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Ex-gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films ‘Crotty’s Kids’ and ‘Master Debaters’


The longer I do this the more I happen upon folks from Neb. doing really interesting things.  The subject of the following story, James Marshall Crotty, is a good example. He created a career and brand for himself out of whole cloth when he co-conceived and executed a magazine and lifestyle, Monk, and authored city guides predicated on the freedom of the open road and the exploration of all things alternative, fringe, off-the-beaten path, iconoclastic, and, idiosyncratic.  After this gonzo period in his life he’s “gone straight” to report on education for Forbes and to weigh in on the cultural stream for the Huffington Post.  More recently he’s turned filmmaker by producing-directing two documentaries, Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids, that marry his subculture leanings with his love for speech and debate, which he excelled in at Omaha Creighton Prep and coached at New York City high schools.  His experiences observing and coaching debate in inner city environments are captured in his films, both of which are playing the Omaha Film Festival.    See my companion story about the festival on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ex-gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films ‘Crotty’s Kids’ and ‘Master Debaters’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha ex-pat James Marshall Crotty, co-creator of the underground Monk magazine and author of alternative city guides, gained a cult following for his irreverent dashboard reporting about America’s fringes. His arch leanings are on display in two documentaries he’s produced-directed showing at the March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival.

Both films focus on a subculture subject close to his heart, competitive debate. This once itinerant gonzo journalist now based in Los Angeles was a champion debater at Omaha Creighton Prep in the mid 1970s. This self-described “evangelist for debate” passionately portrays the hyper intense activity’s transformational power in his own life and in the lives of South Bronx kids of color.

Master Debaters shows March 6 in the 8:30-10:15 p.m. block of Neb. short docs. Crotty’s Kids shows March 8 at 12:30 p.m. in the feature-length doc block. He’ll do a Q&A after each.

He’s hoping his films inspire funding for an urban debate league he wants to start here as a way to motivate kids to excel in school.

Those familiar with Crotty may find his new gigs as Forbes.com education reporter and crusading debate advocate a departure. It’s actually a catharsis after tiring of the vagabond Kerouac thing, dealing with a protracted lawsuit and losing his intellectual guru and most influential debate mentor – his mother.

He says, Monk, “the National Geographic for freaks,” was as much a rebellion against his Catholic Republican upbringing as anything.

“I was Mr. Alternative hipster subculture guy with Monk and I had this nagging sense the whole time I was interviewing people like the founder of the school for boys who want to be girls to Kurt Cobain to just any kind of an eccentric person or place across the fruited plain that I did not grasp the dominant culture conversation.

“I just felt deep inside I was an uneducated man even though I’d gone to Northwestern. I felt like i was a fraud even though I was really good at spinning this alternative universe.”

He could no longer square his “out there” image with the Jesuit call to be a man for others instilled in him at Prep. He resolved to improve himself and to use debate – “the most profound education experience of my life” – as a means to serve kids from disadvantaged straits.

He felt the discipline of debate helped him and his Prep teammates, among them Alexander Payne (who appears in Crotty’s Kids), find success and he saw no reason it couldn’t do the same for others.

“We were this tribe of academic athletes that learned through debate the ability to speak on our feet, to persuade others about the rightness of our cause. It gives you incredible confidence to tackle any subject. When you’re at the top of your game you’re spending four to five hours a day on it in addition to your schoolwork. And you’re not just reading secondary sources you’re looking up primary sources, you’re going to law libraries, you’re reading studies, you’re really digging deep and you’re able to sort fact from fiction.

“When you have a finely-tuned debate brain the most innocuous statement can be broken apart and you’re able to see through poppycock almost instantly and it’s something really missing in the culture. People are easily bamboozled by false prophets who just because they have such a strong opinion people think they’re telling the truth. That is dangerous for Democracy.”

He says the research skills he learned have served him well.

“I’m able to look beneath the surface to find the truth. Doing Monk I was able to find these people and places that even locals didn’t know existed. That’s because debate trains you to be a geek researcher.”

 

 

 

 

 

The sudden death of his mother in 2002 set him on a “sea change” that led him to become a high school debate coach.

“I really felt the calling to help inner city kids.”

But first he needed to immerse himself in education.

“For years I really wanted to study the classics, the great books of civilization. I finally got the chance after we sued Tony Shalhoub and the producers of the Monk TV show in the late ’90s for stealing our brand. It took two years. In 2000 I decided to give up the Monk (mag) hat and go back to school and study the great books at a great little school called St. Johns College Santa Fe (N.M.).

“You sit around a table seminar-style and the tutors ask really good questions to help you dig deeper into the text. I really became a disciple of their method.”

He emerged from his mid-life crisis with a teaching certificate that allowed him to teach the classics and to coach debate. He began at two elite New York City schools to freshen his chops.

“I had been so long out of the game and I knew it had changed a lot. It’s like coming back to play any sport 25-30 years later. It had gotten so much faster.”

