Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First
Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear as the cover story in the December issue of the New Horizons
After raising three daughters in the 1970s-1980s and nearing retirement in the early 2000s, Theresa Glass Union thought she knew what her later years would look like. Even though still working, she envisioned socializing and traveling with friends and family. When she could finally retire it’d mean free time like she hadn’t known in ages.
The Omaha native had just moved back here after more than 20 years in Calif. She was divorced, eager to start a new life and catch up with old mates and haunts. Then a family crisis erupted and her selfless response led her to join the growing ranks of kinship caregivers raising young children.
Reports indicate that upwards of 6 million children in America live with grandparents identified as the head of household. Nearly half of these children are being raised by someone other than the parents or grandparents. The number of children being parented by non-birth parents has increased 18 percent since 2000, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Some kinship caregivers do it informally, others through the state child welfare-foster care system. Being informed of rights, regulations and benefits takes work.
Theresa is a kinship caregiver to children of a niece who’s long battled drug addiction. The niece is the mother of six children by different fathers, The three oldest variously live with their fathers or their fathers’ people. When the niece got pregnant with each of her three youngest children, now ages 5, 4 and 2, they came to live with Theresa shortly after their births.
It’s not the first time Theresa’s dealt with tough circumstances inside and outside her family. She has a younger sister with a criminal past who happens to be the mother of the niece whose children Theresa is raising. Years spent in social service jobs dealing with clients living on the edge have given Theresa a window into the bad decisions that desperate, addicted persons make and the hard consequences those wrong choices bring.
At age 65 and two-and-a-half decades removed from raising three grown daughters, one of whom is film-television star Gabrielle Union, Theresa’s doing a parenting redux. She never thought she’d be in charge of three pre-school-aged kids again, but she is. She’s since legally adopted the two older siblings, both girls, and is awaiting an adoption ruling on their “baby” brother.
As the babies came to her one by one she found herself knee deep again in diapers and baby bottles, awakened in the middle of the night by crying infants, figuring out formulas and worrying about fevers, sniffles, coughs and tummy aches. Now that the kids are a little older, there’s daycare, pre-school and managing a household of activity.
It’s not what she imagined retirement to be, but how could she not be there for the kids? They were going to be removed from their birth mother and placed in a system not always conducive to happy outcomes. Child welfare officials generally agree that childcare fare better in kinship care settings than in regular foster care.
Kinship caregivers may get involved when the parents are incarcerated, on drugs or deceased. In the case of Theresa, drugs were found in the systems of the two oldest children she’s adopted, Keira and Miyonna. Theresa felt they needed unconditional family love. The girls are doing fine today under the care of Theresa and her brother James Glass. The girls’ brother, Amari, was born drug-free.
With so much stacked against the children to start life, Theresa wasn’t about to turn her back on them. Family is everything to her. She’s the oldest of seven siblings, all raised Catholic – churched and schooled at St. Benedict the Moor, the historic African-American parish in northeast Omaha. It’s where she received all her sacraments, including marrying her ex-husband Sylvester Union.
“The church is central to my family here.”
She graduated from Sacred Heart High School.
She and Union moved to San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967 and they returned to Omaha a year later. They both ended up working at Western Electric. Like other black couples then they ran into discriminatory real estate practices that flat out denied them access to many neighborhoods or steered them away from white areas into black sections of North Omaha. Their first home was in northeast Omaha but they eventually moved into a house in the northwest part of the city, where their three daughters went to school.
In the 1970s Theresa, who studied social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, worked for Omaha nonprofit social service agencies, including CETA (Comprehensive Employment & Training Agency) and GOCA (Greater Omaha Community Action). After a long stint in corporate America she returned to the non-profit field.
The family left here in 1981 for Pleasanton, Calif., where they lived the sun-dappled Southern Calif. suburban life. She worked for Pacific Bell and completed her bachelor’s degree in human relations and organizational behavior at the University of San Francisco. After her divorce she and her brother James Glass returned to Omaha in 2003. A few years passed before Theresa’s troubled niece came for help. At various times the family tried interventions, once even getting the niece into rehab, but each time she fled and resumed her drug habit.
As a former field worker with Douglas County Health and Human Services and as a one-time Child Protection Service Worker with Nebraska Health and Human Services, Theresa’s seen the despair and chaos that result when siblings are separated from each other and extended family. It’s why when her niece kept getting pregnant while hooked on drugs and unable to take care of herself, much less children, Theresa intervened to ensure the kids would go to her.
“Some of the things children said to me when I was a social worker have just stayed with me,” she says.
On one call she visited three young siblings in a foster home.
“I was like the fifth social worker since they’d been brought into the system. The 8-year old boy said, ‘Please don’t take us away, we get fed three times a day here. ‘Well. that told me they’d been staying with some people (before) who weren’t feeding them regularly. Who does that? The foster parent let him walk me around the home and this little boy was just adamant he be with his brothers.”
In another case several siblings were divided up among different foster families.
“One of the siblings got to see her sisters at school but she no longer got to see her brothers, and she asked me, ‘Can I see my brothers?’Her foster parent had made the request but nothing had happened, so I looked into it and found that each sibling had a different social worker and had been placed at a separate time. I got it worked out that the siblings got to visit each other.”
System shortfalls and breakdowns like these were enough to make Theresa bound and determined to arrange in advance with hospital social workers for her to be the foster placement parent for her niece’s three youngest kids. When Keira and Miyonna tested positive for drugs the state, by law, detained them and they were put in Theresa’s care two days after their births. She did the same with their brother. She simply wouldn’t let them fall outside the family or be separated.
“After Keira was born I was already a resident foster placement and I’d already contacted everybody involved to let them know if there was another baby that ends up in the detention system I want to be the foster parent of choice because I didn’t want these kids to go into the system. My idea is that the kids all need to be raised together. They deserve to have their siblings .
“I was working for Child Protective Service, so I knew all the ins and outs of what was going to happen. I knew how many times we were going to have to go to the doctor before the baby’s cleared. I knew that babies wake up in the middle of the night and children with drugs in them can find it more difficult sleeping, eating. I was prepared for all that. It didn’t happen, I was thanking God that Keira’s and Miyonna’s little withdrawal things were just a few days. The biggest problem we had was figuring out formula.”
Daughter Kelly Union, a senior analyst with US Airways, admires her mother’s by-any-means-necessary fortitude.
“My mom always looks for more solutions, other options, different ways to climb a mountain. That determination helps me when I hit a brick wall at work, in my marriage, with my kids. My mom also sees all glasses as half full. There is a positive in everything and we just need to find it. My mom’s best attribute, however, is being strong against all odds—she finds the strength to hold up everything and everyone, including herself despite what she is up against. I get my strength from her.”
The way Theresa sees it she did what she did in order to “preserve the continuity of the children’s lives, so that they know their family members, the cousins, the aunts and uncles, the lineage back, like my grandma Ora Glass and my grandma Myrtle Fisher Davis, and the head of our family today, Aunt Patricia Moss.”
Theresa hails from one of the largest and oldest African-American families in the region, the Bryant-Fishers, whose annual picnic is 95 years strong.
