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A Stitch in Time Builds A World Class Quilt Collection and Center-Museum

June 21, 2011 5 comments

Among the more impressive art venues in Nebraska I’ve visited is the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln. Everything at the facility is done at a high level, and in fact, bespeaking its name, is done at a world-class level. That includes the design and outfitting of the building, the way the quilts are stored, handled, and displayed., and of course the magnificent quilts themselves.  If you’re a quilter or quilt lover, I don’t need to explain why these objects are not only things of beauty but fascinating and illuminating. If you’re among the uninitiated or skeptics, I’m confident that upon viewing the quilts at this center you will come away with a new appreciation for the form and the craft.  My story about the center for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared just as it was opening. It’s a must-see attraction to round out the usual tourist stops here.

This blog contains a couple other stories related to quilts and quilting:  a profile of Nancy Kirk, an antique quilt expert and restorer known for and her late husband’s The Kirk Collection; and stories about John Sorensen and his The Quilted Conscience documentary.

 

 

 

 

A Stitch in Time Builds A World Class Quilt Collection and Center-Museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


The next time you look at that quilt hanging on your wall or covering your bed, try reading it. Every quilt, you see, tells a story.

Nebraska’s newest world class arts venue, the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, opened six weekends ago in Lincoln to 1,500 visitors, including many enthusiasts from the state’s tight-knit quilting community.

Among the throng were two special guests, Robert and Ardis James, a pair of native Nebraskans who envisioned the center years ago. The New York-based couple  built a fabulous collection of quilts beginning in the 1970s. Their 1996 donation of 950 quilts to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, whose College of Education and Human Sciences is the center’s academic home, led to the center’s creation in 1997. For its first decade the institution operated from cramped, shared quarters in the Home Economics building on UNL’s east campus. The museum is allied with the college’s Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design.

The makeshift accommodations proved inadequate for an organization with an ever-expanding collection and reputation. Until now the center lacked its own dedicated space for preservation, much less exhibition. Staff worked with quilts and prepared exhibits only as rooms became available. Shows had to be mounted at a succession of galleries on campus. Storage was limited. Photographing the rather large objects posed extreme difficulties.

Despite these less than ideal conditions the center’s gained cachet for its: temporary and traveling exhibits; research-publication efforts, including a collection catalogue in the works; savvy acquisitions; and major grants. It’s well-established as a must-see for scholars, historians and quilt-lovers.

The James’s articulated a goal shared by center administrators and supporters for a permanent site that addressed the physical shortcomings and maximized the institution’s already proven strengths. The couple next had to convince UNL officials. With a gift of $5 million from the James’s and the contributions of hundreds more donors, many of the $50 or $100 variety, the dream of a new facility has turned reality in little more than a decade.

Now in their 80s, the James’s were prominent among the special guests at the Mar. 30 dedication ceremony and Mar. 31 donor events. The couple have a unique appreciation for how far the center’s come in such a short time.

“It’s unbelievable that we have this impressive building built. We feel good about what we’ve done but it couldn’t have been done without the university. We’re proud to be able to work with the university. It was not easy for them to make this commitment,” Robert James said by phone from New York.

When he and his wife began seeking a permanent home for their collection in the 1990s they met with many museums-galleries but, he said, “none had a concept of what needed to be done other than the university.” The preservation, study and collection of quilts, he said, is a never ending process that requires dedicated resources. The couple would not entrust their quilts to anyone until $3 million was pledged toward an endowment for the collection’s ongoing care, research and growth. When UNL fulfilled that stipulation it signaled to the couple they’d found the caretakers they’d long sought. A deal was struck and the result is what Art and Antiques magazine recently termed one of America’s “top 100 treasures.”

 

 

 

 

For center director Patricia Crews the new facility culminates a journey that’s seen her put Nebraska’s love affair with quilts on the map. Her work with the Nebraska Quilt Project, organized by the Lincoln Quilters Guild in the 1980s, led to her authoring Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers, an acclaimed book that caught the attention of the James’s and set in motion their support.

“Patricia put together a wonderful compendium on Nebraska quilts. Practically every state’s done a book like that but hers was clearly the best,” James said. “Pat also has something that’s very important when you do something like this — an expertise in textile conservation.”

He admires her ability to garner support, adding, “she’s gotten some great gifts from not just us but the Getty (Foundation) and others.” He said Crews has surrounded herself with a fine staff and attracted a large corps of volunteers. Trained docents lead guided tours at the museum.

While the center’s long offered guided tours and education programs, such as lectures and symposia, they were off site. Now everything’s under one roof.

“It is absolutely fabulous to be in this stunning new facility,” Crews said, “and to have dedicated space for everything — exhibition, study and care of the collection. It’s a huge difference in our efficiency of operation, a huge expansion in our capacity to do research and to care for the collection”

The new building’s amenities include: a state-of-the-art, climate controlled conservation work room and a large storage vault with automated storage systems; an education seminar room; a photography studio that resembles a surgical suite; and an interactive virtual gallery that enables visitors to remotely view the collection as well as record their own quilt stories and histories. Visitors can also access the collection online.

Virtual access is key as only a fraction of the holdings — 40 to 60 quilts — can be physically displayed at any one time due to the fragility of textiles, which must be rested at regular intervals.

Unquestionably, the center’s 2,300-plus quilts hailing from 24 countries and spanning four centuries is the star attraction. The quilts range fromworks made for decorative or utilitarian purposes to those made by studio artists for gallery display.