He says coaching proved emotional for him because “it gave me a way to give back during a difficult time in my life – I was mourning my mother through coaching these kids.”

After joining the newly formed Eagle Academy in the mid-2000s he made his experience there the basis for Crotty’s Kids.

 

 

 

 

 

 

He says the difference between a product of white privilege like himself and “a kid who grows up in the South Bronx is not as great as people might think,” adding, “The one thing that was really obvious to me is that a young man in the South Bronx does not just walk into a whole bunch of cultural capital just by osmosis.”

He says his growing up in a home filled with books and dinner-time conversations about current events is a far cry from what the kids he worked with experienced.

“These kids don’t have that by and large. As a result their vocabulary and basic reasoning powers are not being developed. So my job as a coach was to fill in that gap – the cultural capital piece – and the way I did that was to have adult, intellectual, fact-based conversations with them about whatever interested them. I also had my kids read the classics.”

He says the process of competitive speech and debate develops critical thinking skills in youths that have “an incredible trickle down effect that enables them to excel in school at a much higher level than their peers.” He adds, “It sort of feeds on itself. Young men and women at-risk are looking to compete and win. You get them to see it as a sport and they do whatever it takes. It becomes infectious.”

Sure enough, his kids became champions. One earned a full-ride.

Yet the central focus of Crotty’s Kids is Crotty, not the kids. He comes off as charismatic, quirky, caring, driven. He didn’t intend being the “star” but the footage or lack thereof dictated it.

“It’s not the Hoop Dreams of debate I wanted to make, it’s some other film,” he says.

He’s still in touch with some of his old students, several of whom are doing well in college.

“I’m a kind of surrogate father figure but I don’t push it. I had my chance to really impart as much as I could while I was with them but they need to figure things out on their own. They always know I’m there for them if they ever get in a jam.”

Terence “Bud” Crawford in the fight of his life for lightweight title: top contender from Omaha’s mean streets looks to make history

February 25, 2014 Leave a comment

UPDATE: The subject of this story, Terence “Bud” Crawford of Omaha, won the WBO world lightweight championship in convincing fashion on March 1 over Ricky Burns in Glasgow, Scotland.  My Reader cover story about Crawford appeared right on the eve of his title bid and just as was his gameplan he left no doubt and nothing to chance in claiming a unanimous 12-round decision.

Boxing in Omaha was never necessarily big the way it’s been in certain cities and towns but for a long time it definitely exerted a presence and enjoyed a loyal following here on both the amateur and professional ends of the sport.   Starting around the 1980s and certainly by the 1990s interest among participants and spectators fell off rather dramatically.  Part of that is explained by the general decline in boxing that happened nationwide as the sport found itself increasingly criticized for the injuries and deaths and longterm disabilities suffered by fighters as well as scandalized by the lax rules and ethics attending the game that allowed professional opponents like Omaha’s own Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss to take fight after fight in close order under assumed names and with little or no training.  The reprehensible and mondo bizzaro antics of  various high profile fighters didn’t help its standing.   With boxing under attack and more and more relegated to a frringe actviity mixed martial arts arrived on the scene to offer something new and different and ever since then boxing’s struggled to keep apace or even hold on in some cases.   It’s not so much that society rejects violent or extreme sports, otherwise how to explain the popularity of MMA, but that boxing is seen as something archaic or passe in a world of many high adrenalin, high risk sports that push the envelope, whether it be MMA, snowboarding, skateboarding, hang gliding, windsurfing, base jumping, rock climbing, mountain biking, et cetera.  The list goes on and on.  Omaha boxing gyms used to number a dozen or more at any given time but now that number is a fraction of what it used to be.  Many gyms offer heavy and speed bags and perhaps even a ring for shadowboxing but these are more fitness centers focused on the conditioning benefits of boxing rather than on specifically training boxers to do actual combat.  A sure sign of boxing’s decline here was when Omaha hosted the National Golden Gloves a few years ago and the crowds numbered a few thousand at most, which was less than what local-regional boxing tournaments here used to draw.

Nebraska’s produced some good fighters over time but very, very few who could be considered world class.  The top flight fighters out of here have become even fewer and farther between.  With this as the background and context for where boxing resides in Omaha a local fighter named Terence “Bud” Crawford is contending for the WBO lightweight championship in Glasgow, Scotland on March 1.  Considering what Crawford is going for there should be more buzz around here about his title bid but then again the lack of attention, awareness, and excitement is an accurate reflection of boxing’s tenuous position these days.  As I say in the following cover story about Crawford I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) , which hits the stands Feb. 27, if this were happening decades ago Crawford would be the toast of this sports town.  But these days Creighton men’s basketball is the preferred sports flavor and its superstar Doug McDermott is the man of the hour, not Crawford.  There are a lot of reasons for that beyond those I described above and I allude to some of them in my Reader piece.

