Art. I know it when I see it. Well, sometimes. It’s true, I’ve never studied art history but I’ve looked at a fair amount of art in my lifetime. I worked at a fine art museum for a spell. I make it to a few exhibitions every year. I feel more comfortable or knowledgable when it comes to film, photography, theater, music, and literature than I do when it comes to paintings, drawings, and sculpture but because of my lack of formal art studies I don’t feel I’m qualified to be a critic and so I don’t write reviews. As a journalist though I cover a lot of artists of one kind of another and I do feel it’s part of my job to interpret, where I feel capable of doing so that is, their work. The following profile of artist and public art advocate and organizer Eddith Buis of Omaha contains little interpretation because I don’t know her work very well and besides I was far more interested in describing her and her full on immersion in a life of art than I was attempting to explain her work. I hope you agree I’ve introduced you to a personality and spirit that’s well worth your time and interest. I know she was worth mine.
Eddith Buis, A Life Immersed in Art
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Eddith Buis is immersed in art.
Nearly every facet of life and work for this 64-year-old Omahan, who resembles Andy Warhol, gives expression to her creative impulses. She’s perhaps best known for leading the popular J. Doe public project that placed symbolic figurative sculptures all around Omaha in 2001. An inveterate reader from early childhood, Buis is a self-described seeker in search of personal growth. Her desire to reach her potential is expressed in her humanistic art, in her Unitarian faith and in her adherence to certain Eastern philosophies and practices that promote harmony.
Born in North Platte, Neb., she grew up there and in Hastings, before her family moved to Omaha when she was 7. She attended Franklin Elementary School, where her father, a failed lawyer and sporting goods store owner, worked as an insurance underwriter. Nearly every summer found her visiting the farm of an uncle and aunt in Lorimar, Iowa, where she’d bring two suitcases — one filled with clothes and the other with books, including the latest Nancy Drew novels.
The 1958 Central High graduate married, for the first time, early in life. She began college at then-Omaha University with a dream of becoming a novelist but soon dropped out to have children. She was a mother of three youngsters before she resumed college and then, her life changed forever after discovering a latent talent for drawing. “I’d never taken an art course in my life. I remember taking this first class in drawing. It was in the fall, and the teacher had us go outside, where he had us drawing trees. The world became three-dimensional for me when I was drawing. I had the feeling when I looked at things I could draw them. My life just went like that,” she said, snapping her fingers to indicate the dramatic turn it took. “It was the luckiest thing in the world I switched to art. It just made my life.”
She went on to teach art for 23 years in the Omaha Public Schools, the last eight at an alternative high school where she also staged dramatic productions. She’s since gone on to teach at Joslyn Art Museum and Metropolitan Community College, where she continues to instruct in an adjunct capacity, and to direct a number of projects that have brought art to diverse sites in and around the city. In her own art, she’s worked in oil, watercolor, drawing and sculpture. Recently, she’s collaborated with sculptor C. Kelly Lohr. But she considers herself “a draftsman” first and foremost. Until its recent closing, she showed her work as a cooperative member of the Old Market’s 13th Street Gallery.
Her signature public art project to date remains J. Doe, which scattered 100-plus life-size sculptures, by a like number of local artists, at a variety of sites across the city. Using the same precast mold of an anonymous, androgynous, feature-less John Doe-like figure as their base, artists added an amazing variety of colors, materials, themes, ideas and visions onto their blank slates. Some of the works have found a permanent home in the outdoor cityscape. Others reside in private collections.
Buis not only served as project director, but as one of its artists. Her two J. Does reflect many of her own concerns and beliefs. Jung’s Doe — Journey Toward Wholeness is an erect orange figure that’s been split and its halves joined by a spiral. “The concept came to me complete as a dream,” said Buis, who often works from dreams. “The warm orange color represents everyone…the tribe…or our connectedness. The spiral symbolizes the life path we all tread, hopefully learning our lessons so we can become whole. This Doe is still on its journey, incomplete.”
