Charles Ahovissi and His African Culture Connection Enrich Nebraska Youth Through Performance and Teaching Programs
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.
- The African Cultural Renaissance Movement (theiamvibration.wordpress.com)
- Elements of African Traditions and Culture (africa.answers.com)
- African Dance and Drum Festival at Little Haiti Cultural Center Aug. 3-5 (bloggingblackmiami.com)
- Drum Dances (vcharlesworth.wordpress.com)
- Interesting Articles About True African Culture (africa.answers.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
©Pamela Jo Berry’s Change
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing 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.
- Cherish the Day: North Omaha (yperspective.wordpress.com)
- Kelly: Homecoming event a parade down memory lane (omaha.com)
- North Omaha Summer Arts Presents: Freelance Writing Academy Seminars with Leo Adam Biga (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
The Cincinnati native lived in Calif. then. The fresh-from-art-school bohemian came to see an Omaha friend and soon got swept up by Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman and their experimental Omaha Magic Theatre.
“Creating the installation pieces in the theater is really altering a space. Sometimes I see that influence come out in my sculpture work,” she said, referring to her small bronze figures in self-contained environments and convergent, theater-like installations.
Her work often depicts flowing figures interacting with the spaces they inhabit. The figures’ charged presence alters the lived environment around them.
“The moving image, the kinetic part of it, has been a strong piece of who I am going way back to art school,” she said. “My painting has always been more on the expressionistic side, so from the very beginning I was intrigued about the energy of people.”
A new series of paintings captures the ephemeral, effervescent figure in motion.
“It’s kind of a continual inspiration for me, this very kinetic energy, and that basically at our core we’re real electrical beings. I love that, I find it endlessly fascinating.”
She enjoys the physical, tactile experience of making art. Each medium she works in, she said, gives her “a different fuel” for what she wants to express.
On one level or another her work reveals narrative.
“We are the stories written on us and we’re the stories that we give off in that energy,” she said. “If it’s not a tattoo, it’s something else, a scar or something we say or the way we move, it’s something distinct about us. We all have these amazing stories that are kind of intrinsic to who we are. It’s always in flux.”
The tension of seeking permanence amid life’s fluidity is a new theme of her work.
“I’m really interested right now in the juxtaposition of the things that we think are really lasting in our lives with the impermanence of it all. It’s that thing about, Where are we all going? We take things so seriously sometimes.”
Kimberlain said a work is only truly finished “when somebody engages with it, somebody wants to live with it,” adding, “When they buy it and take it home, the work is complete now, it’s got its home.”
She’s exhibited locally at the Bemis and the RNG Gallery and farther afield in San Francisco, Sicily and Bali.
“A huge passion is seeing other parts of the world,” she said. “Whenever I get that opportunity or luxury, I’m off. I get such inspiration from other cultures.”
As much as she loves “going in and out” of Omaha, what keeps her rooted here is “a lot of great friends,” including her interior design life partner. The longtime downtown resident is “content” with her neighborhood in the shadow of the 10th Street Bridge. She has a studio in her “perfect place” apartment at the historic Bull
Durham Building in the Old Market and a second studio a couple blocks away.
The growing Omaha arts community pleases her. While she doesn’t make much of an income from art, she said, “I try to live true to what I am.”
Visit Sora’s website at www.sorakimberlain.com.
The best art is provocative in that it engages you to think outside your comfort zone and to consider new truths. That’s certainly the case with the work of Francoise Duresse, who makes you think about race and personal identity in semi-autobiographical series that explore the implications of skin color for herself as a dark-toned black woman in a world of lighter shades. I wrote this story a few years ago when an exhibition of her work ran at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center in Omaha.
Color Me Black, Artist Francoise Duresse Explores Racial Implications
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As any person of color will tell you, the politics of race brands racial minorities with stereotypes that serve to isolate, diminish and exclude them.
In America perceptions of what it means to be black or to be a particular shade of black, for instance, carry the baggage of history and popular culture. Distortions abound. Media portrayals reinforce certain stereotypes.
Artist and University of Colorado art instructor Francoise Duresse, a native Haitian who’s lived and worked all over the world, has navigated societies that use skin color as a basis for stratifying, classifying people in caste systems. Her experience of “differentness” and her search for “personal identity” as a stranger in strange lands is something she often explores in her art. She looks at how “colorism” has and still does act as a litmus test for inclusion-exclusion, acceptance-denial.
That’s the case with her mixed media works on view now through July 24 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center. “Feeling separate” amid a majority population that doesn’t look like you is a powerful vantage point for any artist. Selections on display from two Duresse series, Queen Nappy, the Place from which I Come and The Paper Bag Test, examine the issue of black identity and image within the context of society, media, peers, heritage and ethnicity.
As her work illustrates, what’s bound up in one’s blackness is a complex question. Implicit in her pieces is an acknowledgement that certain assumptions made about blacks and certain attributes ascribed to them are not just race specific but hue specific. Her proposition is that Eurocentric, whiteness models make light skin more acceptable than dark skin across the racial spectrum.
These perceptions cut both ways, affecting not only how others see blacks but how blacks see themselves. Anecdotally, it’s well-known light-skinned people of color traditionally fare better than their dark-skinned counterparts when it comes to jobs, promotions, grades, appointments, memberships, invitations, customer service, et cetera. Duresse takes into account the burden of such realities.
Her Paper Bag Test refers to a once prevalent and still “hush-hush” practice of allowing or denying entry to public places based on skin color. Persons lighter than a grocer’s brown paper bag, she notes, “pass,” while darker hued individuals “fail.” Her point is vestiges of this color coding extend to all kinds of situations or settings and remain fixed in people’s minds. It informs societal, cultural, institutional racism.
An image of herself as a child and another as an adult literally adorn a string of paper bags, the portraits colored from lily white to jet black and all the gradations in between. Each time her face darkens it grows less distinct, a reference to how people of color are perceived and can become invisible before our eyes. The final adult portrait is abstracted beyond human recognition, into what appears a heavy garment — perhaps a comment on the weight of perception one‘s subjected to.
Several Duresse works use motifs to comment on the minimalization, fragmentation and objectification that attend moving through life as a person of color. For example, she variously underlays and overlays a silhouette of her adult self or a painted image of her “audacious surrogate,” Queen Nappy, with minstrel, blaxploitation images culled from advertisements. In a series of these paintings her alter ego is ever more distorted and diminished by these intruding forces of myth and propaganda, until finally her portrait is utterly obscured. It’s a powerful rumination on the danger of losing one’s sense of self amid all the misinformation.