Her bigger-than-life late grandmother, Ora, the longtime matriarch, lived to 110. Ora gained celebrity as a shining example of successful aging, even appearing on Phil Donahue’s show and running her fingers through the host’s hair. In her younger years Ora was a housekeeper and nanny for some of Omaha’s elite families. One packinghouse owner family even brought her out to Calif. to continue her duties when they moved there. She survived the Red Summer of 1919, when blacks were targeted by racists in riots that wreaked havoc from coast to coast, including Omaha and Orange County, Calif..
“My grandmother had a whole lot of stories,” says Theresa.
In her 70s and 80s Ora “reinvented” herself from a very strict, prim and proper lady with politics tending toward the conservative” to loosening up on things like relationships and social issues, notes Theresa. “She told me, ‘I’m losing so many old friends that I have to make new friends and I have to use new opinions and I have to make new decisions.’ She began reaching out and making new friends and gathering new family to her. She started trying different things. She went to political science classes at UNO. She learned ceramics.”
Even when she had to use a walker, Theresa says. Ora maintained her independence, riding the bus downtown for Mass at St Mary Magdalene’s Church, a repast at Bishop’s Cafeteria and taking in all the sights.
Ora was then and is now an inspiration to Theresa. She carries her grandmother’s boundless curiosity, determination and affirmation inside her.
“She always persevered. She said, ‘Whatever you do you always do it to the best of your ability.’ She said, ‘You can always make more family’ and she always did generate more and more family for herself.”
Ora was godmother to Omaha native Cathy Hughes, founder of the Radio One and TV One media empires, and played a big role in the mogul’s early life.
Ageless Ora ended up a resident at the Thomas Fitzgerald Veterans Home (the military service of her late husband Aaron Glass entitled her to stay there) and Theresa says her grandmother “recruited families from St. Vincent dePaul parish to visit residents there. There were a couple of families she adopted. The kids came and they called her grandma and they brought her gifts.”
It’s figures and stories like these that Theresa didn’t want her three new children to miss out on. The family takes great pains to maintain its ties, celebrate its history and record the additions and losses as well as the triumphs and tragedies among their family trees. Help abounds from loved ones she says because “there’s so many of us. There’s like 1,500 of us (dispersed around the country).”
She values the traditions and events that bind them and their rich legacy and she wouldn’t want the children now in her care to be deprived of any of it.
“We’re called the Dozens of Cousins. Yeah, I do take a lot of pride in that. I get that a lot from my aunt Patricia Moss because she wants there to be the continuity. We do have continuity.”
Regarding the big August reunion, when hundreds gather at Levi Carter Park, she says, “I try to always make it. Since coming back home in 2003 I haven’t missed any, and when I was younger it wasn’t an option, you were there. We have the family picnic, we have family birthdays, we have that kind of continuity and I think children need that to grow in their own maturity and emotional strength,” she says. “It can give them that stability. You’re not going to get that from strangers. And knowing at some point there’s going to be questions about who mom is, I have all those baby pictures and all that stuff. I can give them a sense of who she is if she doesn’t care to come around.”
Having a large family around gives Theresa a ready-made support network.
“I have a supportive family around me. I have everybody lined up that’s going to keep this continuity. My brother James wouldn’t say it before that he’s helping raise the kids, but he’s saying it now. My sister and cousins call and make sure I have break times. My granddaughter Chelsea came from Arizona recently to watch the kids so I could have a break time. When my daughter Tracy has breaks from work she comes in and helps out.
“So I have a support system around me and they’re all kin to these children, so they’re never outside of family.”
Kelly Union says even if there wasn’t all that family support her mother would have done the same thing.
“Without a doubt, she would have been that beacon without all of us supporting her. That is her character, that is the legacy she inherited and the legacy she is passing on to all of us. We have all been known to help someone else, even when it isn’t easy or comfortable and that is a direct reflection of her.”
The respite family provides Theresa has proven vital as she’s realized she’s not capable of doing everything like she was the first time she raised kids. She’s much more prone now to ask for help. Another difference between then and now is that her older daughters were spaced out three or four years, whereas the kids she’s raising today are all just a year or two apart.
“My oldest was 4 before I had my second and then my second was 7 before I had my third. It’s a different experience when you can devote your time to the one child at a time. And then by the time I had the second child the oldest child had more of her own things she was doing that she didn’t need me while I was taking care of this other one. And then the two of them did not need me as much when I was taking care of the third one, so every kid got to be like an only child.”
Things stated out different the second time around.
“‘I found I was now taking care of two kids at the same time, so if I’m changing a diaper the other one’s right there fussing and attention grabbing. and boy that’s more wearing on me. The energy for two young ones is just wearing.
“When I first got Keira and Miyonna I was working, so I got to take them to day care. But I could not keep my mind going well enough during the day to do a social work job. I could not keep up and my caseload was falling farther and farther behind. I even asked for more training, but I just couldn’t manage it. I thought I was super lady but my energy level is not the same as it was, trust me.”
The two girls don’t need quite the attention they did before, which is good because their little brother needs it now.
“We got through that and Keira and Miyonna started doing real good together. I even have them sleeping together in a big double bed. They sleep all night.”
In terms of parenting, she says she’s learned to “let some things go” that she would have stressed over before. For example she doesn’t worry whether the kids’ clothes or hair or bedrooms are perfect. “You do the best with what you have and you gotta innovate,” she says.
Her adult daughters may be the best gauge for what kind of mother Theresa is. The oldest, Kelly, wrote in an email:
“My mother was always the “you can do it”, “give it a try” type of parent. She supported all our whims—Girl Scouts, musical instruments, sports, school plays, dance class. Whatever struck our fancy at the moment, she backed our efforts. No is not a big word in her vocabulary. Not that she was a permissive parent who let us get away with things. But more in the way that she was willing to let us try and learn our own likes, dislikes, pleasure and pain first hand.
“My mom was never really a yelling, scolding type of mom and that worked well for us. Life lessons taught with logic, love and support goes a long way to shaping a child the right way.”
Kelly doesn’t see any marked difference in her how mom parents now than before.
“No, the core is very much the same. My mom is home more with them but the attention, the opportunities, the lessons are all still the same.”
Theresa would like for the children’s birth mother to be involved in their lives but thus far she says her niece has shown little interest. In fact, Theresa’s lost most contact with her niece, whose exact whereabouts she’s unsure of.
“She actually did visitation with Miyonna for the first three weeks of her life and then she back slid all the way and did a disappearance act. We didn’t know where she was.”
The instability and unreliability of the mother were huge factors in Theresa taking charge and getting the kids in a safe home surrounded by family. She says she never wanted to have happen to these children what she’s seen happen to others, such as when kids age out of the system never having been reunited with family, much less visited by them. With their biological mother out of the picture, Theresa saw no option but to step up.
“It’s hard to forge your own identity when your identity has been connected with state administrators,” she says of foster children.
It’s not the first time she’s taken in loved ones in need. When her uncle Joe Glass lived in a Milwaukee nursing home and was going to be transferred to a veterans home near the Canadian border, far from any family, Theresa and her brother James brought him to Omaha.
Growing up, she saw the example of her family take in childhood friend Cathy Hughes when Cathy’s musician mother Helen Jones Woods was on the road. Hughes said growing up she and Theresa thought they were “blood sisters.”
