Artist facing life-altering disease makes Dracula subject of literary festival: Jill Anderson and friends explore Bram Stoker’s dark vision
A not-so-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to Jill Anderson organizing the Joslyn Castle Literary Festival this year: strange, unsettling, and often debilitating symptoms began appearing out of nowhere and after many tests, a mis-diagnosis and many more tests she found out the culprit: multiple sclerosis. In true trouper fashion she has carried on and “the show” is indeed going on in her capable hands. It is ironic perhaps that her life-altering disease should come in the year the festival explores the permutations of Bram Stoker’s classic transmutation novel Dracula. Her festival, Shadows at the Castle: Bram Stoker’s Dark Vision, runs Oct. 17 through Nov. 1 and uses art, music, drama, film, literature, and more to explore the themes bound up in the Stoker work and the superstitions and cultural traditions that influenced his creation.
Artist facing life-altering disease makes Dracula subject of literary festival
Jill Anderson and friends explore Bram Stoker’s dark vision
©BY LEO ADAM BIGA
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Jill Anderson made Bram Stoker’s dark transmutation novel Dracula the theme for the 2014 Joslyn Castle Literary Festival she never imagined her own life would be marked by fear-inducing, life-altering transformation.
In February the founder-artistic director of the annual festival, now in its fourth year, suffered the sudden onset of debilitating ailments initially attributed to a stroke. After rounds of invasive testing the stroke idea was laid to rest. Instead, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease affecting the nerve cells of the brain and spinal chord. As the Omaha singer-actress has shared via Facebook posts, she’s dealt with endless doctor visits and frequent bouts of fatigue yet maintained a busy professional schedule. Even during the worst of it, plagued by nausea, double vision and vertigo, she fulfilled many performing obligations. She even made an out-state tour – with the help of friends and family.
“My mom literally went on tour with me, stayed in the hotels, made sure I got fed, It’s weird at age 47 to be like the invalid and having your mom as your caretaker,” she says.
Her indefatigable spirit’s hardly wavered, at least not on social media sites, where her humor shines through. In one post she compared her tour experience to Weekend at Bernie’s because she was nearly dragged from place to place like the corpse of that film comedy, only to be propped up at the mic to perform.
The emergence of her disease is still so new that she’s far from knowing yet what her long-term prognosis is.
“It hits everybody differently, there’s no way to predict how it’s going to affect you. One person might end up in a wheelchair and somebody else – no issues, no problems, or very little. So you have to figure out how quickly and aggressively your case is progressing and there’s no way to know that other than through observation over a number of years.
“I’ve heard stories from a handful of people about someone in their family who has MS and is in dire condition. Those have been the days that have been the hardest for me – hearing about the MS stories that are not triumphant and hopeful. You can’t have a chronic degenerative disease and not have the thought occur to you – What if I get hit really hard at some point in my life and there’s no one around to help me? I’ve had blue days with those kind of thoughts.”
Despite personal challenges, this trouper made sure the literary festival, whose proceeds benefit the Joslyn Castle Trust, was never in doubt. Much like her treatment of past subjects the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shadows at the Castle: Bram Stoker’s Dark Vision is a multifaceted event informed by her curiosity and wit. With the Durham Museum, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and other collaborators, the fest explores its theme through cinema, lecture, drama, dance and music.
“Every new project I do is a whole new world of discovery, especially the literary festival because it requires a lot of research,” she says. “I love to have an excuse to research my butt off. One of the neatest things about what the festival has become is this sort of melting pot of artists and scholars. Visual art is always involved. Drama is always a centerpiece.”
“There’s really no group in town doing exactly this,” she says. Indeed, the downtown Omaha Lit Fest has a contemporary focus. In theater circles she says “Brigit St. Brigit certainly does a great job with the classics, but they’re doing the drama aspect without exploding that out into all these other facets.” What distinguishes her event, she says, is its examination of “what inspired these much loved classic stories that still fire people’s imaginations.” That niche, she adds, has found “a passionate audience and we want to find more people who get it and dig it and are looking for a thought-provoking, intellectually-stimulating, interactive, exploratory approach to this literature.”
Then there’s the singular setting of the Scottish Baronial castle at 3902 Davenport Street. Built in 1903, the imposing four-story structure is the closest thing to a Count Dracula lair as you’ll find in the metro.
“The castle is gorgeous. An incredible, historic venue. It has a built-in ambience. So it’s really like a perfect marriage between this great literature from past periods and that evocative building.”
Anderson says as she filled out the Stoker festival with programming everything she needed fell into place but one element: authentic Transylvanian folk art from the 19th century.
“It’s been the festival of ultimate syncronicity because when I most need something it magically materializes. One thing I wanted for sure was an exhibit of Transylvanian folk art and lore because it informs a lot of things in Dracula. Stoker was a great consumer and enthusiast of folk lore, he was constantly studying it and speaking to people who knew about it and taking it facts and information. I also wanted to get some actual artifacts – a traditional Transylvanian costume from a hundred years ago.
Searches on eBay only turned up things she couldn’t afford.
“I was beginning to despair and then a friend and I were walking around in the Brass Armadillo antiques store, where I interacted intermittently with a shop clerk with a strange and unidentifiable accent.
My friend and I found this kitsch cross but I said, ‘It will never work for Dracula,’ and the clerk said, ‘I am related to him.’ My friend said, ‘Van Helsing?’ ‘No.’ With a real live relation to Dracula or more accurately to the inspiration for the vampire legend, Vlad the Imapler, standing next to her, she did what any red-blooded girl would do.
“I leaped on him,” she says. The object of her enthusiasm, George Mihai, is not only a Transylvania native but a Romanian cultural studies expert with a personal collection of period artifacts from his home country, including many from his family.
