Omaha performer Brenda Allen recalls her friendship with Johnny Cash
Ring of Fire pays tribute to iconic singer-songwriter
I dare say there’s not a more instantly recognizable voice than that of the late Johnny Cash. You hear that deep Southern molasses growl and it’s unmistakably him and no one else. When I got wind of a Cash tribute show playing Omaha, I immediately thought of Omaha performer Brenda Allen because she’s the only entertainer in these parts that I know of who counted Cash as a friend. She also jammed with him and appeared on the same bill as him. Allen’s her stage name. Her real name is Brenda Allacher. I’ve interviewed Brenda before, once for a story about the play A Piece of My Heart which dramatizes the real life experiences of American women who were in the Vietnam War as nurses, aid workers, and entertainers. Brenda went there as part of an all-girl band. More recently I wrote an in-depth profile of Brenda that revealed her Cash ties. Both those stories can be found on this blog. For this new story I recount some of Brenda’s priceless Cash recollections, including an amusing, can’t-make-up-this-kind-of-stuff anecdote about the perculiar way they met. I also aounded out some admirers of Cash from the local music scene. Additionally, Ring of Fire cast member Erika Hall shared her thoughts about the man and his music and how adaptable his songs are to women interpreters like herself. The story appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
NOTE: Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash concludes this weekend at The Waiting Room in Benson.
Omaha performer Brenda Allen recalls her friendship with Johnny Cash
Ring of Fire pays tribute to iconic singer-songwriter
With impresario Gordon Cantiello’s new tribute show The Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash at The Waiting Room, it’s only natural to consider what makes the singer-songwriter of the title so enduring.
The king of hard-scrabble, honky-tonk infused with gospel, country, folk, blues and rock, became a living legend with his Man in Black and Folsom Prison Blues persona. His soulful music fit his wayfaring life. In his last decade Cash enjoyed a renaissance among artists and fans across the musical spectrum. The Reader solicited local musicians and music lovers to reflect on his work and found many admirers, but only Brenda Allen, aka Brenda Allacher, counted him as a friend. She also jammed with Cash and played on the same bill as the late star.
As a young vocalist-guitarist Allen was befriended by Cash, whose generosity she fondly remembers. Their memorable first meeting happened in 1958 when she auditioned for a guest spot on ABC-TV’s Ozark Jubilee at the Jewell Theatre in Springfield, Mo. She was 18 with some modest credits. Cash was 26 and already an established star.
“I did my audition and they said I could stay and see the show, which was starting in about an hour. My girlfriend and I were looking at three guys sitting in front of us. They weren’t regulars on the show.”
A dark-featured man in a black shirt caught Allen’s eye.
“I said, ‘God, he’s good looking,’ and my girlfriend said, ‘All three of them are good looking.’ Yeah, I wonder who that is?”‘
In the meantime the Jubilee’s version of a Hee-Haw couple, Uncle Cyp and Aunt Sap Brasfield, were rehearsing. A live elephant was part of the act. The animal did some tricks. Then the beast decided to pee.
“It sprayed 20 rows out. All the performers were in their costumes already. Everybody got hit. We were soaked,” Allen recalls. “We dived under the seats and I saw these long legs go running over top and I said, ‘Is he done yet?’ And this deep male voice said, ‘No, you better stay down there,’ and he went on by me. Finally I peeked up and they were putting saw dust all over the place, wiping seats down and I heard that same voice say, ‘Well, how high is the water, mama?’ I said, ‘It’s two feet high and rising.’ It was Johnny Cash.
“I popped up and said, ‘Are you staying across the street?’ ‘Yeah,” he said. ‘We’re staying there, too, you want me to bring you a shirt?’ ‘Hell, yes,’ and he gave me the key to his room and I got him a clean shirt.
“We sat and played guitars that night and talked about country music. That’s what started it. He was a perfect gentleman.”
After returning to her home in Lincoln, Neb. Allen stayed in touch with Cash. “I wrote him a letter and I got a letter back. I set him a picture of myself with my Fender Telecaster and he sent me his first song book. Without me even knowing it he sent my picture to Fender. That’s the kind of guy he was. Fender offered me a contract to model.”
She never signed. Instead, she landed with Marty Martin, who gained fame as Boxcar Willie. In 1962 the Marty Martin Show Featuring Brenda Allen opened for Cash at Lincoln’s Pershing Auditorium and Omaha’s Ciivc Auditorium. Later, as part of the Taylor Sisters, she was on the same program with Cash at a 1964 Wichita, Kansas show also featuring June Carter, Minnie Pearl, the Statler Brothers and Lefty Frizzell. “I’d say we were in damn good company.”
“Wonderful,” is how she describes sharing the stage with Cash. “He had such a charisma about him. You just felt there was something special about this guy.”
Brenda, circa 1970s-1980s
Brenda with Cash in his later years
Ad promoting a show she was in
His interest in her career continued. “I told him I was looking to join a band and he said, ‘Why not get your own band together?’ He told me, ‘You’ve got a damn good voice.’ He and his lead guitar player Luther Perkins sat me down and said, ‘Brenda, stick with country music, you’re going to make it.'” The elephant anecdote always connected Allen and Cash.
As for his troubled personal life, she says, “Around the time June Carter entered the picture I started noticing things about John from when I first him. I knew of the wildness.” Depression and addiction took their toll in “the bad years.” Allen’s been there. At 74 the recovering alcohol is a karaoke regular. She sings some Cash tunes. His melancholy, redemptive ballads work well with female interpreters. Just ask Erika Hall, who performs Cash standards in Ring of Fire.
