Opera Omaha has a history of drawing attention for its innovative programming and collaborations. In recent years, the company has caused a splash by commissioning renowned artists outside the opera world to design sets and costumes for productions of classic operas. First, the company had internationally acclaimed ceramicist Jun Kaneko, who lives and works in Omaha, design for Madama Butterfly. Then, the company had noted sculptor and installation artist Catherine Ferguson of Omaha design for Aida. I missed out on an opportunity to write about Kaneko and his Butterfly, and so when the chance came to profile Ferguson and her work on Aida, I leapt at it, and the following article is the result. The article is another example of my plugging into an artist’s passion and expressing that to a general readership. This is the first time the story’s been republished since its original appearance in the New Horizons a couple years ago.
Artist Catherine Ferguson’s Exploration Takes Her to Verdi’s Aida and Beyond
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
The boundless limits of Omahan Catherine Ferguson’s art may be traced to a childhood that fostered her ever inquisitive nature.
When Opera Omaha commissioned the noted installation artist and sculptor to design the sets and costumes for its new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida she did what she always does for a project — search out every source to inform it.
That meant close studies of the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, viewing a King Tut exhibit, reading books, watching productions of Aida and listening to the opera over and over and over again. Her research led her to the primary motif for her designs — a recurring hieroglyph of the blue lotus, actually blue water lily. It’s found in a pillar or column called the djed and in all manner of Egyptian artifacts, from pottery to jewelry to tombs.
“Once you start looking at Egyptian artifacts you find the lotus almost everywhere in different forms,” she said. “It’s just embedded in lots of place. Very stylized.”
The blue lily holds a yellow golden center remindful of the sun, which ties into the myth of an Egyptian King transfigured into a sun god, Ra. She found another deity, Ptah, also associated with the flower. Ferguson said the opening of the lily’s bud during the day, its closing at night and its reopening at dawn symbolized for Egyptians the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Regeneration. It all fit the structure of Aida, whose first two acts chart the ascendance of the King and future sun god, while the last two acts, what Ferguson calls Verdi’s “lunar acts,” reflect the veil of conflict and tragedy that befall the central characters.
“I thought, well, this is the perfect imagery I’ve been searching for,” she said. With such “ubiquitous” symbols at her disposal, she said, “I just went with it. Amazingly, we don’t know of any other Aida that used the lotus as its central design motif.”
Designing Aida meant many meetings with stage director Sam Helfrich, a collaboration that tested each artist, as it was his first time working with a nontraditional opera designer and Ferguson’s first time designing an opera. Ferguson, a self-described “moderate opera fan,” was somewhat familiar with Aida, having seen previous productions. The “huge challenge and responsibility” of undertaking the design for “this iconic piece,” as she calls it, was both daunting and exhilarating. Two years steeping herself in all things Egyptian and interpreting Verdi’s masterwork is just the kind of pursuit she enjoys.
Catherine Ferguson’s Aida designs for Opera Omaha production
That same sense of wonder is what’s compelled her to travel down the Amazon, visit Mexican ruins, tour the great sites in the Western European capitals, document the gardens of Italy, Japan and China, explore grottoes and immerse herself in the prehistoric earthen effigy mounds of the Midwest. The mounds’ animal-shapes, which she variously describes as “subtle” and “beautiful,” appear in several of her sculptures. “I have a very strong affinity for them,” she said. The elongated Oropendola bird nests she saw in South America show up in her work. The gardens and grottoes she photographed informed her own installations, as they are all “places that capture you for the moment and separate you from all the busyness that’s going on” outside.
She attributes this unquenchable thirst for experiential quests that feed her art to the environment she grew up in, which she said nurtured a desire for “constant exploration” and “lots of freedom to do that.” Born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, Catherine and her older brother enjoyed an Arcadian youth in the 1950s. Their mother was a housewife trained as a teacher and their father a traveling typewriter salesman who later opened his own typewriter and accessories store.