“What are the chances?” asks Anderson, whose own powers of seduction or persuasion has Mihai loaning artifacts for display and delivering a lecture.
Where does a popular entertainer like Anderson fit into all of this?
“I would never be pretentious enough to say I bring any level of academia to this programming. I like to think I bring the juice to it.”
For 2014 she sought “something classic, completely indelible, that everyone knows and is irresistibly popular and sexy to the American public.” With fellow creatives she’s concocted an eclectic look at Dracula. The schedule:
Movie Night, 7 p.m.
Nosferatu on the Green
F.W. Murnau’s silent film classic Nosferatu gets projected outdoors against the castle’s north facade. Audience members can throw down blankets on the lawn. Tiki torches and fire pits add to the mood. A UNO scholar comments on Dracula’s rich screen and stage history. An American Red Cross blood drive precedes the event with a bloodmobile taking donors from 2 to 7 p.m.. “Isn’t that fun?” Anderson says.
•October 23 through November 1
Exhibit, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily
Durham Museum at the Castle: Vampires and Victorians
Victorian ways and Romanian folk art take center stage in this exhibition drawn from the Durham’s permanent collection and from the personal collection of Tranyslvania native George Mihai, respectively. Victorian funerary customs and the rise of female emancipation are sub-themes in Dracula. Mihai’s family artifacts go back many generations.
•October 23-26 and 29-30
Drama Duet, 7 p.m.
Kirk Koczanowkski delivers a one-man performance of Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker. Anderson, who’s directing, says, “This brilliant actor played our Oscar Wilde two years ago and just was dazzling. He’s young but sort of timeless and ageless. He’s transmutable, He can shape shift into anything you want him to be.”
Paired with that show is a staged reading of The Jewel of Seven Stars, a Stoker story about an attempt to reanimate an Egyptian mummy. Omaha theater artist Laura Leininger wrote the adaptation.
The two shows take place in the castle’s atmospheric attic full of turrets, nooks and crannies.
Double Lecture, 6 p.m.
The Man Behind the Monster
Life and Afterlife in Romanian Mythology
Stoker expert BJ Buchelt (UNO) speaks about the author’s life before the iconic novel. Stoker was bedridden as a child. He managed the Lyceum Theatre in London, where he was also personal assistant to England’s preeminent theater personality, Henry Irving. His wide travels in Eastern Europe and his studies of its folk tales prepared him to write Dracula.
Transylvania native and Romanian cultural studies expert George Mihai of Omaha shares what Anderson describes as “absolutely fascinating stories” about Vlad the Impaler, a historical figure whose reign of terror helped inspire vampire mythology, and about that area’s deeply rooted and peristent native superstitions.
Vampyre Ball, 7 p.m.
This “big blowout party on Halloween night will feature tarot readers, palm readers, fire spinner dancers, performers enacting vampiress bride scenes live readings by actors and a costume contest. Plus, lots of food, drink, music and revelry.
Music of the Unknown, 7 p.m.
Hal France conducts a chamber ensemble of vocalists Anderson, Sam Swerczek and Terry Hodgesand and cellist David Downing performing period folk, operatic and popular stage music that deals with the supernatural.
Anderson, a much beloved and versatile artist equally adept at performing cabaret, Irish music, Shakespeare, Sondheim, high drama and broad comedy, makes sure music is always a part of the festival. The power of music has taken on new import for her.
“My ability to perform music, to use music to soothe and help other people is an incredible thing for me. I’ve gone to care facilities and sung from bedside to bedside for people and it does have an immediate affect on people. I’ve gotten thank you letters from people who’ve seen me in a cabaret show or some musical production saying they brought their father to the show and they hadn’t seen him smile since his wife died. That’s the letter you save for a lifetime. Music did that. Live performance did that.”
Then there are the unexpected, unscripted moments when music’s transformative power takes hold. In a September 9 post she wrote about one such moment at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, where she spend a couple weeks undergoing tests.
“On the lowest level of the big open atrium there is a grand piano. It is open to anyone who feels inclined to tickle the ivories. Most days from 10 to Noon a seasoned old pro of a piano player, a woman who can play pretty much any request, sits at the piano and accompanies anyone who wants to stand up and sing…Yesterday, a barrel-chested surgeon in full scrubs walked up to me with his big baritone booming and, taking me by both hands, sang ‘Climb Every Mountain’ straight to my face.”
“It was totally surprising and wonderful,” Anderson says now in reflection. Never too shy to to break into song herself, at various times she did Mayo solos of “Stardust,” “Amazing Grace,” “Softly” and Tenderly” and “How Great Thou Art,” no doubt moving onlookers with her performances. Having the shoe on the other foot was an eye-opener for her.
“Music is and always has been the great healer. I’ve usually been on the providing side of that equation. It’s interesting to be on the receiving end as well.”
The solace of music is always available to her. Her health problems surfaced in the middle of planning the literary festival, which complicated things but also allowed her to lose herself and her woes in the work. She says organizing the event is an “all-consuming feat” she values now more than ever.
“It’s easy to feel like your identity is becoming the disease and I don’t want that to be the case. It’s great to have something like the literary festival to pour my creative passion and energy into. It’s something that pumps me up and keeps me moving forward.”
She’s having fun, too, going goth, fangs and all, in promos.
The public knows her best as a performer but she also directs and she’s looking forward to helming Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker at the fest.
“This Dracula I’m directing is really going to be outside-the-box. It’s a one-man Dracula with a single actor who morphs from one character to another, so that requires tremendous theatrical invention to come up with how do we make that happen, how do we make it clear when you go from one character to another.”