“He was real, he was gritty, he was flawed, he spoke for all of us who make mistakes, who feel pain, and he had a very unique gift of being able to tell that story through music,” Hall says. “He gives us something to grab onto when we feel like we are alone in our pain. I find it interesting how well some of those songs do transfer to a female singer. It just shows you how much emotion was present in that music.”
Hall, who essayed Patsy Cline in a recent Cantiello-produced show, says the Cash canon lives on because “he was able to speak to multiple generations in the same way.” She adds, “Pain is pain, joy is joy – those emotions don’t change from generation to generation and Johnny Cash was able to send those emotions through his music in a way every human can identify with. He spoke to us. That’s his legacy.”
That legacy cuts across boundaries performer Billy McGuigan (Rave On) says.
“There are very few artists who ascend above the labels used to classify artists. We love to say Elvis is the King of Rock, Michael Jackson is the King of Pop, Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings are undeniably country. But The Man in Black? He’s above all that. He started as an early rock artist, became a country icon, a television personality and influenced the undertones of rap music.
“There’s something about that voice. That deep baritone resonates the soul and goes beyond his just singing a song. Add in the driving rhythm of the Tennessee Three and you’ve got a magical formula.”
“The legacy of Johnny Cash stretches across seven decades,” Pacific Street Blues host Rick Galusha says. “His influence was felt at the onset of rock and roll at Sun Studios and into the new century with his historic American recordings with Rick Rubin. Any artist able to stay-on-top while maintaining a high level of artistic integrity is bound to be influential.”
“Who hasn’t been inspired by Mister Cash?” asks Rainbow Recording studio owner and Paddy O Furniture band leader Nils Anders Erickson, “He wrote and sang about what he knew and you believed him. It wasn’t just a song, it was the truth. Love the man, love the music.”
The Ring of Fire cast also includes Sue Gillespie Booton, D. Kevin Williams, Thomas Gjere and Zach Little. Cantiello directs with musical direction by Mark Kurtz and Vince Krysl.
The show’s remaining play dates are Saturday, August 9 at 1, 5 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, August 10 at 1 and 5 p.m. The Waiting Room is at 6212 Maple Street. For tickets, call 402-706-0778.
For details, visit performingartistsrepertorytheatre.org.
I don’t know what it is, but I keep winding up doing stories about cabaret singers. One of the latest I’ve profiled is Mary Carrick, whose new CD Let’s Fly is an interesting collaboration with J. Gawf, a pianist who serves as Opera Omaha resident music director and chorus master. Carrick got to know Gawf while performing in the Opera Omaha Chorus. Impressed with her versatile voice, he began coaching her on the side. Impressed with his musical acumen, she asked for advice about who could help her with a new CD she had in mind to do fresh takes on American Songbook standards and other tunes across the music spectrum. He suggested himself and that’s how he became artistic producer and arranger for her Let’s Fly. Here is my Omaha Encounter Magazine story on Carrick and her collaboration with Gawf on that CD project. By the way, on this blog you can find my profiles of other Omaha cabret artists, including Camille Metoyer Moten and Anne Marie Kenny.
If the late soul master James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then singer Mary Carrick is Omaha’s hardest working woman in entertainment.
When the Nebraska Arts Council touring artist isn’t performing her own cabaret act, she’s singing in the Opera Omaha chorus or acting in a musical theater production. She also does special events like the Omaha Press Club Show and Omaha Creative Institute Spring Fling.
In addition to her rehearsals and vocal exercises she attends cabaret workshops. All this comes on top of working a full-time marketing job, being married and raising two small children. Yet she’s made time to create her debut CD, Let’s Fly, with artistic producer and arranger J. Gawf, a pianist whose day job finds him serving as Opera Omaha resident music director and chorus master.
The album, available on iTunes. Amazon.com and CD Baby, showcases Carrick’s big voice, wide range, and eclectic tastes. The 10 tracks about love and desire include the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Barry Manilow’s bath-houser “Man Wanted,” and the Jon Mitchell hit “Both Sides Now.” There’s even Leonard Cohen’s edgy “Dance Me to the End of Love.”
The project’s an intriguing collaboration between a versatile singer deeply rooted in the Great American Songbook and a multifaceted musician immersed in opera. Carrick, who can sing anything, has a voice with operatic qualities, and Gawf, who can play anything, is well-versed in popular music. He’s also Carrick’s primary vocal coach and the two have developed an aesthetic kinship and personal friendship.
Gawf has worked with world-class singers and is a great admirer of Carrick’s vocal instrument.
“It’s crystalline clear, it’s shiny, it’s got shimmer,” he says. “She has such a range to go from the high register, which I think is a beautiful part of her voice, to the low register.”
Then there’s what Carrick can do with a song.
“Well, she’s a storyteller, number one,” he says. “She comes from a theater background and she can tell a story like nobody’s business.”
Carrick’s found a niche in cabaret performances that often find her teaming with pianist-vocalist Todd Brooks.
“There’s so much artistic freedom in cabaret,” she says. “There’s really no rules. I can program whatever I want. I can do songs that are traditionally sung by men and make them my own. I can infuse myself and my own experiences into the songs. There’s a very intimate connection with the audience that I love very much. I can talk and tell stories throughout my show. I love that audience-to-singer energy that happens in the room. It’s exhilarating.”