Machu Picchu Memory is a whole Doe whose body is covered in iridescent rainforest colors, jagged arterial lines and exotic animals. “Several years ago, I ‘saw’ and drew these lines, colors and animals while meditating at Macchu Picchu (an ancient Inca fortress city in the Peruvian Alps). The next day, we found a huge rock inscribed with nearly the same line configuration. Who knows the meaning?”
The success of J. Doe launched subsequent public art projects Buis has overseen at such high-trafficked locales as the Gene Leahy Mall, the Lauritzen Gardens, Fontenelle Forest and the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Trail along Omaha’s riverfront.
“Bringing art to Omaha” is her credo. “I’m a teacher first. I’m not one of those artists that works in a closet. I collaborate all the time. I push other artists. I want their work seen and sold, too.” Once she quit teaching full-time, she kept a promise she made while serving on Omaha’s Commission for Public Art. “I vowed that if I found an occasion to bring public art to Omaha, I would. We’d gone too long without public art.” Besides, she said, she possessed the requisite qualities to run a public art project. “I had the time. I had the energy. I’m indefatigable. I truly am a workaholic. Plus, I know the artists. I know who’s good and I know who’s dependable. And I have the organizing capabilities I learned as a teacher.”
Perhaps her greatest contribution to Omaha culture is the three-story Arts & Crafts style home she resides in in Omaha’s Field Club neighborhood. It’s art-filled interior and exterior is the focal point for her seemingly boundless creativity. The former OPS art teacher has lovingly restored the 1908 red brick Pasadena Bungalow residence, a stately, studied place with its rich dark woodwork, fine cabinetry and built-in bookcases. Designed by noted early 20th century Omaha architect John MacDonald (whose credits include the Joslyn Castle), the house was built by bridge-builder J. W. Towle. Buis said, “He really built it right. He poured the foundation for the basement walls. The walls are steel mesh with plaster over them and it’s like breaking through a fortress when you try to put in a doorway or something. He started a lumber yard so he could choose the wood for his house.”
Buis, who occupies a ground floor apartment and rents out the rest, is proud to be the caretaker of what she considers “a landmark” estate. “I like the idea of saving a place that possibly would have disappeared if we hadn’t bought it, because it was on its way down. It was in terrible condition,” said Buis, who bought the structure in 1983 with her former husband. “When we divorced in 1987, the restoration wasn’t finished. I finished it and I’ve been running it on my own ever since. I lived here 14 years before I broke even. It’s a very expensive property to keep up.”
The petite, precise Buis enjoys the home for the “grace of it. It’s comfortable. It isn’t fancy or foo-foo. It’s pretty tailored and that’s the way I am too. I like things fairly simple. It’s the kind of home you feel you can put your feet up in.”
Over the years, she’s softened some of its hard, masculine edges by introducing softer, rounded corners, but she’s careful not to “do anything that would destroy the physical beauty of it.”
The house is impressive all right, but the real show piece is the extensive landscaped grounds. There, Omaha’s most vocal advocate for public art has installed a sculpture garden featuring works, many for sell, by herself and other area artists. The property is also home to her stand-alone artist’s studio and to a series of cozy gardens and patios whose tranquil spaces and healing motifs reflect the daily meditation rituals she follows to keep herself and her home in balance.
Buis’ Pacific Street address directly north of the Field Club Golf Course is part home, gallery, garden and meditative retreat. In this serene sanctuary carved out of the sturdy urban landscape, her muse feels free to run wild. Dreams, it turns out, supply the inspiration for her art. “I work mostly from dreams. I listen to my dreams. Most of my prints are straight off dreams, and I usually figure them out once I draw them,” said Buis, whose sculptures go from dream to drawing to maquette. “Before I decided to quit teaching, I started chafing, because I really wanted to do more art. Then, I had a dream, which I did up in art as a print calledNancy Drew Drives Off. That dream told me I needed to drive off on my own and start anew. So, I quit (OPS) in 1997.”