Theresa’s three birth daughters have embraced her returning to parenting young kids again all these years later. She says they’ve all accepted and bonded with their new siblings and go out of their way in spoiling them. “They don’t want for anything,” she says of her little ones.
Kelly speaks for her sisters when she says they all admire and support their mother in assuming this new responsibility at her age but that it doesn’t surprise them.
“That is just my mom. I don’t think she thought of it as parenting at her age, she just saw a need and filled it. Age really didn’t play into it, although she did discuss it with us because doing the right thing would impact all of us. My mom always does the ‘right thing,’ and right doesn’t mean easy and she accepts that whenever she takes on a task, a role, a responsibility.
“My grandmother raised her and this is what my grandmother did and would have done if she was alive. Her opting to raise the kids did not surprise any of us in the least. It is the one characteristic both my parents had and handed down to us: Do what you can, when you can and share of yourself, your home, your belongings and your wealth (regardless of how much money you have or don’t have). It’s the right thing to do to help someone else, especially family.”
Kelly and her sister Gabrielle have each assumed similar super-nurturing roles as their mother. Kelly, who has three children of her own, has acted as a surrogate mom to athletes coached by her husband. Gabrielle is now the adult female figure in the home of her equally famous boyfriend, NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, whose two sons and a nephew live with him in Miami.
Theresa’s justifiably proud of her three grown children, each a successful, independent woman in her own right. Kelly’s a corporate executive. Tracy’s a facilities coordinator at Arizona State University and Gabrielle’s the movie star. Just as she feels she well prepared her older girls for life she hopes to do the same for their young siblings.
“I got my three grown daughters there healthy and educated and then they had to travel it on themselves. Hopefully I can do this another time and the three young ones will be healthy and educated and they’ll be able to move on and enjoy their lives. Nobody has to be famous but you have to be able enjoy and sustain your life. I think my girls have done really well and I hope the next ones do, too.
“This time it’s a different experience and we’re working it out.”
She says most of her parenting the first time happened in the suburbs compared to the inner city, where she, her brother and the kids live today. She’s struck by the stark difference between the two environments and their impact on children.
Gun violence and street gangs were foreign to west Omaha and Pleasanton but the northeast Omaha she’s come back to is rife with criminal activity. Where Pleasanton lacked for no amenities North Omaha has major gaps.
“It’s interesting that this neighborhood doesn’t have the things that we had when we were young. The (black) population has been dispersed throughout the city. Things you take for granted, conveniences you have right there in the suburbs, are not so readily available in the inner city. It’s a lack of resources, lack of everything right in this neighborhood for raising children. So I had to start looking for the village (the proverbial village that helps raise a child). My village is right here. I have Kellom School and I have Educare.”
Gabrielle says the way her mother intentionally seeks out educational and cultural opportunities for the young kids she’s raising now reminds her of how she did the same thing when she and her sisters were coming up. She says her mom’s always been about expanding children’s minds through enriching experiences.
Theresa says the dearth of programs for young kids in northeast Omaha “is what prompted me to join the board of the Bryant Center Association – so we could add things (like recreation activities and counseling services).”
The nonprofit association operates the Bryant Center, a community oasis at 24th and Grant Streets that aims to improve the lives of youth, young adults and seniors. Administrators are looking to expand programming. Theresa recently prevailed upon Cathy Hughes to co-chair the association’s capital fundraising campaign.
In the final analysis Theresa doesn’t consider rearing young children at her age as anything heroic or out of the ordinary. It all comes back to family and doing the right thing. “I don’t call it being a saint,” she says. “You always take care of your own.”
She wants others to know they can do what she’s doing. An aunt or a grandmother or another relation can be the parent when Mom and Dad cannot.
“It is a doable process, especially in Omaha, because there is other help available. There are families out there that could do this with their own because there is support for you in the community. Sometimes you have to really search for it depending on what your needs are. But even if there’s a problem where the natural parents aren’t available to participate, you can raise the children so they are still a part of a family.”
Helping navigate the experience is ENOA’s Grandparent Resource Center. It offers free monthly support group meetings, crisis phone intervention, transportation assistance, access to legal advice and referrals to other services and programs. Participants need only be age 55 or above.
Center coordinator Debra Scott, who is raising her granddaughter, says caregivers need to know they don’t have to do it alone. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she says. “I’m learning I can’t be everything to everybody, I need to ask for help and that’s where this program comes in.”
Call 402-444-6536, ext. 297 to inquire how the center may be able to help you or a senior caregiver you know.
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One of my favorite personalities from the last few years is Dr. Mary Goodwin-Clinkscale, who applies her passion for the Lord, for youth, and for the arts in a dynamic educational program she runs called the GBT Academy. She is its heart and soul, but she has a lot of help by a lot of people who believe in her and her mission, which is really a ministry. I spent some time with her and her staff and some of the young people they work with as the academy prepped for a fund raiser performance to help restore the auditorium that a vandal-set fire partially destroyed. I first became aware of the academy at a program that featured their recreation of a famous incident in late 1960s Omaha. The sheer energy and conviction the performers brought to the performance made me take notice. Then, a year or two later when I read in the paper about the fire and the academy’s intention to go on, I decided it was time I wrote about the program. I still hadn’t met Dr. Clinkscale or Dr. C as she’s called, but no sooner than I did then I realized she needed to be the focus of my story. Her commitment to the program is unwavering. I still want to tell an expanded story about her one day. But for now my piece below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) will have to do.
A Change is Gonna Come, the GBT Academy in Omaha Undergoes Revival in the Wake of Fire
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Mary J. Goodwin-Clinkscale considers herself “a survivor.” That’s why when a June 29, 2008 arson fire destroyed the auditorium of the Greater Beth-El Temple, the black Apostolic church that sponsors her nonprofit GBT (Growing and Building Together) Academy of the Arts at 1502 No. 52nd St., she and fellow church officials resolved to rebuild. Proceeds from GBT’s July 2 7 p.m. Through the Fire program at the UNO Strauss Performing Arts Center will help refurbish the auditorium, now just a shell awaiting a new floor, ceiling and stage, plus seating.
The fire deferred the dream of turning the former Beth Israel Synagogue into the church’s new sanctuary and GBT’s new home. Services unfold at the church’s old 25th and Erskine site in the interim. Greater Beth-El purchased the abandoned 52nd St. property in 2004 in the largely white Country Club neighborhood. The church runs the academy along with after-school and day-care programs from the mid-town campus. The church’s extensive landscaping has transformed what was an eyesore into a showplace. Interior work to the pale brick building converted offices into classrooms and updated HVAC systems. Volunteers donate all the work.
Academy executive director Goodwin-Clinkscale — Dr. C — has built a dynamic, multi-media, Christian-based curriculum serving at-risk, school-age youths. Her staff conducts music, dance, drama, speech, creative writing, art classes. GBT members are known for their poise and enthusiasm. They really know how to project. Life skills are integrated into lessons. She coined the Academy’s mantra, “Through the performing stage to the stage of life,” and its mission “to equip youth with the character values of respect, discipline, teamwork, perseverance and leadership through diverse forms of artistic expression.” She said, “We’re trying to instill things that will take these children where they want to go.”
