When I read about world famous glass artist Therman Statom relocating to Omaha, I I knew I would one day pursue a story about him, and I finally did a year-and-a-half ago, and I’m glad I did. He has a soft spot for kids, and my article for the Omaha City Weekly explores his work through the prism of his working with children. In charting his interaction with kids in a variety of settinsg, I more and more came to see him as a kind of Peter Pan figure who’s never really grown up himself, and it’s this innocence and curiosity which may account in part for his imaginative works.
Artist Therman Statom Works with Children to Create Glass Houses and More
©by Leo Adam Biga
A shorter version of this story appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacitywekly.com)
When you picture internationally-renowned visual artists you don’t immediately associate them working with children. The image that likely comes to you is of an intensely-focused, hyper-kinetic figure slaving away in isolation or else imposing his will on a crew of assistants.
Acclaimed glass artist Therman Statom of Omaha fits that figure to a tee as he juggles a hectic, globe-hopping schedule of commissions, installations, openings and workshops. Yet he also loves sharing his skill and knowledge with youths. Amid all his demands he still heeds the Peter Pan in him by stealing away a few hours a week to take kids on journeys of discovery.
His 2006 move here began with him showing curious neighborhood kids around his immense downtown studio just southeast of 20th and Leavenworth Streets. This year he began formally working with kids from the Wesley House Academy of Leadership & Artistic Excellence in northeast Omaha. The at-risk African-American students at the academy, a United Methodist Community Centers Inc. program with a 136-year social service history, come from single-parent homes in many cases. They live in an area where drugs, gangs, poverty and violence persist, where positive adult male role models are scarce, where educational achievement lags and where hopelessness pervades neighborhoods.
Much as Wesley director Paul Bryant is dedicated to raising these children’s expectations, Statom tries exposing them to larger possibilities. He wants them to know his world can be theirs, too. He wants them to tap their rich imagination and full potential in pursuit of their own dreams, their own rainbow of desires.
It’s what happens when Statom hosts students at his 20,000 square-foot facility. There, in a white concrete block building that housed a window manufacturing company, an art and industrial wonderland awaits his young guests. They call him, “Mr. Therman.” Part studio, part factory, part gallery, the operation’s attended to by Statom and a team of assistants, including wood-metal craftsmen.
Fabricating machines, work tables, floor-to-ceiling storage bays, lockers, tools, forklifts, ladders, crates and sections of wood, metal and glass fill the space.
Ah, glass. It’s everywhere inside the cavernous environs. Assorted bins, boxes and buckets contain glass shards. A kaleidoscope of translucent shapes, colors, textures, friezes, panels, frames, shelves, boxes and mirrors greet you. Hanging on walls and strewn here and there are finished and unfinished glass pieces. More yet is shrink-wrapped in plastic bundles — for shipment/storage protection.
Carts variously hold tins with brushes, jars, cans and tubes of paint, glass beads and piles of old world atlases and art books, whose maps, illustrations and indexes he cannibalizes to add layers of narrative and symbol to his work.
He’s a glass virtuoso. He blows it, cuts it, molds it, paints over it, photo-etches on it, inserts objects in it, attaches things to it. He instructs children to do the same. “The kids can sort of absorb what I do at a moment’s glance,” he said.
On a recent visit the Wesley kids made to his glass works he announced, “Today, this is your studio. You can use the whole studio.” They did, too, as soon as he broke them into pairs for a drawing project. One kid would lay down on an over-sized sheet of paper while the other traced their outline, braids and all. Each team interpreted their life figure in paint — alternately dripping it on, smearing it on with their hands or brushing it on. The figures were then cut out and displayed.
“It had a good energy to it. They were really having at it,” he said. “One kid had this brush out. He was going at it. He mixed the colors up right here on the floor. It was very powerful. In many ways it was like a Jackson Pollock action painting.”
In July he led the kids on a tour of Joslyn Art Museum’s contemporary galleries, where they saw everything from Steven Joy’s abstract paintings to a George Segal sculpture to a techo piece by video artist Nam June Paik. When they got to the enormous glass sculpture in the atrium he informed them he’s a friend and former student of its creator — Dale Chihuly.
He’s always coaxing responses from the kids. Never talking down to them, he strikes an easy balance between serious and casual. “I just try to treat them the way I’d like to be talked to and treated,” he said. Refusing to dumb things down, he challenges kids to consider the intentions and themes artists investigate. “What do you suppose the artist is trying to say here?” “Does anyone know what a metaphor is?” “What do you think a museum is?” “What’s contemporary art?”