She’s been recognized by the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards and the Theatre Arts Guild for her cabaret shows as well as productions of her own Broadstreet Theatre Company.
When Carrick broached the concept of her album, Gawf wanted in and says the chance of “doing something I’d never done” appealed to him. “Mary gave me free license.”
The songs on “Let’s Fly” have been covered many times by other artists, but Gawf was intentional in taking a new slant.
“I pride myself on not listening to other artists before I tackle something because I don’t want to get preconceived ideas of how something should be. I like to take the song off the page and then re-imagine it. After we got our arrangements together I listened to what other people did to see where ours fit in, and we’ve got some unique things. Half the fun was coming up with what works for us.”
Carrick feels she’s in good hands with Gawf.
“I put my trust completely in him. It’s just been an awesome match. I think we work in tandem really well. He totally gets me. He can tell when I’m not giving as much as I need to. There was one session where he said, ‘I don’t feel like you’re giving you’re all to me,’ and he was right. I know where he’s at, he knows where I’m at. We can sort of feel where we’re going, where things aren’t working.”
Carrick says she most enjoys “the creative process,” and with the CD she’s pleased to have gone to “a real vulnerable place in being completely true to the material. It’s a scary place to go if you really want to be an honest singer, but I think we achieved that .”
For the album Gawf assembled musicians he’s worked with before, including three Omaha mainstays in percussionist J.B. Ferguson, bass player Mark Haar, and accordion player Kate Williams. Jazz pianist Eric Andries joined the ensemble from his home in Baton Rouge, La.
The CD marked the inaugural project for Dreamtree Recording, a new studio operated by Omaha musician and sound engineer extraordinaire Marty Bierman.
The recording sessions became Gawf’s playground to have the musicians try different rhythms and tempos – adding, subtracting, mixing, matching various sounds.
“It was true experimentation all the way around,” he says. “It was fun to be able to do that, to not take it straight from the page and to work with such great instrumentalists.”
Carrick says the CD was both “a fascinating” and “massive undertaking” that “organically developed.” Don’t be surprised if she and Gawf re-team for a new project.
Follow the singer at marycarrick.com.
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.
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.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.
Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.
The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.
“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.
Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.
The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.
As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.
“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”
Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.
Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”
Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”
Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask
“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”
Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.
“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”
Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”
Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.
“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.
“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.
It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.'”
She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”
That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.
Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.
“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”
She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.
“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.
But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.
“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ‘em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”
This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.
“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”
Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunity playhouse.com.
Thousands of miles from his homeland, Charles Ahovissi is living a dream to share his culture with the world. The native of Benin, West African resides in Omaha, Neb., where he fell in love while on tour and married and started a family here, and this acomplished dancer, choreographer, and drummer now exposes aspects of African cultures to student and adult audiences throughout this Midwest state under the auspices of his African Culture Connection. His small but mighty nonprofit is still basking in the glow of a major national award it was recognized with last year. It’s not the first significant recognition he and his performing and teaching troupe has received and it’s not likely to be the last either. My story about Charles and the ACC is still looking for a publication home but for now you can read it right here on my blog.
African Culture Connection Founder, Charles Ahovissi joins Victoria Beaugard, participant in African Culture Connection’s program at Girls Inc, in receiving the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on November 19th, 2012
Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs
©by Leo Adam Biga
Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch during African Culture Connection performances like the one Sept, 5 at the Westside Community Conference Center.
Led by Benin, West Africa native Charles Ahovissi, a professional dancer and choreographer, the Omaha-based ACC is dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.
ACC performances are always dynamic but last month’s by-invitation-only event carried even more vitality because it celebrated a milestone in the young organization’s life. In late 2012 ACC became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. and the first ever in Nebraska to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC, which formed only in 2006.
Ahovissi, ACC’s high-energy founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House on Nov. 19. Accompanying him at the ceremony was Victoria Baeugard of Omaha Girls Inc., an organization that ACC ofter serves. Baeugard is part of a troupe of Girls Inc. members who’ve learned to perform African dances under Ahovissi’s tutelage. In addition to the award, ACC received a $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of ACC winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.
All of it is more than enough reason to celebrate and so many of ACC’s board members, donors and supporters gathered for food, drink, conversation and congratulations last month. Even the beaming, ever-optimistic Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his little organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.
“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”
Nebraska Arts Council director of programs Marty Skomal says “the award is given to an arts or humanities program for youth that takes place outside of the school day which also promotes youth development. No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see his troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and they respond to it instantly. It is ACC’s unique way of inspiring youth by example that motivates kids to take pride in their own cultural heritage, whatever its origin. In brief, ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”
Ahvossi knows ACC is well thought of by the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the African immersion experience he provides. Ahovissi says the glowing evaluations and notes “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect, they learn how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”
Then there’s the fact ACC offers programming that no one else does in this area.
“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”
Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Robera Wilhelm says Ahovissi “has helped girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook,” adding, “The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, they create printed fabric to wear while they dance and they hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”
Ahovissi conducts residencies around the state through NAC. He brings not just the music and dance of Africa, but the stories behind them.
“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I travel a lot through the Nebraska Arts Council. I’m grateful for that. I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”
He’s also trains a group of teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues to immerse participants in various elements of African culture.
“Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music and all that, so at the same time I’m teaching kids a dance I’m also teaching them the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, farming is a big deal in Africa. Before farming there is preparation, during and after farming there’s a celebration. That is like story. The way we farm in Africa is not the same as it’s done in America. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit, that is dance movement that has a story.
“There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming.
“Another example is the initiation of youths. When you reach a certain age you need to go see the elders. They will teach you life skills, what is right to do, what is wrong to do. During an initiation in a village we play certain music and do special dances. So when I’m teaching kids the initiation dance I’m also teaching them this story, this culture, the way we do things.”
The dances performed at the Sept. 5 celebration included the Sinte dance. He exp;lains, “Sinte comes from the Boke and Boffa area in the northwest of Guinea. The Landonma, Nalo, and Baga ethnic groups, who have been living together in this region for many years, play it before the initiation of the youth.” Another number ACC performed at the event was the Djole dance. “Djole is a dance organized to showcase different masks,” says Ahovissi. “Djole comes from the region in the southwest of Guinea and the northwest of Sierra Leone. The Temine, Mandenyi and Soussou ethnic groups share this rhythm.” Finally, he says the Kete dance executed by the Girls Inc. members is from the Allada Region of southern Benin, adding, “The music and dance can be heard on many occasions and festivals, particularly at funeral ceremonies.”
Ahovissi says students who participate in his programs, including members of Girls Inc., learn rituals and lessons with deep, universal meaning.
“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. That simple statement means a lot,. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”
He strongly feels that American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.
“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”
He says as Omaha’s welcomed migrant populations from Sudan, Togo, Bhutan and several Central American countries “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture. We need to be learning about all these different cultures.” He loves that America is still a melting pot. “You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it . That’s how we become open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”
Growing up in Benin he absorbed dance and drumming through repeated exposure to it.
“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that,” he says.
In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16.
“That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”
Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met the woman who is now his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist in 2001.
Ahovissi sends money back home every month to his large family – he has 21 brothers and sisters living in Benin. “I’m they’re hope,” he says.
If historic highways could speak, oh, the stories they would tell. That’s one of the appeals of the Old Lincoln Highway to Omahan Nils Anders Erickson, whose love of old things extends from highways to automobiles to buildings to music. This musician, sound engineer, and owner of Rainbow Music, a combination retail store and recording studio, has indulged his Lincoln Highway fascination by writing a song about the roadway and erecting signage about it outside an old mill he owns that sat on the highwway’s Omaha route. My story about Erickson and his magnficent obsession appeared The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Goin’ Down the Lincoln Highway with Omaha Music Guru Nils Anders Erickson
by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in early July Omaha music guru Nils Anders Erickson takes me for a ride in his PT Cruiser to opine about his magnificent obsession with old things.
The singer-songwriter-musician owns Rainbow Music, a combined recording studio and music store at 2322 South 64th Ave. that features vintage sound equipment and instruments he’s passionate about.
He’s also into Golden Oldie songs, historic buildings, classic cars, and early roadways, especially the old Lincoln Highway. His Cruiser’s adorned with a chrome hood ornament from a 1951 Chevrolet he saved to repurpose in just this way.
The self-styled preservationist opposed CVS building a pharmacy at 49th and Dodge that took out old structures he deemed historic for lining the Lincoln Highway during its Jazz Age heyday.
The highway was not just a practical conveyance when there were few reliable roads but an expression of America’s new liberation, ambition, optimism and restlessness. He advocates saving whatever remnants stand from its active years (1913 to 1929), whether grain elevators, feed mills, silos, barns, office buildings, churches, homes, signs.
He owns what may be the oldest surviving structure still in use on the highway, John Sutter’s Mill, a circa 1875 Mormon-built structure where Saddle Creek Road and Dodge Street meet at 46th. “I just knew it was kind of a magical building and I didn’t know why,” he says. “My building is the last of the Nelson B. Updike empire.” Updike was a feed, grain, lumber and coal magnet and publisher of the Omaha Bee.
“Mormons used to refer to it in diaries as ‘the mill west of Omaha.’ It was painted bright orange a century ago to attract the attention of cross-country travelers.”
His says the site began as a water wheel grist mill before being turned into a planing mill and an outfitters store. He admires its construction.
“When I realized that behind all the crappy two-by-fours and dry wall were 10-by-10 solid chunks of cedar 50 feet long I had a new found respect for the building.” He hopes it one day becomes a Lincoln Highway museum or antique shop or coffeehouse.
The huge billboard Erickson erected above his Sutter’s Mill in midtown Omaha
The two-story 4,000 square foot building most recently housed National Cash Register, whose machines he would gawk at as a kid.
“When I was little I’d walk by it and be fascinated with the weird stuff in the windows – those mechanical things and different colored cash registers. So I was always drawn to the building.”
Erickson’s mounted an enormous billboard on site to commemorate his beloved highway’s legacy and Omaha being mid-point on the coast-to-coast route. The billboard replicates the L logo design and red, white and blue motif of the highway’s signage. An arrow pointing east informs eastbound travelers they have 1.353 miles to go to New York City. An arrow pointing west alerts westbound travelers they are 1,786 miles from San Francisco. Generations ago a large Welcome sign with Lincoln Highway above it greeted travelers at 18th and Farnam.
He’s also erected a Lincoln Highway marker that replicates the official markers that once dotted the side of the road every mile along its entire 3,400 mile path.