“Growing up we lived in a neighborhood on the west side of Sioux City — only a couple blocks from open, uncultivated, untilled wild spaces,” she said. “There was a big hill called Mayflower Hill covered with these little purple mayflowers, and with the long prairie grasses on it. We would take cardboard boxes up there and slide down that hill — that’s how long those grasses were. It was fabulous.
“There was a wild plum thicket with bittersweet vine growing all over it. Over the years kids had tunneled into this thicket. There were chambers in the thicket where people played. Every season we were up there for something else. In the summer we were there playing. In the fall there was all the bittersweet to pick. And in the winter we took our sleds up there…We were outside all the time. That was a very wonderful place.”
Ferguson said the thickets and chambers of her youthful idylls “show up in my work a lot.” Her sprawling, multi-layered, organic installations, some filling entire rooms, are sacred sanctuaries filled with symbolic elements. The works often contain hidden, recessed spaces viewers come upon as they walk through them. Natural and synthesized sounds and light sources add more texture. She’s collaborated with composer-electroacoustic musician Mario Verandi on five installations.
Her sculptures, too, express elemental-spiritual dimensions. The sculptures are in a variety of materials. The visceral experience of her works encourages exploration and discovery. Her environments and objects evoke communion with spirit and nature, heaven and earth, themes consistent with an interest of hers — alchemy.
Much of her art is about transformation or transcendence and the interplay of the real with the ethereal in arriving at some purity or truth or harmony, which is a description of alchemy. Creativity, too.
“That stuff is fascinating,” she said. “Alchemy is what artists do all the time. You’re taking scraps of stuff that don’t have any meaning by themselves particularly but then you kind of wash away and get rid of the extra bits…You’re always looking for the core — and that’s what the alchemists were doing. They were looking for the Philosopher’s Stone at the heart, whatever that was.”
She likes how installations break down the elitist barriers of art that imply, she said, that “only certain people can understand it, only certain people can see it. That it’s in museums — it’s walled off.” She also likes the fact installations invite people to literally enter the work itself and, thus, respond to it in ways that are self-reflexive. As she told Joel Geyer in the NET documentary Is it Art?:
“I think with installation work…you’re not learning so much about the artist as possibly about yourself. It’s almost like having a script written but you’re the viewer. You’re also the actor, and it becomes your scene to develop once you’re in there. That’s what I’m shooting for in my work. What more do you want from art than to make you more conscious of yourself and your relationship to others? What more could one ask for? That, in itself, is beautiful.”
Seeking answers to universal questions became a habit instilled in her by the nuns who taught her at the former Rosary College, now Dominican College, in Chicago and by the Jesuits at Creighton University. These educators demanded rigorous analysis and independent thought in the pursuit of shaping the whole person.
“The nuns encouraged us to develop our minds and to express our unique selves. We didn’t use the term feminist but they had the same philosophy about the role of women in society as the feminists espoused later,” she said.
She majored in English and minored in journalism. Art was the furthest thing from her mind. Well, not exactly. While studying in Chicago she became a habitual visitor to the Art Institute. “I’d take the L downtown and just walk around in awe. It was kind of a self-education in art,” she said. When she moved to Omaha to attend Creighton “she was really interested” in art but at that time the school lacked an art department. “I know I would have taken art courses if they had.” She continued her self-education at the Joslyn Art Museum.
Still, she said, “I was not even expecting to ever get into the art world.” There were creative aspects to her early jobs. “My first job was working for WNAX radio station up in Yankton (S.D.),” she said. “It was fun. I was writing commercials…”
She was then engaged to her husband, Terry Ferguson, who was studying at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. Eager to join him, she moved to D.C., where she lived and worked in the mid-1960s. She did public relations for the U.S. Army Map Service, then engaged in satellite mapping of the moon and, she suspects, America’s Cold War enemies. She joined the federal Office of Economic Opportunity in downtown D.C. which put her near some of the capitol city’s finest art venues, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection.
“My work site was in between the two, so on my lunch hour I’d walk to one or the other,” she said. “Then on the weekends we’d often go to the Museum of National Art. We spent a lot of time there.”
