Rebecca Herskovitz Forges an Art Family at Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts
I did this story a couple years ago for the Jewish Press about Rebecca Herskovitz and her work as education coordinator at the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts in Omaha. She’s no longer with that organization but she’s still very much a part of the Omaha art scene, and the studio center where she did work is in the news because it recently had its grand opening and because work by its namesake, the late great American realist visual artist, Kent Bellows, is featured in an exhibition this fall at the Joslyn Art Museum. Check out my other articles about Bellows, his legacy, and the studio center on this blog site.
Rebecca Herskovitz Forges an Art Family at Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
If the art world has missionaries than Rebecca Herskovitz has found her calling as an art educator helping young people explore their creative potential.
She doesn’t look much older than the kids she works with at the new Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts, 3303 Leavenworth St., where she’s education coordinator. She came to Omaha from San Francisco a year ago to fill the post and after months of planning she launched the center’s first after school classes in early September with 21 students.
Two 16-week semesters are offered per year.
The education program matches students from metro area high schools with professional working artists in classic apprentice-style mentoring relationships.
The center, whose classes are being held at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in the Old Market until the center’s permanent home undergoes renovation, is named after the late Omaha realist Kent Bellows. The noted Bellows, the subject of a future Joslyn Art Museum retrospective, was well-known for supporting young artists. His studio space on Leavenworth serves as the administrative base for the Kent Bellows Foundation and mentorship program.
Omaha native Anne Meysenburg, a University of Nebraska at Omaha grad, is executive director of the Bellows foundation and the Studio/Center for Visual Arts.
The studio where the iconoclastic Bellows lived and worked will eventually host classes and gallery shows once the interior is renovated. Largely preserved the way the artist left it, the studio will also be an archive for scholars. For now, field trips bring the kids on site to the Bellows space,. Everything from his eclectic personal belongings to elaborate backdrops he made to sayings he scribbled on walls adorn the converted storefront studio. It’s sacred ground for communion/inspiration.
“You feel like this is a place where something very special has been happening,” Herskovitz said there recently, “and to emulate that place of creativity and to be inhabiting it is absolutely contagious. It will be exciting to teach classes upstairs where those installations are and where the shrine that Kent made is. You can just feel it’s a place where magic was taking place. For kids to walk in there every day will be an enchanting thing. I’m very excited about that.”
Meanwhile, Miss Becca, as she calls herself, leads her young charges in the bowels of the Bemis building at 724 So. 10th St. The basement’s formerly blank walls and exposed pipes-vents have been transformed into dynamic spaces for hanging art made by students and their mentors. She encourages students to make the environment their own – a living, evolving expression of themselves.
“I want them to take ownership over those spaces and I believe in the art space becoming to a certain extent an art piece itself over time. You just want a space that feels alive.”
With just the right amount of evangelical zeal, Herskovitz is the Pied Piper for this new arts program whose mission is to live up to the standards of its legendary namesake and his fierce creative independence. An independent thinker herself, the Bellows position allows her to design programs from scratch that give students outside-the-box opportunities for artistic growth.
“I think I was ready to do something a little bit different — that allowed me to write my own curriculum,” said Herskovitz, who was teaching visual art at a special ed school in San Mateo, Calif. and making her own art before arriving in Omaha.
“When I’m making art and when I’m teaching it’s kind of the same feeling. It’s the feeling of when you have a calling — when everything else kind of fades away and you feel excited and don’t want to think about anything else, almost to the extent where you forget to think about other things and two hours pass and you realize you haven’t moved from the same position.”
Prior to San Francisco, the Newton, Mass. native taught art at a public high school (in Worcester) while earning her master’s in education. When she read about the Bellows opportunity she knew it was the right niche for her.
“I really gravitated towards the mission, which is so linked to creativity, and that really fit with my own teaching philosophy,” she said. “And then I just really loved the idea of a new arts organization just getting started. It’s a really special thing to be part of making a place that you would have wanted to be in when you were in high school. I wish there had been a program like this for students interested in the visual arts. And as a teacher I wish I had been in an area where there was a program like this for me to recommend my students to.”