In other pieces she repeats a Polaroid of herself as a little girl, the skin tone varying from nearly white to pitch black, with every variation in between. These images are juxtaposed with a large foreground portrait of sober womanhood. The contrast of youth’s innocence and idealism with the hard bitten lessons of adult life offers an indictment of the colorized socialization process.
Some works echo each other. One presents a sea of diverse yet distinctly African-American faces. Another pictures the same faces, only now commingled, perhaps diffused through enculturation. In another, a collage of these faces surround and underlay the portrait of an adult female — a comment perhaps on how a woman of color is an assemblage of many fragments, strains, features, hues. A stunning work entitled Blue Eyes pictures the artist as a fully bloomed woman — her face comprised of different hued images of herself as a girl, an evocation of how she embodies a lifetime of perceptions, influences, experiences.
- Being Dark Skinned (socyberty.com)
- Can a Sista Get Some Love?: Dark-Skinned Women in the Media (ayannanahmias.com)
- True Life: I’m a White Girl Stuck in a Black Girl’s Body (thislifeinphotos.wordpress.com)
Art. I know it when I see it. Well, sometimes. It’s true, I’ve never studied art history but I’ve looked at a fair amount of art in my lifetime. I worked at a fine art museum for a spell. I make it to a few exhibitions every year. I feel more comfortable or knowledgable when it comes to film, photography, theater, music, and literature than I do when it comes to paintings, drawings, and sculpture but because of my lack of formal art studies I don’t feel I’m qualified to be a critic and so I don’t write reviews. As a journalist though I cover a lot of artists of one kind of another and I do feel it’s part of my job to interpret, where I feel capable of doing so that is, their work. The following profile of artist and public art advocate and organizer Eddith Buis of Omaha contains little interpretation because I don’t know her work very well and besides I was far more interested in describing her and her full on immersion in a life of art than I was attempting to explain her work. I hope you agree I’ve introduced you to a personality and spirit that’s well worth your time and interest. I know she was worth mine.
Eddith Buis, A Life Immersed in Art
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Eddith Buis is immersed in art.
Nearly every facet of life and work for this 64-year-old Omahan, who resembles Andy Warhol, gives expression to her creative impulses. She’s perhaps best known for leading the popular J. Doe public project that placed symbolic figurative sculptures all around Omaha in 2001. An inveterate reader from early childhood, Buis is a self-described seeker in search of personal growth. Her desire to reach her potential is expressed in her humanistic art, in her Unitarian faith and in her adherence to certain Eastern philosophies and practices that promote harmony.
Born in North Platte, Neb., she grew up there and in Hastings, before her family moved to Omaha when she was 7. She attended Franklin Elementary School, where her father, a failed lawyer and sporting goods store owner, worked as an insurance underwriter. Nearly every summer found her visiting the farm of an uncle and aunt in Lorimar, Iowa, where she’d bring two suitcases — one filled with clothes and the other with books, including the latest Nancy Drew novels.
The 1958 Central High graduate married, for the first time, early in life. She began college at then-Omaha University with a dream of becoming a novelist but soon dropped out to have children. She was a mother of three youngsters before she resumed college and then, her life changed forever after discovering a latent talent for drawing. “I’d never taken an art course in my life. I remember taking this first class in drawing. It was in the fall, and the teacher had us go outside, where he had us drawing trees. The world became three-dimensional for me when I was drawing. I had the feeling when I looked at things I could draw them. My life just went like that,” she said, snapping her fingers to indicate the dramatic turn it took. “It was the luckiest thing in the world I switched to art. It just made my life.”
She went on to teach art for 23 years in the Omaha Public Schools, the last eight at an alternative high school where she also staged dramatic productions. She’s since gone on to teach at Joslyn Art Museum and Metropolitan Community College, where she continues to instruct in an adjunct capacity, and to direct a number of projects that have brought art to diverse sites in and around the city. In her own art, she’s worked in oil, watercolor, drawing and sculpture. Recently, she’s collaborated with sculptor C. Kelly Lohr. But she considers herself “a draftsman” first and foremost. Until its recent closing, she showed her work as a cooperative member of the Old Market’s 13th Street Gallery.
Her signature public art project to date remains J. Doe, which scattered 100-plus life-size sculptures, by a like number of local artists, at a variety of sites across the city. Using the same precast mold of an anonymous, androgynous, feature-less John Doe-like figure as their base, artists added an amazing variety of colors, materials, themes, ideas and visions onto their blank slates. Some of the works have found a permanent home in the outdoor cityscape. Others reside in private collections.
Buis not only served as project director, but as one of its artists. Her two J. Does reflect many of her own concerns and beliefs. Jung’s Doe — Journey Toward Wholeness is an erect orange figure that’s been split and its halves joined by a spiral. “The concept came to me complete as a dream,” said Buis, who often works from dreams. “The warm orange color represents everyone…the tribe…or our connectedness. The spiral symbolizes the life path we all tread, hopefully learning our lessons so we can become whole. This Doe is still on its journey, incomplete.”
Machu Picchu Memory is a whole Doe whose body is covered in iridescent rainforest colors, jagged arterial lines and exotic animals. “Several years ago, I ‘saw’ and drew these lines, colors and animals while meditating at Macchu Picchu (an ancient Inca fortress city in the Peruvian Alps). The next day, we found a huge rock inscribed with nearly the same line configuration. Who knows the meaning?”
The success of J. Doe launched subsequent public art projects Buis has overseen at such high-trafficked locales as the Gene Leahy Mall, the Lauritzen Gardens, Fontenelle Forest and the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Trail along Omaha’s riverfront.
“Bringing art to Omaha” is her credo. “I’m a teacher first. I’m not one of those artists that works in a closet. I collaborate all the time. I push other artists. I want their work seen and sold, too.” Once she quit teaching full-time, she kept a promise she made while serving on Omaha’s Commission for Public Art. “I vowed that if I found an occasion to bring public art to Omaha, I would. We’d gone too long without public art.” Besides, she said, she possessed the requisite qualities to run a public art project. “I had the time. I had the energy. I’m indefatigable. I truly am a workaholic. Plus, I know the artists. I know who’s good and I know who’s dependable. And I have the organizing capabilities I learned as a teacher.”
Perhaps her greatest contribution to Omaha culture is the three-story Arts & Crafts style home she resides in in Omaha’s Field Club neighborhood. It’s art-filled interior and exterior is the focal point for her seemingly boundless creativity. The former OPS art teacher has lovingly restored the 1908 red brick Pasadena Bungalow residence, a stately, studied place with its rich dark woodwork, fine cabinetry and built-in bookcases. Designed by noted early 20th century Omaha architect John MacDonald (whose credits include the Joslyn Castle), the house was built by bridge-builder J. W. Towle. Buis said, “He really built it right. He poured the foundation for the basement walls. The walls are steel mesh with plaster over them and it’s like breaking through a fortress when you try to put in a doorway or something. He started a lumber yard so he could choose the wood for his house.”