On this blog you can find an earlier New Horizons story I wrote about Crawford and his close relationship with trainer Midge Minor.  You can also find stories about the CW Boxing Gym, also known as the CW Boxing Club and CW Youth Resource Center, which is where Crawford got his start.  And for that matter you can find several more boxing pieces I’ve done over the years about Ron Stander, Morris Jackson, the Hernandez Brothers, Servando Perales, Tom Lovgren, Kenny Wingo and the Downtown Boxing Club, et cetera.

A photo montage of Terence “Bud’ Crawford:

 

 

©Omaha World-Herald

 

 

Terence “Bud” Crawford in the fight of his life for lightweight title: top contender from Omaha’s mean streets looks to make history

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As Omaha glories in Creighton Bluejays hoops superstar Doug McDermott’s historic season, another local sports figure going for greatness flies under the radar.

Boxer Terence “Bud” Crawford challenges for the WBO lightweight title March 1 against champion Ricky Burns in the title holder’s native Scotland. The scheduled 12-rounder is being televised in the States by AWE, a hard to find cable-satellite network. The fight is scheduled for   2 p.m. (CST).

The CU campus McDermott’s put on the map is mere few blocks from The Hood Crawford grew up in and where his recently opened gym, B & B Boxing Academy, 3034 Sprague Street, is located. But these two stars might as well be worlds apart. McDermott’s a product of white privilege. His biggest challenge was deciding whether to return for his senior year or sign an NBA contract. The African-American Crawford is a product of the inner city. He grew up fighting in the streets and getting kicked out of schools. On the eve of his first pro bout he was shot in the head on the same mean streets of his youth.

McDermott, soon to be a three-time All-American, is the consensus  favorite to win national player of the year honors. He competes before 18,000 adoring home fans. Crawford’s compiled a 22-0 record, 16 by knockout, yet he’s never once fought professionally in his hometown though he trains and resides here. Where McDermott excels at a team sport embedded in popular culture, Crawford toils at a lone wolf game that’s lost traction in this mixed martial arts age. While McDermott’s every move is celebrated and scrutinized, Crawford operates in relative obscurity. Unless you follow boxing on HBO, you’ve likely not seen him fight and until reading this were oblivious to his upcoming title shot.

Decades ago, when boxing still mattered in places like Omaha and when there weren’t alphabet soup titles with deluded value, Crawford’s world championship bid would have been big news. Still, just getting in this position should be cause for celebration today. If he prevails in Glasgow – oddsmakers and experts give him anywhere from a decent to an excellent chance – he’d be the first major boxing champ from Neb. since heavyweight Max Bear in 1934. The last time a local fought for an undisputed title was 1972, when Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander met heavyweight king Joe Frazier at the Civic Auditorium and got bloodied like a stuck pig for his trouble.

Co-manager-trainer Brian “BoMac” McIntyre feels Omaha’s not embracing this historic moment involving one of its own. He says given the way Crawford represents by proudly identifying his hometown on his trunks and giving it props in interviews, it’s a shame Omaha doesn’t “stand up” for him in return. If that lack of love bothers Crawford the hard-as-nails pragmatist with washboard abs isn’t admitting it. He’s aware boxing is dead here and he’s intent on reviving it. He did soak up support from friends, family and well-wishing fans at a send-off party at Brewsky’s before Team Crawford left Feb. 22.

Ask what winning a world title might mean to his community and Crawford answers, “Honestly, I really don’t know because Omaha is really big on MMA, Creighton and Nebraska and nobody really talks about boxing that much. I feel if I was to bring that title back here it could boost us or it could just stay the same, where like a handful of people acknowledge what just happened and the rest are still like, Oh, it’s just boxing.

“We’ve got a lot of talent in Omaha but a lot of people give up because of no resources and backing. As a professional you have to go to your opponent’s backyard because we don’t really have professional boxing in Omaha. I can’t remember the last time we had a full professional boxing card in Omaha. It’s real down here, so it’s real hard to get motivated on boxing.”

He hopes his academy does for youth what the CW Boxing Club where he started and still has ties did for him and many others.

“We want to help kids that need help with that father figure in their life by talking to them, teaching them to stay in school and listen to their parents and elders, things like that. A lot of kids in the neighborhood don’t have nowhere to be after school. They can just come in here, relieve some stress, relieve some anger. We don’t know what’s going on in their household. They might be going through a lot and boxing might be the outlet to relieve some of that rather than doing something they’ll regret the rest of their life.”

Crawford hasn’t let Omaha’s tepid interest hold him back.

“You know what, he don’t give a f___ about that, I swear to God he don’t,” McIntyre says. “He looks at it like, ‘If they do get behind me so be it, if they don’t, oh well.’ They really weren’t behind him when he was an amateur and now that he’s here they’re really still not behind him. That’s just more fuel to the fire to win the fight.”