Directing is something she expects to do more of.
“I’ve done more performing than directing but I’ve been directing for years and now I’m feeling I really want to steer my ship in the direction of directing more,” says Anderson, who concedes dealing with stamina and fatigue issues is part of that deliberation going forward.
She owns long associations with the Blue Barn Theatre, the Omaha Community Playhouse and the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival. She and Tim Siragusa had Bad Rep Productions together. She’s left Omaha to make a living doing cabaret and regional theater in places like New York City and Los Angeles, but she’s always returned home.
She’s grateful for the outpouring of care she’s received here in the wake of her diagnosis from extended family and friends. She says the “incredible love and loyalty” she’s received has meant a lot to her as she’s navigated this “scary stuff.”
She’s grateful to for the generosity others have shown. Fellow performers staged a May benefit that paid her way to the Mayo Clinic.
“This big beautiful event went off without a hitch. There was so much heart in all of it – it was overwhelming. It’s almost impossible to describe what it feels like when your friends step in and just support you.”
She was also gifted with a long dreamed of trip to her ancestral homeland of Ireland.
These experiences, she says, have given her “new insight” into her many blessings and a new appreciation for life.
“I think people are never brought closer to the essence of who they are than when they’re facing scary illness. When you’re sick, the bullshit goes away, you see things very clearly for what they are and in a way you’re hypersensitized. It brings you face-to-face with a lot of truths.
As an actress, Anderson’s called to be in the moment but she says she has just as much trouble achieving that state as most of us do.
“Oh God it’s hard to do. I think people’s ambition and drive put their head down the line instead of right here, right now.”
There’s nothing like a devastating health scare to get you to slow down, be still and surrender to the here and now
“All the weird stuff that’s happened medically has really snapped me into the moment, to being able to be fully and deeply touched by experience. To have sensual and delicious moments I’m actually enjoying and am involved in. I wasn’t able to do that before, not really. My head was always somewhere else. It was very hard to slow down and focus in before.”
In an April 5 post she shared, “Here are the things I noticed today: Spring is here. The magnolia tree outside my parents’ house is in glorious blushing bloom. Sprinklers were sending glistening droplets into the air. Lilac buds were packed and purple on the bush in my south garden. The air had a balmy feel. My sweet potato tasted incredible…I sang my guts out at a rehearsal for a gig and loved the feeling of making musical sounds.”
That ability to be in the moment, she says, “is the best thing that’s come out of it (her health crisis).” It’s why when people ask how she’s doing she can honestly say, “I’m taking it one day at a time.”
For prices and tickets, call 402-595-2199 or visit http://www.joslyncastle.com.
Omaha-based artist Watie White is making a name for himself in part through his public art projects that reflect the stories of urban neighborhoods and communities. This is a Reader (www.thereader.com) piece I did about his 2014 public art projects in Omaha. You can find on this blog a story I wrote last year about a similar project he did.
Art and community meet-up in artist’s public projects; Watie White mines urban tales
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha artist Watie White’s humanist public art projects reveal the narratives of transitional urban neighborhoods. The dynamics of locations and the people living there shape his site-specific works.
Three 2014 projects, one completed and the others in-progress, all connect to community organizations whose social justice missions “align” with his own.
“The kind of organizations I am most attracted to are the ones who make a splash with a handful of incredibly passionate people that affect the lives of many families,” he says.
His new All That Ever Was, Always Is exhibition at two abandoned homes slated for demolition in northeast Omaha continues his work with Habitat for Humanity. In 2013 he repurposed an empty home in the same area with original paintings symbolizing the family that lived there and the neighborhood it was part of. He installed prints in the window frames. After the exhibit came down, the condemned house was razed. A vacant lot sits in its place awaiting a new build.
Habitat executive director Amanda Brewer says White’s projects add depth to the agency’s blight remediation work: “They celebrate the rich history that comes with older homes and neighborhoods. The time and respectfulness he puts into getting to know the neighbors, the history of the neighborhood and involving neighbors in his project strengthens Habitat’s efforts to involve the entire neighborhood in our work.”
The house(s) Habitat loans him – for his new project he tackled side by side houses at 1468 and 1470 Grant St. – become cultural excavation sites and art canvasses. He insinuates and immerses himself by doing interviews with neighbors and, where possible, with folks who lived in the dwellings, combing through contents for artifacts and narrative clues, taking photos, using subjects as models.
All of it inspired 51 original paintings he made for the two current structures. Acrylic vinyl prints were installed since July 19 and remain up through year’s end. The houses will then be razed for new homes to go up in their place. His assistant Peter Cales salvaged materials to make benches and tables as communal gathering spots. White’s planning public dinners and conversations at the site.
Dialogue’s a hoped-for by-product of the The Wheels Keep Turning murals Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska commissioned him to create. The agency provides legal, education, advocacy services for immigrants. The murals will go in immigrant-rich areas in South Omaha, North Omaha, Benson and Little Italy. White describes the subjects as “inspirational people every day making a positive influence in their neighborhood.”
Elisha Novak. JFON program director and mural project coordinator, says the murals are intended to shine a positive light on immigrant contributions and to empower more immigrants to share their stories.
“We will also host a series of public meetings, discussions and lectures around the unveiling of the murals to engage the public in a constructive dialogue about immigration-related issues. Additionally, we hope to increase awareness of immigrants and their needs, while incorporating a path to services through JFON.”
Among the models are 78-year-old Mexican immigrant Ramona Silva Gonzales and South Sudan refugee Mary Aketa George, a program officer with the Southern Sudan Community Association. White’s drawing on Ramona’s recollections of her and her cousins picking flowers in the fields of the farm she grew up on and singing ranchera songs. He’s incorporating Mary’s memories of the harsh refugee camp life she endured and how the experience motivated her to help people.