Buis, who occupies a ground floor apartment and rents out the rest, is proud to be the caretaker of what she considers “a landmark” estate. “I like the idea of saving a place that possibly would have disappeared if we hadn’t bought it, because it was on its way down. It was in terrible condition,” said Buis, who bought the structure in 1983 with her former husband. “When we divorced in 1987, the restoration wasn’t finished. I finished it and I’ve been running it on my own ever since. I lived here 14 years before I broke even. It’s a very expensive property to keep up.”
The petite, precise Buis enjoys the home for the “grace of it. It’s comfortable. It isn’t fancy or foo-foo. It’s pretty tailored and that’s the way I am too. I like things fairly simple. It’s the kind of home you feel you can put your feet up in.”
Over the years, she’s softened some of its hard, masculine edges by introducing softer, rounded corners, but she’s careful not to “do anything that would destroy the physical beauty of it.”
The house is impressive all right, but the real show piece is the extensive landscaped grounds. There, Omaha’s most vocal advocate for public art has installed a sculpture garden featuring works, many for sell, by herself and other area artists. The property is also home to her stand-alone artist’s studio and to a series of cozy gardens and patios whose tranquil spaces and healing motifs reflect the daily meditation rituals she follows to keep herself and her home in balance.
Buis’ Pacific Street address directly north of the Field Club Golf Course is part home, gallery, garden and meditative retreat. In this serene sanctuary carved out of the sturdy urban landscape, her muse feels free to run wild. Dreams, it turns out, supply the inspiration for her art. “I work mostly from dreams. I listen to my dreams. Most of my prints are straight off dreams, and I usually figure them out once I draw them,” said Buis, whose sculptures go from dream to drawing to maquette. “Before I decided to quit teaching, I started chafing, because I really wanted to do more art. Then, I had a dream, which I did up in art as a print calledNancy Drew Drives Off. That dream told me I needed to drive off on my own and start anew. So, I quit (OPS) in 1997.”
Print by Eddith Buis
Nancy Drew Drives Off is part of a dream-inspired car series that, like other series she’s created, whimsically and ironically explore human relationships and roles, often times from a strong feminist slant. Another series, entitled Suits, includes a work in which a man trudging along in his gray flannel office attire has stopped to look up, as if suddenly realizing there may be more to life than the rat race, his precious suit and ever-present briefcase. Dropping out of the ranks of elementary school teaching is one of several breaks that Buis herself has made with convention in pursuit of achieving self-actualization.
During a “a burn-out” leave from OPS she studied other cultures for an interpretive materials project for the Omaha Children’s Museum. “I investigated Indian, African, Mayan and Egyptian cultures. I just had a ball. I got to sit around and read and write. For an Omaha Healing Arts commission, I actually ended up going to Peru, which I really wanted to study. It was more of spiritual journey for me,” she said.
Finding out about other peoples, places, traditions and beliefs, she added, sates her huge appetite to sample it all and to take from these things what she wants. “I couldn’t possibly stop with just our culture,” is how she puts it.
Buis feels her curiosity about the world “goes along with being a Unitarian. It’s a kind of do-it-yourself religion. I discovered it when I was 18. I’d given up on Christianity.” She was attending UNO at the time, when a professor there sparked her interest in trying Unitarianism.
“I went to church the next Sunday and I never left. There were all these bright people around me. I thought, This is where I want to be. It turns out that it’s hard. It’s a liberal religion and there aren’t any answers. You are not handed anything. We use quotations from the great minds of the ages. One time, it might be Albert Einstein. Another time, Victor Frankel. Sometimes, Christ. And you make your own decisions. My particular decision is I really watch my karma. I try not to ever lie and I try to be good to people because I really do believe you make in this life who you are by how you live and by how you act. This is why I give my time away so much. I’ve chosen art as a way to make a difference. I think it’s my purpose.”
The stimulation she gets from her faith, she said, is “my inspiration.”
Her embrace of Feng Shui, an ancient Chinese practice using placement to achieve harmony with the environment, is another example of her ongoing quest for knowledge. “I saw these books about it. I got interested, and I started reading.”
Originating some 7,000 years ago, Feng Shui is rooted in the Chinese reverence for nature and belief in the oneness of all things. It’s predicated on the assumption that the key to harmonious living is in striking a balance of nature in daily life, as expressed in Yin-Yang, Chi, and the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water.
“With Feng Shui, there are ancient Chinese rules on how to make energy move through your life in order to keep your life radiant and positive,” she said. She even studied its principles with an instructor, she said, because of negative vibes she felt in her abode. “I wanted to heal my house. We had ghosts. I wanted to make it easier to live in. It was really a weight on me.” Buis believes the repositioning of objects in the house, which is replete with art work, combined with chanting and shaman drumming, eventually “healed the house” and “got rid of all the ghosts.” She said, “It’s a very healing place to be and I know that’s because of…clearing out what needed to move on.”
Although she follows some Feng Shui tenets, Buis doesn’t pretend to follow all of its many rules. “Feng Shui is very rule-driven and that’s not the way I run my life,” she said. “It has to be like religion, where I take what I want and I walk on.”
Still, she bristles at the suggestion the practice is frivolous. “I don’t see it as a New Age thing. “For me, it’s in combination with what I already understand of the world.” It’s also part of a whole regimen she does to stay healthy. “The other thing I do every day that goes along with Feng Shui is a Tibetan exercise called Chi Kung. It’s a moving meditation. Feng Shui and Chi Kung are more for health and well-being, and I’m very healthy. I feel very positive. I very seldom hit a depression. And I know what that feels like because as a young housewife with kids to raise and bills to pay I suffered depression. Now, I know, it honed me for what I needed to learn”
Meditation works for her the way prayer does for others. “I meditate to find answers. It keeps me radiant…settled…centered. I think the wisdom’s within us. It’s whether or not we listen to it and act on it. I see all life experiences as lessons. What I’m learning more and more now is to be the kind of person I can be.” For the well-read Buis, who drops references to such thinkers as Nietzsche and Jung, meditation also feeds her imagination. “It makes me much more intuitive and it makes me pay attention to my ability to make intuitive decisions. Whether it’s reading or Feng Shui or Chi Kung or shaman drumming, it all goes together.”
