Peter Buffett Completes Circle of Life Furthering Kent Bellows Legacy
The Buffetts are to Omaha what the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers and the Fords were to their home cities only the Buffetts don’t build brick and mortar edifices as expressions of their wealth they way those other mega-rich families did. No, the Buffetts are creatives, not industrialists, and therefore the contributions they make are in ledger books and programs and services and, in the case of Peter Buffett, in compositions. This is a story I did a few years ago for Metro Magazine about Peter and his passions for music, art, youth, and social justice. It also goes into the encouragement he received from his late mentor, the artist Kent Bellows of Omaha and his support for the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts in Omaha.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Metro Magazine
The sudden death in 2005 of American Realism master Kent Bellows reverberated throughout the art world. Among those affected by his passing was musician Peter Buffett, an Omaha native and youngest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Decades earlier Peter was befriended by Bellows, eight years his senior, when his parents became the artist’s patrons. Bellows, who had an affinity for young people, mentored Peter. Over time, the two remained close, a relationship that lasted until the artist’s death at age 56 from natural causes at his mid-town studio.
In the back of that studio, whose loft contained Bellows’ living quarters, the artist held court with a coterie of friends, creatives all. Buffett was a frequent visitor.
“I just really found his intellectual curiosity, coupled with his creativity, infectious,” Buffett said by phone from his New York City home. “He was just a very warm, open, likable person. He also played piano. I loved to hear him play. He had a very unique style.”
The widely collected and exhibited Bellows lived and worked in a century old structure overbrimming with the toils of his discipline. The building’s now home to the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts, 3303 Leavenworth St., where his tools, ephemera and backdrops are preserved the way he left them. The result is a tableaux-like, three-dimensional still life of the creative process.
The center, whose mission is to “ignite the create spark” in individuals and encourage their “potential through self-expression in the visual arts,” conducts a mentoring program pairing professional artists with area high school students.
Fulfilling potential is a theme of Buffett’s new book, Life is What You Make It (Harmony Books), a part memoir, part inspirational primer.
On April 30 he presented Life is What You Make It, A Concert and Conversation benefit for the nonprofit center. Performing before a packed house at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall, he sang and spoke about finding one’s bliss.
“I think self-reflection and responsibility is sometimes the missing piece for people. They’re not really willing to take a hard look at their own actions,” he said. “It’s much easier to blame something or someone else.”
He believes “a lot of people short change themselves. Our own minds can wreak havoc on our dreams for sure. It is too bad we get trapped by our own thinking that we’re not good enough.” He said he held himself back musically for years because of self-doubt. In his book he discusses some of his failures or missed opportunities. Recognizing those moments can help us seize the next day, he says.
He credits encouragement from his parents and from mentor figures like Bellows for preparing him to fulfill his own potential.
Event proceeds also supported a Bellows exhibition opening September 25 at Joslyn, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work since his death. A young Bellows studied masterworks in Joslyn’s galleries and some of his own early work showed there.
The Bellows center and exhibition are close to Buffett’s heart because they perpetuate the spirt of a man whose loss is still fresh for him and they complete the circle of life.
“Kent’s somebody I think about very often,” said Buffett. “When you know anybody well there’s certain things about them you remember. He had a great laugh, he had a great quality to his voice. So, viscerally you can feel and hear his presence. He’s definitely still around.”
Buffett’s built a life embodying the Bellows mantra of following one’s passion. Buffett’s parents modeled a similar philosophy: his father Warren as entrepreneur and philanthropist; his late mother Susie as community activist and singer. Peter suspects Susie saw Bellows as a kindred spirit who would nurture and guide him .
Bellows center executive director Anne Meysenburg said of Peter, “He’s a product of Kent’s mentoring.” Buffett agrees and often references the influence of his departed friend. As Kent did, Buffett’s carved out a creative niche for himself that expresses his deepest feelings. As a Kent Bellows Foundation founder and board member, he’s keenly aware of carrying on the generosity Bellows was famous for.
“As Kent was to me, the foundation is to the kids it’s mentoring and supporting. That was the brilliance I think of Kent’s sisters and Anne (Meysenburg) really saying, What was Kent’s role in the lives of the people he touched and how can that be extended to what the foundation does? They’ve really hit it, too. It really is that supporting, mentoring role.”
“The center gets to give that back to young people in perpetuity,” said Meysenburg.
In turn, mentors and students engage the communit in positive social action through public art projects. Meysenburg said Buffett is “a guiding force. He’s got a very holistic view. He comes from a funder’s perspective but he also understands the plight of the nonprofit. He provides a lot of insight. He has incredible passion for the organization. Peter is very focused on the two sides of our mission, which are honoring Kent’s legacy and creative development in the community.”