White hopes his murals, including one up at JFON, 2414 E St., “shifts the perception of what the immigrant and new Nebraskan face is.”
He’s placing the murals near where the subjects’ live. Ramona’s will be at the Intercultural Senior Center she’s found a second home at.
White’s inCOMMON Community Development project, You Are Here, will feature Park Avenue district murals and prints along that mid-town drag, plus a 100-foot tall banner mural on the Park North public housing tower, 1601 Park Ave., all reflecting diverse residents’ lives. Jay’s an itinerant musician with dreams of his own nightclub. Anthony’s a street activist-poet spitting do-the-right-thing rants.
inCOMMON director Christian Gray says the art’s meant to reduce the “disconnection and marginalization” public housing residents often feel,” adding, “This goal connects closely with InCommon’s mission of uniting and strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods in its effort of including-incorporating public tower residents within the life of the surrounding community.”
White knows the banner mural will draw much attention.
“It’s a resident community and people walk that neighborhood and this thing is just going to be gigantic. It’s going to loom over that neighborhood. It will inevitably be what everyone takes out of that community. It’s going to be so much louder than anything else. It will be the largest thing I’ve done. It feels like a lot of responsibility.”
His challenge is finding the right aesthetic-content balance. He wants the banner to feel of the community, not imposed on it. Neither too rosy, nor too negative but a “powerful” evocation of “personal, lived experiences – I want it to have that feeling their voice is in it.”
Park Avenue’s similar to the North Omaha section he’s worked in. Both feature compromised, underserved neighborhoods. He came to do houses in North O when he couldn’t find suitable mural spaces there.
“I was wanting to work in that community but there aren’t traditional walls to work on.”
When Habitat offered him condemned homes, he says, “I was like, ‘Yes, that gets me there, I can do something with that.'”
Paintings in the studio become something different installed behind broken glass in the distressed neighborhoods they reflect and inhabit.
“There is no way to see them in the same way when you drive through the neighborhood to get there. You park, you maybe say hi to the people sitting across the street, maybe people come over. All that changes those paintings a lot.”
Once in place the images generate questions and conversations, For him, it’s about connecting to the neighborhood and adding benefit to it.
“There’s a distinct shift in the community that starts with the people that had something to do with it. They then kind of own that space and that neighborhood in a way they didn’t before. For the models there’s a certain self-esteem boost from having their head be five feet tall in some capital A art that ends up in the paper. Part of this process is getting people to tell me their stories they don’t think are important and then have me treat them as important.”
The resulting media coverage gives subjects, their stories and neighborhoods a new currency, he says.
“All those things I feel like make this project better.”
As a white affluent artist dropping in on black poverty, he relies on partner organizations with deep stakes there to open doors for him.
“It gives me legitimacy in a community that is not mine. it allows me to have conversations with these people.”
Still, it takes time to build trust and rapport.
“It took the people on that 1400 block of Emmett a little while to kind of warm up to me and tell me those more true and awkward stories. It was several interviews in before I heard about the Hell’s Angels on the block and the role they played. They provided a safe space, they threw these parties and events that built community. The people really liked them. There was never a problem or racial issue with them.”
A neighbor, Miss Maybel, was inspired enough to start her own motorcycle club.
White traced the 1468 house to the family that last lived there, the Tribbles, whose matriarch, Jessie Tribble, was a single mother with aspirational dreams for her children.
Not everything White uncovers is positive.
“In doing these I feel like as an artist I have an obligation to express as much of the truth as I can find. Inevitably that leads me having to figure out what to do with unpleasant things.”
A daughter, Oretha Walker, confided a brother’s in jail for murder. White expressed in images positive and negative things about him. InCOMMON’s Gray says White’s careful handling of personal narratives like this dovetails with its own community listening approach.
“We believe under-resourced neighborhoods are rich with people who have dreams, talents and stories that can be leveraged toward community change and transformation. Watie has a highly unique talent for calling out these dreams and stories from within the communities he works.”
White also put in images discoveries from the 1470 house. An absentee owner rented it out as a daycare, then it was abandoned, then gutted by fire. A 1918 playbill from the long defunct corner Grand Theatre shows up as cinema bathing beauties. A piece of wall paper with John White penciled-in – the artist’s father’s name – gave Watie White permission to integrate his father and son in images.
Follow the artist’s projects at watiewhite.com.
It’s a star-studded lineup of artists at this Friday’s North Omaha Summer Arts Crawl. Stroll or drive to five venues (listed below) near and along North 30th Street. 6-9 pm. Food and beverages served at each site. It’s all free.
For details, visit www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts or check out the Facebook Events page for the Arts Crawl post.
Participating artists include:
Artists from Metropolitan Community College
Pamela Jo Berry
Kim Whiteside (Kim Louise)
The five Arts Crawl venues are:
Metropolitan Community College, Fort Omaha Campus, Mule Barn (Building 21)
Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd.
Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th Street
Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Avenue
Heartland Family Service, 6720 North 30th Street
At some venues artists will be on hand to discuss their work. Free food and beverages will be available at each stop.
For more information, call 402-502-4669 or 402-445-4666.
Please share this info with family, friends and coworkers in support of this grassroots community event that enriches and engages North Omaha with art.