The neighborhood teens who set the fire aided the clean-up as part of their community service work. Dr. C said, “I really believe the kids are sorry for what they did.” GBT will dramatize the story of the fire and its consequences at UNO. “We’re trying to show that if there were more places like this, then youths would have a place to go after school,” she said. “Our plea is, Help us to help them. That’s what this is all about. We’re trying to offer a place of safety, of refuge.”
Assistant Ella “Pat” Tisdel said GBT provides avenues for kids to express themselves “in constructive rather than destructive ways. We’re seeing that if we can pull that creativity out of children it helps them to feel better about themselves and they actually do better in school.”
Mary Goodwin Clinkscale in the center
The Academy was incorporated in 2000 but Dr. C’s used the arts as empowering tools since ‘78. She produces/directs its energetic performances. Adults and kids collaborate on script, choreography, music, set design, costumes. African-American themed programs, some secular, others predominate. Performers as young as 6 share the stage with 20-somethings. Her five sons are GBT grads, including veteran television actor Randy Goodwin (Girlfriends). He’ll be back for the show along with special guest, stage/film/TV actor Obba Babatunde (Dreamgirls original cast).
Dr. C’s showcased GBT’s diverse talents at such high-profile gigs as the Holiday Lights Festival, Omaha Entertainment Awards and Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. In 2006 her troupe performed a Tuskegee Airmen tribute in Milwaukee, Wis.
For this proud matriarch, the UNO show’s title refers not only to GBT rising-from-the-ashes and the arsonists finding redemption but to her own crucible. She was a high school drop-out and married teenage mother before turning her life around. A daughter of Arkansas sharecroppers, she worked the fields in the Jim Crow South, picking 300 pounds of cotton per day at age 10. “It takes a lot of cotton to weigh 300 pounds,” she said. She endured the back-breaking labor. Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, she believes.
She survived segregation and poverty. “I’ve always wanted more in life because we had nothing,” she said. She survived a fire to her family’s home. She was living with her grandmother then — her mother and uncles having gone to Omaha to work packinghouse jobs. After the fire Dr. C’s late mother brought her here, where she grew up in the Spencer Projects. She learned tough lessons from her Big Mama, a cook at the old Paxton Hotel downtown. “I got my work ethic from her.”
Dr. C earned her GED at Metropolitan Community College, where she won a scholarship for continuing education. “I went from there and started doing things.” Doctorates in theology and organizational administration from the International Apostolic University of Grace and Truth in Columbus, Ohio followed.
Her academic and youth ministry achievements only came after a born-again experience at Greater Beth-El in 1974. She was adrift then, without a church. “I just didn’t know what direction to go and the Lord led me to these people here,” she said. “I’d been looking for a church that offered something more than fashion or just a place to go hang out. I wanted truth.” She found it. “Before, my life didn’t have any meaning. There was no purpose until I came to the church. That’s when my life really began.” After being baptized she assumed lay leadership roles.
She was inspired “to implement” the teachings of her pastor in skits that engaged youth. “When I see a need, I go after it,” she said. Despite no formal arts background she said she felt prepared because “I’ve always been attracted to beauty. Raising my kids, decorating my home, making a garden, all that to me is an artistic expression. In everything you do there’s an art form to it. You just don’t throw things together. All my life I’ve been able to take a little something and make a lot out of it. I always strive for the best.” Two-hundred plus performances worth.
A perfectionist and task-master who describes herself as “hard but fair,” she views next week’s benefit as GBT’s coming-out party. “We started in January putting this together and we have worked our fingers to the bones on this production. It’s showcasing all the different facets of our talents. We want people to see there is something going on in this big historic building we can all be proud of.”
Her work with GBT has been recognized by the YWCA, UNO, Woodmen of the World, et cetera. GBT just received its first Nebraska Arts Council grant. She believes big things are ahead. She keeps meaning to step aside but, she said, “I never leave a job undone. I have to complete it.” As the soul song goes, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and she wants to be there to see her vision through the fire.
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This is a cover-length story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) that profiles Omaha Symphony Orchestra music director Thomas Wilkins, who is also a conductor with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and recently ended a decade-long tenure with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Wilkins is a poised, still, yet passionate presence at the podium. Away from the stage, he’s a gentle, sensitive soul with a ready smile and an authentic interest in communicating his love of music. I very much enjoyed meeting him and consider it a privilege tell some of his journey through life and music.
Omaha Symphony Maestro Thomas Wilkins and His Ever-Seeking Musical Journey
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha Symphony Orchestra music director Thomas Wilkins was first inspired to be a conductor at age 8 during a Virginia Symphony Orchestra pops performance in his hometown of Norfolk (Va.). Right from the opening rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” he was mesmerized by how the conductor shaped the music.
“I came home that day and I don’t know who I said it to, maybe to my mother, but certainly to myself, and certainly during the concert: ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up.’ It’s interesting that that was before I had really started an instrument.”
Raised by a single mom on welfare in the projects of the Jim Crow South, the concert marked Wilkins’ introduction to something outside the gospel, blues and jazz he was steeped in. His mother played organ at storefront black churches. Black music filled the air where he lived. Even though classical music spoke to him at some inner core level, he remained immersed in his roots. He jammed with cats, black and white, from different musical strains. Some, like the Wooten brothers, went on to make their marks in the business just as he did.
“We all grew up together and hung out together. Many of my friends were not involved in classical music but they were still serious musicians. I was blessed with a little bit of talent as a young kid and so those players tend to gravitate towards each other,” he says. “We would share music on the weekends with each other. I would play for them Tchaikovsky and they would play for me Miles Davis, so all of our worlds were being expanded together.”
Today, he’s one of perhaps 10 African-American conductors of major orchestras in the country. In addition to his Omaha post, he’s principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. High in demand as a guest conductor, he’s led the Dallas Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, the National Symphony (D.C.) and the Atlanta Symphony.
He was the Detroit Symphony’s resident conductor for a decade.
Among the mentors in his life is the renowned James DePreist, director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School and laureate music director of the Oregon Symphony. Wilkins attended a conducting seminar that DePriest, the preeminent African-American conductor, taught in Oregon.
“It was great to be able to see him because he looked like me,” says Wilkins, “but then when I got to meet him and I really got the chance to see him and his life with the orchestra, his relationship with the orchestra, it really sort of informed a lot of my own music directorship — how to treat musicians, how to be involved in the community. I mean, we walked into a restaurant one day and the patrons applauded him. Here was a guy totally involved in the life of his community, and I thought, Man, that’s a big thing.”
Richard Pittman is another influential figure. Then teacher of orchestra conducting at NEC, Pittman challenged the budding maestro to get by on more than a winning personality and conducting flair, qualities the artist has always possessed. A crossroads for Wilkins occurred when he auditioned for graduate school.
“I came to my graduate school audition with a lot of arm waving experience and being a leader of people. I had the great fortune of being a student conductor of every ensemble I was in since junior high school. What I hadn’t worked on were really important ear training skills. When I went to take my conducting portion of the audition the orchestra applauded. I was pleasant, I could wave my arms, I was very coordinated, very clear. But when it came to the musical skills test on piano, et cetera — my mother couldn’t afford piano lessons — all of that stuff was just horrible.”
Wilkins found his chance at earning a coveted appointment in jeopardy.