The two inaugural exhibitions showcase the breadth and depth of the collection and the elements that tie quilts together. Quilts in Common explores the art form in groupings of three, showing how quiltmakers have used similar patterns across eras and cultures. The quilts are juxtaposed with other art objects of similar designs. Nancy Crow: Cloth, Culture, Context showcases works by this acclaimed American quilter drawn from the center’s own collection and other sources.

As sublime as the quilts are the Robert A.M. Stern Architects of New York-designed building is a jewel, too. The structure’s organic shapes and materials express quilt characteristics. The bowed steel and glass east face features curvaceous, soft-lines representing the sensuous, sweeping flow of unfurled fabric. The facade’s cross-hatched windows articulate quilts’ complex patterns. The pale, patterned brick that completes the exterior continues the artesian craft motif.

The interior accentuates what senior architect Robert Stern calls the building’s glass lantern and brick-clad box structure. The box is the central, working core of the museum where quilts are stored and cared for, where the staff office, et cetera. The lantern is the transparent facade that acts as a reflective window to the outside world, opening up an otherwise shuttered, compact interior. A winding terrazzo staircase follows the contours of the undulating front, climbing from the ground floor to a grand second story reception space whose window panels overlook the landscaped plaza below. This magisterial gathering area leads into the galleries, thus serving as a bridge to the treasures on display.

As light is the enemy of quilts, a series of filters, scrims and screens are in place to dampen the ilumination entering the adjoining galleries. The Green building’s already subdued natural and artificial light is further lensed down as visitors wend their way by elevator or stairs from the ground floor to the galleries upstairs.

The spacious galleries, with their white walls and maplewood floors, offer a blank slate for the explosion of colors, patterns and textures that jump out at visitors.

Crews said the museum is a suitable embodiment of the elevated place quilts now hold in the art world.

“It is true that it is only since the 1970s that there has been a growing appreciation for the quilt as an art form and this building certainly is an expression of the greater appreciation that many people have for quilts.”

 

Patricia Crews

 

Beyond any artistic merit, quilts are familiar, ubiquitous objects. Quilters are legion as are quilt guilds and quilting projects. It’s why Crews fully expects the museum to draw not just practitioners and aficionados but art lovers.

“There is a connection that almost everyone feels to a quilt,” she said, whether inherited or gifted, covering a bed or adorning a wall. She said visitors are bound to find some quilt at the museum they feel “a connection to because it reminds them of one in their family’s history. One of the wonderful things a visit here can do is to inspire visitors to delve deeper into learning more about themselves and their families and then, in turn, their past.”

It only takes some interest to learn what quilts have to say.

The center, located at 1523 N. 33rd St., is open every Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.m and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for youths 5 to 18 and free for children under five. For details, call 402-472-6549 or visit www.quiltstudy.org.

Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads

June 21, 2011 6 comments

Nick Hudson is one of several Omaha transplants who have come here from other places in recent years and energized the creative-cultural scene. One of his many ventures in Omaha is Nomad Lounge, which caters to the creative class through a forward-thinking aesthetic and entrepreneurial bent and schedule of events. This Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) piece gives a flavor for Hudson and why Nomad is an apt name for him and his endeavor. Three spin-off ventures from Nomad that Hudson has a major hand in are Omaha Fashion Week, Omaha Fashion Magazine, and the Halo Institute.  You can find some of my Omaha Fashion Week and Omaha Fashion Magazine writing on this blog.  And look for more stories by me about Nick Hudson and his wife and fellow entrepreneur Brook Hudson.

 

 

 

 

Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

Another side of Omaha’s new cosmopolitan face can be found at Nomad Lounge, 1013 Jones St. in the historic Ford Warehouse Building. The chic, high-concept, community-oriented salon captures the creative class trade. Tucked under the Old Market’s 10th St. bridge, Nomad enjoys being a word-of-mouth hideaway in a shout-out culture. No overt signs tout it. The name’s stenciled in small letters in the windows and subtly integrated into the building’s stone and brick face.

The glow from decorative red lights at night are about the only tip-off for the lively goings-on inside. That, and the sounds of pulsating music, clanking glasses and buzzing voices leaking outdoors and the stream of people filing in and out.

Otherwise, you must be in-the-know about this proper gathering spot for sophisticated, well-traveled folks whose interests run to the eclectic. It’s all an expression of majority owner Nick Hudson, a trendy international entrepreneur and world citizen who divides his time between Omaha and France for his primary business, Excelsior Beauty. Nomad is, in fact, Hudson’s nickname and way of life. The Cambridge-educated native Brit landed in Omaha in 2005 in pursuit of a woman. While that whirlwind romance faded he fell in love with the town and stayed on. He’s impressed by what he’s found here.

“I’m blown away by what an amazingly creative, enterprising, interesting community Omaha is,” he said. He opened Excelsior here that same year — also maintaining a Paris office — and then launched his night spot in late 2006.

If you wonder why a beauty-fashion industry maven who’s been everywhere and seen everything would do start-up enterprises in middle America when he could base them in some exotic capital, you must understand that for Hudson the world is flat. Looking for an intersection where like-minded nomads from every direction can engage each other he opted for Omaha’s “great feeling, great energy.”

“We’re all nomadic, were all on this journey,” he said, “but there are times when nomads come together, bringing in different experiences to one central place and sharing ideas in that community. And that’s exactly what it is here. Nomad’s actually about a lifestyle brand and Nomad Lounge is just the event space and play space where that brand comes to life for the experimental things we do.”