McIntyre, a Team Crawford member since the fighter was a top amateur for the CW, whose namesake Carl Washington discovered the young scrapper, says Crawford’s always fought an uphill battle for respect. As a teen Crawford’s hot temper made him a handful. After some false starts, CW coach Midge Minor took him under his wing.

“I was a bad kid, when I came in I was just rough, I didn’t care about training, nothing, I just wanted to fight,” recalls Crawford. “Midge would throw me in there with anybody, he didn’t care. Sometimes I’d get beat up, sometimes I’d win. The thing that separated me from everybody else was if I got beat up by one of the older kids I’d come back the next day like, ‘I want to spar him, I don’t want nobody else but him.’ And Midge would be looking at me, ‘You’ve got heart, I like you.’ So I’d get in there and keep sparring until I started beating them. I think that’s what really elevated me to where I’m at.”

 

 

 

 

Minor, who’s old enough to be Crawford’s grandpa, has been the main wise counsel and steadying influence for the fighter.

“Anytime I needed anything or needed someone to talk to he was always there,” Crawford says. “He’s played a big factor in my life. He’s a great father figure in my life.”

Following stints at alternative schools, Crawford finally found a home at Bryan High School, where he graduated, Despite great success as an amateur, his hard case attitude alienated him from the boxing establishment. He also ran up against the stigma that fighters from here traditionally fare poorly at nationals. Crawford dispelled that image by advancing to the semis of the National Golden Gloves in Omaha. Outside the Gloves he beat virtually everyone in his weight and age class. But the politics of the sport pegged him a bad apple and so certain opportunities bypassed him.

McIntyre says, “He wasn’t the poster boy for USA boxing. Terence was a bodacious kid. He’s always been the underdog. When he went to the nationals and to the Olympic Trials people said you can’t do it because you’re from Neb. and they always get beat in the first round, so he’s always had something against him.”

Crawford never let those perceptions stop him, even after being kicked off the USA team, thus spoiling any chance of fighting in the Olympics, which was fine with the fighter, who had a bigger dream in mind.

Then, as now, nothing gets in the way of what Crawford wants.

“He was ranked number one and there was a national tournament in Calif. we couldn’t afford to go to,” says McIntyre. “USA Boxing gave him a stipend every other month and he saved his money and paid for his own ticket and hotel. At 17 he went out there by himself, he found a coach to get him to the weigh-ins. He found a way. That will and determination separates him from anybody I’ve ever run into.”

Crawford’s not only kept McIntyre and Minor in his camp. he’s assembled a team made up of his old sparring partners and coaches. Loyalty is big with him. His other co-manager is Cameron Dunkin, a Las Vegas-based boxing magnet who handles the business side.

Some predict the highly skilled Crawford, who combines quick hands and feet with deft moves and some power, will handle the more experienced Burns. The champ’s 36-2-1 record includes many high stakes fights but some recent disputed decisions. Others question how Crawford will deal with such a big stage before a hostile crowd.

Crawford says, “It’s going to be a different atmosphere, everybody’s going to be against me, but I like it like that because that’s just going to feed me energy to shut ‘em up and keep ‘em quiet.”

He’s well aware he can’t afford to leave anything to chance and give the judges any wiggle room to score the fight in favor of the home boy.

“That’s the plan – to dominate like I’e been doing with all my other opponents. In my 22 fights I can’t think of a fighter I’ve fought that won two rounds, so I’ve just got to be me and do what I do best.”

 

 

Team Crawford

 

 

He’s keeping his emotions in check leading up to the bout

“Honestly, I ain’t got no feeling at all, like I’m not excited whatsoever. The other day BoMac said, ‘Man, ain’t you anxious?’ and I was like, ‘Naw, I’m just ready to fight’ I’ve been doing this all my life, this is my dream. I never wanted to be an Olympian, I never wanted to win a gold medal, I always wanted to be a world champion. I wanted to turn pro at 17 but they insisted I try out for the Olympic team.”

With him finally on the cusp of HIS dream he can’t afford giddiness.

“This is what I wanted to do, so now that it’s here I’m the one who’s got to go in there and handle my business and then when I win it I’m going to be happy. It’s strictly business right now. I’m not happy I’m fighting for a world title, no. I’m going to be happy when I win it though.

“I’m ready to do what I’ve been doing all my life and that’s showing people how good my talent is.”

Many Omaha boxing scene veterans believe Crawford may just be the best fighter, pound-for-pound, to ever come out of here.

Crawford, the father of two children, says his confidence is high because he’s left nothing to chance in training. Sticking with a routine  that’s worked before, he began training for Burns in Omaha, then went to Colorado Springs for the added conditioning high altitude promotes and the better sparring available there, the site of USA Boxing. Being away from home also helped eliminate distractions. McIntyre says it’s all about getting focused and following a regimented workout process from 8 to 8 daily that ensures he didn’t peak too early.