In the interview portion with Pittman, Wilkins says, “He told me, ‘You’re very charming. I believe you could get any orchestra to do anything you wanted them to do.’ But then he held up my skills test and just shook his head and said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to take you or not. If I were to judge you based on your conducting alone I know I would save one of these three spots for you without even seeing the others. But I’m going to have to think about it.’”
Wilkins then recalls hearing “the words that changed my life” when told: “‘If I do take you you’re going to have work your butt off because if you don’t I will not hesitate to kick you out. I don’t want you to be a charlatan, I want you to be a person of musical and intellectual integrity.’” In short, Wilkins says, Pittman “demanded I be more than charming.”
It was a rude awakening for a charismatic young man who wanted nothing else but to conduct since childhood. Here he was, he says, “standing on the doorstep of one of the world’s great music conservatories only to be told, “You have not worked hard enough.” Pittman did accept Wilkins into the program and by his second year the protege was Pittman’s graduate assistant. He worked hard.
“Every morning I was at the front door of New England Conservatory at 7 o’clock, two hours of piano, ear training, solfege.”
He credits Pittman with pushing him at that crucial time in his life.
“He basically shaped my musical integrity, my hunger to learn, really in a sense my moral integrity, how I treat human beings, how I treat orchestra players. So much of that was crafted by him.”
The experience confirmed for Wilkins that he would not be deterred or discouraged. He would not give into what colleague Wynton Marsalis calls the “inner competitor” — that doubting voice within. Wilkins made a conscious decision to quell it.
“And you know what, you have to make that decision every day,” he says.
The poised, restrained presence Wilkins strikes at the podium today is one he’s arrived at after years deconstructing his conducting technique. Less is more. After stints with the Richmond (Va.) Symphony and Florida (Tampa Bay) Orchestra, he joined the Detroit Symphony in 2000 and the Omaha Symphony in 2005.
The fact he’s come so far in a realm so far removed from the cultural norm of a poor Southern black is never lost on him. It’s why he states unequivocally, “Music saved my life as a young boy.” He says part of the blessed mystery of music is that it’s “both life changing and life affirming.” He offers himself as exhibit A: “It’s that mystery of why it can affect a young boy born to a single mother on welfare in a housing project in Norfolk Va. It’s the mystery of why that could completely alter the course of my life.”
Too often, he feels, categories segment people along racial-cultural lines, thereby making some music unavailable to certain populations. It’s why he’s taken an active role as a music mentor and educator. Whether advising young black conductors and composers seeking his counsel or leading concerts for minority children or seniors, he enjoys expanding the classical stream.
“Fortunately I had the power of music as a driving force in my life,” he says, “but it’s still important I think to see people who look like you. And it doesn’t mean we have to create any sort of artificial vehicle or route to get there, it just means there has to be access.”
Before new audiences are invested in the music, they must be invited to participate.
“They have to know this is our music, too,” he says, “because it’s everybody’s music. Black people have always been involved in classical music. There were a few blacks from Europe during slavery times who were free and wealthy, they traveled the world, they were huge opera buffs, and in some cases they owned slaves. It was not unusual to see slaves at opera performances or to hear them walk into a booth singing arias.
“It’s just silly to believe we only live in the jazz world or in the rap world.”
Wilkins, who taught music at North Park University in Chicago, where he met his wife, Sheri-Lee, says it’s important students learn the classical canon extends beyond Western Europe.
“One of the great things about music education is that it really gives kids of all races a broader perspective of what the world looks like because the music that we’re involved with comes from so many different places and so many different cultures,” he says.
Wilkins adores American music. He champions the work of, among others, William Grant Still, a pioneering African-American composer and conductor. Pieces by Still and fellow American composers Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn will be featured in Omaha Symphony masterworks concerts, American Beauty, Wilkins conducts Jan. 21-22 at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
“I have long held the belief in this country that in classical music we (America) operate sort of with some weird unfounded second-class citizenship. So the minute we start to bring Americanism into the classical scene we get all weird about it, like it’s cute or it’s catchy or it’s just something for now, when in reality Western European composers always brought their culture into their classical music because they wanted their music to have mass appeal.
“There’s a whole school of nationalism in classical music, with composers writing music of their soil and their people, so they brought folk music and folk dances into their classical music. Yet in this country we considered that high art and people like Bernstein and Gershwin and Copland as not.”
He’s unapologetic about embracing American classical works.
“You know if jazz or rock ‘n’ roll find its way into classical compositions we have to come up with some fancy word to say, ‘Oh, its just a synthesis of American jazz.’ Well, OK, fine. It’s still great music. I am as excited about the classical music of Duke Ellington as I am about the classical music of Beethoven.”
Wilkins notes that Still, whose Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American) will be performed in American Beauty, is an “easy go-to” for conductors looking to feature black composers since the number of black classical composers is comparatively small. He says Still deserves more than obligatory emblem status.
“The more I got to know about William Grant Still the more he became an inspiration. He had a very distinguished career when you factor in the time period in which he operated and being the first black composer to have a symphony both commissioned and performed by a major orchestra and the first black music director to conduct a major orchestra. He also worked in Hollywood. He always found a way of making a living in this business, to have some sort of artistic output and creative outlet.”
What Wilkins most admires about Still is that he wrote about the American experience.
“He’s writing music about his culture, both black culture and American culture, and doing it early. At a time when others were writing essentially European music, Still’s writing contemporary American music, and so I come to Still with great respect because I am a huge proponent of American orchestras being American orchestras. Certainly we have this great Western European tradition we want to uphold and keep, but there’s also this very American music by American composers.”
Wilkins designed the American Beauty program to reflect this rich indigenous stew, ranging from Still’s symphony with its homage to blues, spirituals and gospel to Bernstein’s gritty On the Waterfront Symphonic Suite.
“That’s one of my favorite programs of the season,” Wilkins says, “because of its Americanism and because it covers the gamut of both the European tradition and the American tradition.”
He calls Previn’s Honey and Rue “stunning.” He’s particularly struck by a gospel-like a cappella movement with text by Toni Morrison.
Barber’s Knoxville, Summer 1915 is evocative of Americana. The soaring music accompanies prose by James Agee that has a woman recounting a summer idyll. The great soprano Leontyne Price once said about the piece: “As a Southerner it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and father and my hometown. You can smell the South.” As a native Southerner himself, Wilkins concurs, yet he sees more universal truths in it as well, saying the pictures the music and words paint run through “the text of experiences we all have.” He says the setting doesn’t have to be the South, but that the work does take him back to lazy summer nights laying on a blanket in the backyard, wondering about the grown up word just beyond his reach.
Guest soprano Kisma Jordan will interpret this sweet remembrance of things past.
Wilkins says, “There’s this one line at the end about all these grownups who’ve been in her life nurturing her, but she says they did not nor will not ever tell me who I am.” Wilkins says the work took on new meaning for him after he became a father. He and Sheri-Lee are parents of twin, musically-gifted daughters, Nicole and Erica.
“I thought about the significance and the poignancy of us growing our children up so we can launch them,” says Wilkins, “but allowing them to be both an extension of us and who they discover they are. But they have to discover who they are themselves, themselves. One of our rites of passage in life is getting to a stage of finally figuring out who we are.