He along with partners Charles Hull and Clint! Runge of Archrival, a hot Lincoln, Neb. branding-marketing firm, and Tom Allisma, a noted local architect who’s designed some of Omaha’s cutting-edge bars-eateries, view Nomad as a physical extension of today’s plugged-in, online social networking sites. Their laidback venture for the creative-interactive set is part bar, part art gallery, part live performance space, part small business incubator, part collaborative for facilitating meeting-brainstorming-partnering.

“That whole connecting people, networking piece is really exciting to us because it’s not just being an empty space for events, we’re actually playing an active role in helping the creative community continue to grow,” said Hudson.

 

 

Nick Hudson

 

 

Social entrepreneurship is a major focus. Nomad helps link individuals, groups and businesses together. “It’s a very interesting trend that’s going to be a big buzz word,” Hudson said. “Nomad is a social enterprise. It’s all about investing in and increasing the social capital of the community, creating networks, fostering creativity. My biggest source of passion is helping people achieve their potential.”

“He’s definitely done that for me,” said Nomad general manager-events planner Rachel Richards. “He’s seen my passion in event planning and he’s opened doors I never thought I’d get through.”

The Omaha native was first hired by Hudson to coordinate Nomad’s special events through her Rachel Richards Events business. She’s since come on board as a key staffer. With Hudson’s encouragement she organized Nomad’s inaugural Omaha Fashion Week last winter, a full-blown, first-class model runway show featuring works by dozens of local designers. “That was always a dream of mine,” she said.

Under the Nomad Collective banner, Hudson said, “the number of social entrepreneurs and small enterprises and venture capitalist things that are coming from this space from the networking here is just phenomenal. Increasingly that’s going beyond this space into start-up businesses and all sorts of things.” Nomad, he said, acts as “a greenhouse for ideas and businesses to expand and grow.”

Nomad encourages interplay. Massive cottonwood posts segment the gridded space into 15 semi-private cabanas whose leather chairs and sofas and built-in wood benches seat 8 to 20 guests. Velvet curtains drape the cabanas. It’s all conducive to relaxation and conversation. Two tiny galleries display works by local artists.

There’s a small stage and dance floor. The muted, well-stocked bar features international drink menus. Video screens and audio speakers hang here and there, adding techno touches that contrast with the worn wood floors, the rough-hewn brick walls and the exposed pipes, vents and tubes in the open rafters overhead. It all makes for an Old World meets New World mystique done over in earth tones.

Hudson embraces Nomad’s flexibility as it constantly evolves, reinventing itself. In accommodating everything from birthdays/bachelorettes to release/launch parties to big sit-down dinners to more intimate, casual gatherings to social enterprise fairs and presenting everything from sculptures and paintings to live bands and theater shows to video projection, it’s  liable to look different every time you visit. Whatever the occasion, art, design, music and fashion are in vogue and celebrated.

Dressed-up or dressed-down, you’re in synch with Nomad’s positive, chic vibe.

“It’s this whole thing about being premium without being pretentious,” said Hudson. “Nomad is stylish, it’s trendy, it’s great quality. All our drinks are very carefully selected. But it’s still made affordable.”

In addition to staging five annual premiere events bearing the Nomad brand, the venue hosts another 90-100 events a year. Richards offers design ideas to organizations using the space and matches groups with artists and other creative types to help make doings more dynamic, more stand-alone, more happening.

 

 

 

 

Clearly, Nomad targets the Facebook generation but not exclusively. Indeed, Hudson and Richards say part of Nomad’s charm is the wide age range it attracts, from 20-somethings to middle-agers and beyond.

Nomad fits into the mosaic of the Old Market, where the heart of the creative community lives and works and where a diverse crowd mixes. Within a block of Nomad are The Kaneko, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, the Blue Barn Theatre and any number of galleries, artist studios, fine restaurants and posh shops. Nomad’s a port of call in the Market’s rich cultural scene.

“It’s such a great creative community. We want to help make our little contribution to that and keep building on all the great things going on,” said Hudson.

Besides being a destination for urban adventurers looking to do social networking or conducting business or celebrating a special occasion or just hanging out, Nomad’s a site for charitable fundraisers. Hudson and Richards want to do more of what he calls “positive interventions” with nonprofits like Siena/Francis House. Last year Nomad approached the shelter with the idea for Concrete Conscience, which placed cameras in the hands of dozens of homeless clients for them to document their lives. Professional photographers lent assistance. The resulting images were displayed and sold, with proceeds going to Siena/Francis.

New, on Wednesday nights, is Nomad University, which allows guests to learn crafts from experts, whether mixing cocktails or DJing or practically anything else. It’s a chance for instructors to market their skills and for students to try new things, all consistent with a philosophy Hudson and Richards ascribe to that characterizes the Nomad experience: Do what you love and do it with passion.

Shakespeare on the Green, A Summertime Staple in Omaha

June 21, 2011 9 comments

Before you get the idea that the only thing happening this summer in my hometown is the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame Awards and Native Omaha Days, here’s a heads-up for this year’s rendition of the annual Shakespeare on the Green festival. The popular event has been packing them in for performances of the Bard’s plays at Elmwood Park for 25 years. The following story for Omaha Magazine gives a brief primer for how the fest started and what to expect at it. This blog is full of stories about and links to Omaha cultural attractions. It used to be people complained there wasn’t enough to do here, but now it’s quite the opposite – there’s so much to do that it’s hard choosing among the bounty.

 

 

Shakespeare on the Green, A Summertime Staple in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

When the annual Shakespeare on the Green festival returns this June and July, alternating two professional productions of the Bard’s work, it will mark the 25th season for one of Omaha‘s summer entertainment staples.