If you ever doubt what difference an artist can make in a community, consider Linda Meigs. The Omaha native has found a way to connect her love of history, art, and preservation in a labor of love project and site, the Historic Florence Mill in North Omaha, that is equal parts museum, gallery, installation, and gathering spot. In so doing , she has gifted one of Omaha’s oldest neighborhoods with an attraction and resource that, were it not for her, would probably have never happened. She saved the Mill, which has a rich history closely related to the Great Western Mormon Migration, from almost certain demolition and she’s lovingly preserved it as a landmark and transformed the site into a communal space that connects agriculture, history, and art. It is a story of one woman’s passion and magnificent obsession, which if you read this blog you know by now is the kind of story I love to sink my teeth into. You can find this story in the August 2014 New Horizons.
Linda Meigs, ©Allen Irwin blog
Linda Meigs Brings Agriculture, History and Art Together at Florence Mill
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
Artist, history buff, preservationist Linda Meigs didn’t set out to be the Mill Lady but that’s what she’s known as at the Historic Florence Mill, 9012 North 30th Street. It’s appropriate, too, because ever since saving this landmark from likely demolition it’s been her baby.
The wood structure dates back to the 1840s and boasts direct ties to the Great Mormon westward migration and to Church of Latter Day Saints leader Brigham Young. After near continuous use as a flour and lumber mill it was abandoned in the 1970s-1980s. Sitting vacant, the interior was exposed to the elements from a damaged roof and broken windows. Vandals released stored grain from the chutes. Heaps of matted oats and dried pigeon-rodent droppings covered the floors.
Meigs acquired the Mill in 1998 when no one else wanted it. She purchased the-then wreck for $63,000 and much more than that has gone Into its cleanup, repair and restoration. The Mill’s become her magnificent obsession and all-consuming art project.
Today, Meigs, 64, operates the site as a historical museum. Photographs, interpretive text panels, tools, implements, letters and posters tell the story of the Mill and the people behind it. Because she’s retained the historical character of the building, including original timber, the Mill also speaks for itself. The ArtLoft Gallery she created on the second floor is dedicated to her late son Connor Meigs, who followed her path to become an artist. He was a sophomore at her alma mater, the University of Kansas, when killed in a 2004 automobile accident. She was already six years into the project when he died and since then she’s only thrown herself more into it.
An outdoor farmer’s market happens Sundays on the grounds, which she leases from the Nebraska Department of Roads. She also hosts special events at the Mill. This full-fledged cultural attraction began as a cockeyed dream that nearly everyone but her architect husband John Meigs tried talking her out of. It’s turned into a life’s work endeavor that’s preserved history, created a new community space and spurred tourism in one of Omaha’s oldest sections. Her efforts have earned recognition from several quarters.
She’s owner, caretaker, curator and everything else there.
“I’m doing everything here the executive director of any historical society does, only they have paid staff,” she says. “I’m the executive director, docent, historian, janitor, public relations person, events programmer, grant writer, and it just goes on and on.”
She could have added market master. She “runs the show” at the Florence Farmers Market on Sundays in her gaudy market hat.
Those roles are in addition to being a wife, mother and rental property owner-manager. The Mill though requires most of her attention.
“I’m the unpaid slave of the Mill.”
She’s glad to be in service to it, saying, “This is my gift to the city – to keep it open to the public.” She adds, “I’ve always been interested in preservation. My husband John, too. He worked on the restoration of the Orpheum Theatre and Union Station. We have a hundred year-old apartment building, the West Farnam, at 3817 Dewey Avenue.
“I was an officer with Landmarks Inc.. It makes me sick when we tear our history down and go to Europe for history. The Mill is wonderful history. The building is really an encyclopedia of the grain industry. It has a unique niche as the only building in this region that bridges the eras of the overland pioneer trails and territorial settlement. I get a lot of visitors from outside Omaha, really from all across the country, who retrace the Mormon and Gold Rush trails.”
The Mill today
This intersection with history would probably have been razed if not for her passion and perseverance.
The Mill’s been endangered several times, first by the people who built it, the Mormon pioneers, when they left their winter quarters settlement to journey west to Utah. Brigham Young himself supervised the Mill’s construction. But after serving its purpose for that caravan of faithful it was left to the Indians and nature. Scottish emigre Alexander Hunter was on his way to the California Gold Rush when he saw an opportunity to rescue the Mill. He rebuilt it. An employee, Jacob Weber, later bought it. The Mill remained in the Weber family for more than a century, thus it’s often called the Weber Mill and Elevator.
A 1930s flood nearly claimed it. The threat of future floods motivated Jacob’s grandson, Lyman Weber, to move the building, intact, to higher ground. In 1964 the Webers sold out to Ernie and Ruthie Harpster. Interstate 680 construction in the 1970s was slated to run right through the property before Ernie Harpster secured historic status for the site, which necessitated the Interstate being re-routed around it.
Meigs first learned of the Mill when Haprster put it up for sale in 1997. Despite its awful condition Meigs saw potential where others saw ruin.
“My role was to have it make a career change from an obsolete mill and grain elevator into a cultural site. And it took me years to figure out what its theme was, and it was just in the last year or two I recognized the obvious – it connects agriculture, history and art. I never would have thought I’d be able to choreograph my life so that those very separate things would come together in anything as good as this building. It’s like they all tied together in this serendipity project.
“I feel I was the right person at the right time for this to steer it in a different direction – in an attraction direction.”
Indeed, it’s unlikely anyone else possessed the necessary skills and interests, plus will and vision, to take on the Mill and repurpose it.
The oldest of three siblings, Meigs is the only daughter of Francis and Pauline Sorensen. Her parents grew up on north-central Neb farms. Linda spent her early childhood in the Dundee neighborhood, where she and John have resided since 1975, before her family moved to southwest Omaha’s Sunset Hills.
Though she grew up in the city, Meigs gained an appreciation for agriculture visiting her maternal grandparents’ farm.