Print by Eddith Buis
Nancy Drew Drives Off is part of a dream-inspired car series that, like other series she’s created, whimsically and ironically explore human relationships and roles, often times from a strong feminist slant. Another series, entitled Suits, includes a work in which a man trudging along in his gray flannel office attire has stopped to look up, as if suddenly realizing there may be more to life than the rat race, his precious suit and ever-present briefcase. Dropping out of the ranks of elementary school teaching is one of several breaks that Buis herself has made with convention in pursuit of achieving self-actualization.
During a “a burn-out” leave from OPS she studied other cultures for an interpretive materials project for the Omaha Children’s Museum. “I investigated Indian, African, Mayan and Egyptian cultures. I just had a ball. I got to sit around and read and write. For an Omaha Healing Arts commission, I actually ended up going to Peru, which I really wanted to study. It was more of spiritual journey for me,” she said.
Finding out about other peoples, places, traditions and beliefs, she added, sates her huge appetite to sample it all and to take from these things what she wants. “I couldn’t possibly stop with just our culture,” is how she puts it.
Buis feels her curiosity about the world “goes along with being a Unitarian. It’s a kind of do-it-yourself religion. I discovered it when I was 18. I’d given up on Christianity.” She was attending UNO at the time, when a professor there sparked her interest in trying Unitarianism.
“I went to church the next Sunday and I never left. There were all these bright people around me. I thought, This is where I want to be. It turns out that it’s hard. It’s a liberal religion and there aren’t any answers. You are not handed anything. We use quotations from the great minds of the ages. One time, it might be Albert Einstein. Another time, Victor Frankel. Sometimes, Christ. And you make your own decisions. My particular decision is I really watch my karma. I try not to ever lie and I try to be good to people because I really do believe you make in this life who you are by how you live and by how you act. This is why I give my time away so much. I’ve chosen art as a way to make a difference. I think it’s my purpose.”
The stimulation she gets from her faith, she said, is “my inspiration.”
Her embrace of Feng Shui, an ancient Chinese practice using placement to achieve harmony with the environment, is another example of her ongoing quest for knowledge. “I saw these books about it. I got interested, and I started reading.”
Originating some 7,000 years ago, Feng Shui is rooted in the Chinese reverence for nature and belief in the oneness of all things. It’s predicated on the assumption that the key to harmonious living is in striking a balance of nature in daily life, as expressed in Yin-Yang, Chi, and the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water.
“With Feng Shui, there are ancient Chinese rules on how to make energy move through your life in order to keep your life radiant and positive,” she said. She even studied its principles with an instructor, she said, because of negative vibes she felt in her abode. “I wanted to heal my house. We had ghosts. I wanted to make it easier to live in. It was really a weight on me.” Buis believes the repositioning of objects in the house, which is replete with art work, combined with chanting and shaman drumming, eventually “healed the house” and “got rid of all the ghosts.” She said, “It’s a very healing place to be and I know that’s because of…clearing out what needed to move on.”
Although she follows some Feng Shui tenets, Buis doesn’t pretend to follow all of its many rules. “Feng Shui is very rule-driven and that’s not the way I run my life,” she said. “It has to be like religion, where I take what I want and I walk on.”
Still, she bristles at the suggestion the practice is frivolous. “I don’t see it as a New Age thing. “For me, it’s in combination with what I already understand of the world.” It’s also part of a whole regimen she does to stay healthy. “The other thing I do every day that goes along with Feng Shui is a Tibetan exercise called Chi Kung. It’s a moving meditation. Feng Shui and Chi Kung are more for health and well-being, and I’m very healthy. I feel very positive. I very seldom hit a depression. And I know what that feels like because as a young housewife with kids to raise and bills to pay I suffered depression. Now, I know, it honed me for what I needed to learn”
Meditation works for her the way prayer does for others. “I meditate to find answers. It keeps me radiant…settled…centered. I think the wisdom’s within us. It’s whether or not we listen to it and act on it. I see all life experiences as lessons. What I’m learning more and more now is to be the kind of person I can be.” For the well-read Buis, who drops references to such thinkers as Nietzsche and Jung, meditation also feeds her imagination. “It makes me much more intuitive and it makes me pay attention to my ability to make intuitive decisions. Whether it’s reading or Feng Shui or Chi Kung or shaman drumming, it all goes together.”