After some unhappy pairings, the twice-divorced Buis has eschewed romantic relationships the past decade and, instead, has poured her energies into making art, organizing art displays and befriending a diverse cadre of artists, male and female and young and old alike. “I feel like, in a sense, I’m married to a higher ideal. I want to make things beautiful for people. I have a lot to share.” Her home has become an artists colony where she entertains some of Omaha’s brightest talents in literature, poetry, theater and art. All of it — from the people she interacts with to the historic home she maintains to the artworks she creates to the exhibits she mounts — flow out of her yearning and searching.
“I am totally a searcher,” she said. “I read a lot. I think a lot. I like to be around people that are thinking and talking about life.” It’s no accident then that her work challenges viewers to think. “I feel strongly that I have to do things that have meaning…about the human condition. It’s not enough to be pretty for me.”
Bench art by Eddith Buis and Timothy Schaffert
That’s why she takes issue with the realistic prairie-nature art First National Bank spent top dollars in acquiring for its downtown Tower headquarters. “That is so retro…so old. People will travel thousands of miles to see good art. Nobody is going to come to Omaha to see the First National Bank art.” She’s upset First National did not consult the Commission for Public Art and did not give any commissions to local artists. In response, a bank spokesman said First National did work with other art consultants and did consider Omaha artists as part of the process, although none were selected. While Buis admits she’d like “a say in Omaha’s public art,” she said that even if she doesn’t have a voice, “there are plenty of people in Omaha that really know good art.” She just wants art patrons to be accountable.
If she sounds picky, it’s only because she’ so passionate. “As Matisse said, art is my religion.” Her travels, whether to the art centers of Europe or America, always include time for seeing art. She’s been to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Paris, Rome. She’s looking forward to see the new Guggenheim museum in Spain.
There’s still the occasional bump in the road. The 3,200-hours she devoted to J. Doe “just about killed me,” she said. This past summer was tough. A major commission fell through. The 13th Street Gallery closed. The Wind and Water exhibit at the Gene Leahy Mall was plagued by vandalism. Her house was damaged by raccoons and infested with flea mites. Her car was stolen, her camera nabbed and her purse snatched. Adding insult to injury, a dog attacked her.
“I’m doing my darndest to pull ahead of all that and just look at it philosophically. The only thing I can think of is there were more life lessons I needed to learn.”
On the heels of so much happening, she’s thinking of taking a year or two off to heal her spirit. “I want to investigate. I want to explore social issues. I want to read and study and dream. If I’m too busy, I don’t dream and if I don’t dream, I don’t get art. I don’t know what’s next, but I want to reinvent myself. I believe I have a big sculpture project in me. I’m at an age now where, if not now, then when?”
She remains hopeful. “My life is incredibly rich. It’s the power of being able to bring beauty to people…to be of service. I’ve got a lot of love for people. I’ve got granddaughters that hug me. I have people in my life that really care about me.”
Then there’s her perfect dream. She stands amidst an Omaha oasis for art that people from near and far have come to see. “I would like to see a downtown sculpture garden. I want that for the city. That’s my dream.”
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The Mercer name is exalted in Omaha for the family’s embedded presence as downtown commercial-residential property owners and managers, historic preservationists, aesthetic arbiters, and the primary visionaries, developers, and protectors of what’s known as the Old Market. The Old Market is a small enclave of late 19th and early 20th century brick warehouse buildings that comprised the city’s wholesale produce center. Under the Mercer’s leadership these stuctures took on new life in the 1970s to house an eclectic collection of restaurants, artist studios, art galleries, trendy shops, and loft condos. For a few decades now the National Register of Historic Places district has been one of the state’s top tourist attractions. The subject of this story, artist Vera Mercer, is a native German who married into the family just as the Mercers were transforming the area into a cultural hub. She played a vital role, along with husband Mark Mercer and father-in-law Samuel Mercer in establishing some of the anchor sites there, including the French Cafe. Her photography is prominently displayed in the restaurant. The Mercers own a few eateries in the district and Vera plays a hand in them all behind the scenes. Additionally, her large-scale, Baroque-style food still lifes can be seen in one of these spaces – The Boiler Room. The Mercer’s La Buvette is a bistro style eaterie with an impressive wine selection and it’s often where Vera and Mark can be spotted. She also runs her own gallery, The Moving Gallery, that features work by European artists. Though she’s long been a key player in the Old Market, Vera has been a low-key, little-know presence outside that gilded arena. That is until recently, when a book of her paintings and exhibitions of her work have received much notice here and in Europe. I had never met Vera until doing this short 2011 piece about her for Encounter Magazine. What I found is a charming woman who is an artist through and through. Her photography and painting, equally compelling.
Artist Vera Mercer’s Coming Out Party
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Encounter Magazine
Vera Mertz Mercer occupies a paradoxical place in Omaha. She’s a world-renowned photojournalist and art photographer, yet her work is little known here. She’s a vital part of the Mercer family’s Old Market dynasty, yet few recognize her influence.
Forty years after coming here, this German native is finally getting the attention that’s eluded her thanks to several projects featuring her work, which ranges from evocative street-market-figurative portraits to richly textured still lifes of food-animal-plant motifs.
A new book, Vera Mercer, Photographs and Still Lifes (Kehrer, 2010), includes a selection of her photo reportage and still lifes. Following well-received exhibits in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, plus a show in Lincoln, Neb., she has a single work on display in the 12th Annual Art Auction and Exhibition at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, October 8-November 6. Her biggest exposure though will be her first Omaha solo exhibit, Vera Mercer: Still Lifes, opening in January at the Bemis.
“Given the Mercers central role in the development and sustainability of the Old Market, and their longstanding role in Omaha’s art community, it was surprising to me she had never had a one-woman exhibition” here, said Bemis curator Hesse McGraw.
He said the show will reveal “an under-recognized jewel and legacy of the contemporary art community. I’m interested in the deep intensity of Vera’s photographs. They have a timeless quality that is both classical and highly contemporary. The works are unsettlingly rich in tone, composition and content. It’s surprising these decadent, grotesque, deep-hued works also have a sense of levity. They possess a rigor that is very rare.”
Vera Mercer at an opening
More 2011 exhibitions of Mercer’s work are slated for Mexico City, Japan and Italy. Her emergence on the art scene follows a stellar career in Europe photographing famous artists and their work (Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol), authors (Norman Mailer), playwrights (Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco), performers (Jacques Brel), street scenes and markets. Her first husband, artist Daniel Spoerrii, was active in theater. Her father, Franz Mertz, was a noted set designer. Both men introduced her to the avant garde and she flourished in the heady company of artists and intellectuals.