“I think about myself growing up a BOW (born-out-of-wedlock) kid and not knowing the whole family,” he says, “and how even to this day I’m envious of sons who’ve had great relationships with their fathers because I never really had that. I don’t even know who taught me how to tie a tie, and that saddens me, and yet in my life I want to give my children all the things I didn’t have. Every parent says that, but the thing I want to give them foremost is a father who loves their mother. That sort of explains why that text in the Barber for me personally is so poignant.”
Wilkins insists that despite always being an oddity as a black classical conductor “it’s never ever disheartening.” He adds, “Someone asked me once about obstacles and I said, ‘You know when you join the army the first thing you do is go through the obstacle course. The purpose of the obstacle course is not to make you weaker, it’s to make you stronger, so I think I never really considered obstacles to be obstacles to success, only opportunities for me to grow more.”
A key to his makeup, he says, is that “I have always been interested in what I don’t know. I am a natural born learner. My wife makes fun of my because I am probably the only person in the world who keeps a highlighter in the bathroom. I just love learning — that’s kind of been my thing the whole time.”
All of which leads back to music’s enigmatic nature.
“I think part of my journey is, I get the how about music and it’s impact, but I don’t understand the why, and I think I am constantly trying to figure out the why. I understand the whole notion of the Harmony of the Spheres. The soothing tones or various harmonies we learn in our culture mean a certain thing. A major harmony as opposed to a minor harmony evokes a certain emotion in us. I get all of that, but I don’t know why. I mean, other than the fact I think it’s a gift from God.
“Someone asked James Taylor where his inspiration comes from and he said, ‘I don’t think I ever make up songs, I think I’m just the first guy that gets to hear them.’ So I think all of it is a gift.”
Wilkins is reminded of a quote attributed to Beethoven whose meaning roughly translates to: “Music knows us, though we know it not.”
Success has not made Wilkins any less eager to learn or any less appreciative of his privileged gift. He’s wise enough now to realize what he doesn’t know. Staying humble and vulnerable helps keep him grounded.
“About once every six weeks I still feel like I’m a failure and I’m confronted with the amount of stuff I don’t know. The response can be, OK, I am 54, I’ll just coast for another 15 years. Or the response can be, This is a golden opportunity to get stronger in an area where you’re possibly weak.”
His yearning and hunger continue driving him.
“Thankfully it doesn’t go away,” he says, “and I think that’s called the essence of life — always doing battle with your inner competitor.”
He says his role as music director is “first and foremost about the music,” adding, “But I also want to walk away having left the orchestra and audience as better human beings.” Yes, he wants his orchestra to reach greater musical heights, but he also wants his players to conduct themselves as “artists and servants to the music” and to “appreciate the greatness of this music and how fortunate we are to be a part of this music.”
Part of the process is connecting with the community.
“I also want us to never lose contact with the lives of every day people. I want us to come alongside that single mother raising a kid and grab the kid by the other hand and say, ‘We’re going to help you walk through this.’ All we’ve got is music but it’s music that inspires. That’ll end up translating into many other things.
“When I do a children’s concert I’m not trying to grow future musicians, I’m trying to grow people that want to change the world, so my education concerts are less about music and more about life.”
His next family concert is Wild About Nature at 2 p.m. on Jan. 16 at the Holland. Wilkins will lead the symphony in “kid-friendly classics” as images by nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen are projected on a big screen.
Pre-concert lobby activities include an instrument petting zoo and a homemade instrument workshop. Children can also create instruments at a Jan. 15 Omaha Children’s Museum event. At the conclusion of Sunday’s concert, Wilkins will invite children to bring their creations on stage and he will then conduct this homemade instrument band.
For tickets to this program and to American Beauty, call 342-3560 or visit http://www.omahasymphony.org.
- Detroit Symphony Orchestra reports $8.8M deficit (pbpulse.com)
- Critic’s Notebook: Orchestra Arrives on Big Screen (nytimes.com)
- At the Symphony: pre-Classical classics, and a rising violin star (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Classical music news: How much do top symphony orchestra CEO’s get paid? Is ASCAP biased in favor of describing member composers as “adventurous”? The New York Philharmonic cancels summer parks concerts. And how do you write down sounds? (welltempered.wordpress.com)
I did this story a couple years ago for the Jewish Press about Rebecca Herskovitz and her work as education coordinator at the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts in Omaha. She’s no longer with that organization but she’s still very much a part of the Omaha art scene, and the studio center where she did work is in the news because it recently had its grand opening and because work by its namesake, the late great American realist visual artist, Kent Bellows, is featured in an exhibition this fall at the Joslyn Art Museum. Check out my other articles about Bellows, his legacy, and the studio center on this blog site.
Rebecca Herskovitz Forges an Art Family at Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
If the art world has missionaries than Rebecca Herskovitz has found her calling as an art educator helping young people explore their creative potential.
She doesn’t look much older than the kids she works with at the new Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts, 3303 Leavenworth St., where she’s education coordinator. She came to Omaha from San Francisco a year ago to fill the post and after months of planning she launched the center’s first after school classes in early September with 21 students.
Two 16-week semesters are offered per year.
The education program matches students from metro area high schools with professional working artists in classic apprentice-style mentoring relationships.
The center, whose classes are being held at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in the Old Market until the center’s permanent home undergoes renovation, is named after the late Omaha realist Kent Bellows. The noted Bellows, the subject of a future Joslyn Art Museum retrospective, was well-known for supporting young artists. His studio space on Leavenworth serves as the administrative base for the Kent Bellows Foundation and mentorship program.
Omaha native Anne Meysenburg, a University of Nebraska at Omaha grad, is executive director of the Bellows foundation and the Studio/Center for Visual Arts.
The studio where the iconoclastic Bellows lived and worked will eventually host classes and gallery shows once the interior is renovated. Largely preserved the way the artist left it, the studio will also be an archive for scholars. For now, field trips bring the kids on site to the Bellows space,. Everything from his eclectic personal belongings to elaborate backdrops he made to sayings he scribbled on walls adorn the converted storefront studio. It’s sacred ground for communion/inspiration.
“You feel like this is a place where something very special has been happening,” Herskovitz said there recently, “and to emulate that place of creativity and to be inhabiting it is absolutely contagious. It will be exciting to teach classes upstairs where those installations are and where the shrine that Kent made is. You can just feel it’s a place where magic was taking place. For kids to walk in there every day will be an enchanting thing. I’m very excited about that.”
Meanwhile, Miss Becca, as she calls herself, leads her young charges in the bowels of the Bemis building at 724 So. 10th St. The basement’s formerly blank walls and exposed pipes-vents have been transformed into dynamic spaces for hanging art made by students and their mentors. She encourages students to make the environment their own – a living, evolving expression of themselves.
“I want them to take ownership over those spaces and I believe in the art space becoming to a certain extent an art piece itself over time. You just want a space that feels alive.”
With just the right amount of evangelical zeal, Herskovitz is the Pied Piper for this new arts program whose mission is to live up to the standards of its legendary namesake and his fierce creative independence. An independent thinker herself, the Bellows position allows her to design programs from scratch that give students outside-the-box opportunities for artistic growth.
“I think I was ready to do something a little bit different — that allowed me to write my own curriculum,” said Herskovitz, who was teaching visual art at a special ed school in San Mateo, Calif. and making her own art before arriving in Omaha.
