Omaha-based artist Watie White is making a name for himself in part through his public art projects that reflect the stories of urban neighborhoods and communities. This is a Reader (www.thereader.com) piece I did about his 2014 public art projects in Omaha. You can find on this blog a story I wrote last year about a similar project he did.
Art and community meet-up in artist’s public projects; Watie White mines urban tales
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha artist Watie White’s humanist public art projects reveal the narratives of transitional urban neighborhoods. The dynamics of locations and the people living there shape his site-specific works.
Three 2014 projects, one completed and the others in-progress, all connect to community organizations whose social justice missions “align” with his own.
“The kind of organizations I am most attracted to are the ones who make a splash with a handful of incredibly passionate people that affect the lives of many families,” he says.
His new All That Ever Was, Always Is exhibition at two abandoned homes slated for demolition in northeast Omaha continues his work with Habitat for Humanity. In 2013 he repurposed an empty home in the same area with original paintings symbolizing the family that lived there and the neighborhood it was part of. He installed prints in the window frames. After the exhibit came down, the condemned house was razed. A vacant lot sits in its place awaiting a new build.
Habitat executive director Amanda Brewer says White’s projects add depth to the agency’s blight remediation work: “They celebrate the rich history that comes with older homes and neighborhoods. The time and respectfulness he puts into getting to know the neighbors, the history of the neighborhood and involving neighbors in his project strengthens Habitat’s efforts to involve the entire neighborhood in our work.”
The house(s) Habitat loans him – for his new project he tackled side by side houses at 1468 and 1470 Grant St. – become cultural excavation sites and art canvasses. He insinuates and immerses himself by doing interviews with neighbors and, where possible, with folks who lived in the dwellings, combing through contents for artifacts and narrative clues, taking photos, using subjects as models.
All of it inspired 51 original paintings he made for the two current structures. Acrylic vinyl prints were installed since July 19 and remain up through year’s end. The houses will then be razed for new homes to go up in their place. His assistant Peter Cales salvaged materials to make benches and tables as communal gathering spots. White’s planning public dinners and conversations at the site.
Dialogue’s a hoped-for by-product of the The Wheels Keep Turning murals Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska commissioned him to create. The agency provides legal, education, advocacy services for immigrants. The murals will go in immigrant-rich areas in South Omaha, North Omaha, Benson and Little Italy. White describes the subjects as “inspirational people every day making a positive influence in their neighborhood.”
Elisha Novak. JFON program director and mural project coordinator, says the murals are intended to shine a positive light on immigrant contributions and to empower more immigrants to share their stories.
“We will also host a series of public meetings, discussions and lectures around the unveiling of the murals to engage the public in a constructive dialogue about immigration-related issues. Additionally, we hope to increase awareness of immigrants and their needs, while incorporating a path to services through JFON.”
Among the models are 78-year-old Mexican immigrant Ramona Silva Gonzales and South Sudan refugee Mary Aketa George, a program officer with the Southern Sudan Community Association. White’s drawing on Ramona’s recollections of her and her cousins picking flowers in the fields of the farm she grew up on and singing ranchera songs. He’s incorporating Mary’s memories of the harsh refugee camp life she endured and how the experience motivated her to help people.
White hopes his murals, including one up at JFON, 2414 E St., “shifts the perception of what the immigrant and new Nebraskan face is.”
He’s placing the murals near where the subjects’ live. Ramona’s will be at the Intercultural Senior Center she’s found a second home at.
White’s inCOMMON Community Development project, You Are Here, will feature Park Avenue district murals and prints along that mid-town drag, plus a 100-foot tall banner mural on the Park North public housing tower, 1601 Park Ave., all reflecting diverse residents’ lives. Jay’s an itinerant musician with dreams of his own nightclub. Anthony’s a street activist-poet spitting do-the-right-thing rants.
inCOMMON director Christian Gray says the art’s meant to reduce the “disconnection and marginalization” public housing residents often feel,” adding, “This goal connects closely with InCommon’s mission of uniting and strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods in its effort of including-incorporating public tower residents within the life of the surrounding community.”
White knows the banner mural will draw much attention.
“It’s a resident community and people walk that neighborhood and this thing is just going to be gigantic. It’s going to loom over that neighborhood. It will inevitably be what everyone takes out of that community. It’s going to be so much louder than anything else. It will be the largest thing I’ve done. It feels like a lot of responsibility.”