By 1967 she and Terry moved back to Omaha, where he worked as a staff lawyer with the Legal Aid Society. He later served with the prestigious Kutak Rock Law Firm and as a senior attorney with Peter Kiewit Sons Inc. before joining the Fraser Stryker Law Firm. He’s also an adjunct professor in the Creighton Law School.
She was pregnant with their first son, George Ferguson, now a filmmaker who occasionally collaborates with his mother on her installations. The couple’s other son, Adrian Ferguson, is an Omaha architect who sometimes assists his mother in setting-up her installations.
While she was more and more inclined toward art, she said her emerging artistic sensibility “wasn’t really an epiphany moment” but more a matter of “backing into it.” She was a young housewife and new mother and to occupy herself she began taking art workshops. One in sculpture. Another in batik.
“The batik seemed at the time the easiest to deal with,” she said, “in that I could work right in my kitchen and I could get everything I needed at the Hinky Dinky. The paraffin and the dye. Old sheets I had at home.”
A phone call in the late ‘60s changed her life.
“One day Ree Schonlau called me and said, ‘I want to get together a group of people to start a craftsmen coop.’”
Schonlau was a potter and then-new University of Nebraska at Omaha art graduate with a vision for establishing what became the Craftsmen Guild in the historic warehouse district south of downtown. The once thriving wholesale produce market was in decline, its early 20th century brick buildings mostly abandoned. Where most people saw decay the Mercer family, who owned property there, and a few other visionaries like Schonlau saw potential.
Ferguson fell in with these bohemian pioneers to help transform the area into an arts-cultural haven known as the Old Market. The Craftsmen Guild, along with the Omaha Magic Theatre and the French Cafe, presaged all that’s followed.
The building Schonlau eyed, at 511 South 11th Street, now houses La Buvette amidst a string of eateries, shops and galleries. Then, however, the Market was mostly vacant. Schonlau, Ferguson, et all, joined forces to turn the vision into reality. They were young, energetic, idealistic. Together they transformed the Greenberg Produce Co. into an arts studio, complete with kilns for firing pottery.
“It was all cold lockers. The windows were all bricked up. We did a lot of manual labor and then other labor was hired,” Ferguson said. “We had a patron, Tom Davis, who helped us with part of that.”
This was the start of a most successful career by a contemporary Nebraska artist. Ferguson’s earned critical accolades and prized commissions. She cleaned up at the recent Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. Her work’s widely collected and exhibited. Several of her sculptures adorn prominent public sites, including Totem in front of the W. Dale Clark Library and Sky Fin on the south side of the Qwest Center. Her installations have been showcased at the Joslyn, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery.
Her life as an artist all began with that small coterie of fellow travelers similarly afflicted with the curse or the gift of feeling compelled to make art.
“It was a real good, exciting time,” Ferguson said. “That was my first studio outside the home. It was the first time I ever worked around other artists. Everybody else had a degree in art. They were very encouraging. It was a lot fun. I treasure most the opportunity that time gave me to meet other artists and have a studio in an unconventional milieu, a milieu conducive to experimenting. My studios have all been in locations that had some ‘grittiness’ and that has been helpful to me.”
Her spacious, airy, utilitarian studio the past 25 years is a brick building at 26th and Leavenworth Street, the former Warner Auto Shop. Windows in the renovated space let in lots of natural light. Drawings and mockups for her Aida designs are displayed amid work tables, plants and sculptures. The studio’s situated in an area slowly emerging as an artists’ community.
Ferguson honed her art and deepened her knowledge by attending workshops, reading art books and viewing exhibitions. She said she sought out workshops to cultivate “particular skills I wanted. They were very helpful. They all seemed to come at a good time. I spent some time in Iowa City one summer. The workshop was taught by a man who worked for Jack Lenor Larsen, a fabric designer. The instructor realized that a lot of his artist friends in New York were starting to work with fabric and that interested him and he talked about it a lot.”
Screen-printed fabrics were among the early forms-materials she worked in. She said the young lions of American art at the time, artists like Claes Oldenberg and Robert Rauschenberg, “were all bringing in materials that were nontraditional. Oldenburg’s soft sculptures particularly influenced me.”