He feels Omaha could do more to celebrate its highway heritage.
“Before I put a sign up outside my building there was no Lincoln Highway sign in the whole city designating its history.”
Metropolitan Community College’s Elkhorn campus has a photo display of the highway under construction. The Boys Town archives traces the highway’s connection to the home. There are highway displays at the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearney. “They’ve done a wonderful job with the exhibits,” Erickson says of the attraction..
If Erickson had his way every building the highway ran by would sport a sign or plaque about it.
“There’s car nuts, there’s building nuts, there’s highway nuts, and I find it aggravating that I’m all three and no one else is,” says Erickson, who could have added music nut to the list.
Given his musical bent it’s not surprising he wrote a theme song for the Lincoln Highway Association’s recent centennial celebration in Kearney and took photos of landmarks along the Omaha route to accompany the music. His countryesque ditty set to images is on YouTube.
I’m goin’ down the Lincoln Highway, I’m goin’ down the Lincoln Highway, Ga ga golly, I’m going down the Lincoln Highway.
“My song and video are trying to raise awareness of the Lincoln Highway all over the United States.”
He’s also created a website about the highway and his mill.
When it comes to motor vehicles and roads he prefers some age-worn history and character to them. Memories attach themselves to places and things and the Lincoln Highway carried the hopes, dreams and experiences of people. Road trips are part of the American DNA. Beat writer Jack Kerouac captured this spirit in his existential On the Road:
“In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A hundred and ten miles an hour straight through, an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific streamliner falling behind us in the moonlight. I wasn’t frightened at all that night; it was perfectly legitimate to go 110 and talk and have all the Nebraska towns – Ogallala, Gothenburg, Kearney, Grand Island, Columbus – unreel with dreamlike rapidity as we roared ahead and talked.”
Built entirely by private interests to be the nation’s first coast-to-coast thoroughfare, the highway opened at a time when most roads, including many sections of the highway itself, were unpaved. As more folks sought the freedom a motor vehicle promised it was obvious the country’s roads needed improving.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower cited the arduous cross-country convoy he took on the highway as a young military officer with motivating him to authorize the creation of the U.S. interstate system.
As the first of its kind the highway owns a romantic mystique among history buffs and nostalgia fans. Much fanfare attended its October 31, 1913 dedication. Burgs across America celebrated with torchlight parades, bonfires, speeches, auto races, fireworks and cannon volleys. Some credit Omaha with the biggest celebration of all. A crowd estimated at more than 10,000 gathered outside city hall for a giant bonfire fueled by three train carloads of railroad ties from Union Pacific Railroad. Smaller bonfires lit up the sky in towns along the Platte River.
Long before the fabled Route 66 and decades before heavily traveled Interstate 80 was even imagined, Lincoln became known as America’s main street because it connected so many cities and towns all the way from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The highway spurred much development along its route.
“I think it’s basically a national hidden treasure,” says Erickson. “You can actually drive the Lincoln Highway and there’s parts of it where the original brick surface is still intact and you can reexperience what your great-grandfather did. It’s America the way it used to be without the bad parts.
“My dad would be out selling grain elevators all over the country and he’d throw two or three of us in the back seat of the car and half the time we were on the Lincoln Highway in our family’s Pontiac. No air conditioning. When you finally got to a little cafe it was heaven. You’d eat at these special places on America’s hIghway.”
The pull of those times is still great 60 years later.
“I don’t know, it’s in my blood.”
His fixation has something to do with his first love, music. He likes that big bands on the Midwest circuit traversed the highway “in those torpedo-shaped trailers” to get from gig to gig. Decades later he did the same, only in trucks, to run sound and lights for national acts.
“So it ties back to Omaha and to my recording studio and my background in music.”
For our Lincoln Highway sampler we make a circuitous 18-mile trek from the Omaha riverfront’s Lewis & Clark Landing to Elkhorn, where a three-mile stretch of brick survives, With nearly each landmark we pass Erickson offers historical tidbits and traces his fascination with the highway that long ago was rerouted and renamed US 30.
“In Omaha most of the Lincoln Highway is still there. It’s just under two or three layers of asphalt. We have a few things in Omaha that are one of a kind and the only ones left.”
The route starts on Douglas, snakes to Farnam around midtown, cuts over to Dodge, then jumps to Cass before resuming on West Dodge.
The former Hupmobile dealership in downtown Omaha
When it comes to highway landmarks, Erickson’s prefers old ones but appreciates new ones as well. “To me the Holland Center is a new landmark on the Lincoln Highway,” he says of the performing arts venue at 12th and Douglas.
“One of the most famous (old) landmarks is the Brandeis Building,” he says of the flagship for the J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire that reigned at 16th and Douglas for most of the 20th century.
He considers St. Mary Magdalene Church at 19th and Dodge a distinctive site for having “a door to nowhere” after downtown was lowered by dozens of feet.
A beautiful ballroom is among the distinguishing features of the Scottish Rite Masonic Center at 20th and Douglas.
He admires the “beautifully restored” former Riviera and Paramount theater, later known as the Astro and now The Rose at 20th and Farnam.
He likes that the Fraternal Order of Eagles building at 24th and Douglas hosts swing nights. “It’s kind of fun being in a historic building with the jitterbug,” he says.
Two of Omaha’s most impressive edifices, Central High School and Joslyn Art Museum, are only a block north of the highway.