“My mother’s family farm was my second home. We went out there weekends and holidays. In fact. I’ve used it for my artwork quite a bit,” says the veteran visual artist who’s shown at the Artists Cooperative and Anderson O’Brien galleries.
In contrast to this bucolic idyll was her “Edgar Allan Poe childhood.” Her mother sang at funerals and Linda accompanied her to the dark Victorian gothic mansions where these somber services were held.
She’d sit on a red velvet settee outside the viewing room and wait for mom to finish “Danny Boy,” “In the Garden” and “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Meigs traces her love of old buildings to those times.
Linda’s talent for art asserted itself early. As a girl she drew and colored on any paper she could lay her hands on, filling reams of notebooks with her Childcraft book-inspired designs,
“i won a Walt Disney coloring contest before kindergarten. I got free tickets to Westward Ho the Wagons at the Dundee Theater. That was the payoff. In grade school I got a scholarship to an art class at Joslyn Art Museum. The teachers were always reinforcing about my artwork.”
Westside High School art teachers Ken Heimbuch and Diane (Hansen) Murphy were particularly “encouraging.”
“I still keep in touch with them and they come to my art shows here at the mill. We have a nice relationship.”
Her talent netted a scholarship to the University of Kansas art camp, but her parents couldn’t afford to send her. Heartbroken though she was she still fixed her sights on studying art in college. She started at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before switching to KU.
“I went to UNL my first year but I wasn’t very happy there. The art department wasn’t as large then as it is now. (Landscape painter) Keith Jacobshagen was a graduate student at the time and he encouraged me to check out KU, where he’d gotten his bachelor’s degree.”
The state university in Lawrence proved a good fit.
“It turned out my current husband was down there. It all came together. I loved the campus – you’re on a hill and you can see the horizon from three directions. Aesthetically, it’s very beautiful.”
Her insurance adjustor father and homemaker mother never opposed her pursuing art.
“My parents were very accepting, they knew I had a gift in that area and we’re encouraging. They were proud of me – even to the day I graduated with a totally useless BFA in printmaking. My folks never pressured me about how I was going to make a living. I never worried about it because I always felt, and I raised my kids this way, that if you’re a creative person you could figure out what to do.”
She and John made a go of it after marrying in 1975. He worked as an architect for Leo A. Daly before going into the building supplies business. She worked in a design studio before going off on her own as a freelance illustrator. She’s taught art at Joslyn and Metropolitan Community College and more recently with Why Arts?
She kept her hand in art in other ways, too.
“I was the cultural arts chair of Washington Elementary School for nine years. I invented a theme every year. The first one was Artists in Our Midst and every month I brought in a different artist. Whether they did pottery or silkscreen or painting, there was an artist in residence in the hallway demonstrating their work. I leaned on my artist friends for that to make this program for the school.
“One year we did a history theme and we had an all-school quilting bee. Each class designed a different block for this school quilt that won two blue ribbons at the Douglas County Fair. All of that was practice for events at the Mill. I learned how to be an event producer.”
Her and John’s appreciation for history developed into a hobby of driving around to admire houses and buildings in the old parts of town.
When they had four kids in six years, including twins, they developed an extra income stream by buying older residential properties and renting them out. That led to her day job as “a landlady.”
Then in 1997 she saw an Omaha World-Herald article that changed her life. Headlined “History for Sale,” it detailed the Mill’s colorful past. Having come to the end of its commercial life, the Mill was for sale.
“When I read the article I had a sinking premonition it (the Mill) would be my job,” she says with a laugh.
When she and John toured the Mill for the first time it marked her first visit to Florence. The building was a mess.
“It was boarded up and pitch black inside. We used flashlights to see. It had 2,000 pounds of fermented grain in a bin. Another 12,000 pounds were on the floor. We shuffled through piles of grain, dirt, dead animals and pigeon poop. It was stinky, dark, scary and unhealthy in there.
“Another couple went through it. The woman was Mormon and wanted to do a restaurant there. She asked me, ‘Are you interested in it?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s pretty rough,’ and I said, ‘Are you interested in it?’ and she said, ‘Oh, no, it’s too far gone for me.”
It wasn’t too far gone for Linda, though. Not by a long shot.
“I thought, I can do this. It was a commitment, sure, but I thought this was a gem. I wasn’t afraid of it. I was used to working with old buildings. I didn’t know why there weren’t hundreds of people that wanted to buy an 1800s building.”
Still, it was a huge decision. After weeks hemming and hawing about its potential she recalls, “On Valentine’s Day my husband came home with a loaf of my favorite bread, I set it out on the counter, and he said, ‘Well, aren’t you going to open it?’ So I opened it and underneath the bread was a purchase agreement that if I wanted to do this he would stand with me. That was lovely.”
If she hadn’t gone through with it, she says, “the Mill probably would have been bulldozed. It was falling on its own. There were letters to the editor asking why doesn’t somebody tear that ruin of a building down and others saying it needed to be fixed up. So there were two sides – there always is in preservation. There are those who think it’s served its purpose, and so let it go. Then there’s those who say it’s a link to our past and heritage that should be salvaged, and I’m in that camp.”
“The writer David Bristow may have best captured its magic when he said, ‘I feel like I’m standing inside of a tree with the rings of history around me.’ I love that – I think it’s such a perfect metaphor for this building. From the outside you don’t know what to expect from this industrial-looking building but the inside is very lovely and soulful.”
For Meigs, the Mill is a living history lesson.
“The wood in here tells a story if you know where to look.”
She says the original hand-hewn timbers felled and erected by the Mormons are intact, as are the timbers Alexander Hunter used in rebuilding it. The circular marks from Hunter’s saw are visible in the timbers. There are vintage signs, pay stubs and time cards about.