This period, Ferguson said, is when she “really started thinking about the difference between craft and art. Certainly that was the time when there was this opening, this shift when the line between craft and art became less distinct. I think the difference, if there is one anymore, is the intention of the maker. A craftsman is very interested in how an object functions and its beauty, and an artist is generally more interested in other qualities such as an idea they want to convey. It’s tricky to distinguish between them these days.”
One of her early works, from the ‘70s, was a meat counter, all sewn in vinyls, with a light inside illuminating various cuts. Hanging above the counter was a stylized profile drawing of a woman that pulled apart in sections, ala a puzzle.
“It was a very feminist statement about fragmentation, about being pulled in lots of different directions and having lots of different roles,” she said.
For a long time Ferguson was reluctant to call herself an artist. When she finally felt comfortable, she said, “it was liberating…empowering.” Despite all her success she still battles doubts and insecurities, sometimes even telling herself, “I’m not going to do this anymore.” She said. “It’s only at the point when I can honestly say to myself, ‘You really don’t have to do this anymore,’ that I can then do it again.” She said these anxiety jags “happen less frequently now. Maybe I finally surrendered. Maybe I kind of expect to be doing this forever.”
As she and her art evolved Ferguson fixed on new directions. Some things remain constant.“ I’m a kinesthetic-type person,” she said. “I like materials. I do like form. I like large forms. I like the interaction of the human body to an object or form.” She loves dance and often draws on dance rhythms-movements in her work.
Catherine Ferguson’s sculpture garden at the Millard South Library
Her penchant for searching out new stimuli and connecting the dots to arrive at new insights has never left her. Every project elicits new creative responses.
“When I’m in a project I’m in a kind of heightened state of alertness — a receptive state,” she said, “and the physical world is more exciting to me.”
Ideas come to her “out of the blue,” sometimes in dreams, “because you’re alert and you’re in a different state,” she said. “You just see things you would normally drive right past. That I think is actually the crux of what keeps me making art.”
She admits she gets bored without some new subject to investigate or thread to unravel. Much of her work in the ‘90s was concept-laden and she’s now actively working to get away from that kind of over-intellectualizing.
“I am actually consciously trying to be unconscious.”
An example of her attempt to be more spontaneous, more instinctual is the set of torso drawings she did during a Bemis Center residency a couple years ago. “I had no idea what I was going to do. I just stepped up to the paper and started drawing. I didn’t think about it. I just jumped in. I’d like to work more and more that way.”
Speculating on the appeal of this approach, she said, “Perhaps after working as a concept-based artist it seems more risky to work intuitively without a preconception, and for that reason the possibility is more and more intriguing.”
That said, she acknowledges “it’ll be hard to suppress” her “research-bent.”
Just as Ferguson’s become a major artist, her old colleague, Ree Schonlau, made her own mark as founder of the Bemis artists colony — now the Bemis Center — in the Old Market, where artists from around the U.S. and the world come for residencies. Among those to do a residency there was the Japanese ceramic master, Jun Kaneko, whom Schonlau married. The couple have converted several buildings in and around the Market into studio, exhibition and storage spaces for his world-renowned work. Their much-anticipated Kaneko Museum is on the way.
Catherine Ferguson sculpture outside the W. Dale Clark Library
Ferguson has remained friends with Schonlau.
“Ree and I have a good connection, not only because of our studio history in the ‘70’s but because her daughters Susan and Troia and my son George have known each other from age 6 from playing in the studios. All these children of Craftsmen’s Guild members went to Central High School and remain good friends today.”
Kaneko is someone she’s gotten to know well over the years. Around the time she got the Aida commission Kaneko was receiving plaudits for his design of Opera Omaha’s Madama Butterfly.
“I’d had many conversations with Jun during his process. He said many times, ‘I never thought it would be this much work.’ So I knew it was lot of work.”