At one point on the Joslyn tour he sat the kids down in the tiled fountain court to say, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that all of you can grow up and create work that can be in a museum. You’re capable. The bad news is you have to work really hard to be able to do it. I grew up in these kinds of spaces, and that’s where my education started — at a museum like this.”
Washington, D.C. museums became his playground after moving with his family near the nation’s capital around age 9. Some classmates at Georgetown Day School were the children of prominent artists. Cady Noland introduced Statom to her father, painter Kenneth Noland, whose work is part of Joslyn’s permanent collection.
“When I was 13 I knew him. He is the first person who introduced me to painting. I’ve been lucky enough that all these artists in this gallery, except for one guy, I knew,” Statom told the kids. “I met them when I was your age and I didn’t know what art was.”
The more he immersed himself in art the more he learned.
“I remember the first time I went to the Smithsonian was through a school tour to see the Mona Lisa and standing in a big old line to see this painting. When I got to it I didn’t think too much of it but I was amazed by the line to go see it. Once I discovered the museums were free I’d go on the weekends. Then I was able to meet people whose parents were artists and we would go for fun.”
He said Noland was “nice to me, and I respected that.” Visiting the home-studio of a working artist let him know a career in art was possible. “I thought, ‘Well, I can do that. Why don’t I pursue that field?’ It seemed like a pretty open field.”
He tells kids museums also became his hideaways. “When I didn’t go to school I would come to a place like here because it was free,” he confided. He doesn’t condone kids play hooky but if they do they could do worse than hanging out at the Joslyn. Whole worlds await exploration there.
“I love museums,” he said. Finding these sanctuaries — what he calls his “home turf” — was key for Statom because for a long while he didn’t know where he belonged. Art changed all that. “I wasn’t very great at math and sciences but I loved painting and sculpture.”
This affinity became transformational when he had trouble adjusting to diverse, urban D.C. after living in Winter Haven, Florida.
“Coming from the South,” he said, the move up North “was tough for all of us.” The cultural differences profound. He said he struggled with identity issues and “being in a new culture.” He attended several schools. “I remember once I told a class I was Jewish — just to fit in. I didn’t even know what it was. I was just scared.”
He and his family adapted. Statom said, “My father ended up being a really great physician in Washington, D.C. He really did a helluva lot for a lot of people. He was a general practitioner. He catered to a largely poor black community there. He took care of people. I think the average visit until his retirement was about $20. That’s if you paid cash. He had patients that paid with food or trade.”
Statom’s mother was an elementary school teacher. She was also a self-styled spiritualist who brought her old soul, country healing ways with her.
“She didn’t advertise. It wasn’t very formal,” he said, “but it was definitely an issue in our raising. It was a part of our scene. It definitely added a different kind of context to our sensibilities as we got older. She taught me a lot of things.”
He learned he didn’t need to connect with a Higher Power in “a structured orthodox religious setting.” His art’s an expression of intuitive-spiritual journeys.
Just as he found himself through art he tries helping kids do the same today .
“The thing that’s great about me being able to do this,” he said, “is that the kids are exposed to world-class standards. There’s absolutely none of this, Oh, you’re from a bad neighborhood, so it’s OK if you have a mediocre art program. I’m establishing a precedent of the highest standard. I won’t accept anything less.”
That’s why he made sure Joslyn curator of contemporary art John Wilson met them. “I want the kids to have a sense that they met with someone that’s really responsible. I want them to have a sense of importance…” Both Statom and Bryant say it’s vital Wesley kids buy-in to the notion they belong, they matter and they deserve the same opportunities as anyone else.
Wesley went from no arts program last fall to “a world class arts program” in 2008, Bryant said, thanks to the participation of Statom and figures like Hal France, director of the Kaneko creativity center in the Old Market. “It’s a beautiful thing because it fulfills a dream I had for the Leadership Academy,” Bryant said. “Now our kids are attending the symphony, they’re making art, they’re meeting artists.”
About Statom, Bryant said, “We just connected immediately. He just has a passion for kids and he loves what we’re doing here.”
Statom, the father of an infant daughter, engages kids in various ways. He conducts workshops at the Wesley that involve students in hands-on projects. “A lot of times I don’t have specific guidelines. I like them to decide what we do in workshops,” he said. “They’re ready to go.” He often asks, “What do you all think of this idea?”
Sometimes he incorporates their creations into his own. He did that with his Nascita (Origin) installation earlier this year at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Under his supervision the kids made glass houses — forms he makes himself — which they then adorned with paint, images, words, objects. He integrated them into his sprawling, multi-gallery sculptures, devoting an entire section to them.
Statom also had the kids paint over portions of the installation.
“Some of these paintings they did on top of my paintings — I’m amazed at what they came up with,” he said. “They have so much natural ability. I let them know they actually gave me insight into my own work. It really brought out a lot of things. It really changed it a lot and it actually made it better.”