Getting things up to code meant addressing myriad problems, from fixing huge holes in the roof to replacing rotted windows to draining fetid water in the basement she called “a stinky swimming pool” to removing seven tons of gunk.
“It was a big project.”
Her first order of business was cleaning all the walls and floors and open surfaces – “I scrubbed the entire building with trisodium phosphate and a brush” – and repairing the leaking roof.
She got a pleasant surprise when she discovered all those strewn oats acted as a sealant that protected the wood floors. “So the bane of the building was its blessing,” she says.
The building today “is a lot more solid than it was,” she says thanks to the new roof, siding, windows and insulation. “We did the restoration on the outside to preserve the inside because it’s the inside of this building that’s historical. It’s just the opposite of most restoration projects, where they’ll keep the facade and gut the inside. We didn’t want to do that because it would ruin the building.”
It wasn’t long before she got a sense the Mill just might be the attraction she thought it could be.
“That first summer I was in here cleaning I had a thousand visitors and it wasn’t even open. Actually the Mill told me through all those visitors that it needed to be open as a historical site. I had very vague ideas what to do with it. It’s an odd building functionally. As an artist I thought there would be a good gallery space here.
“I decided to open it up to the public as a museum.”
Meigs may have come to Florence as an outsider but she soon established herself as a good neighbor dedicated to building community and boosting economic development.
“It bothered me the historic sites of Florence were closed most of the summer, the Mill included, except for the Mormon Trails Center,” she says. “Kiwanis was keeping the historic depot and bank open on summer Sundays. I got a grant from the Mammel Foundation to staff those sites every day during the summer. It was a three-year grant and we kept them open with paid staff from Kiwanis clubs. It was a lovely relationship of improving Omaha.”
When the grant ended the depot and bank went back to being open a few select days but she decided to keep the Mill open on a regular basis, she says, “because I could do it – I’m donating my time.”
The Mill’s open seasonally, May through October. It goes in hibernation for the winter as it’s without heat and indoor restrooms.
Although still a newcomer to Florence, she’s become one of its biggest champions and feels it’s often overlooked considering its rich history.
“This is an unknown part of town. I call it the forgotten fringe. When i got the Mill and I started doing the research I realized the depth of the history here and I got involved in the neighborhood.”
She chaired the group Florence Futures that developed the master redevelopment plan for the Florence neighborhood.
When the Mormon Winter Quarters Temple opened she organized a Lunch in Historic Florence event that gave visitors to the Temple a button for a discounted lunch at area restaurants.
“It was the first time the community had done a project with the Temple,” she says, adding the promotion won a state tourism award.
Much sweat equity and money went into getting the Mill into its present restored state.
“It’s taken 17 years to do what we’ve done. It’s not been overnight.”
With no paid admission, the trickle of income from vendor rentals and gift shop sales isn’t nearly enough to keep the Mill open and maintained. She depends on grants and donations. She and John also “pitch in money to keep this afloat.” She estimates more than $300,000 has been invested in the building thus far from various sources.
“I have a Friends of the Mill group and people kindly donate to that. It fluctuates from year to year but the funds from that do not cover the operating costs.”
Some major donors have come through for pricy projects, such as automatic barn doors. The Peter Kiewit Foundation and the Lozier Corporation helped fund their purchase and installation.
“A Questers group won a grant from the statewide Questers to replace the basement windows. It’s not like that happens all the time but there’s enough that it helps. When the need arises, good things happen, angels appear.”
She’s proud of how she converted the mill’s loft into a rustic art gallery bathed in natural light.
“I put some things up there early on. The first show was a show of my farm photographs with fiber art by Dorothy Tuma.”
The space didn’t become a full-fledged gallery though until her son Connor’s death.
“Loss is hard. Losing a child is pretty unacceptable because it’s out of the order of things. He died from injuries in a car accident on Christmas Eve of 2004. He was 19.”
Two images above are of the ArtLoft Gallery
Connor was an award-winning editorial cartoonist with the Omaha Central High Register and the Daily Kansan. He was home for the holidays, driving with his twin brother Doug, when the collision happened near the south side of Elmwood Park.
“We were over at John’s parents’ house waiting for Doug and Connor to come over to play board games with us,” says Linda. “The roads turned to black ice. Both boys suffered injuries and lost consciousness.
“Doug came out of it and Connor did not.”
There was a huge outpouring of support, including $10,000 in memorial gifts to the Mill.
She also wanted to do something to commemorate his love for art.
“It was actually in the wilderness of British Columbia that the idea came to me to give an art award in his memory,” Meigs explains. “I had promised Connor a show at the gallery when he graduated. I decided to give one young person a year what I promised to give Connor.”
The Connor Meigs Art Award is a merit award to help launch a young artist’s career. It includes a month-long solo exhibit, mentoring, artist’s reception, lodging and $1,000 honorarium.
Because Connor was an organ donor his mother knew he helped give life to others and would live on through the recipients.
“I wrote a letter to the families of the transplant patients who received his organs about what kind of a young man he was. I wrote that he was a hockey player and an award-winning artist. It had been six months since his passing and I had not heard any response.”
Linda had been waiting for a letter but she got a personal visit instead.
“We were here working at the Mill on a Sunday cleaning pigeon poop when a couple drove up in a car with outstate license plates. The woman got out and said, ‘We’d like to see Connor’s work.’ I said, ‘How did you know there was an exhibit?’ She looked down and after a pause she looked up to say, ‘I have Connor’s liver.'”