Mercer trained as a modern dancer, teaching for a time, before Spoerri gave her her first camera. Photography’s expressive possibilities fascinated her. Self-taught, she develops and prints her own work. She prefers shooting with high speed film. She likes grainy, dimly lit images. Her lush still lifes are made with a 4-by-5 camera.
In Europe she met sculptor Eva Aeppli, the wife of Samuel Mercer, an attorney who divides his time between his native Omaha and France. Aeppli’s astrological sculptures adorn the Garden of the Zodiac in the Old Market Passageway. The Mercer family has owned property there for generations. The couple befriended Vera, who later married Samuel’s son, Mark. As an artist and gourmand she fit right in with these cosmopolitans and their affinity for artistic and epicurean delights. Her discerning eye and palette helped shape the Old Market into a cultural oasis.
Mark manages the family’s many properties. He and Samuel, a 2010 Omaha Business Hall of Fame inductee, have been the primary agents for preserving this former wholesale produce center and repurposing its warehouses as shops, galleries, restaurants, apartments, condos.
The ambience-rich Market, a National Register of Historic Places district, has become Omaha’s most distinctive urban environs and leading tourist destination.
Overshadowed in this transformation from eyesore to hotbed is Vera Mercer. She’s applied her aesthetic sensibilities to some iconic spots, such as, V. Mertz, which bears her name. She and Mark own La Buvette, an authentic spin on the French cafes they know from their Parisian haunts. More recently they opened the Boiler Room, a fine dining establishment with Vera’s large format, color still lifes integrated into the decor.
Her black and white photo murals of Parisian cafes are among the distinctive interior design elements at the French Cafe, which Samuel Mercer developed with Cedric Hartman. Her photo project for the cafe first brought her to America.
While a familiar figure to Market denizens for her culinary endeavors, her photography is decidedly less known, though in plain view. She’s exhibited her work in galleries around the world but seldom locally. This despite the fact she oversees the Moving Gallery. Mercer said, “I could easily show there but I think that’s not for me to do that.”
There are practical reasons why so much of her work is showing now after years of scant exhibition activity. First of all, she doesn’t believe in over-exposing herself. “I think one should not be overseen,” she said.
Then she’s been busy. “I had lots to do,” she said, referring to her many Mercer Old Market duties, including launching restaurants. She keeps the books for the two the Mercers still own. Several “intense” photo installation projects she did in Asia with designer John Morford kept her occupied.
So, all along she’s been practicing her craft, just not exhibiting. But she’s built a tremendous body of work.
“I work every day a lot on photography,” she said.
Exhibiting isn’t everything. The culinary arts are creative, too. “Making a restaurant is something so beautiful. It’s something for the people. It’s just like a painting,” she said, before adding,“It’s just like theater, too.”
She’s a bit taken aback by all the attention directed her way these days, but she’s “not surprised.” Always open to change, she’s now experimenting with some new portraiture techniques, ready to reinvent herself again.
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Legacy is a powerful thing, and when the shadow cast by a an older, highly accomplished figure looms large it can be a paralyzing specter of expectation to live up to for a young person following in those footsteps. In the case of the late celebrated realist figurative artist Kent Bellows, his larger-than-life presence in life and in death has not stymied the emergence of his talented nephew, Neil Griess, who is very much charting his own path as an artist to be watched. The following piece I did on Griess for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared three years ago, fast on the heels of Griess, then a high school senior, winning the same national award his uncle Kent Bellows had won 40 years earlier. Now, Griess is a college senior at the University of Nebraska, where he’s a studio art major, and is once again making waves with his work. Griess, who like his uncle did creates elaborate sets for his hyper-realistic paintings, had a work selected for a show at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha in early 2011 and another of his works has been selected for a new show, The Fascinators, the inaugural Charlotte Street Biennial of Regional BFA/MFA Candidates at La Esquina in Kansas City, Mo. You can read a short piece I did about Neil’s famous uncle, Kent Bellows, on this blog.
Painting ©by Neil Griess, Placemats (Charrette), 2011
A Young Artist Steps Out of the Shadows of a Towering Presence in His Life
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If 18-year-old award-winning visual artist Neil Griess of Omaha feels pressure to live up to the legacy of his maternal uncle Kent Bellows, he doesn’t betray it. Work by Bellows, the late American master of figurative realism, is in major private/public art collections. We’re talking the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.
In 2005 Bellows died at age 56 of natural causes in his Leavenworth Street studio/home, now preserved by the Bellows Foundation as an education center. The Omaha iconoclast was a player in New York art circles via his association with the Tatistcheff and Forum galleries. His paintings/drawings sold out wherever they exhibited. Interest in his work continues high.
A May Westside High School grad, Griess has far to go to reach such status, but perhaps not as far as you’d think. With his parents Jim and Robin Griess and his Westside art teacher Shawn Blevins on hand at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on June 15, Griess accepted the Portfolio Gold Honor in the national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which included a $10,000 cash prize. Griess, one of 12 Portfolio Gold winners from around the nation, trod onto the hallowed stage to accept the award. The presenter draped a large gold medal over him as the full, black tie-attired house applauded.
Forty years earlier Bellows won in the same competition. Other name artists have won, too, including Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol. The recognition brought Bellows scholarship opportunities at prestigious art schools. Griess too has been deluged with offers. Bellows studied at then-Omaha University. Starting in the fall, Griess will study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln under realist painter Keith Jacobshagen, a friend of Bellows.
What makes the prospect of Griess’s future development alluring is that he works in the same style as Bellows did – meticulous realism. Their dense work renders persons, objects, settings in such rigorous detail that it draws viewers into an infinite space invested with meaning. With almost any Bellows, Griess said, “it feels like you can get lost in it.” Even up close, he said, “you can’t really derive how he did it.” The technique and the process are as invisible and ineffable as Bellows was enigmatic.
Griess said he’s always been drawn to realism. “Yeah, I always thought realistic work is the direction I would want to go if I continued art,” he said. He can’t exactly pinpoint why. “I don’t know. It’s interesting,” he said, “because you’re not trying to reproduce this object or this person…but more capturing it, I suppose, in a specific moment, a specific point in time.” Or as Bellows once put it in an interview, the goal is to capture what’s beyond the photograph to “what is actually happening…to capture the subject’s soul…the subject’s inner life.”
“And that’s something I wanted to try to do with the eight paintings for my portfolio,” Griess said. “I think if something’s rendered so fully and to its ultimate height, it feels like you can enter the work and like feel that draped cloth in a piece,” he said, referring to a Bellows print on the wall of his home, the image’s tactile realism begging to be touched.