After the four-week camp Crawford returned home mid-February to fine-tune, stay sharp and maintain just the right edge.

Even after weeks of intense training that encompassed running, swimming, sit-ups and sparring, Crawford says there’s still an element of doubt that naturally attends any fight.

“There’s always going to be a doubt and a what-if with any fighter, I don’t care who he is. They’re going to always have doubt in the back of their mind. Did they do enough? What if this happens? What if that happens? But that’s when you got to adapt and you got to adjust to the situation and that’s what I plan to do.”

 

 

The cover of my New Horizons story on Crawford and his bond with trainer Midge Minor

 

 

As for his strategy, he says, “basically it’s just me fighting my fight,” adding “I just always feel like if I fight like I want to fight can’t nobody beat me. I’ve got so many styles, so it’s going to be hard to capitalize on one style because I’ll switch up or change it up.”

All the coaching and strategizing in the world doesn’t mean anything, he says, if you can’t execute it.

“It’s up to me to establish it and carry it on into the ring. We can train all day, every day, we can do this and that. Like Ricky Burns, he can say he’s got something new, he’s going do this and that, but all that don’t matter if you get in the ring and you can’t establish what you want to do. When we get in the ring then it’s all going to tell.”

Crawford refuses to fight out of character. He’s too smart to be drawn into adopting a style or forcing the action that’s not in his best interest. Even when boos rained down on him in Orlando, Fla. as he dismantled Russian Andrey Klimov in an Oct. 4, 2013 fight, Crawford was content to stick with his plan of outboxing his foe even though going for a KO would have pleased onlookers and HBO executives. He says he’ll neither get into a brawling match with Burns nor take undue chances testing the champ’s repaired jaw, which was broken in his last title defense, for the sake of pleasing the crowd or boosting ratings.

“I’m not going to go out there and just go for haymakers and get caught with stupid stuff. I’m just going to go out there and do what I do and if the knockout comes it comes, if it don’t it don’t. I’m just going out there to win that title and that’s the only thing on my mind.”

He maintains a healthy respect for Burns or any opponent.

“I don’t underestimate nobody. Even if it’s a fight I know I’m going to knock the dude out I always go in there like, What if? It keeps me driving, it keeps me on my Ps and Qs, it keeps me more focused because you never know – one punch can beat you.”

He says you also won’t catch him doing any pre-fight grandstanding or gamesmanship at the weigh-in press conference. Not his style, though he’s says if Burns comes at him he’ll come right back. However, Crawford does use those occasions to size up his opponent and what he finds can be revealing.

“Sometimes I’ll see right through you. I can see in your eyes a little twitch. On the outside you look like you’re this big bad guy but on the inside you’re afraid for your life. You’re a nervous wreck.”

At the end of the day, there’s nothing about this fight or any fight that scares him. Compared to a bullet in the head it’s no big deal.

“I’ve been shot, I’m not going over there worried about what’s going to happen in the ring. I’m ready, period. I’ve got my mind made up, I’ve got my goals set, and I’m going up there and I’m going to get it. I’m not going to let nothing or nobody stop me from conquering my dreams.”

Do the right thing Omaha and stand up for your own as he goes for history.

‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ Author Leo Adam Biga at Feb. 22 Author’s Fair

February 21, 2014 1 comment

‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ Author Leo Adam Biga at Feb. 22 Author’s Fair

Show me and my fellow metro area authors some love at the Omaha Public Library’s annual Author’s Fair, this Saturday, Feb. 22, from 1 to 4 pm, at the downtown W. Dale Clark Library.  I’ll be there with my Alexander Payne book and dozens more area authors will be there with their books.  It all happens on the 4th floor.  There’s a publishing panel from 2 to 3.  Hope to see you there.  My book sells for $20.  Get yours at the Fair and I’ll sign it for you.

My book makes a great reference companion for watching the Academy Awards.  Payne’s “Nebraska” is up for six Oscars and I’m betting it wins one or two, possibly three. But the book is an even greater additon to your permanent home library because Payne is only going to become a more significant filmmaker as time goes on.  His work is only going to be more celebrated and studied.  And my book gives you a comprehensive grounding in the journey he’s traveled to become the great cinema artist he is today.

If you can’t make it to the Fair, then be on the look out for coming announcements about a new edition of the book (March 2014 release) featuring my “Nebraska” coverage.  I’ll be doing a whole new round of media interviews and signing-speaking events.  Hope to see you sooner or later.