Over that time the free outdoor event has played to more than a half-million spectators in a tucked-away nook of Elmwood Park adjacent to the UNO campus.

The play’s certainly the thing at these relaxed evenings on the green and under the stars but the lively pre-show has its own attractions:

•food and souvenir booths

•interactive activities for youths

•live musical performances

•educational seminars to brush up your Shakespeare

•Two-Minute Shakespeare quizzes where the audience tries stumping the actors

•assorted jugglers, jesters and merrymakers.

On select nights Camp Shakespeare performances let school-age kids “speak the speech.” On June 26 Will’s Best Friend Contest invites dog owners to show off their pooches in Shakespearean splendor.

Co-founders Cindy Phaneuf and Alan Klem say the festival found a loyal following right from the start. The come-as-you-are ambience, bucolic site and free shows are hard to beat.

“We really woke up the space,” says Phaneuf. a University of Nebraska at Omaha theater professor.. “It’s a gorgeous location — 3.7 acres, naturally slanted, protected by trees, gobs of parking. Once you go down the hill it’s like you’re in a magical little world.”

 

Cindy Phaneuf

 

Whether a brooding tragedy or a lilting comedy an average of 2,000-plus folks flock to each performance. This year’s contrasting shows are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet.

Phaneuf says some favorite memories are “the hushed silence of the crowd, the laughter that ripples from the front to back row and spontaneous standing ovations.” She likes that families make Shakespeare “part of their summer… part of their growing up.” Many fans return year after year to soak up the language, the outdoors and the communal spirit.

“It was always about the highest quality art we could possibly create but we also wanted an event where everyone felt comfortable,” says Phaneuf. “Shakespeare seems somewhat elitist but then we put it in an open environment, in a park, right in the middle of the city and it’s very inviting.

“The other thing that’s made it so lasting is we wanted everyone to feel they owned it — that it didn’t just belong to the board and to the people making the plays. If you cater only to a small faction it will not continue to grow and thrive, it will start to wither and die, and so that was really important to us.”

She says the festival alleviated a paucity of the Bard’s work performed locally and gave theatergoers a fix for for the usually dormant summer stage season.

“There was such a hunger and need for it,” she says. “There’s lots of theater in town but very little Shakespeare.”

While some theaters’ seasons now extend into summer the fest’s among Omaha’s only professional venues. Equity actors from across the nation headline their.

 

Alam Klem

 

Creighton University professor Alan Klem says the event not only presents good theater but supports and grows the local talent pool by hiring professional actors from the community and “bringing in students from Creighton and UNO who are working towards becoming actors.” Phaneuf says for many students it’s their first professional gig. Some, like Jill Anderson, earn Equity cards in the process.

“It just ups the ante and the expectation,” Phaneuf says. “It’s a great training ground.”

The festival’s only one element of the nonprofit Nebraska Shakespeare. Vincent Carlson-Brown and Sarah Carlson-Brown interned as UNO students, then worked through the ranks and today are associate artistic directors.

Besides being a learning lab and career springboard for emerging talent, thousands of high school students attend the Music Alive! collaboration with the Omaha Symphony. Nebraska Shakespeare also tours a fall production to schools throughout the state, complete with post-show discussions and workshops. Klem says these educational efforts are “as important as doing the plays out in the park,” adding that there are plans to expand the tours.

 

 

Klem and Phaneuf, who go back to their undergrad days together at Texas Christian University, say they knew they were onto something big when audiences turned out in droves year one. His experience founding Shakespeare in the Park in Fort Worth, Texas gave Shakespeare on the Green a head start. The Omaha fest has always been a collaboration between UNO and Creighton.

The two theater geeks served as co-artistic directors the first six years. Then Klem went onto other things — returning to act roles. Phaneuf continued in charge until resigning after the 2009 festival, when budget cuts resulted in one show rather than the usual two. The festival’s since rebounded. Klem’s back as artistic director and Phaneuf remains close to the organization.

Volunteers are critical to putting the event on. Phaneuf recalls once when high winds blew the set down during the day the stage crew and volunteers rebuilt it in time for that night’s show. She says that show-must-go-on dedication is what she appreciates most: “It’s people pulling together to make this happen. It’s a cooperative venture.” Klem marvels that the same spirit infusing the event 25 years ago still permeates it today.

Schedule-

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: June 23-26, July 6, 8, 10  and Hamlet: June 30, July 1-3, 7, 9

Performances start at 8 p.m. Booths open at 5:30. The pre-show starts at 7.

For more info., visit http://www.nebraskashakespeare.com/home.

Daring Actress Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit

June 21, 2011 11 comments

Another example of a talented creative artist from Omaha is Yolonda Ross, a superb actress who left her hometown years ago for New York City, and she’s carved out a very nice career in film and television.  The following profile for The Reader (www.thereader.com) gives a good sense for this adventurous actress, who also writes and directs. This story appeared in advance of her role in the controversial film Shortbus, one of my provocative projects she’s participated in.  I am posting other pieces I’ve done on Yolonda as well.

NOTE: More recently, Yolonda’s had a recurring role as Dana Lyndsey on the acclaimed HBO drama Treme. Another Omaha actor of note, John Beasley, just nabbed a recurring role on the same series.  Small world.

 

 

 

 

Daring Actress Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Gabrielle Union gets all the pub, but another film/television actress from Omaha, the righteous Yolonda Ross, consistently does edgy material far afield from Bad Boys II and The Honeymooners. Ross has played everything from a wannabe gangsta desperate for love to a string of lesbian characters to a child molester to a porn actress. She’s worked with everyone from Woody Allen (Celebrity) to Denzel Washington (Antwone Fisher) to Don Cheadle (The United States of Leland) to Vanessa Williams (Dense and Allergic to Nuts).