Neill Griess, ©Photo by Andrew Dickinson
Naturally, Griess aspires to reach the mastery of Bellows, but by no means does he intend to be an imitator.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve tried to emulate him, although in certain instances I was when I was like really young, drawing based off some of the nudes he had done,” a smiling, nearly blushing Griess said, wiping his soft brown bangs from his face.
He’d especially like for his work to attain the openendedness that Bellows captured. In a Bellows work no single prescribed meaning is imposed on the viewer; rather the image invites viewers to glean their own meanings.
“That’s a quality I want to develop myself,” Griess said.
The process Griess uses to create his own work, much of it completed in a small, well-lit downstairs home work space he calls “thrown together” but that is neatly arrayed with brushes, pencils, acrylic paint tubes, is in the vein of photo-realism. He first photographs his subjects and with the resulting image as a guide he uses a pencil to map out the canvas before painting.
“I always paint based off pictures (photographs),” Griess said. “I grid everything out. I take that approach. Laying out a painting you still need to draw. It’s an important skill for getting things right when you finally start painting.”
The artist applies a clear plastic grid over a printed out photo of his subject and with a pencil divides the surface into squares running the length and width of the image. He transfers his grid to a board, which is what he paints on these days. He begins by drawing the major shapes or forms contained in each square onto the board before applying brush to paint and brush strokes to board.
“I pretty much just figure out where one square in the picture would be on the board and then from that one square I go to the next one” and so on, he said. “I add the smaller details later.”
Griess shares many predilections his late uncle indulged, including a love of film, a fascination with the fantastic, a passion for creating elaborate sets or backdrops for his work, although to date Griess has only employed sets to stop motion animation, and an interest in action figures and miniatures. Then there’s the fact Griess is left-handed, just as Bellows was.
“A lot of things line up like that,” Griess said. “Because I know he’s done all this great work it’s kind of like me now trying to discover what things I’m interested in beyond his work…to decide what I’ll ultimately be doing in my art. Of course this is an influence I’ll always keep while doing it.”
“Untitled” oil painting ©by Neil Griess
The art strain runs deep, as Griess’s maternal grandfather was a commercial artist and watercolorist, his mother is a watercolorist, one brother is a ceramicist/sculptor and another brother writes computer video game programs. “So I come from a long lineage of artists or creative thinkers,” Griess said.
Growing up, Griess was exposed to dozens of Bellows prints that adorn the walls of the family home. One of the nephew’s favorites, Nuclear Winter, is displayed in his bedroom. He felt drawn to Bellows as any adolescent would to a cool adult doing his own thing. “I admired him so much. He was probably the most charismatic, funny, interesting person that I know or probably will know,” Griess said.
The parallels between the two were obvious two weekends ago in New York City. It was the kid’s first time in the Big Apple, where in a whirlwind few days his path intersected with the path Bellows took in setting the art world on fire.
Just as Bellows attracted notice beyond his years, once cultivating Warren Buffett and his late first wife Susan Buffett as patrons, Griess, too, found himself the center of attention from older admirers at a post-awards dinner. The scene was the ritzy Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. There were congratulations, even autograph requests. “I got some very great compliments,” Griess said. Among the well-wishers was New York thespian Jason Butler Harner, who hosted the awards.
“He seemed very enthusiastic and impressed by my work, so that was great,” Griess said of Harner. “One of the guys that asked for my autograph said everyone was kind of talking about my work specifically, and that was nice. One woman actually came up to me and said my work brought tears to her eyes because of how young I am and I’m able to produce work like that.”
The plaudits began the night before, at Reeves Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, where selections of work by Griess and other Portfolio gold winners were shown. It was then, Griess said, that Alliance for Young Artists & Writers Chairman Dwight E. Lee “told me how much he loved my work.” At dinner the next night, Griess said, “he gave me his card and said if I should ever want to sell art work I should contact him.” Westside teachers and others have expressed interest in buying Neil’s work.
“I’m actually selling paintings this summer,” Griess said. “I’ve sold one already, so I’m starting to learn how it feels to part with something.”
As if that wasn’t enough, the June 14 issue of USA Today reproduced one of his paintings to illustrate a Life Section story on the awards. “The one picture they chose was mine — my painting Pool Boy,” Griess said. “That was a really nice surprise. My dad ran up and down the floors in the hotel acquiring more” copies.
Pool Boy is one of many self-portraits and portraits Griess has executed. Portraiture was a favorite form for Bellows as well. One difference is that while Bellows was known for a dark, brooding nature that made him look severe if not downright scary, Griess has a sweet face and demeanor. That’s not to say there wasn’t whimsy in Bellows or his work or that Griess and his art is all peaches and cream.
The award, the praise, the contacts, Griess said, “are obviously great exposure for me and a great thing I can put on the resume. I would say it’s probably the best recognition I could have received operating within a high school.”
Griess submitted eight works to the Scholastic competition but gave little thought to winning, as he photographed his entrees himself and the images he submitted were less than flattering to the works themselves.
“Because of the fact I did not have great pictures of these paintings I submitted, I kind of dismissed the idea that anything would happen with this,” he said. “But then I got the call (saying he’d won) and I couldn’t really believe it for a good amount of time. I was basically sitting at home on a Friday night when I got this call out of the blue. I was pretty unprepared…Surprisingly. I think I handled it well, although afterwards I was like shaking in disbelief for 15 minutes.”
The artist created his winning series for Westside’s Advanced Portfolio class, which he said allows student artists rare autonomy in finding their vision-voice.
“Not many high school classes give you that much freedom in developing your own line of thinking for a series of paintings…I think it kind of helped me develop my own thinking for how I want to approach my art,” he said. “In the typical class you kind of just think in terms of the assignment and what they’re expecting you to see as the outcome, not how you would best display your own ideas or get your own point across.”
Griess hit upon the theme of high contrast at night, playing with different light sources. Some of the inspiration for what’s depicted in the work, he said, comes from Russian fairy tales — “I’ve always been interested in fairy tales” — and some of it comes from what was going on in his life at the time. His girlfriend, Erica, a film studies major at Northwestern University, is the subject of more than one work. She’s a casual portrait study in a piece called “Home Again” and her absence informs another piece in which an anxious Griess cowers on his front porch, alone at night, a doll seen inside a window providing no solace.
“With some of my paintings I first kind of get like this mental image and then when I’m painting it, even weeks after, I start to think about why I needed to do that or what was the significance of it,” he said.
©Kent Bellows’s self-portraits
Just as Bellows sought out great art in his travels, Griess spent his weekend in New York soaking up treasures at the Met. He and his folks also made special visits there and to the Forum gallery to see Bellows’ work in each venue. The splendor of it all, Griess said, “made me want to go back home and start working again.”