 

 

AP Front Cover w border

Nik Fackler’s ‘Sick Birds Die Easy’ captures a paradise lost

February 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Sick Birds Die Easy falls uneasily in that long lineage of films about Westerners who go to Third World nations and become part of the legacy of exploitation that happens there.  Nik Fackler’s new film set mostly in the jungles of Gabon, Africa is a wonderfully strange concoction because part of his intent with it was to indict the sort of post-colonial entitlement and paternalism that finds privileged Westerners spoiling paradises, in this case ancient Bwiti culture and the use of Iboga, with their poisioned attitudes and behaviors.  His other intent was to find healing for a crew member and friend.  But since his film straddles the line of documentary and fictional film, with some scenes real and others fabricated, it may actually have the reverse affect of what he intended.  Regardless of how you feel about what he depicts and  how he depicts it, he does capture arresting, sometimes beauitfully surreal visuals and poses some profound questions.  It is one of those works that will likely leave you hot or cold about it.  It took me two or three viewings before I fell into its quixotic internal rhythms and logic.  This weird mash-up of The Last Movie, The Emerald Forest and Apocalpyse Now is definitely worth a look.  It’s been playing festivals and now it’s come to his hometown, Omaha, for a one-night only screening at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at Film Streams. The writer-director will do a Q&A after the show.  This is my soon to appear piece about the project for The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

 

Nik Fackler’s ‘Sick Birds Die Easy’ captures a paradise lost

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Filmmaker, musician and psychedelia aficionado Nik Fackler is a millennial seeker. It’s no surprise then he followed his well-crafted made-in-Omaha feature debut Lovely, Still (2008) with documentaries exploring cultures half-a-world away.

One doc brought him to Nepal to capture the phenomenon of a boy buddha returned from remote self-exile back into civilization. That untitled film is as yet unfinished. The completed other doc, Sick Birds Die Easy, brought Fackler to Ebando Village in Gabon, Africa in 2011, to contrast ancient Bwiti culture with modern Western culture.

After a taxing shoot and edit the visually-arresting Sick Birds hit festivals last year. Now it has a one-night screening at Film Streams. Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. Fackler will do a post-show Q&A.. He’ll surely address the pic’s self-referential depiction of privileged cultural tourists, namely himself and his crew, experimenting with Iboga and its well-known hallucinogenic effects and reputed healing properties and the surreal, self-indulgent weirdness that ensued.

Fackler intentionally encouraged mayhem – from giving every crew member a camera to not securing an interpreter to bringing along two addicts to working without a structure.

“Shooting the film was a complete disaster,” he says. “I was setting up a disaster for myself because that’s what I wanted it to be.”

Mentor-producer Dana Atman reluctantly went and soon regretted it.

“He didn’t want to do it, he didn’t want to come to Africa,” Fackler says of Altman, who’s since taken a step back from filmmaking. “He had the hardest job. There’s so much behind the scenes he had to deal with, like how difficult it was to get us fed and how the Ebando were constantly renegotiating how much money we needed to give them for their help. This was happening every day and it was all on Dana’s shoulders. There were a lot of times he wouldn’t come on set.”

Several days of shooting presented Fackler, who edited alone, a daunting task once back home.

“Editing Sick Birds was hell. I had literally hundreds of hours of footage.

It was like taking a pile of chaos and making order out of it. It’s definitely a film made in the editing room.

“I didn’t know what documentary editing was going to be like. I should have known it would take a lot longer than narrative. It’s a really tough process.”

The project’s harsh realities – everyone got wasted and sick and relationships were strained – humbled Fackler. But playing God still comes with the territory. In voice-over narration and interviews he makes clear he sought to find in Gabon a lost Eden that is the antithesis of the West. From his POV America is a sick nation that destroys the indigenous cultures it touches. In this first-person, Werner Herzog-like immersion into a strange land he shows the collision of two cultures and the inevitable spoiling and corrupting of paradise.

Even though he says off-camera, “This is not the film I meant to make,” he clearly manipulates things to arrive where he intended to be.

The set-up finds Fackler enlisting two addict friends for the journey. Small farmer-actor-comedian Ross Brockley spouts paranoia, conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. He ostensibly goes to kick his heroin habit. Musician-poet-alcoholic Sam Martin goes as the company’s resident “minstrel” and acerbic archival of Ross. In Gabon the team meets Tatayo, a French expatriate initiate in Bwiti spiritual practices whose gone jungle wild with mysticism, ritual and drugs (think Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now).

We appear to see Fackler and his on-screen crew, all playing versions of themselves, shooting a doc. Fackler is the intrepid writer-director seemingly intent on getting his film at any cost. But the film was actually lensed by Lovely, Still director of photography Sean Kirby, who’s unseen and only referred to in the credits.

Fackler acknowledges some dramatic moments in his film-within-a-film were staged. Given this odd melange, which he calls “a hyper creative” hybrid of documentary and drama, he may field some tough questions from purists who prefer more definition or transparency.

So is Sick Birds real or contrived?

“It’s all those things,” he says. “What’s real is the guts of it, the history and Bwiti, my interviews with Tatayo, the Iboga ceremony, Ross getting up in the middle of it and yelling at Tatayo. None of that was planned. When you see us all fucked up on Iboga and tired we really are fucked up and tired. That’s pretty accurate. That was part of the disaster.”