“When I’m making art and when I’m teaching it’s kind of the same feeling. It’s the feeling of when you have a calling — when everything else kind of fades away and you feel excited and don’t want to think about anything else, almost to the extent where you forget to think about other things and two hours pass and you realize you haven’t moved from the same position.”
Prior to San Francisco, the Newton, Mass. native taught art at a public high school (in Worcester) while earning her master’s in education. When she read about the Bellows opportunity she knew it was the right niche for her.
“I really gravitated towards the mission, which is so linked to creativity, and that really fit with my own teaching philosophy,” she said. “And then I just really loved the idea of a new arts organization just getting started. It’s a really special thing to be part of making a place that you would have wanted to be in when you were in high school. I wish there had been a program like this for students interested in the visual arts. And as a teacher I wish I had been in an area where there was a program like this for me to recommend my students to.”
She said breaking away from the prescribed confines of public school educational approaches is what the Bellows project is all about. It’s liberating for Herskovitz and her students to not be driven by the kind of test score mentality and conventional thinking that she said results in “very limiting” curriculum in the public schools. Instead of “putting up obstacles to people having innovative thought,” she said, the Bellows model Is “founded on the idea of finding and nurturing those individual creative sparks in young people.”
Unlike a public school setting, where she said kids are apt to “get lost” in large classes, the small Bellows program ensures “individual attention.” “The student-teacher ratio is extremely close and that’s vital. That’s what’s going to allow us to give something to different to kids than what they can normally receive.”
The task of selling this new program to high school art teachers, who’ve become her best recruiters, proved difficult at first. Herskovitz received few replies to an e-mail she sent teachers over the summer announcing the program. She finally got the captive audience she craved when invited to make a presentation to teachers during an OPS professional development day.
“It took a little while to explain what we’re doing and it took teachers a little while to realize this is something really new and really different,” she said.
Before long, she was invited to classrooms to make her pitch directly to students, who she said quickly recognized the program’s benefits. More than 50 applied. She was prepared to start the program with 12, but, she said, “we had so many fantastic applicants that we’re above and beyond that with 21 kids.” A whole new class was conceived to accommodate the larger than expected numbers.
As anticipated, a large number of students are from Omaha Central, whose downtown location is mere blocks from both the Bemis and the Bellows studio. Other schools represented include Bryan, Burke, Westside, Duchesne and Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln. She feels students will come from a wider geographic area once the program offers transportation.
A goal for a diverse student mix has been met.
“We wanted our program’s demographics to look like OPS’ demographics and we match up perfectly with that,” she said. “My vision of a really healthy classroom is one where there is a lot of heterogeneity of all things — in terms of learning styles, ethnicities, ages and the neighborhoods they come from.”
What does she look for in prospective students?
“We’re just looking for a creative energy and kind of a passion for trying new things and wanting to have a role in their own education. We’re not looking for past experience. We’re not looking for some particular skill-set.”
The selection process involves an essay and an interview. She makes a point of meeting applicants’ parents or guardians.
“I think parent support is a huge deal.”
She encourages parents to visit the site “to know where they’re kids are going to be hanging out.”
Herskovitz enjoys being on the ground floor of something different and she senses students and parents do, too.
“I think it’s a completely new take on arts education,” she said. “This is a place where you get to feel safe. This is your creative family, your artistic community. We’re continuing what Kent showed all of us — this very powerful form of teaching, which is the mentoring relationship. I hope our mentors push students to find their own footsteps.”
She believes the mentoring component is what distinguishes the Bellows program from other enrichment programs.
“It’s a program that takes place after school but it’s not a typical after school program,” she said. “Students are having the opportunity to work with professional artists in very close ratios one-on-one, where the emphasis in really on creative thinking and problem solving, and I think that focus is really different from a lot of other programs.
“I think the most powerful learning experiences happen when you’re able to have a mentor who stays with you and I think what allows teenagers to really open up is knowing that adult is going to be with them for as long as they want them to be. And our program is built so we can continue those relationships for as long as the student wants to be there participating in it.”
The art educator spent a fair share of her time in Omaha the past year steeping herself in the local art scene, casting her eye for potential mentors among the area’s deep pool of working artists. Her first crop of mentors represents a cross-section of Omaha’s best and brightest. There’s Mexico native Claudia Alvarez, a ceramicist, longtime art instructor and former Bemis resident artist. There’s Omaha native Bill Hoover, a painter, writer and musician who also works with kids at Liberty Elementary School. There’s Jeff King, a graffiti, street-inspired painter whose work incorporates text. King conducts art workshops with kids at Norris Junior High. And there’s painter Caolan O’Loughlin, an Irish emigre who’s done curatorial-consulting work for the Bellows and who has a teaching background.
Herskovitz completes the Bellows mentoring staff. Guest artists also make presentations-demonstrations. Bemis curator Hesse McGraw contributes to some classes. Herskovitz has students utilize the Bemis as a kind of living laboratory and resource center by studying-critiquing the art displayed in its galleries, poring over books in the well-stocked art library and visiting resident artists’ studios.
“The Bemis has been very generous,” she said in making its facilities available.
It may be a temporary home, but the Bemis couldn’t be a better fit. “It just matches up so well with our mission,” she said. “I can’t imagine a better set-up than to have art students immersed in a contemporary arts center where professional international artists are living and working.”
Even when the Bellows studio is in use she foresees the Bemis continuing to play a role in the program. It adds another layer of experience and can help the program accommodate more students in the future.
The historic Old Market and its rich social-cultural milieu becomes another venue for art stimuli. Mentors also bring students to their own studios and to the studios of other artists throughout the city and they make gallery visits together.
Herskovitz said she and her fellow mentors seek to deconstruct assumptions about education by finding teachable moments in all kinds of situations or settings.
“I think there’s a huge myth that you can’t teach art and I think it’s because of the way people think about teaching. They think of it as training or instilling this knowledge when really it’s more about facilitating thinking.”
What she’s in the process of trying to build is an environment where “young people become a learning community and bounce ideas off one another,” she said. “There’s a way to do that and with my curriculum that’s what we’re aiming to do. It’s structured within that to meet the individual needs of students.”
Sometimes, students work with mentors in workshop fashion on specific techniques or tasks, she said, and other times they break off to work on their own individual projects. Teachers move around the room, sharing observations and comments with students. Whenever possible, students interact with one another.
“Equal to what you see is what I hope you feel — that this is a place where these students feel really comfortable and can be themselves,” she said. “My goal is to create an art learning family. This is their chance, if they want to be someone different than they are in school, to be different when they’re here. If they need a different type of learning environment I hope this can provide that for them.”
She’s devised a sequence of programs/classes to engage students of varying abilities and interests.
“The artist-in-residence program is for older kids who are more advanced and are really ready to have more independent studio time and to meet one-on-one with a professional mentor. The studio thesis class is meant for 9th and 10th graders who feel themselves being pulled by the arts and are still kind of finding their voice. That’s more of a small group setting where kids can talk to each other and mentor each other along with the teacher.”