Last fall, she worked on a Leonardo DiCaprio-produced film, The Gardener of Eden, and has been in discussions with such A-list artists as Cheadle for other parts. But it’s a project she wrapped last summer, Shortbus, that should grab her some attention. The notorious new feature by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), a maker of queer cinema, deals with transient artists looking to connect through sex in the malaise of a post-9/11 Manhattan languishing from ever-present anxiety, commerce, inflation and exhibitionism.

Whether Shortbus ever makes it to Omaha is anyone’s guess. Most of Ross’s film work, which includes several shorts, doesn’t make it here. An exception is Dani and Alice, a 2005 short directed by Roberta Marie Munroe that’s screening at the Omaha Film Festival. The film deals with the rarely discussed problem of woman-on-woman partner abuse. Ross plays the femme victim Alice to butch lover Dani in an abusive relationship in its last hours. Dani and Alice shows March 25 at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Abbott Lecture Hall in the fest’s 9 p.m. short film block and Ross plans to attend and participate in an after-show Q & A. For details, check the event website at www.omahafilmfestival.org.

Difficult subjects are the Ross metier, which keeps her work from being widely seen. Her Shortbus director, John Cameron Mitchell, had trouble financing that pic because of his insistence on lensing non-simulated sex scenes.

“Yeah, that’s true, the not-simulated part,” Ross said. “That’s why it’s taken him so long to get money for the movie. People were scared to put money into it.”

Ross was originally put off by the idea of “doing it” on screen and perhaps jeopardizing her career by blurring the line between adult and mainstream cinema. Then, she changed her mind, and was even prepared to partner up again with an old flame for some celluloid enflagrante.

“At first, I was like, I’ll work on it, but I won’t do the sex part. Then, a year later, when John still didn’t have money for it I told him me and my ex-boyfriend would do it — because he needed couples. At that point I was like, If Chloe Sevigny could suck off Vincent Gallo (in The Brown Bunny), then I’m sure I could do it with my ex in a movie. Right?! I said I would do that based on my complete faith that John knew what he was doing and would do something amazing with it, and not use it in a disgraceful way.” As things turned out, Ross didn’t have to get down and dirty for the sake of her art. “Everything turned out cool. The actual couples are still in it. But when somebody fell out of another part, I was re-cast in a role that does not require me to have sex on camera,” she said.

In a film full of non-actors, she plays opposite JD (Samson) of Le Tigre and Suk Chin of Canadian News. She’s not telling who does what on screen. “Dude, you’ll have to watch the movie to know who does and who doesn’t have sex,” she said, laughing.

In the film, she’s the lesbian rocker, Faustus. She attends a women’s support group whose members talk through the politics and emotions of being gay in a straight world. Shortbus is the name of the fictional salon where the insecurities and idiosyncrasies of the characters, including Faustus, intersect. Some go for readings or performances. Others, for therapy. Still others, to engage in public sex. The salon culture portrayed in the film, where sex is a ritualistic and nihilistic acting out mechanism, is based on actual Manhattan salons.

Mitchell and Ross had wanted to collaborate for some time and the two actually hooked up last winter for a Bright Eyes video he directed and she appeared in.

“It’s really a nice thing working with John. He’s so good with people, whether they’re actors or non-actors. He’s great at bringing out the most in them,” she said. “He’s really good at making people feel confident and at ease, while staying on track with what he wants. I think he’s ridiculously talented.”

Ross follows her own clear vision in trying to elevate her career to the next level. She’s well aware, however, of Hollywood’s feckless ways. It’s why she’s taking matters in her own hands and pitching scripts she’s penned in the hope one sells and provides her with a tailor-made part. One of those scripts is serving as her directorial debut, for the comedy short Safe Sex she plans shooting. The story explores how sexual preferences, once exposed, tend to define people.

“Sex fascinates me. It makes people do really stupid things and act in ways they probably never do otherwise. It’s about a lot of mind stuff and what we see as wrong with sex. People have their fetishes or what have you, but you can’t really judge a person by what they get off to. Different things turn different people on.”

 

 

 

 

Bold themes and choices mark her work. In her best known role, as lesbian inmate Treasure Lee in Cheryl Dunye’s 2001 HBO original film, Stranger Inside, she endures the humiliation of a strip search early on and, in a later love scene, enjoys being pleasured by an inmate going down on her off-camera. In the comic fable Hung, she’s among several gay women to grow a penis. Each owner of the new appendage has her own ideas what to do with it.

In the feature Slippery Slope, pegged for a fall release, she’s a porn star named Ginger who initially struggles adjusting to the higher expectations of a legit director slumming in the world of skin flicks. “Ginger’s been in the business a little while,” Ross said of her character. “She’s a bit set in her ways. She kind of only knows one way to act. She resists learning something new and then she kind of embraces it. She gets into it, actually — the idea of making better pictures. And she starts making her own pictures. It’s nice that she’s not a one note character.”

With Shortbus, Ross once again pushes the envelope as one in a gallery of exotics. Exposing herself emotionally and physically in a part doesn’t intimidate her.

“I have no problem with being a taboo character or doing taboo things or anything like that,” she said. “As long as I can physically do them, I’m going to get up there and do it. I want you to forget it’s me. I want you to be lost in that character.”