 

 

Montage of production stills from Sick Birds Die Easy

 

 

Real or not, the film indicts self-indulgent Westerners running amok in a pristine land.

Fackler says he did assemble an edit where he revealed at the end “it was all fake” but he preferred the “enigma of weirdness and questions.” That other version, he says, “didn’t spawn any questions or conversation, but when people thought it was real it spawned this wave of conversation. I loved that.”

“The lesson I learned is that the more you research the great enigmas you’re going to get more questions. There are no answers.”

Besides, he adds, “Bwiti is a trickster culture and the film itself is a trickster film. It’s not a traditional film. It’s not one that is safe in any way. What I like about the art of filmmaking is you can take people to a place and attempt to put them in a mind-altered state. I like mind-altered states. I like to show there’s more to life than just your current perception.”

With Sick Birds Fackler tried breaking from hidebound filmmaking.

“There’s different ways of doing film. I did the music video thing (for Saddle Creek Records label artists), and I did the narrative feature thing and learned about using my intuition through that. I’d go to set every day with Lovely, Still with a shot list and by the end of shooting I didn’t have anything, I was just showing up on set and looking at everything and saying, ‘OK, this is how to shoot this scene.’ This (Sick Birds) was an extreme version of that.”

 

 

Nik Fackler gone jungle wild

 

 

Even though no one’s “saved” in the end, Fackler says, “I really believe in Iboga and I’ve seen it work for people. But I learned you can’t change people. If anything, Ross has gotten even more paranoid.”

Fackler, a recreational drug user and alternative health adherent, hopes his film’s depiction of wayward Westerners doesn’t distort the path of fellow travelers seeking enlightenment and cure,

“I wouldn’t want Ebondo Village to get flooded with 18 year-olds dropping acid. though psychedelic tourism is happening. I don’t want to be promoting this type of behavior. I was trying to expose it. I don’t want to hurt Bwiti’s cause or this underground movement of trying to heal drug addicts.”

Fackler’s glad for the experience.

Lovely, Still is very much the film of a child and Sick Birds Die Easy is the film of a rebellious teenager. This film is very much about me growing up and the harsh hit of reality, the fear, not having answers to anything, rising from that dark night. I think it was a very important step for me as a filmmaker. I feel I succeeded making a film that could have been given up on. I’m proud of it.”

As for what’s next, he says, “The art you’re making is directly connected to the searching you’re doing within yourself. As long as I don’t stop searching I will be making art. That’s my way of  understanding what I’m searching for.”

 

 

Color-blind love: Five interracial couples share their stories

February 6, 2014 3 comments

If you’ve noticed I write a lot about race, you’re right.  That is to say I do revisit the subject in various ways in assorted stories, though truthfully race makes up a very small percentage of what I write about.  But there are reasons why I keep returning to the topic and some of them are very personal to me.  The following  cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about interracial relationships will appear in that newspaper’s Valentine’s issue.  Why interracial relationships?  Well, I’ve been in three in a 14-year period.  Each with an African-American woman.  The first of these was of long duration, 12-plus years.  She died in October 2012.  The next was of very short duration.  The most recent is with my girlfriend of six months.  We intend to get married one day.  My interest in dating interracially can be traced in part to my growing up experience.  I was raised in a northeast Omaha neighborhood that was almost entirely white until I was 10 or 12.  I was born in 1958 and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that blacks could get homes as far “west” as 42nd Street in North Omaha because of restrictive covenants and red lining tactics.  We lived at 42nd and Maple.  As the landmark TV series All in the Family became a sensation in the very early 1970s my older brothers and I used to joke that our father was our family’s own Archie Bunker.  It was an exaggeration to call him that but he definitely had some bigoted attitudes.  For proof that God has a sense of humor the first black family on the block moved on one side of us, the second black family on the block moved on the other side of us, and for good measure a single black woman moved across the street.  My father and mother got along famously with our black neighbors.  My brothers were too old to be playmates or friends with the black neighbor kids but I wasn’t and so I spent a fair amount of time over their homes as they did over my home playing Army Man, ping pong, pool, and just exploring the neighborhood.  My folks and the black adults next door to us and the black woman across from us enjoyed amiable, cordial, even warm relationships.  While this was playing out on my home turf I had a very different experience when visiting my Italian-American and Polish-American relatives in South Omaha.  Many of them said racist things, freely using the “n” word and criticizing my parents for staying put as our neighborhood became increasingly integrated and within a few years predominantly black.  My uncles and aunts said things like, “How can you live with those people?  Why don’t you move?”  But my folks didn’t feel right joining the white flight bandwagon.  My mom actually worried about the message that would send to our black neighbors, who by the late ’70s were all around us.