Griess didn’t need all the hype to feel an artistic kinship to his uncle. He just wished Bellows could have been there. “I was probably more wishing he could have been involved in this with me and seen the work I did to win this award,” he said. He regrets too never discussing their shared sweet affliction. “I was a shy kid and probably still am. I wouldn’t have necessarily been ready to talk with him about art or these other interests we shared,” Griess said. “Now I would say I would definitely be ready to talk to him about things.”
It’s probably unfair to say Griess lived in the shadow of Bellows, but Bellows was a giant among artists and a looming presence in the life of the the sensitive young artist-nephew. A legacy he could not escape. Griess wasn’t necessarily a slacker before Bellows’ death, but then again he acknowledges he didn’t exactly apply himself to his art. When Bellows passed, Griess suddenly got busy, approaching his own art with a greater sense of urgency.
“After his death is when I really started to get serious about drawing and painting and that’s when I started to do better things and win awards,” Griess said. “I realized he would no longer be there to kind of give me advice or look at what I’m doing, so in some strange way that pushed me, It was kind of a way to deal with it. I mean, also I realized I need to be doing this for myself, too.”
- An Inner City Exhibition Tells a Wide Range of Stories (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Art from the Streets (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Soon Come: Neville Murray’s Passion for the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its Role in Rebirthing North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes Explores the Lamentations and Celebrations of Jamaican Revival Worship (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
This is one of many stories I have filed over the years related to the Loves Jazz & Arts Center in Omaha and various programs and exhibitions there. The subject of this story from a few years ago for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes and an exhibiiton of his work then showing at the LJAC. I am not an art reviewer, and thus the pieces I do from time to time about painters and sculptors and photographers are written more from a profile perspective than anything else. The center has presented many excellent exhibitions over the years that I have had the chance to see and cover, and in some cases I’ve interviewed the featured artists. Hoyes included. On this same blog you’ll find more LJAC art stories, including one on Frederick Brown and another on collector/explorer Kam-Ching Leung. You’ll also find stories about the center’s namesake, the late jazz musician Preston Love.
Sanctified Joy, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes
Artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes Explores the Lamentations and Celebrations of Jamaican Revival Worship
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Spiritual rapture is captured in artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes’s Revival Series. The exhibition Lamentations & Celebrations on display now through March 10 at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center features oil paintings, lithographs and etchings from the series, in which the Los Angeles-based artist explores the Revival worship services of his native Jamaica. He spent a week in Omaha doing school residencies.
Hoyes uses lustrous colors, seductive swirls and overwrought figures to evoke the “spirit at that moment of crescendo.” A cathartic moment when light, sound, music, rhythm and emotion reach a fever pitch of illumination or exaltation, said Hoyes, standing amid his iridescent work on the walls at the LJAC. When he began the series 25 years ago he chose a clean color palette and lyrical line pattern for his dynamic series. “In order for me to attain spirit and spirituality in my pictures,” he said, “my colors had to be pure. I went about by using colors without really muddling or mixing or tapering them. It’s like a sequence of motion and I’m capturing the motion at different points, but at the peak of each sequence.”
His images of incantation, reverie and ritual take place in outdoor, night time gatherings brightened by the glow of candle light and supernatural incandescence, where worshipers commune with their higher power in scenes at once solemn, joyful and eerie. There’s a power to the writhing figures caught in the spirit’s sway. The congregants worship en mass, buoyed by the communal beat of The Call.
He said, “The intention is to show where we gather our strength in all the trials and tribulations we have to endure. The strength comes from the commonality of our spiritual seeking. That’s one of the reasons I group the figures together and put them kind of like solid. They feel like one. You need all these bodies together to evoke the strength of what it takes to have a spiritual community.”
Flow with the Rhythm, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes
His own experience of Revivalism, an amalgam of Afro-Caribbean-Christian traditions, goes back to his Jamaican youth. His great aunt was a priestess and elder whose backyard was the site for many services. He witnessed the songs, chants, dances, drums, processions, channeling of spirits, ecstatic revelations. The sacred, the mystical, the strange. It frightened and fascinated him. It was inevitable his art would explore these altered states and this mediation of ethereal and terrestrial.
Long after he left the island for America, he returned to Jamaica to observe with the eyes of a mature artist the Poccomanian and Zion strains of Revivalism. In rediscovering his roots, he found an intuitive grasp of it all. “I started to realize I had an innate sensibility about these ceremonies. I knew them,” he said. “It’s like knowing Mass. You know the consecutive ceremonies and where they go. You know the hymns. You can recognize what that special ritual and special consecration is all about without being told. As I started investigating it I saw there were some things being lost over the years. Certain sentiments in the religion. The way there was pressure to get a formal church building, where before worship was conducted in holy sites throughout the countryside or in certain blessed yards.”
He noted, too, the introduction of technology, by means of electrical amplification, to what were all acoustic rites. The changes, he said, gave him an urgency to document a rapidly disappearing heritage.
Bernard Stanley Hoyes
Hoyes views his art as an expression of the spirit and the spirit of art. As a veteran of inner city life in Kingston and L.A., he knows the soul killing poverty and crime people of color face. He creates work for nontraditional spaces as offerings of peace and unity amid troubled tribes and times, like his murals and his installations of altars and tables in riot-ravaged neighborhoods.
“We have to move beyond those manic rages,” he said through “spiritual cleansing. We can then start anew, afresh. That’s why I think we’ve seen the pervasive Born Again rituals-religions in America. People see the need for that cleansing. We have to look for the rituals where we find them. Until we do that we become captive to the oppressive nature of urban violence and all the other manic depressive things that go on in our community.”
Moonlight Spiritual S/N, ©Bernard Stanley Hoyes
Art, he said, can be part of “the healing process. It has to be about something that’s pervasive, that everybody can link their spirit to.” His Revival Series, informed by Jamaican and African American rites, is a resplendent multi-faith expression of praise and worship, call and response testifying. “It covers the whole gamut of Western Christianity with the African influence in it,” he said. Ever since his series struck a chord” a few years ago, his work has been collected by celebs like Oprah Winfrey, bringing thousands of dollars for originals and hundreds for prints. Why? “I think for the first time people with spiritual longing and spiritual connection see that part in it. They see the passion and the emotion of worship that is in the DNA of anybody that’s been to a Pentecostal or Baptist service.”
It’s about getting caught up in and overcome by the spirit. It’s what moved him when he began the series in a flourish of productivity. The spirit dictated “the style and motif and energy…the drive. One painting would beget the other — suggest the idea for the next,” he said, until he’d done 40 paintings in five weeks. “While I’m painting it becomes unconscious. It’s a classic inspired-work. That’s what it is.” He’s quit the series, but has always returned to it, finding the “inexhaustible” subject lends itself to “variations on a theme ” It numbers 500 to 600 works now. He means to retire the series with this exhibit, but suspects he’ll be drawn back to it again.