She said breaking away from the prescribed confines of public school educational approaches is what the Bellows project is all about. It’s liberating for Herskovitz and her students to not be driven by the kind of test score mentality and conventional thinking that she said results in “very limiting” curriculum in the public schools. Instead of “putting up obstacles to people having innovative thought,” she said, the Bellows model Is “founded on the idea of finding and nurturing those individual creative sparks in young people.”
Unlike a public school setting, where she said kids are apt to “get lost” in large classes, the small Bellows program ensures “individual attention.” “The student-teacher ratio is extremely close and that’s vital. That’s what’s going to allow us to give something to different to kids than what they can normally receive.”
The task of selling this new program to high school art teachers, who’ve become her best recruiters, proved difficult at first. Herskovitz received few replies to an e-mail she sent teachers over the summer announcing the program. She finally got the captive audience she craved when invited to make a presentation to teachers during an OPS professional development day.
“It took a little while to explain what we’re doing and it took teachers a little while to realize this is something really new and really different,” she said.
Before long, she was invited to classrooms to make her pitch directly to students, who she said quickly recognized the program’s benefits. More than 50 applied. She was prepared to start the program with 12, but, she said, “we had so many fantastic applicants that we’re above and beyond that with 21 kids.” A whole new class was conceived to accommodate the larger than expected numbers.
As anticipated, a large number of students are from Omaha Central, whose downtown location is mere blocks from both the Bemis and the Bellows studio. Other schools represented include Bryan, Burke, Westside, Duchesne and Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln. She feels students will come from a wider geographic area once the program offers transportation.
A goal for a diverse student mix has been met.
“We wanted our program’s demographics to look like OPS’ demographics and we match up perfectly with that,” she said. “My vision of a really healthy classroom is one where there is a lot of heterogeneity of all things — in terms of learning styles, ethnicities, ages and the neighborhoods they come from.”
What does she look for in prospective students?
“We’re just looking for a creative energy and kind of a passion for trying new things and wanting to have a role in their own education. We’re not looking for past experience. We’re not looking for some particular skill-set.”
The selection process involves an essay and an interview. She makes a point of meeting applicants’ parents or guardians.
“I think parent support is a huge deal.”
She encourages parents to visit the site “to know where they’re kids are going to be hanging out.”
Herskovitz enjoys being on the ground floor of something different and she senses students and parents do, too.
“I think it’s a completely new take on arts education,” she said. “This is a place where you get to feel safe. This is your creative family, your artistic community. We’re continuing what Kent showed all of us — this very powerful form of teaching, which is the mentoring relationship. I hope our mentors push students to find their own footsteps.”
She believes the mentoring component is what distinguishes the Bellows program from other enrichment programs.
“It’s a program that takes place after school but it’s not a typical after school program,” she said. “Students are having the opportunity to work with professional artists in very close ratios one-on-one, where the emphasis in really on creative thinking and problem solving, and I think that focus is really different from a lot of other programs.
“I think the most powerful learning experiences happen when you’re able to have a mentor who stays with you and I think what allows teenagers to really open up is knowing that adult is going to be with them for as long as they want them to be. And our program is built so we can continue those relationships for as long as the student wants to be there participating in it.”
The art educator spent a fair share of her time in Omaha the past year steeping herself in the local art scene, casting her eye for potential mentors among the area’s deep pool of working artists. Her first crop of mentors represents a cross-section of Omaha’s best and brightest. There’s Mexico native Claudia Alvarez, a ceramicist, longtime art instructor and former Bemis resident artist. There’s Omaha native Bill Hoover, a painter, writer and musician who also works with kids at Liberty Elementary School. There’s Jeff King, a graffiti, street-inspired painter whose work incorporates text. King conducts art workshops with kids at Norris Junior High. And there’s painter Caolan O’Loughlin, an Irish emigre who’s done curatorial-consulting work for the Bellows and who has a teaching background.