He feels one of the most significant highway buildings is the former Hupmobile dealership at 2523 Farnam. The Hupp Auto Company built the popular car before being squeezed by the industry’s major players. He says the vacant building’s original showroom floor is intact as is the freight elevator for moving cars from floor to floor.
“I hope someone that cares will do something with that building. It would make a great auto museum,” he suggests.
The dealership was part of Omaha’s original Auto Row.
The All Makes Office Equipment and Barnhart Press buildings on the north side of Farnam are handsome structures housing multi-generation family businesses but what really makes Erickson excited is “a wonderful one-block stretch of brick north of them that enables you to actually experience what it felt like,” he says.
Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church at 2650 Farnam is one of Omaha’s oldest worship places.
He says hungry, weary highway travelers found eateries (Virginia Cafe, Tiner’s Drive-in) and hotels (the Fontenelle, the Blackstone) up and down its eastern Omaha route, Motorists would have gawked at Gold Coast mansions such as the Storz mansion at 3708 Farnam.
The Tudor-style building housing McFoster’s Natural Kind Cafe was once a White Rose gas station. Erickson recalls, “We’d be coming back from church and I’d always want Mom to get gas at that ‘castle’ across the street from the Storz mansion with gargoyles and trolls leaning out of the windows. These buildings were right out of children’s books I read. White Rose built odd buildings and this was one of their prettiest. I think it’s one of the few of its type left in the country.”
The Welcome to Omaha and Lincoln Highway sign that greeted motorists
The Admiral Theater sat at 40th and Farnam until it was razed.
Erickson says. “My slogan in Omaha is, ‘…and then the bastards tore it down.'” Jutting over to Dodge, he notes the Joslyn Castle is worth a stop a block north on Davenport. Continuing west on Dodge we arrive at his building. Since acquiring the former mill he’s used it as a staging space to assemble sound and lighting equipment for installs.
“That business has sort of fallen off, so I need to do something with the building now,” says Erickson.
As we reach 49th and Dodge he says, “Up until two years ago all four corners were intact from the Lincoln Highway. The Hilltop House duplicated a Bavarian restaurant. It was all pine inside. Reniers Piano was the Dundee Hotel and the Sunset Tearoom. The three buildings CVS tore down were all historic because they were on the Lincoln Highway. The 49er was a bakery. The coffeehouse was a pharmacy, The third was one the first self-service grocery stores in Omaha.”
He anoints historic status to the Dundee Theatre. The same to the Saddle Creek underpass and the pedestrian tunnel at 51st and Dodge.
He says long ago “there was a camp grounds at Elmwood Park” where motorists could spend the night before resuming their journeys. The park also contained a lagoon with a structure for monkeys. “The city fathers didn’t know monkeys can swim, so Monkey Island eventually became Monkeys in Dundee because after a week of getting free food they got bored and went all over Dundee.
The renowned Omaha Community Playhouse is a block north of the highway’s route.
We go another mile west and he says, “So here we are on 78th and Dodge. We’re taking a hard right because that’s the way the Lincoln Highway went. The New Tower Inn was at 78th. Before that it was the Tower Motor Court and before that it was a camp ground called
Towers Tours Village.” We arrive on Cass Street and the site of what used to be Peony Park and the extensive peony fields of Carl Rosenfield. Both were right on the highway’s path.
Erickson’s found brochures and postcards illustrating how attractions on the highway, such as Peony Park and Boys Town, marketed themselves as way-stops for travelers.
Following Cass west we merge onto West Dodge Road, where almost everything post-dates the highway. A major exception is Boys Town. Founder Father Edward Flanagan relocated his residence for homeless boys from downtown Omaha to the Overlook Farm right on the highway in 1921. Boys Town historians say Flanagan publicly touted the highway as a great avenue to see America and he invited motorists to follow it right up to Boys Town’s front door. Many did just that. Boys walked or hitchhiked their way on the highway to the home. So many made their way to Boys Town via the highway that in the ’30s Flanagan had some of the youths build a covered travel stop, of which there were few and far between then, as a comfort station.
The 1938 movie Boys Town includes scenes shot on the highway, including Pee-Wee being hit by a car.
Finally, we reach the ribbon of bricks in Elkhorn, where Erickson says, “You actually get a feel for driving on the road. This vista right here could be any day, any time. This is kind of what I remember driving in our old Pontiac with Dad. We’d hit a stretch of brick and, vroom, he’d put on the gas more. I don’t know why. I suppose he liked it, too. The highway was a lot nicer then because it was flat and smooth. Today it’s used as an access road. That’s part of the problem. The trucks are getting bigger and heavier and the road gets wavier.”
Stretch of the Lincoln Highway in Elkhorn, Neb.
He says the brick remains because people knew well enough to leave it alone.
“I mean, the reason it’s still here is that nobody needed to make it all pretty and nice and concrete. If they had, that concrete would be destroyed by now. The bricks are still here. Bricks will last forever, Concrete lasts maybe 20 years.
“If it had been in Omaha we would have paved it a long time ago.”
The Douglas County Board passed a resolution to preserve the brick segment for future generations. Milepost 1437 to 1438 was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. The historic mile was rededicated July 17, 1988. State historical markers offer background.