There had been a recent article about the Mill’s renovation and Connor’s show. Maggie Steele of Norfolk, Neb. contacted the Nebraska Organ Donors Society saying she wanted to meet Connor’s family. She was told protocol requires a recipient correspond a year with the family before a meeting is set. Meigs says Steele persisted until the organization finally gave in and said, “follow your heart.”
“Maggie and her husband Phil stop by to visit the Mill nearly every summer,” Meigs says. “Though I wrote a letter to all the organ recipients, Maggie was the only one we heard from. We are grateful to have heard from her.”
Plaque commemorating Linda’s late son Connor
Maggie Steele with Connor’s work in background, ©Dennis Meyer/Norfolk Daily News
Historically, the Mill’s always been a landmark for travelers. whether on foot, by wagon or motor vehicle, and it remains a magnet for all kinds of visitors and events.
“Its still a natural meeting place,” Meigs says. “It’s right next to the Interstate, it’s very easy access, it’s on the way to the airport.”
Warren Buffett’s been there. The grounds have accommodated campers following the Mormon Trail. it hosted a Great Plains Theatre Conference program in May that drew hundreds. Each fall it’s a site on the North Omaha Pottery Tour. The gallery hosts several exhibits annually. The farmers market features dozens of vendors on Sundays from June through September.
Meigs says the Mill gets 8,000 to 10,000 visitors each summer and the farmer’s market, begun in 2009, is a major draw. It’s an eclectic scene where you can listen to live bluegrass music and get a massage. Children can ride ponies and pet alpacas. Linda sometimes joins the circle jam of fiddle and dulcimer musicians to play the washboard.
The laid-back vibe is largely attributed to Meigs.
“I get a lot of thank yous and gratitude from some people for saving this building but it’s blessed me back. I’ve met so many wonderful friends in this part of town. It’s enriched my life.”
Two measures of how much her efforts are appreciated happened this summer. She went with her family on a Bucket List trip to British Columbia and artist friends ran the Mill in her absence. “I almost wept when people stepped forward to say, ‘I’ll help.'” Folks in Florence organized a Thank You for the Mill party. “What a nice thing for people to do,” she says. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”
She says fellow creatives “always understand the building itself is my art project – it is the creation, it is an art and history installation.”
She feels she’s part of a long lineage of people who have been entrusted with the Mill.
“All of the owners of the building have honored that pioneer heritage and have had a role to play in the building’s preservation”
Meigs doesn’t have a succession plan for handing-off the Mill when she retires or dies. She says the Douglas County Historical Society or the Nebraska State Historical Society may be possibilities. She even thinks there’s a chance the Mormon Church might have interest in it.
She’s not giving it up anytime soon, though. Besides, she’s become so identified with it that she and the Mill are synonymous.
“People want me to be here. When they come here and I’m not here they’re disappointed. I guess my personality’s ingrained in this thing. I’m the Mill lady.”
It may not be exactly what she she had in mind as a young artist. Nevertheless, she says, “it’s my dream.”
For Mill hours and activities visit http://www.theflorencemill.org.
Arts Crawl Concludes North Omaha Summer Arts – Friday, August 8 from 6-9 p.m.
Please join us for the conclusion of North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) at an Arts Crawl on Friday, August 8 from 6 to 9 p.m. Take a leisurely stroll or drive to sample a wide variety of visual and performing art at venues up and down a stretch of the North 30th Street corridor.
NOSA founder and director Pamela Jo Berry, who resides in the area, saw a need for more art in her underserved community and formed the annual North Omaha Summer Arts as a response. The free, summer-long festival, now in its fourth year, held a women’s writing workshop and an outdoor gospel concert earlier this summer. The Arts Crawl is the festival’s traditional culminating event.
On Friday, August 8 enjoy the work of established and emerging artists at the following sites:
Metropolitan Community College, Fort Omaha Campus, Mule Barn (Building 21)
Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd.
Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th Street
Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Avenue
Heartland Family Service, 6720 North 30th Street
At some venues artists will be on hand to discuss their work. Free food and beverages will be available at each stop.
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts or call 402-502-4669 or 402-445-4666.
Please share this info with family, friends and coworkers in support of this grassroots community event that enriches and engages North Omaha with art.
Details coming regarding the featured artists.
My beloved, Pamela Jo Berry, has a big heart for her community. It’s what led her to found North Omaha Summer Arts, an annual festival that infuses different art forms into the underserved North Omaha community she grew up in and still resides in. This is the festival’s fourth year. Saturday, June 21 NOSA presents a gospel concert at Miller Park. Like all NOSA events, it’s free and open to the public. Details below. Before Pam and I became a couple, I profiled her and her passion behind the festival for The Reader. You can find that story, Matter of the Heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s Love for Her Community Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, on this blog. The link to it is: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/pamela-jo-berry-brings-art-fest-to-north-omaha-artist-and-friends-engage-community-in-diverse-work/
In addition to the concert, there is a women’s writing workshop in progress. On Friday, August 8 from 6 to 9 p.m. there will be an Arts Crawl up and down a swath of the North 30th Street Corridor featuring works by some of Omaha’s leading artists. Venues to be announced.
Gospel Concert 4
Saturday, June 21
24th and Kansas Ave. (next to the old ballfield)
Free and open to the public
Bring a picnic dinner and blanket or enjoy free grilled hot dogs and cool refeshing lemonade courtesy of Trinity Lutheran Church for this family-friendly concert featuring some of Omaha’s most gifted performers.
Eric and Doriette Jordan
Trinity Lutheran Choir
Sudanese Worship Band
New Bethel Church of God Choir
“…for the Lord is great and greatly to be praised.” Psalm 96:4
For more info, call NOSA founder Pamela Jo Berry at 402-502-4669.