For similar shows he’s done in other cities he’s had kids clean mirrors and glass plates and apply silicon scales to the snake figures that recur in his work. He views his interaction with kids as a true collaboration.
“I don’t take this lightly. They really do teach me things all the time. They kill me.”
For another workshop at the Wesley he had the kids work in clay — making objects as Mother’s Day gifts that were later fired and painted.
Statom installation and exhibition at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts
The kids are hesitant at first before warming to the task. He said it’s all about “getting them to trust themselves.” The responsibility of working with them weighs heavy on him. He confessed to students, “Every time I come here to assist you all, I get really nervous. Sometimes I talk to maybe 5,000 people at one time but I get more nervous here than there.” A little girl asked why. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe because I like you guys so much. Maybe that’s it.” The girl smiled.
Later, Statom amended that to say “it’s because this is so important to me.” Why? “I just know I found a sense of place and empowerment through art and whatever part of my brain it embellished or helped I see it as being possible for other kids.”
The way he indulges children — letting them go crazy with clay-paint-charcoal or showing them cool places — is akin to a favorite uncle spoiling nephews-nieces. Certain ones he dotes on, including two of the smallest, Leonna and Gordon.
At the Joslyn he gave students, sketchbooks in hand, an assignment — find a piece they like, draw it and describe what it means to them. Once set loose they rushed from one gallery to the next — sitting or sprawling on the floor to sketch. In these settings Statom’s always on the move, going from kid to kid, checking on their progress, offering suggestions or just as often asking what they want to do.
Kids being kids, questions and issues arise. He’s patient, encouraging, prodding. “How you doing?” “Excellent.” “You did a really good job.” “Don’t give up.” “Give it your best shot.” He chides as needed. “I want you to do another one.” “Now you all were pretty good but you can do better with the noise.” “Listen up.” “Don’t touch.” One of his favorite expressions is, “You know what I mean?”
Gregarious, attentive, sweet, fun, he’s an animated teddy bear energized by how much he wants to show them, tell them, teach them. He’s a big kid who never grew up. A Peter Pan in paint-splattered T-shirt and shorts — eager to “take these kids where they’ve never been before,” he said. That’s what it’s all about.
Sometimes he stops to snap a picture to record the moment.
For Statom, working with kids is a creative act itself. “Each class is almost like a painting to me,” he said. “Figuring out what happens and what we are going to do. I like teaching. I think I always wanted to be a teacher. Teachers are creative.”
When he’s with young students, he said, “I get outside of myself. It makes me feel better — just as a balance — to what is otherwise a pretty self-absorbed activity. I’m just thrilled to be able to affect someone’s life. I’ve always been intrigued by how art affects someone’s life.”
He said his work with kids has “evolved” over time as he’s seen “what the art could do as a tool for inspiration. The one thing I know is that art makes kids smarter. It actually facilitates their ability to do academics. And so one of my first intents with the Wesley House was to use art to supplement what they do in the academics.”
He’s not so much concerned with product as he is process.
“Purely from an empowerment point of view, product doesn’t matter,” he said. “I really care about what goes on within the group effort, what goes on from a sense of self and how they define themselves…The act of doing sometimes becomes so enriching. These kids are just beginning to do something with their lives and if you can help them realize they can do anything, that they can make something that has value — that’s what’s important.”
His busy schedule may prevent him from working closely with the Wesley kids this fall but he’s laying a foundation for others to pick up the slack.
“I’m hoping about seven artists in the Omaha area will supplement what I want to do. I’m really interested in being more of a facilitator.”
As a Bemis friend and Kaneko board member, Statom wants to involve those arts venues and others in ongoing partnerships with the Wesley. He’s looking at the kids making regular visits to artist studios, art galleries and the Joslyn and taking extended glass blowing workshops at the Hot Shops.
He’d like to expand his youth-centered work to kids in the juvenile justice system and to students at downtown area schools. Opportunities to impact kids abound.
“There’s no end to it,” he said. “I’m just getting started. Once I get really organized there’s a lot I want to do.”
For Statom, who’s lived on both coasts as well as Denmark, where his artist-wife is from, and Mexico, where he has a studio, working with kids “gave me a reason to be here. It really did. It’s an honor for me to be able to work with them. It’s like a dream for me, it really is. I must admit, I do love those kids.”
They love you, too, Mr. Therman. Just promise to never grow up.
For more information on the Wesley House Academy of Excellence & Artistic Leadership, call 402-451-2228. To find out more about Therman Statom or to see more of his work, visit his web site, www.thermanstatom.com.
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