Because Ross wants even fringe characters grounded in reality, she underplays what could be camp or superficial. “I like working subtly. The stuff that gets me is what happens behind the scenes and what people are really going through. Good, strong female characters that are real people,” she said. Not big on research, she relies instead on instinct and script preparation. “Know what you need to know, and then Iet the acting take over. I think what you need to be dead-on with are the emotions. That’s what makes me work better. If I know what my character thinks or feels in a situation, then that’s what makes me react in the right way.”

Her expressing the right emotion of a line is akin to when she sings jazz or blues, something she does purely for pleasure these days, but that she once did professionally in New York clubs. Music, she said, opened her up to acting, and she still uses it today to find the right notes and beats for her characters.

“When I started singing is when I understood the key of emotion. With every major character I’ve done there’s been music behind each one. From singing, I know there’s certain notes I hit or tones I make that, when I hear them, make me cry or make me feel some other way. Music can change my whole body and how I carry myself. If I’m listening to Ella, I’m not going to walk the same way I do as when I’m listening to Ray Charles. When I was doing Stranger Inside, there was a Marvin Gaye song, Distant Lover, in my head. OnShortbus, it was The Tindersticks’ Trouble Every Day soundtrack. Music keeps me relaxed or tense or whatever I need to be.”

 

 

 

 

In her early-30s, Ross is at a place in her career where she does a nice balance of little and big screen gigs capitalizing on her street smart persona, which finds her getting cast as beleaguered mothers, strung-out junkies, intense cops and bohemian types in episodic TV. But anyone who’s seen her work, such as her riveting turn in Stranger, knows she can play a full palette of colors and be everything from a hard-core case to a sweet, neurotic, vulnerable woman-child.

There’s a sense if she can just land one juicy part, she’ll be a major presence. Even if that doesn’t happen, she keeps adding to an already impressive body of work. Among her TV credits, are sketch comedy on Saturday Night Live, and high drama guest shots on 24ER and Third Watch.

Part of why Ross hasn’t broken out big time in front of the camera, despite some heady props for Stranger and Fisher, has to do with the unsympathetic or peripheral roles she gets and the small indie projects she plays them in. One could argue that until now, while Gabrielle Union’s enjoyed the more successful commercial career, Ross’s has been more interesting. To be fair, though, Union has three films in the can that finally go beyond purely popcorn storylines and that for once hold out the promise of stretching her dramatic abilities.

But the point is Ross, an African-American contemporary of Union’s, has explored provocative subject matter for some time now without a fat pay-off. Union and Ross, who incidentally are fans of each other’s work, offer an interesting comparison. Each has defied the odds to carve out a nice career on screen. A key difference is perception. Union’s classic, wholesome beauty, with her smooth, soft features, put her up for positive roles and land her well-placed Neutrogena TV spots and endless glamour photo spreads in national mags. She comes across as sexy, brainy, full of attitude, but in purely non-threatening terms — as the love interest, friend or rival — and in widely accessible pictures, too.

By contrast, Ross’s unconventional but no less intriguing radiance has harder features, leaving her out of luck when it comes to girl-next-door or, for that matter, seductress roles. Spend any time with Ross, and it’s obvious she can play it all. She even does her share of glam, including a recent Bicardi Big Apple event in which she modeled an Escada gown. She’s a regular at New York premieres and other photo-op bashes. But in a town where they only know you by, What have you done lately? — perception, not reality, rules. Her performance in Stranger, a film/portrayal that became a cause celeb at feminist/lesbian festivals, was so on the mark, she’s been typecast ever since as a low down sista. In fact, she’s in high demand by women directors, whom she often works with.

Women confront stereotypes in the business, but Ross said black women must overcome even more. She said if you look closely, you’ll see that actresses with darker skin tones play “bad” while those with lighter skin shadings play “good.”

“Darker women are the cops, the crack heads, the hard asses. The darker the skin, the harder you’re going to be, the tougher you’re going to be. It’s very difficult for me to be seen as the cute girl next door or the nice mother or the love interest. I mean, it’s the craziest thing. Gabrielle’s about the same color I am, but she’s somewhat busted through,” said Ross, who surmises Union’s straight hair translates into less urban or ghetto in the minds’ of casting directors. “It’s about looks and name and face recognition. That’s what sells. Halle Berry can make bad movie after bad movie and have a Revlon contract. But why is it Angela Bassett isn’t working?”

Good women’s roles are hard to find, period, and even harder if you’re black. “Most scripts I read aren’t that good,” she said. “The characters don’t evolve.” Then there’s color-conscious casting that denies Ross, and even Union, a chance at roles deemed white or, God forbid, being part of an interracial romantic pairing.

That’s why Ross, who’s developed a working friendship with famed screenwriter Joan Tewksbury (Nashville) — “my second mother” — and Dani and Alice co-star Guinivere Turner, is trying to make something happen with projects she’s written alone or in collaboration. She despairs sometimes how fickle and slow the business is. “It drives me crazy. But I have to remember all the stories about other people where it took like 10-15 years to get something done. I know that the stories I have will have an affect on people. So, I keep that in mind.”

Until something breaks there, she’s waiting for start dates on two more features she’s cast in. Pearl City is a modern-day film noir set in Hawaii that lets Ross play sly as one of many potential suspects in a homicide investigation. Then there’s a new religious-themed film by Boaz Yakim (A Price Above Rubies).

Meanwhile, slated for a spring release is The Gardener of Eden. Directed by Kevin Connolly, the film co-stars Ross as one of many people crossing paths with a man  so addicted to the props that come with being hailed a hero that he manipulates events to rescue others. The film also features Lukas Haas and Giovanni Ribisi.

Whatever comes next, Ross will take it to the limit.