It’s all music to Erickson’s ears, whose eclectic music pedigree is the root of his love of history and nostalgia for bygone eras. He grew up listening to Johnny Mathis, James Brown, Motown. Then came the British Invasion bands. He was steeped too in traditional tunes from his family’s Swedish heritage. It’s why his repertoire today ranges from the Swedish folk song Can You Whistle Johanna? to the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen and pretty much everything in between.
“The best compliment I ever got was that my music is a cross between Frank Zappa and Bob Marley.”
His older siblings played in bands and he tagged along with them.
“They played at Mickey’s A-Go-Go and the Peppermint Cave and they dragged me around when I was like 6. I thought I was a roadie and they thought they were babysitting. So I was exposed to this wonderful monster music. I wrote my first song when I was about 4. I’ve written about 4,000 songs. Some of them are good and some of them are appreciated by people. ‘Shit Head, the Love Song’ was the most requested song the Fish Heads did, and it’s one of my mine.”
Erickson’s fronted several bands. He says his Wee Willie and the Rockin Angels broke attendance records at Peony Park. Today he gigs with his own Paddy O Furniture jam band. He’s sat in with many other groups. He’s been a fixture on the Omaha music scene not only for his music but for his work as a sound and lighting engineer. He’s made custom speaker cabinets and sound systems for decades.
Lincoln Highway National Museum & Archives
“We provided sound for Sprite Night at Peony Park all those years. Those were the original raves – 3,000 kids outdoors dancing to ‘dashboard light’ with a sound system you could hear pretty clear about two blocks away. It’s just cool to have that volume switch. You need it a little louder?”
He’s worked with musical artists of every genre:
The Beach Boys
The Isley Brothers
“When we were doing sound jobs for national acts all over the country sometimes I’d scoot on an old highway for awhile.”
Peony Park Sprite Night
When North O thrived as a jazz, R&B, funk and soul hub he did sound and lights for enough African American bands here – L.A. Carnivale, Crackin’ – to get inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame.
311, Boyz to Men and Jordan Sparks have all recorded at his funky Rainbow Music. But it’s the audio gear he buys, sells, trades and records on that really gets him amped up.
“We have all the new digital gear but to make the digital sound good you have to bring in some old tube gear. We basically made all of our own equipment because they hadn’t invented it yet. The old stuff still sounds better. We’re like the dinosaur on the block. Today you’d need about 24 of the hip new boxes to equal the sound pressure four old ones produce. At Rainbow you can record through some of the best gear they had back in the ’50s and ’60s to give it that fat, warm sound.
“We started acquiring all this tube analog tape gear and every piece we came up with was tied to famous recording studios and artists. We’ve got half the PA system used for the Grateful Dead, all the tube mixers Motown would have had. We have equipment from Sun Studio in Memphis, Sound City in L.A. and from other legendary studios.”
He’s no Elvis or Dylan, but he carries his catchy Lincoln Highway tune with great aplomb.
Got my baby sittin’ by my side, ’40s chop top, I got the ultimate ride
Since 1913…100 years ago today
Everybody’s driven’ cross the USA
I’m goin’ on the Lincoln Highway
I’m hopin’ to see you…somewhere along the way
He’s happy if his music video homage to the highway spurs wider interest in the history behind it.
“It’s been buried for so long, it’s almost like we destroy or shy away from history.”
He loves discovering and sharing that history, saying, “Give me a little kernel of information and I’ll go dig up some more stuff. That’s half the fun.” He also believes fate led him to the mill and its highway lineage.
“Magical things like that happen to me all the time. People call it coincidences. I call ‘em little tiny miracles.”
Visit his website at lincolnhighwaynebraska.com.
When I first posted this, I wrote about the subject of this story, “Pamela Jo Berry is a photographer who doesn’t like her picture taken.” I could have added that she also doesn’t allow her picture to be used without her permission. That’s still true but she has since relented to let me post a self-portrait she created. The fact that we’ve became a couple since I wrote this story may help account for this change of mind. She’s still very shy and particular about her image. What you will see in this self-portrait, which is broken up into two images here, is her heart. The mixed media artist displays her big, warm heart in everything she does, including the North Omaha Summer Arts festival she just dreamed up herself and has staged three consecutive years now out of her own pocket and with in-kind donations from friends, fellow artists, and supporters. The grassroots event is very much an expression of her passion for art in all its many forms, her deep spirituality, and her abiding love for her North Omaha community. As always, this year’s featival culminates in an Arts Crawl up and down a section of North 30th Street that not coincidentally is also her neighborhood. The crawl runs from 6 to 9 p.m. and Berry’s organized an eclectic roster of artists to show their work. Berry’s done something here that should be a lesson to us all. She saw a need for more public art in her community and instead of bemoaning its absence she went about creating a festival that brings art there.
©Pamela Jo Berry’s Change
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Pamela Jo Berry saw a need for more art offerings in the section of northeast Omaha where she resides and decided to do something about it.
With the help of friends and venues the photographer and mixed media artist created North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) in 2011 to serve the area north of Ames Ave. along the 30th Street corridor, The free public festival is a homespun hodgepodge of writing and quilting classes, a gospel concert and an arts crawl. She says all of it’s “open to anyone interested in participating.”
“It actually came about as wanting to put a taste of art in the area,” she says.
This year’s festival has already seen: a Creative Writing Journey for Women workshop series taught by best-selling romance novelist Kim Whiteside (who publishes under Kim Louise) of Omaha; and a Free Motion Quilting course taught by former Union for Contemporary Art resident Shea Wilkinson.