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Larry Ferguson is one of the most collected and published fine art photographers in the Midwest. I have long been aware of the artist and his work, yet it was only witinh the last couple years he became a subject for this writer. I suspect I will be writing more about him in the years to come. This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in conjunction with an exhibition he had at Creighton University. The black and white works in the show were drawn from various series he has done over the years depictiing the views afforded by rooms he stayed in and various touchstone places he’s visited in his many travels. Like many photographers I’ve met over the years, he maintains a very cool studio space.
Larry Ferguson Studio
Photographer Larry Ferguson’s Work is a Meditation on the Nature of Views and Viewing,
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Photographer Larry Ferguson’s lush black and white imagery displays a mastery of technique and composition. But it’s not so much the work’s subject or execution as the evocative subtext bound up in it that is most arresting.
His new exhibition at Creighton University’s Lied Art Gallery, The View From My Room, is drawn from pictures he’s made of scenes outside the many rooms he’s inhabited over 30 years. The rooms, located in Nebraska, other parts of the U.S. and the far corners of the globe, offer a road map of sorts for the Omaha artist’s journey through life and craft. Aside from a few landscape and cityscape images, nothing dramatic or sumptuous is revealed, but rather the prosaic, mundane fixtures and rhythms of life as it proceeds around us. That’s the point.
Ferguson shows the holy ordinary of moments and places, some he has personal ties to and others he merely intersects with, but all of which express deep stirrings in him. It is, he said, “a travelogue through my emotional life.”
This work is the first of several ongoing series he’s photographed since the late ‘70s to be organized into an exhibition. Besides views from his rooms, these series variously focus on “skyscapes, treescapes, grain elevators, nudes, private moments and all the great loves I’ve had in my life,” he said. “All are very long term, special projects that eventually will see the light of day.” Selections for these series are made from his archive of 250,000 negatives at his 17th and Vinton Streets studio.
He hopes the work provokes viewers to contemplate its underlying themes. “Rarely do people ever talk about what’s underneath it and in fact behind it,” he said.
On one level the photographs, all shot in wide angle on tripod — nothing’s hand-held — offer a visual chronicle of his haunts and journeys, near and far. But it as much the interior as the exterior journey and landscape he considers in Room.
“They’re really very internal and very emotional for me,” he said. “They are definitely some sort of record about what I’ve been doing but they’re not really in the aspect…a documentary photographer might work. It’s more introspective than that. They signify and give a physicality actually to the stories I can tell about the places. They are the evidence that what I did actually did happen and does exist. They jog that memory of the experience and what it was all about.”
Therefore, each image “is imbued” with meaning, as in the almost obligatory view from the farmhouse in Maxwell, Neb. he grew up in. It looks out onto a distant wind break of trees. The larger world beyond that horizon is where he dreamed to go, he said. This vision and yearning take on added meaning in the context of the show’s many images from his far flung travels — evidence he’s fulfilled his dream.
He spent many a summer with his feisty, spry grandmother, Frances Lawhead, at her Silvergate, Mont. cabin, which overlooks a snow field. The view from the cabin bedroom he slept in resonates with the warm embrace of hearth and home inside and the wonder of nature outside.
Fragments of a Lincoln, Neb. neighborhood are viewed through lacy curtains his then-girl friend Sally Donovan put up after she inherited the house from his good friend, photographer John Spence. The living room window becomes a nostalgic frame of reference for the observations, conversations and meals shared there.
With few exceptions his work is the antithesis of any deliberate, preconceived, picturesque style.
“I’m not here to make pretty pictures, ever,” he said.
He rejects the notion one must “go somewhere that has this exotic locale or spectacular scenery in order to make pictures. I’m always exactly the opposite,” he said. His credo is that “ordinary common life is extraordinary. That’s why the view right outside your window,” he said, “is so incredibly important. It’s more than the picture, it’s what it’s about that makes it work.”
He admits he only embraced this come-what-may philosophy after some false starts. He’d go somewhere anticipating a spectacular view or vista, only to be disappointed when it wasn’t all that and then he wouldn’t shoot anything.
“Then I would kick myself later for not having made the picture because it wasn’t spectacular, but not being spectacular is what it was about. That’s when I concluded you have to accept what’s there.”
Approaching Rainstorm, Near Crawford, NE, ©photo by Larry Ferguson
Whatever the scene holds it evokes linkages-associations to his life and work. Viewed in this light, something as blase as a dirt hill can be a rich vein of narrative. “It’s nothing, yet it’s everything,” he said.
What compels him to make a picture in any given spot, at any given time is intuitive.
“A lot of times people ask me, ‘How did you make that picture?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know.’ The pictures make themselves,” he said. “Something just says, Make that picture, and I do. People ask me, ‘What were you thinking about when you made it?’ I don’t consciously think about it. I couldn’t possibly tell you because it’s all internal, it’s all emotional. That’s how I respond — I respond viscerally to it. I trust my feelings and my instincts.”
On his many travels, whether to Mexico or Argentina or China, he goes where the spirit moves him, snapping pics as opportunities arise. The resulting images may feed into any of his long term projects. He shoots whatever he “discovers along the way.”
“When I travel I don’t have an itinerary. I have a start date and an end date and usually a destination point somewhere in between,” he said. “And then what happens between those times is plain and simple whim. Wherever I go, you know, it’s always, Well, let’s point the camera and take that image, whatever it happens to be. And that’s kind of how I work.”
It’s how he came to spend so much time in Guanajuato, Mexico, the capital city of the state of Guanajuato. He went there as part of a months-long, 10,000 mile trek he made in 1984 through Mexican jungles and mountains to photograph archaeological digs. Once he stumbled upon that city’s treasures and oddities, he couldn’t tear himself away. Images he made of one of his finds there, the home of artist Diego Rivera, are included in Room.
The happy accidents that result — compelling patterns of light and shadow, pleasing forms, symbolic shapes, complex compositions — are rooted in preparation.
“It’s that thing of preparing yourself to be ready to do it when it happens,” he said. “That’s what it takes. You have to get to where you practice and practice until you no longer think about it. Then it just happens automatically.”
- Photographer in the Picture (flickr.net)
- Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera, at Pallant House, Chichester, Seven magazine review (telegraph.co.uk)
- Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition One Person, One Image at a Time (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Wall As Photographic Surface (fansinaflashbulb.wordpress.com)
- New York from Day to Night in One Picture [Image Cache] (gizmodo.com)