Giving back is a dimension of Buffett’s humanist ideals. He and his wife Jennifer’s NoVo Foundation works to empower girls in developing nations. He said this focus is predicated on the belief societies need to move “from domination and exploitation to collaboration and partnership” by valuing the disenfranchised.
“We talk about that in the context of girls and women because they’re certainly wildly misrepresented in the world compared to their numbers,” he said.
He believes supporting girls and women has a ripple effect through families and communities.
“The bottom-line for me is that only a girl will be the mother of every child and because of that if you can support, educate, provide health care and a livelihood to a girl she’s going to be a different kind of mother, and therefore everyone will be better off. It’s not unlike my father’s investment philosophy — you find something undervalued in the marketplace, you recognize its true value, you invest in it, support it, and wait until the market catches up and your investment pays off. And to me that’s a girl, she’s undervalued. That’s where we want to put our money.”
He said there’s no substitute for visiting a country to understand its challenges. “It’s invaluable to do. My line is, ‘You won’t know if you don’t go.’” Jennifer was recently in Uganda for the foundation. The couple log many miles together. The Uganda visit was the first major foundation trip he’s not been on.
Not long ago Buffett was best known as a composer-producer of New Age-style projects, but he’s fast-gained notoriety for personal recordings, some political, featuring his singing voice. The first social justice awakening in his music came with his Native American work (Spirit – The Seventh Fire) and a collaboration with Chief Hawk Pope. He’s lately collaborated with R&B artist/rapper Akon and Afropop artist Angelique Kidjo. He and Akon performed in the United Nations General Assembly in remembrance of slave trade victims.
He said his ever evolving career “is a testament to following what you love” as opposed to a rigid goal. “I’m much more into being than doing because I’m finding the more I follow this thing that’s inside of me I’m able to put these interior feelings in the music in a way that people respond to.” He never imagined himself a singer but he believes events opened him to the possibility.
“Kent’s death was a big piece of that, as was my mom dying the year before. Jennifer and I went through a very difficult time, so songs started coming out, and I really just wrote them for myself and my relationship. I was surprised by the fact they sounded OK. I still don’t think of myself as a singer. I’m still getting used to it frankly. But when you’re sitting in the General Assembly of the U.N. and Akon is singing with you and Nile Rodgers is backing you up on guitar, you think, How the hell did this happen? How cool is this?”
Buffett is the only male to perform on stage for V-Day, a movement to stamp out violence against females. By using music to speak out against social ills, such as his songs “Can We Love?” and “Bought and Sold,” he’s fulfilling a long-held desire. He said, “I always wanted the music to do something — to serve a higher purpose.”
In an era of diminishing resources and widening inequities, he’s a proponent of people in developed countries making do with less.
“We’re stuck in this world that tells us we need things to feel whole,” he said. “I think you can never fill whatever inside you that feels empty with stuff. Some brilliant ad man a long time ago figured out that you can make people think that they can. Now we’ve built an economy on it, and when it collapses what will we have? We won’t have the sense of community and connections we’ll need to really survive.”
He appreciates the irony of someone from privilege raising the question, “How much is enough?,” but points out that for all the Buffett’s riches they live frugally and do give back. His father’s famously earmarked his fortune to charitable causes, including foundations run by Peter and his siblings that address social problems.
Peter advocates social networking as a means to promote social justice and supports efforts like the social action web site, IsThereSomethingICanDo.com.
Meysenburg said the Bellows center’s community engagement piece aligns closely with Buffett’s interests. Students and mentors will participate in a graffiti abatement program this summer with juvenile offenders. Buffet’s involvement in the Bellows Foundation is a big reason why Meysenburg said the start-up’s grown quickly and formed multiple partnerships. His April concert was the second fund-raising gig he’s performed on its behalf.
Peter visits the Bellows center whenever in town. He enjoys seeing the student-mentor dynamic at work. He cannot help but think back to when he and Bellows filled those roles. It’s an interaction he finds almost sacred beauty in.
He’s seen the progress made in transforming the old Bellows work space into a contemporary gallery, offices, education wing and artistic playground. Work continues as funds allow. Renovations have necessitated the center’s classes meeting in the Bemis Underground in the Old Market. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts is a major partner of the Bellows program.
Buffett said he and fellow Bellows Foundation members are conscious of living up to the legacy of the man whose life exuded the nurturing, creative spark. He’s satisfied they’re on the right track.
“It makes us all feel good we’re doing something we know he would love. None of us forget that.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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