Get Crackin’

June 21, 2011 10 comments

Another of my stories focusing attention on Omaha black artists and other high achievers follows with this feature on the rock-blues group Crackin’, whose reunion back here a few years ago was the impetus for the piece. It’s one of several stories I’ve done that profile African Americans from here who have made major impacts in their fields of endeavor. This blog contains many of those stories, and so I invite you to stroll through the gallery of work here and discover them.  It’s all part of the build up to the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame Awards on July 29 at Slowdown and the July 27-August Native Omaha Days.

Get Crackin’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The Hood is replete with stories of musicians who should have made it, if only…

Crackin’, a smoking 1970s multi-racial rock-blues band from Omaha, did get its shot at fame. After a promising start and recordings on major labels, things fizzled and the band disbanded in ‘78. But “within the business people knew who we were and really loved our music,” said Crackin’s Arno Lucas. That rep and the talent to back it up made members in high demand. All have enjoyed serious music careers.

Three decades after splitting up, these stray cats are coming home for August 4-5 reunion concerts at the Omaha Healing Arts Center, 1216 Howard Street. Show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. The reunion coincides with Crackin’s induction in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. Some players also performed with fellow band-inductee L.A. Carnival.

Headed up by Lester Abrams, Crackin’ was invited to Woodstock, NY to work with idol-maker producer Albert Grossman. Then they went to L.A. to record on the Polydor label before signing with Warners, for whom they released three albums in 1977-78. The band’s lineup changed from Omaha to NY to L.A..

When the group went defunct, guys began doing their own thing.

Keyboardist/vocalist/composer Abrams co-wrote two songs on Michael McDonald’s Grammy-honored album “Minute by Minute.” He’s collaborated with B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Peabo Bryson, Quincy Jones, The Average White Band and The Doobie Brothers. He’s composed for television and film.

Percussionist/vocalist Lucas has been an A-list sideman with Al Jarreau, Luther Vandross, Bette Midler, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Michael Jackson, Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Chaka Kahn and Gladys Knight. He’s written songs with Jarreau and for Dionne Warrick.

Bassist Rick Chudacoff and drummer Peter Bunetta own credits as co-producers/co-composers for Patti LaBelle, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Kenny G, and Michael Bolton. They’ve written for the screen, including the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, and have a new stage musical out called City Kids.

Guitarist Brian Ray has collaborated with Etta James, Peter Frampton and Rita Coolidge and his scorching licks now back Paul McCartney. He also penned Smokey Robinson’s lone Grammy-winning tune, One Heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

Vocalist Leslie Smith is a first-call session artist in L.A.. Guitarist and blues journeyman Bob Bordy has played with a Who’s Who of hitmakers.

An early Crackin’ member was blues legend Bugsy Maugh.

For Lucas, the reunion celebrates a shared legacy and longevity. “When we walked in a room we just basically took it over. So many great personalities stood out. This thing we’re about to do is…a coming together of a group of gifted artists and great friends who truly love each other. We’ve remained friends. Everyone’s maintained a high level of musicianship. It’s going to be worth seeing.”

He was motivated to organize the reunion when he saw friends passing away. “I told the guys, ‘If we don’t get together and do this now, I don’t know the next time …we can…’” It’s an appreciation for the fact “life’s been good to us. We’re lucky to still be doing what we lov — what feeds the soul. And it’s a chance to see some of the people who supported Crackin’ in Omaha.”

Robbie Dupree and Neal Davis are among the special guest artists expected to jam.

Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick

June 21, 2011 30 comments

Another in my series of stories about Omaha musicians who’ve made it big features Arno Lucas. My profile of him appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) when he came back to perform with Gladys Knight. He’s performed with many legends. I am highlighting some of the artists like Lucas who have been honored by the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame. Inactive the last few years, the Hall is returning this year, July 29 at Slowdown, as part of Native Omaha Days.  Lucas was inducted early on into the Hall, which has become a fine and fitting showcase for the immense talent that’s come out of this place, by which I mean Omaha and its African American community. Look for more of my stories about Black Omaha, past and present, on this blog.  I am also posting a piece about a fondly recalled band Lucas played with called Crackin’ that held a reunion concert back here a couple years ago.

 

 

 

 

Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.como)
Arno Lucas is among many artists from Omaha to forge a serious music career. The percussionist-vocalist-composer returns home this weekend from a gig at the Apollo to do what he does best, serve as a consummate sideman, this time backing Gladys Knight for her headlining of Joslyn Art Museum’s 75th anniversary gala concert.

He’s played with more legends than he can count: Michael Jackson, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Rickie Lee Jones, Chaka Kahn, Yolanda Adams, Bette Midler, Harry Belafonte, Randy Newman. If you’ve not heard of him it’s because his job is to “augment” — not show up — stars like Knight, whom he’s worked with extensively.

Lucas moved to Omaha with his family at age 10 from Berkeley, Calif. He sang at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church. It was the 1960s, a rich time for the Omaha music scene. While a North High student he had his own singing group, The Creations, and later sang with L.A. Carnival, a fondly remembered local funk outfit, and the Les Smith Soul Band, before joining R&B-rock fusion ensemble Crackin’. As a teen he was making $300 a week gigging.

It was also a time of free love, flower power, peace signs and racial tension. Moving from ultra-liberal Berkeley to segregated Omaha was a “culture shock,” he said. “It was just very, very different the way people treated other people. You could tell there was this race thing. I hated high school to be honest because of the prejudice thing. It was brutal.” Music was a refuge where racial lines faded at places like Sandy’s Escape, a teen club. “Whites and blacks would go and it was cool. It was remarkable, especially in Omaha. There was a great humanistic feeling at that time in Omaha. Even though there was definitely a color thing going on, the circles we traveled in that wasn’t the case, and that was the best thing about it.”