A free home-cooked dinner was served before each class.
The June 22 gospel concert at Miller Park featured the Cadence Ensemble, Highly Favored and Eric and Doriette Jordan.
That leaves the August 9 Arts Crawl, from 6 to 9 p.m., featuring artists, art talks and homemade food and refreshments at the following sites:
Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd. Work and art talk by sculptress Pamela Conyers-Hinson
Blessed Sacrament Church, 6316 North 30th St.
Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th St.
Jehovah Shammah Church International, 3020 Huntington Ave.
Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Ave.
Solomon Girls Center/Heartland Family Service, 6720 North 30th St.
Other artists featured in the Arts Crawl include: Whiteside, Wilkerson, Peggy Jones, Linda Garcia, Reginald LeFlore III and Gerard Pefung.
Berry’s also showing her own work.
It’s only natural for Berry to utilize churches because she’s a deeply spiritual woman who sees the festival, like her own artwork, as a faith-led mission.
“It’s just an extension of who I am as a follower of Christ.”
The normally shy Berry, whose extrovert daughter is local actress and playwright Beaufield Berry puts herself out there with NOSA because she feels called to it
“When you see something as a ministry you kind of go with it,” she says. “This gives me a chance to share. North Omaha Summer Arts is quite important to me.”
She sees NOSA as a much needed asset for an underserved community challenged by poverty, crime, scarce amenities and a perception problem.
“In the area of North Omaha where we live we could find no art,” she says. “We knew it was there, we just had to uncover it. We knew art would bring hope and peace and most of all community to our neighborhood. We’ve seen it grow, we’ve noticed the interest and the benefits…and we want it to continue to flourish.”
Nebraska Arts Council Heritage Arts Manager Deborah Bunting says NOSA is part of the new energy and sense of community being built in North O.
Berry, who works with Omaha Community Playhouse education director Denise Chapman in organizing the fest, says while the number of people who engage with NOSA is still small it positions North O as a place of beauty, creativity and potential.
“The impact of art in places deemed ‘artless’, the impact of music to create growth and connectedness, the impact of strangers coming together for a common goal of creativity, creating opportunity, is magical. We want the community of North Omaha, particularly the youth, to open themselves up to creativity, of what is possible and to be a part of.”
Berry, who regularly attends Trinity Lutheran, says her pastors, Revs. John and Liz Backus, “have been very supportive” as have pastors at other churches she’s enlisted.
John Backus admires Berry’s efforts.
“Her open spirit is a challenge to everyone to make things better. She successfully combines her passion for her art with her passion for the world around her. Her contribution has been of unimaginable value in bringing one more hope to the North Omaha area, cultural opportunities, and the chance to meet neighbors in an atmosphere of elevation and inspiration.”
Berry says her decision to create NOSA was much like her decision 20-plus years ago as a young single mother to make art her life.
“I just made a choice one day to go ahead and try it and do it.”
She succeeded too with commissions, exhibitions, Nebraska Arts Council residencies and a Mid-America Arts Alllance fellowship. Just as her art career got in full swing a series of challenges, including a chronic illness, interrupted her plans. It’s taken time for her to learn to budget her energy.
“What you do is end up trying to work your life around it and try to make it work around your life, but you’ve got to take your time with it, so you step back and you slowly come back into it. It’s almost like I’m starting over again with creating.”
She’s producing and exhibiting again. She currently has a show of mixed media work in the Mulitcultural Affairs office at Creighton University’s Harper Building.
“Art opportunities keep popping up. I guess this is my time to be an artist again. I’m making things from found objects. In my last show I had older images shown along with the new images I’ve made. All of it’s an expression of the spiritual side of my life.”
She says a turning point in her artistic life came with photographing the homeless, “It helped me to understand that in order to tell a true story the subject needs to be a partner and shown the same respect I would want.”
Where she used to be consumed trying to make things perfect, she says she’s now fine keeping imperfections in her work. Her mixed media piece “Change” includes a torn photograph she views as a metaphor for the permutations life holds.
“Going through changes you realize your flaws,” she says. “I’m not perfect, nobody is. So now when I make the artwork I am not so set on making it perfect. I make it from the heart. It’s very liberating.”
That same easy attitude infuses NOSA. Berry appreciates that after a long lull the 24th and Lake Street hub is alive with arts activities again thanks to Loves Jazz and Arts Center, Carver Bank, the Union for Contemporary Art and the Great Plains Black History Museum. NOSA fills a gap further north and offers programs the others don’t. She likes that NOSA has a quirky, do-its-own-thing vibe.
“You can do that when you’re not paying attention to what everyone else is saying. You’re free to do whatever you want to.”
In putting NOSA together Berry calls on fellow African American female creatives.
“There are artists I admire and am friends with. I’m not walking this myself believe me.”
The artists feel a kinship with Berry, whose big heart and bright spirit they respond to. Peggy Jones says of Berry, “She is committed, passionate and has great love for both the arts and her community. Pam is a tireless advocate for helping people tell their own stories and create art because she is a true believer in the way the arts can be used for expression as well as heal and connect disparate groups.”
Berry likes that she and her “sisters” produce a festival that not only gets people to experience different forms of art but that gives them a chance to create art and to get it seen. Students in the creative writing class pen pieces published in an anthology and students in the quilting class get their work shown in the Arts Crawl.
For Berry, it’s all about giving North O its due.
“I love my community.”
For details visit http://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.