Herskovitz completes the Bellows mentoring staff. Guest artists also make presentations-demonstrations. Bemis curator Hesse McGraw contributes to some classes. Herskovitz has students utilize the Bemis as a kind of living laboratory and resource center by studying-critiquing the art displayed in its galleries, poring over books in the well-stocked art library and visiting resident artists’ studios.
“The Bemis has been very generous,” she said in making its facilities available.
It may be a temporary home, but the Bemis couldn’t be a better fit. “It just matches up so well with our mission,” she said. “I can’t imagine a better set-up than to have art students immersed in a contemporary arts center where professional international artists are living and working.”
Even when the Bellows studio is in use she foresees the Bemis continuing to play a role in the program. It adds another layer of experience and can help the program accommodate more students in the future.
The historic Old Market and its rich social-cultural milieu becomes another venue for art stimuli. Mentors also bring students to their own studios and to the studios of other artists throughout the city and they make gallery visits together.
Herskovitz said she and her fellow mentors seek to deconstruct assumptions about education by finding teachable moments in all kinds of situations or settings.
“I think there’s a huge myth that you can’t teach art and I think it’s because of the way people think about teaching. They think of it as training or instilling this knowledge when really it’s more about facilitating thinking.”
What she’s in the process of trying to build is an environment where “young people become a learning community and bounce ideas off one another,” she said. “There’s a way to do that and with my curriculum that’s what we’re aiming to do. It’s structured within that to meet the individual needs of students.”
Sometimes, students work with mentors in workshop fashion on specific techniques or tasks, she said, and other times they break off to work on their own individual projects. Teachers move around the room, sharing observations and comments with students. Whenever possible, students interact with one another.
“Equal to what you see is what I hope you feel — that this is a place where these students feel really comfortable and can be themselves,” she said. “My goal is to create an art learning family. This is their chance, if they want to be someone different than they are in school, to be different when they’re here. If they need a different type of learning environment I hope this can provide that for them.”
She’s devised a sequence of programs/classes to engage students of varying abilities and interests.
“The artist-in-residence program is for older kids who are more advanced and are really ready to have more independent studio time and to meet one-on-one with a professional mentor. The studio thesis class is meant for 9th and 10th graders who feel themselves being pulled by the arts and are still kind of finding their voice. That’s more of a small group setting where kids can talk to each other and mentor each other along with the teacher.”
The gallery internship program provides students opportunities for organizing-curating-marketing student-mentor exhibitions. The program’s first exhibit, Versa Vice: Reflections of an Underground Society, opens Friday, Dec. 19 at the Bemis Underground. This showcase will reflect the work students have been making in class and the collaborative projects they’ve participated in with fellow students and mentors.
Ideally, Herskovitz said students will participate in several if not all of the program’s classes, progressing from beginner to advanced sessions, along the way getting exposed to different mentors and their varied philosophies, techniques, styles.
Although she didn’t have anything like the Bellows program in her upbringing, Herskovitz had her art-loving family.
“Both of my grandparents on my dad’s side were very involved in the arts community. Growing up I would be set free to make art projects,” she said.
It was in high school her own passion for art bloomed and that’s one reason why she enjoys working with that age group. “I got very involved and inspired. I just couldn’t stop doing it.” Her dual passion for teaching began about the same time when she taught in an after school program.
She said even though her therapist parents, younger brother and extended family “don’t always understand my art, they have been so supportive. I feel really lucky for that.”
Before accepting the Bellows job Herskovitz researched Omaha’s arts community and she came away impressed. Now that she’s here carrying the banner for an arts organization bearing the name of an Omaha art icon she has an even deeper appreciation for things.
“Now being part of it it’s really wonderful to know these different organizations and different figures. I think maybe because of Omaha’s size you really can know people in the arts community and you really can make relationships. In San Francisco that was much harder. There wasn’t that sense of a supportive community. It was still kind of strangers operating in their own spheres.”
Omaha’s small-town-in-the-big-city character is just what Herskovitz has been searching for in forming an art family away from home.
“I love being here.”
- Art Lesson plans for Gifted Students (brighthub.com)
- Debate rages over arts curriculum (theage.com.au)
- Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)