing in top sparring partners from places like Chicago and sending him to Minneapolis to work with world-class submission artists good enough to make him tap out.
The fighter will have seen everything that can be thrown at him by fight night.
“They’ll get that move on you one time, and that’ll be the last time,” Doyle told Alexander. “That way when you step in the ring, and a guy goes to make his moves, you’ll feel ‘em coming, you’ll see ‘em coming, you’ll know what to do.”
Doyle and his team have spent much time honing Alexander’s footwork and stance, making sure his weight is balanced. It’s all done to harness his natural power, which becomes “more dangerous” when leveraged from below. The uppercuts that devastated Jardine were practiced repeatedly. The force behind those vicious shots, Doyle reminded him, comes from “using your legs,” which is why he harps on Alexander to maintain the foundation of a solid base.
To improve his quickness, Alexander often spars with lighter, faster guys and wears heavy gloves, so that when fight time arrives his hands and feet move like lightning.
The gameplan with Sakara is to pepper him with double jabs, then push off or slide step in to follow up with an arsenal of kill shots. For all his bravado and bull-rush style, Alexander is all about “protecting myself,” which is why a point of emphasis for the Sakara fight has been to keep his hands up against this classical boxer.
“As long as you keep your hands up you’re not going to get hurt,” Doyle said after an August sparring session. “None of the guys out there are just like that much better than you. But if you give them a mistake, they are more experienced and more technical to capitalize on it than you are right now. In a year, it’s all going to be different. Just like this guy Sakara, we’re going to make him give us a mistake.”
Sakara’s habit of keeping his hands low is one Alexander expects to exploit.
One thing Alexander said he’ll never be is intimidated.
“It’s important to inject fear. Everyone gets scared of the way a guy looks. I truly believe that half these people get scared by looking at the guy in the ring. I think Jardine beat a lot of people by the way he looked,” he said. Not that it was ever a possibility in his own mind, but Alexander said Jardine lost whatever edge he might have had when he heard him give an interview and out came a voice that didn’t match the Mr. Mean persona. “There’s no way I’m going to get my butt kicked by a guy that sounds like Michael Jackson,” he said.
Jardine’s comments leading up to the fight led Alexander and his camp to believe the veteran UFC fighter took the newcomer lightly. Alexander warns future foes not to make the same mistake.
“If anybody approaches me the same way to where they’re not taking me serious, that’s what’s going to happen. Every time. I’m going to be passionate about it. I’m going to be right or die with it. That means I’ll die in the ring before I actually lose. That’s how I feel about winning. Winning is everything, I don’t care what nobody says. If I hadn’t of won…you wouldn’t be talking to me,” he told a reporter.
It’s not hard to imagine Alexander gets an edge, both by the ripped, powerful figure he projects, and the calm demeanor he exudes. His serenity is no act.
“I’m mentally prepared for this thing,” he said. “I’ve always been mentally strong…tough. Make no mistake about it, the mental game I have down. No one’s going to out-mental me. No one’s going to deter me left or right, forward or back, because I have it down. Guys ask me, ‘Are you going to be nervous going out in front of 50,000 people?’ No, because I’ve done it before. I’ve done it with concerts. I’ve hosted concerts with 10,000 people. I do the school thing every week with 700-800 kids. Kids are the worst critics ever. If you can’t get kids’ attention, you’re garbage, and every week I get those kids’ attention. My working in radio, having 30,000 people listening every time I crack that mike, that’s pressure. So for me being in front of a crowd is nothing.”
Like all supreme athletes, Alexander exudes a Zen-like tranquility. His senseis — Mick and Curlee and company — have brought out the samaurai in him. It’s why he’s such “a calm fighter” entering the octagon.
“What it comes down to, you just have to play it out all the way and see where the chips fall,” Alexander said. “Everything happens for a reason. It is what it is.”
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