After some unhappy pairings, the twice-divorced Buis has eschewed romantic relationships the past decade and, instead, has poured her energies into making art, organizing art displays and befriending a diverse cadre of artists, male and female and young and old alike. “I feel like, in a sense, I’m married to a higher ideal. I want to make things beautiful for people. I have a lot to share.” Her home has become an artists colony where she entertains some of Omaha’s brightest talents in literature, poetry, theater and art. All of it — from the people she interacts with to the historic home she maintains to the artworks she creates to the exhibits she mounts — flow out of her yearning and searching.
“I am totally a searcher,” she said. “I read a lot. I think a lot. I like to be around people that are thinking and talking about life.” It’s no accident then that her work challenges viewers to think. “I feel strongly that I have to do things that have meaning…about the human condition. It’s not enough to be pretty for me.”
Bench art by Eddith Buis and Timothy Schaffert
That’s why she takes issue with the realistic prairie-nature art First National Bank spent top dollars in acquiring for its downtown Tower headquarters. “That is so retro…so old. People will travel thousands of miles to see good art. Nobody is going to come to Omaha to see the First National Bank art.” She’s upset First National did not consult the Commission for Public Art and did not give any commissions to local artists. In response, a bank spokesman said First National did work with other art consultants and did consider Omaha artists as part of the process, although none were selected. While Buis admits she’d like “a say in Omaha’s public art,” she said that even if she doesn’t have a voice, “there are plenty of people in Omaha that really know good art.” She just wants art patrons to be accountable.
If she sounds picky, it’s only because she’ so passionate. “As Matisse said, art is my religion.” Her travels, whether to the art centers of Europe or America, always include time for seeing art. She’s been to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Paris, Rome. She’s looking forward to see the new Guggenheim museum in Spain.
There’s still the occasional bump in the road. The 3,200-hours she devoted to J. Doe “just about killed me,” she said. This past summer was tough. A major commission fell through. The 13th Street Gallery closed. The Wind and Water exhibit at the Gene Leahy Mall was plagued by vandalism. Her house was damaged by raccoons and infested with flea mites. Her car was stolen, her camera nabbed and her purse snatched. Adding insult to injury, a dog attacked her.
“I’m doing my darndest to pull ahead of all that and just look at it philosophically. The only thing I can think of is there were more life lessons I needed to learn.”
On the heels of so much happening, she’s thinking of taking a year or two off to heal her spirit. “I want to investigate. I want to explore social issues. I want to read and study and dream. If I’m too busy, I don’t dream and if I don’t dream, I don’t get art. I don’t know what’s next, but I want to reinvent myself. I believe I have a big sculpture project in me. I’m at an age now where, if not now, then when?”
She remains hopeful. “My life is incredibly rich. It’s the power of being able to bring beauty to people…to be of service. I’ve got a lot of love for people. I’ve got granddaughters that hug me. I have people in my life that really care about me.”
Then there’s her perfect dream. She stands amidst an Omaha oasis for art that people from near and far have come to see. “I would like to see a downtown sculpture garden. I want that for the city. That’s my dream.”
- Art will live on – but not the popcorn (omaha.com)
- Artist-Author-Educator Faith Ringgold, A Faithful Conjurer of Stories, Dreams, Memories and History (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- For Artist Terry Rosenberg the Moving Human Body Offers a Canvas Like No Other (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Artist Claudia Alvarez’s New Exhibition Considers Immigration (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- After a year off, Avenue of the Arts is back in downtown KC (kansascity.com)
- Kat Moser of Nouvelle Eve, A Life by Her Own Design (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)