His challenge is finding the right aesthetic-content balance. He wants the banner to feel of the community, not imposed on it. Neither too rosy, nor too negative but a “powerful” evocation of “personal, lived experiences – I want it to have that feeling their voice is in it.”
Park Avenue’s similar to the North Omaha section he’s worked in. Both feature compromised, underserved neighborhoods. He came to do houses in North O when he couldn’t find suitable mural spaces there.
“I was wanting to work in that community but there aren’t traditional walls to work on.”
When Habitat offered him condemned homes, he says, “I was like, ‘Yes, that gets me there, I can do something with that.’”
Paintings in the studio become something different installed behind broken glass in the distressed neighborhoods they reflect and inhabit.
“There is no way to see them in the same way when you drive through the neighborhood to get there. You park, you maybe say hi to the people sitting across the street, maybe people come over. All that changes those paintings a lot.”
Once in place the images generate questions and conversations, For him, it’s about connecting to the neighborhood and adding benefit to it.
“There’s a distinct shift in the community that starts with the people that had something to do with it. They then kind of own that space and that neighborhood in a way they didn’t before. For the models there’s a certain self-esteem boost from having their head be five feet tall in some capital A art that ends up in the paper. Part of this process is getting people to tell me their stories they don’t think are important and then have me treat them as important.”
The resulting media coverage gives subjects, their stories and neighborhoods a new currency, he says.
“All those things I feel like make this project better.”
As a white affluent artist dropping in on black poverty, he relies on partner organizations with deep stakes there to open doors for him.
“It gives me legitimacy in a community that is not mine. it allows me to have conversations with these people.”
Still, it takes time to build trust and rapport.
“It took the people on that 1400 block of Emmett a little while to kind of warm up to me and tell me those more true and awkward stories. It was several interviews in before I heard about the Hell’s Angels on the block and the role they played. They provided a safe space, they threw these parties and events that built community. The people really liked them. There was never a problem or racial issue with them.”
A neighbor, Miss Maybel, was inspired enough to start her own motorcycle club.
White traced the 1468 house to the family that last lived there, the Tribbles, whose matriarch, Jessie Tribble, was a single mother with aspirational dreams for her children.
Not everything White uncovers is positive.
“In doing these I feel like as an artist I have an obligation to express as much of the truth as I can find. Inevitably that leads me having to figure out what to do with unpleasant things.”
A daughter, Oretha Walker, confided a brother’s in jail for murder. White expressed in images positive and negative things about him. InCOMMON’s Gray says White’s careful handling of personal narratives like this dovetails with its own community listening approach.
“We believe under-resourced neighborhoods are rich with people who have dreams, talents and stories that can be leveraged toward community change and transformation. Watie has a highly unique talent for calling out these dreams and stories from within the communities he works.”
White also put in images discoveries from the 1470 house. An absentee owner rented it out as a daycare, then it was abandoned, then gutted by fire. A 1918 playbill from the long defunct corner Grand Theatre shows up as cinema bathing beauties. A piece of wall paper with John White penciled-in – the artist’s father’s name – gave Watie White permission to integrate his father and son in images.
Follow the artist’s projects at watiewhite.com.
Omaha has lost one of its most respected and exibited artists, Wanda Ewing. As a memoriam to her, I am posting for the first on this blog a story I did about an exhibition of hers some years ago. When the assignment came I already knew her work and like most folks who experienced it I was quite impressed. I very much wanted to do a full-blown profile of her but I only got the go-ahead to focus on the exhibit. She was very gracious with her time in helping me understand where she was coming from in her work. Her untimely death has taken most of us, even though who knew her far better than me, by complete surprise. Facebook posts about her are filled with shock and admiration.
You can appreciate her work at http://www.wandaewing.com. The Omaha World-Herald should have a notice in the next day or so.
Wanda Ewing Exhibit: Bougie is as Bougie Does
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Wanda Ewing is at it again. The Omaha printmaker known for her provocative spin on African-American images has created a sardonic collection of reductive linocuts and acrylic paintings that considers aspects of beauty, race and social status. The work has been organized in the solo exhibition, Bougie, at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, where it continues through December 2.
The title comes from a slang term, derived from the French word bourgeois, used in the black community as a put down for anyone acting “uppity,” said Ewing, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It speaks to the level of acceptance due to your social and economic background, your physical appearance, all of it.”
She explores bougie through the template of popular magazine culture and its vacuous lifestyle advice. The heart of the show is 12 faux glossy covers, each a reductive linocut with vinyl lettering on acetate, depicting a slick monthly women’s mag of her imagination called Bougie. The garish covers are inspired by Essence and other Cosmo knockoffs whose content places style over substance.