He also came under the influence of Luigi Waites, whose group The Contemporaries he joined. “It was an R&B approach to what marching bands do,” he said. “Very interesting. Luigi just had this vision about this. We’d go and play these small little towns in outer Nebraska. Only whites would be in the audience, and they dug it.”

While peers got caught up in a life of crime, Lucas honed his craft. “It was the thing that kept me focused and kept me out of trouble,” he said. He regards Waites as a “mentor, teacher, stepfather” who showed him music as a way out. “For me, he was the guy, man, who made it possible for me to see these things.” He plans to catch up with Waites, family and friends while in town. Besides Lucas, The Contemporaries produced another major artist in jazz drummer-composer Victor Lewis, best known for his work with icons David Sanborn and Stan Getz.

 

 

Crackin’ and L.A. Carnival also introduced killer players in drummers Lester Abrams and Leslie Smith and bassist Ron Cooley. Lucas said Omaha was filled with national-caliber musicians who were “really happening, really great. These people were just as talented as anyone else on the planet. Some of them got out of Omaha. Some of them didn’t. I was one that did.” Crackin’s first shot at fame came when invited to Woodstock, N.Y., to record for Albert Grossman, the manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and The Band.

Touring and session work soon came his way. His song “Maryann” was on a triple-platinum New Edition album. He wrote songs for Dionne Warwick and other big-name artists. He settled down when he joined Gladys Knight’s show at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. He liked being in one place for a change. He and his wife bought a home there. He commuted weekends to L.A. to write, do session work or tape TV specials. He’s also written songs for Al Jarreau and co-wrote one tune, “All I’ve Got,” performed by Jarreau for the Meg Ryan-Omar Epps movie Against the Ropes.

Music’s taken him around the globe and provided a lifestyle beyond his dreams. “For me, that’s the way it’s rolled for 35 years … getting on planes … going to these unbelievable places,” said Lucas, who lives a couple hours outside L.A. He enjoys the relative anonymity of being a sideman, unlike the stars he works with who deal with groupies and entourages. “The greatest thing about what I do is I get to fly in under the radar,” Lucas said. “I get to walk away after the show is over and I can go hang and nobody bothers me.” ,

Big Bad Buddy Miles

June 21, 2011 22 comments

This is one in a batch of posts I am making in the lead-up to the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame on July 29 at the Slowdown. The late Buddy Miles is one in a long list of musicians from Omaha to find stardom or at least solid success in the upper reaches of the music industry.  Miles is one of those who became a legend in his own time and since his untimely death in 2008 his legend is only growing. I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the occasion of his induction in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which after a hiatus is back this year in conjunction with Native Omaha Days. My blog is thick with stories I’ve done about famous African American figures from Omaha who’ve enjoyed breakout success in the arts, athletics, and many other fields.  You’ll also find stories about many other aspects of African American culture and life in these parts.  Hope you enjoy the pieces as much as I enjoyed writing them.

 

 

Big Bad Buddy Miles

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

Famed blues-rock drummer and singer Buddy Miles is coming home to accept the Omaha Star Award at the August 3 Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame ceremony, where he’ll also perform. The 2005 inductee is using the occasion to deliver a message about the needless waste of young people to violence.

Having grown up in the ‘50-’60s heyday of the hep North 24th Street music scene, he rues the loss of what used to be.

“Back in the day 24th Street is where all the clubs were. It certainly is nothing like it was then. It’s like a ghost town down there now…there’s nothing for kids to do,” he said. “That’s why there’s so much havoc and trouble in Omaha and…in every major city…People don’t know how to go and party anymore. There’s too many senseless shooting.s The time has come that we must band together as one….”

The lifetime train enthusiast hopes to convince Union Pacific Railroad to sponsor a nationwide tour, tracing the railroad’s lines, for him to educate young people “about how important their lives are.” His new CD, The Centennial, is named after the famous U.P. diesel engine at Kenefick Park.

He dreamed of being a train engineer. Instead he “followed in the footsteps” of his father, George A. Miles, Sr., who played upright bass with Ellington, Basie, Parker, Gordon. Buddy began playing drums at age 8. “I’ve been a musician all my life,” he said. “I’ve done nothing else.”

As a teen he gigged with his father’s band, the Bebops, and with Preston Love, Sr. and Lester Abrams. He first made it in New York, hooking up with Wilson Pickett. He jammed in the Village with Eric Clapton. His big break came when Michael Bloomfield plucked him for the Electric Flag, a blues-rock band Miles still considers the best he ever played in. He toured-recorded widely, opening for Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and playing on albums by Hendrix and Muddy Waters. More Hendrix collaborations followed. Jimi produced an album by the Buddy Miles Express. Miles played on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. Miles formed with Hendrix and Billy Cox the trio, Band of Gypsys, which released one album before Jimi’s death.

 

 

 

 

Miles recorded hits and played with such artists as Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. His greatest commercial success came with his version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” for a California Raisins commercial. The gig made the classic song big again and spawned three Miles albums.

A 2005 stroke has not slowed Miles, who lives in Austin, Texas. He’s even throwing down a challenge to Motley Crew bad boy drummer Tommy Lee and the rocker’s MTV Husker bit. “I’ll have a duel with that dude anytime he wants…We can do it at a Nebraska football game, too,” Miles said, “because I’ll drum him a new ass.”

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