Artist Vera Mercer’s Coming Out Party
The Mercer name is exalted in Omaha for the family’s embedded presence as downtown commercial-residential property owners and managers, historic preservationists, aesthetic arbiters, and the primary visionaries, developers, and protectors of what’s known as the Old Market. The Old Market is a small enclave of late 19th and early 20th century brick warehouse buildings that comprised the city’s wholesale produce center. Under the Mercer’s leadership these stuctures took on new life in the 1970s to house an eclectic collection of restaurants, artist studios, art galleries, trendy shops, and loft condos. For a few decades now the National Register of Historic Places district has been one of the state’s top tourist attractions. The subject of this story, artist Vera Mercer, is a native German who married into the family just as the Mercers were transforming the area into a cultural hub. She played a vital role, along with husband Mark Mercer and father-in-law Samuel Mercer in establishing some of the anchor sites there, including the French Cafe. Her photography is prominently displayed in the restaurant. The Mercers own a few eateries in the district and Vera plays a hand in them all behind the scenes. Additionally, her large-scale, Baroque-style food still lifes can be seen in one of these spaces – The Boiler Room. The Mercer’s La Buvette is a bistro style eaterie with an impressive wine selection and it’s often where Vera and Mark can be spotted. She also runs her own gallery, The Moving Gallery, that features work by European artists. Though she’s long been a key player in the Old Market, Vera has been a low-key, little-know presence outside that gilded arena. That is until recently, when a book of her paintings and exhibitions of her work have received much notice here and in Europe. I had never met Vera until doing this short 2011 piece about her for Encounter Magazine. What I found is a charming woman who is an artist through and through. Her photography and painting, equally compelling.
Artist Vera Mercer’s Coming Out Party
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Encounter Magazine
Vera Mertz Mercer occupies a paradoxical place in Omaha. She’s a world-renowned photojournalist and art photographer, yet her work is little known here. She’s a vital part of the Mercer family’s Old Market dynasty, yet few recognize her influence.
Forty years after coming here, this German native is finally getting the attention that’s eluded her thanks to several projects featuring her work, which ranges from evocative street-market-figurative portraits to richly textured still lifes of food-animal-plant motifs.
A new book, Vera Mercer, Photographs and Still Lifes (Kehrer, 2010), includes a selection of her photo reportage and still lifes. Following well-received exhibits in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, plus a show in Lincoln, Neb., she has a single work on display in the 12th Annual Art Auction and Exhibition at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, October 8-November 6. Her biggest exposure though will be her first Omaha solo exhibit, Vera Mercer: Still Lifes, opening in January at the Bemis.
“Given the Mercers central role in the development and sustainability of the Old Market, and their longstanding role in Omaha’s art community, it was surprising to me she had never had a one-woman exhibition” here, said Bemis curator Hesse McGraw.
He said the show will reveal “an under-recognized jewel and legacy of the contemporary art community. I’m interested in the deep intensity of Vera’s photographs. They have a timeless quality that is both classical and highly contemporary. The works are unsettlingly rich in tone, composition and content. It’s surprising these decadent, grotesque, deep-hued works also have a sense of levity. They possess a rigor that is very rare.”
Vera Mercer at an opening
More 2011 exhibitions of Mercer’s work are slated for Mexico City, Japan and Italy. Her emergence on the art scene follows a stellar career in Europe photographing famous artists and their work (Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol), authors (Norman Mailer), playwrights (Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco), performers (Jacques Brel), street scenes and markets. Her first husband, artist Daniel Spoerrii, was active in theater. Her father, Franz Mertz, was a noted set designer. Both men introduced her to the avant garde and she flourished in the heady company of artists and intellectuals.
Mercer trained as a modern dancer, teaching for a time, before Spoerri gave her her first camera. Photography’s expressive possibilities fascinated her. Self-taught, she develops and prints her own work. She prefers shooting with high speed film. She likes grainy, dimly lit images. Her lush still lifes are made with a 4-by-5 camera.
In Europe she met sculptor Eva Aeppli, the wife of Samuel Mercer, an attorney who divides his time between his native Omaha and France. Aeppli’s astrological sculptures adorn the Garden of the Zodiac in the Old Market Passageway. The Mercer family has owned property there for generations. The couple befriended Vera, who later married Samuel’s son, Mark. As an artist and gourmand she fit right in with these cosmopolitans and their affinity for artistic and epicurean delights. Her discerning eye and palette helped shape the Old Market into a cultural oasis.
Mark manages the family’s many properties. He and Samuel, a 2010 Omaha Business Hall of Fame inductee, have been the primary agents for preserving this former wholesale produce center and repurposing its warehouses as shops, galleries, restaurants, apartments, condos.
The ambience-rich Market, a National Register of Historic Places district, has become Omaha’s most distinctive urban environs and leading tourist destination.
Overshadowed in this transformation from eyesore to hotbed is Vera Mercer. She’s applied her aesthetic sensibilities to some iconic spots, such as, V. Mertz, which bears her name. She and Mark own La Buvette, an authentic spin on the French cafes they know from their Parisian haunts. More recently they opened the Boiler Room, a fine dining establishment with Vera’s large format, color still lifes integrated into the decor.
Her black and white photo murals of Parisian cafes are among the distinctive interior design elements at the French Cafe, which Samuel Mercer developed with Cedric Hartman. Her photo project for the cafe first brought her to America.
While a familiar figure to Market denizens for her culinary endeavors, her photography is decidedly less known, though in plain view. She’s exhibited her work in galleries around the world but seldom locally. This despite the fact she oversees the Moving Gallery. Mercer said, “I could easily show there but I think that’s not for me to do that.”
There are practical reasons why so much of her work is showing now after years of scant exhibition activity. First of all, she doesn’t believe in over-exposing herself. “I think one should not be overseen,” she said.
Then she’s been busy. “I had lots to do,” she said, referring to her many Mercer Old Market duties, including launching restaurants. She keeps the books for the two the Mercers still own. Several “intense” photo installation projects she did in Asia with designer John Morford kept her occupied.
So, all along she’s been practicing her craft, just not exhibiting. But she’s built a tremendous body of work.
“I work every day a lot on photography,” she said.
Exhibiting isn’t everything. The culinary arts are creative, too. “Making a restaurant is something so beautiful. It’s something for the people. It’s just like a painting,” she said, before adding,“It’s just like theater, too.”
She’s a bit taken aback by all the attention directed her way these days, but she’s “not surprised.” Always open to change, she’s now experimenting with some new portraiture techniques, ready to reinvent herself again.
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