Among the “bougie markers,” as Ewing calls them, are black cover girls with straight or long hair and “story tags” that embody those things compelling to bougie women — shopping, how to lose weight, money and getting a man. Some of the teasers get right to the point: “Not Hood enough? 25 ways to get ghetto fabulous.” Another reads, “It’s what’s on the outside that counts.” Among the many double entendres are, “Tom Tom Club, back on the scene” and “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”
“I wanted to achieve something that was funny to read, but had some grit to it,” she said.
Each “issue” is adorned by a head and shoulders illustration of a black glamazoid female, the features made just monstrous enough that it’s hard to recognize the real-life celebs Ewing based them on. One vixen is based on home girl Gabrielle Union. Other iconic models include Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Tyra Banks, Janet Jackson, Eve, Star Jones and Queen Latifah.
Ewing “distorted” the images, in part, she said, as “I didn’t want them to be necessarily commentary on the celebrity, because it’s not about that,”
These cover girls represent impossible beauty standards and thus, in Ewing’s hands, become primping, leering creatures for the fashionista industry. Like the figures in her popular Pinup suite, she said, bougie women “are not shrinking violets.”
Contrasted with the plastic mag images are big, bold, beautiful head portraits of more realistically rendered black women and their different hair styles — bald, straight, permed, afroed, cornrowed — executed in intense acrylic and latex on canvas. These are celebratory tributes of black womanhood. The figures-colors jump out in the manner of comic book or billboard art. “I’m still holding onto being influenced by Pop Art,” Ewing said. “I love color. I’m not afraid of color.” The Hair Dresser Dummy works, as she calls them, are a reaction to the stamped-out glam look of the old Barbie Dress Doll series. Ewing’s “dolls” embody the inner and outer beauty of black
women, distinct features and all. We’re talking serious soul, here.
There are also fetching portraits of women that play with the images of Aunt Jemima and Mammy and that refer to German half-doll figures Ewing ran across. Another painting, Cornucopia, is of a reposed woman’s opened legs amid a cascade of flowers — an ode to the source of life that a woman’s loins represent.
All these variations on the female form also comment on how “the art world likes to celebrate women,” she said, “especially if they’re naked and in pieces.”
Bougie examines women as objects and the whole “black is-black ain’t” debate that Ewing’s work often engages. Glam mags help inform the discussion. Ewing said black models were once shades darker and displayed kinkier hair than today, when they have a decidedly more European appearance. “I grew up looking at these images and felt bad because as hard as I tried, I couldn’t achieve what was being shown,” she said. At least before, she said, publications offered “a variety of the ways black women looked. Now, these magazines idealize the same type of woman with the same kind of features. I find that interesting and damaging on so many levels.”
Like the figures in her Pinup series, Bougie’s women are too self-possessed or confident to care what anyone thinks of them.
Leave it to a master satirist, Omaha author Timothy Schaffert, to put Ewing’s new work in relief. In an essay accompanying the show, he comments:
“The women…demonstrate a giddy indifference to their objectification, defying any interpretations other than the ones they choose to convey. See what you want to see, the women seem to be saying. You can’t change who I am, they taunt. Ewing portrays women in the act of posing, women possibly conscious of their degradation yet nonetheless seducing us with their self confidence. For Ewing’s women, the beauty myth becomes just another beauty mark…
“And yet the politics of fashion are what give Ewing’s work its sinister and satirical bent. Just beyond the coy winks and the toothpaste-peddling smiles and curve-hugging skirts of these fine black women is the sense that the images aren’t just about them” but about “the various co-conspirators in the invention of glamour. In Ewing’s work, black women assert themselves into the commercial, white-centric iconography of prettiness, and the result is at times funny, at times sad, at times grotesque, but often charming. Her women rise above the didactic, each one becoming a character in her own right, in full control of her lovely image.”
In the final analysis, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
“Although this work is coming from an artist who is black, it is not limited to just the black community,” Ewing said. “Ultimately, the work is about beauty. That’s a conversation everyone can contribute to.”
A conversation is exactly what her work will provoke.
The Sheldon Gallery is located at 12th & R Streets. Admission is free. For gallery hours, call 402.472.2461 or visit www.sheldonartgallery.org.
- Bougie… Insult or Badge of Honour? (crazyramblingsofaconversatingadult.wordpress.com)
- Black women need more self esteem. (blacksforabetterlife.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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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.”
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