The gallery internship program provides students opportunities for organizing-curating-marketing student-mentor exhibitions. The program’s first exhibit, Versa Vice: Reflections of an Underground Society, opens Friday, Dec. 19 at the Bemis Underground. This showcase will reflect the work students have been making in class and the collaborative projects they’ve participated in with fellow students and mentors.
Ideally, Herskovitz said students will participate in several if not all of the program’s classes, progressing from beginner to advanced sessions, along the way getting exposed to different mentors and their varied philosophies, techniques, styles.
Although she didn’t have anything like the Bellows program in her upbringing, Herskovitz had her art-loving family.
“Both of my grandparents on my dad’s side were very involved in the arts community. Growing up I would be set free to make art projects,” she said.
It was in high school her own passion for art bloomed and that’s one reason why she enjoys working with that age group. “I got very involved and inspired. I just couldn’t stop doing it.” Her dual passion for teaching began about the same time when she taught in an after school program.
She said even though her therapist parents, younger brother and extended family “don’t always understand my art, they have been so supportive. I feel really lucky for that.”
Before accepting the Bellows job Herskovitz researched Omaha’s arts community and she came away impressed. Now that she’s here carrying the banner for an arts organization bearing the name of an Omaha art icon she has an even deeper appreciation for things.
“Now being part of it it’s really wonderful to know these different organizations and different figures. I think maybe because of Omaha’s size you really can know people in the arts community and you really can make relationships. In San Francisco that was much harder. There wasn’t that sense of a supportive community. It was still kind of strangers operating in their own spheres.”
Omaha’s small-town-in-the-big-city character is just what Herskovitz has been searching for in forming an art family away from home.
“I love being here.”
- Art Lesson plans for Gifted Students (brighthub.com)
- Debate rages over arts curriculum (theage.com.au)
- Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
The following article appeared a few years ago in The Reader (www.thereader.com) announcing plans for the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts named in honor of the late great American realist visual artist. That artist’s work is the focus of a current exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where Bellows made his home, and the studio center where Bellows created many of his pieces is now open to the public. As my article mentions, Bellows was known for his generosity towards young people with a passion for art, and the studio center pays forward the encouragement he provided young people by offering a mentoring program for high school students with a penchant for making art or pursuing art studies. Students are paired off with professional working artists in mentoring relationships that give young people an intimate, real-life experience in the art world. Students and their mentors collaborate on some projects and students work independently on others, and now that the studio center is complete, this creative community expresses itself in the very digs where Bellows himself worked and mentored. See more of my stories related to Bellows and the studio center on this blog site.
Kent Bellows Legacy Lives On
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When renowned Omaha visual artist Kent Bellows died suddenly in 2005, his family didn’t know what to do with his studio, where remnants of his career and life were everywhere.
The studio was stuffed with his life: eclectic stashes of books and CDs, mosaics of cut-out images, wall scribbling, monster figures, art supplies and his signature parka hanging on a hook. After Bellows living and working there 16 years, the two-story studio, at 33rd and Leavenworth streets, became a multi-planed art piece in itself. It’s survived as tableaux of his stilled creativity, not unlike one of the wall sets he built for his hyper-realistic work.
Bellows’ family knew the circa-1915 brick building contained artifacts that should be preserved, not packed away or thrown out. The site, which used to be the Mermaid Lounge, was imbued with the legacy of someone who encouraged others, especially young visual artists and musicians. Family and friends deliberated how best to honor his memory.
Griess, her sister Debra Wesselmann and other Bellows family members formed The Kent Bellows Foundation in 2007 and envisioned the nonprofit as an arts education haven with a strong mentoring component. It will serve area youths, ages 14 to 18, grades 9 through 12, with artist-in-residence, studio thesis and gallery internship programs/classes. Board members include artist Keith Jacobshagen, designer Cedric Hartman, art educator Dan Siedell and composer Peter Buffett. Now, after two years of planning, the Leavenworth studio is due to become the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts. The Kent Bellows Foundation announced plans for the new arts organization on-site at a recent open house attended by friends of the late artist. If enough support is found, site renovations could begin this summer and the center could open by early 2009.
“We couldn’t make any rash decisions about it, it was just too important,” said his sister Robin Griess. “So fortunately we hesitated.”
$725,000 in renovations are needed to fix a leaky roof, replace mold-infested walls, make the structure handicap accessible, add a museum-grade HVAC system and construct multi-use gallery, studio, classroom and office spaces. The foundation is looking for public and private donors to help.
Working visual artists will act as mentors, offering students real life lessons on being a professional artist (did someone say this?) and helping them learn to create a studio space, network and market, build a portfolio and deal with galleries.
A close student-mentor ratio will ensure highly individualized instruction (who said this?). Bellows Education Coordinator Rebecca Herskovitz wants to create a comfortable, nurturing environment, she said, where students can be themselves and take ownership over these spaces.
“My goal is to create an art learning family,” Herskovitz said.
The Foundation has broad goals. Partnerships with local arts organizations will provide students more educational opportunities. Lesson plans and resources will be made available to art educators. A scholarship and stipend fund will assist students electing to study art in college.
“It’s a completely new take on arts education,” said Bellows Executive Director Anne Meysenburg.
Early on, the family determined art education as the focus. The specific mentoring mission evolved with input by Bluestem Interactive strategic planners. (We need some attribution in this paragraph, too. Who said these things?)
“When the mentorship idea came to us it made such sense because that’s who Kent was and to mesh that with his legacy and with this inspiring space was just the perfect idea,” Griess said. “We always kept in mind, ‘What would Kent want?’”
She said Bellows was “this wonderful big brother” to not only her and her sister but to many others.
“Whatever your thing was he would just celebrate it,” she said.
When he did break from his meticulous work, Griess said, the studio was a vibrant spot where he showed pieces, discussed ideas and jammed with musicians. Creativity was always in play. She hopes students can soon tap into the spirit bound there.
“To emulate that place of creativity and to inhabit it is absolutely contagious,” Herskovitz said. “You can just feel it’s a place where magic was happening. For kids to walk in there every day will be an enchanting thing.”
Randy Brown Architects’ design will alter and open up the studio, though portions will be preserved as Bellows left them; notably the south rear space where his easel still stands and his hand-sharpened pencils lay ready. The upper floor is home to undisturbed set pieces and backdrops. These expressions of Bellows will be conserved, pending funds, by the Ford Conservation Center in Omaha. (Who said this?)
“The ultimate goal,” Meysenburg said, “is to inspire and to ignite the creative spark in the artistic youth of this community.”
The job of documenting Bellows’ prolific original works continues. Researchers are working to create a comprehensive catalogue raisonne of Bellows’ work as Joslyn Art Museum prepares a fall 2009 Bellows retrospective.
Griess called the search a treasure hunt: some previously undiscovered works have turned up, and other notable pieces are still missing in action.
It’s all part of ensuring the Bellows legacy.
“We feel a heavy responsibility about doing this right,” Wesselmann said.
Mentoring programs start this September in yet-to-be-named art facilities, and the foundation has some potential site leads. The foundation is currently recruiting students and staff for its first 16-week semester.
- Debate rages over arts curriculum (theage.com.au)
- Getting Back to the Phantom Skill – NYTimes.com (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Expressive Drawing Class for Youth offered at Lincoln Street Center for Arts and Education (thevalleyvoice.org)