When Aida was offered her, she was taken aback, especially when told Opera Omaha wanted a nontraditional interpretation of a classic work for which, she said, “people have such expectations. People who’ve never seen Aida feel like they’ve seen Aida. It definitely gave me pause and left me without speech,” she said. “I asked for a month to think it over. It was a huge decision to make.”
She consulted a good friend she attended high school with, Denes Striny, who’s made a career as an opera singer, voice coach and director. “I said, ‘Denes, would I be crazy taking on a new and minimal Aida?’ He said, ‘I definitely think you should do it. You can do it.’ He was very encouraging.”
Emboldened, she signed on. Sure enough, Aida stretched her in ways she never imagined. “I haven’t worked this hard for this big a period of time. Two years. Most of my other projects maybe were six months. There were moments when I thought, ‘Huh?’ I mean, I was just terrified. There still are doubts,” she said.
To inspire her designs she listened to recordings of Aida while working. She won’t know for sure how her sets and costumes will be perceived until the April production. “The proof is in the work,” she said.
Perhaps the most taxing aspect of the entire process was the costuming.
“The costumes have so much concept embedded in them. They have to tell so much. They are really storytellers in themselves,” she said. “I had no idea they would take up so much labor trying to differentiate them so that the audience would know who belongs to what group, whether the Egyptians or the Ethiopians, and what their status is within that group.
“I wanted the costumes to have definite shapes you could read from a distance and to be fairly sculptural, too. I tried to keep them simple but not so simple they weren’t interesting.”
Building costumes that met all those demands yet weren’t overly stiff, unwieldy and costly proved a fine line. Selecting the right colors and fabrics took a long time. She made trips to New York to look at fabric swatches but ended up getting the fabrics from a little shop right here in Omaha.
She’s pleased with the finished costumes.
“They’re gorgeous,” she said.
Designing the sets proved more comfortable for Ferguson, who’s used to working on a large scale and using different materials. Even though she’d never worked on an opera, her installations are a kind of “theater.” As she did with the costumes she incorporated hieroglyphic imagery into the temples and columns she designed.
The process entailed many discussions with stage director Sam Helfrich about the story, the characters and how the designs might best express them. The artists didn’t always agree. Whenever their interpretations conflicted she knew, bottomline, “it was his call.” Although she’s cooperated on projects with other artists before her work with Helfrich was something new. “It’s been a true collaboration where there’s been a lot of back and forth and creating things together. My creating things and then his reacting to them.”
Attending to all the details meant traveling to Salt Lake City to see the costume mock-ups, Portland, Ore. to see the sets under construction and New York City to meet with Helfrich and lighting director Robert Weirzel.
The indoor floral show Nature’s Inspiration at Lauritzen Gardens through May 11 keys off Ferguson’s Aida designs. A faux Nile is adorned with tropical plant life and her blue water lily artwork. Adding to the anticipation about Aida, she’s made presentations on her designs. She’s anxious for all the build-up to end and for her sets-costumes to finally breath on stage, in performance, before live audiences.
Aida’s been so time-consuming it forced Ferguson to put many projects on hold. Now that the opera’s being mounted she can resume attending to them.
“I have requests for sculpture commissions and I am eager to do more drawings. Before Aida, I had started working on some smaller sculptures using wax and excelsior that were cast in bronze and I want to explore that medium more. I’ll be working with the torso theme again and drawing but with more color. Aida rekindled my enthusiasm for color.”
Someone she’s bound to work with again is Les Bruning, an Omaha sculptor and foundrer who’s fabricated or cast most of her metal sculptures. “He’s been a mentor and a tremendous resource for me,” she said. “He’s the most generously spirited artist I know.”
Once all the Aida hoopla’s done, she’ll be back working in the quiet solitude she’s accustomed to. Away from the spotlight, she’ll follow her muse wherever it leads.
- A Butterfly that soars in style (theglobeandmail.com)
- Behind the Scenes, Part IV: Event Design (vivanista.com)
- From the mind of Verdi… (operavision.org)
- Top 10 Composers: Hailing Opera’s Shakespeare, and Its Proust (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)