By the time I became a journalist in the mid to late 1980s I had personally observed the transformation of my neighborhood from virtually all-white to nearly all-black.  I would remain in that neighborhood, in the house I grew up in, until 2005, my parents having long since moved out.  I saw a lot of things play out in The Hood that gave me a certain appreciation for and understanding of African-American life from a social justice, sociological, cultural, anthropological perspective.  By the mid 1990s I had begun interviewing and profiling African-Americans and reporting on black subjects, past and present, and that work began giving me additional perspective.  I’ve filed a few hundred stories by now related to various aspects of black culture.  It doesn’t make me an expert, but I am an interested and careful observer and I hope my work synthesises some of the complex history, issues, and context that inform these subjects.  My work in this area led me to develop many sources, acquaintances, and friends among blacks, male and female, young and old, from all walks of life.  I’ve long admired black women and I’ve found many attractive but I never acted on that interest or impulse until I was 42.  My first interracial dating experience ended up being a long-term committed relationship with a wonderful woman named Joslen whom I met at the same American Red Cross job we worked.  Twelve-plus years with her afforded me my most intimate window yet into Black America.  She passed away far too young at age 53.  I’m still very close with her family.  The next relationship only lasted four months but it gave me an intense immersion into the life of a talented singer, devout Christian, and outstanding mother.  Her name was Carole.  My current relationship, though only six months old, is quite serious and shows every indication of being for keeps.  Pam is a writer, photographer, mixed media artist, and community activist-advocate with a strong faith life.   She’s the mother of two adult children.  Through her I’m obviously getting a whole new exposure to the  journey of a woman who happens to be black and it’s only enriching me even more.  Of course, in the vast majority of my time spent with these partners race didn’t-doesn’t enter the picture.  We engaged-engage as a couple, as man and woman, as distinct personalities with both shared and divergent interests, not as racial tokens or archetypes.

Though the following story is not about me or my interracial datiing history, my background with regards to intermixing inevitably, inescapably infuses what I write and how I write about it.  I did quite intentionally choose to make black-white couples the focus of my piece because that has been my own lived experience in relationships these past 14 years.  Besides, the black-white dynamic is the core racial dynamic in America and I feel at least that any examination of racial relations, and in this case racial mixing, needs to begin and end there, even though I fully recognize there are many other interracial pairings beyond this that could very well and should be examined.  But I’m just one writer and this is just one story.  I chose to write this article because it’s closest to my heart and head.  Someone else will have to write that other story.

 

 

 

 

 

Color-blind love: Five interracial couples share their stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Two bodies in the mirror:
one’s me, the other’s you,
with two far different cultures
some say will bring just strife.
A DIFFERENT SHADE OF LOVING,
a different color of life.

Valentine’s Day is a reminder that though love comes naturally, it’s not without obstacles.

Given America’s apartheid legacy, interracial romance has historically been taboo, scandalous or confined to back-door liaisons. As recently as 1967 Southern anti-miscegenation laws criminalized having intimate relations with or marrying someone of another race.

If you think America’s beyond all this, consider that a Louisiana justice of the peace denied an interracial couple a marriage license in 2009. A Cheerios commercial depicting a black-white couple and their biracial child elicited complaints in 2013. Interracial love portrayals are still rare enough to make news. Hollywood treatments range from treacly (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) to melodramatic (Monster’s Ball) to sophomoric (Guess Who?) to banal (Something New).

Whether your interracial poster couple is Kim and Kanye or newly elected New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio with his black wife and their biracial children high profile images such as these reinforce the emerging mosaic. The phenomenon is real, not hype. In 2012 the Pew Research Center found interracial marriages in the U.S. reached a record 4.8 million or an all-time high of 8.4 percent of all U.S. marriages. More recent Pew studies find broad acceptance of interracial coupling among all major racial-ethnic groups and the increase of biracial children blurring color lines as never before.

This organic movement is a result of individuals pairing off according to the law of attraction, not social constraints.

Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and family

 

 

Even when mixing risked not just gossip or indignation but danger and imprisonment, it still went on. Some couples openly defied convention and ostracism. Some challenged race laws in court. It seems human heart desires trump artificial efforts to keep different persuasions apart.

There’s also the intrigue of exploring the other side. Online adult sites promote interracial hookups that range from romantic dates to one-night-stands to paid sexual encounters.

When it comes to amour, anecdotal currents say race is not a driving factor for mixed couples though it can be for those around them.

 

 

Interracial marriage was and still is a civil rights issue

 

 

Five metro couples, all variations of black-white twosomes, recently shared their stories. None of the individuals involved went looking for a partner of another race, it just happened. While their relationships are not racialized, race is an undeniable factor in their lived experience.

Emily Pearce and Travis Mountain are 30-somethings who each dated interracially before getting together. He has two children from previous relationships, including a son whose mother is white. Emily, a fitness instructor and elementary school vocal instructor and Travis, a U.S. Marine veteran, personal trainer and rapper, are parents of a girl, Rebel Mountain.

They’re keenly aware being interracial matters to some.

“I do think it makes a difference to people,” Emily says. “I don’t think we’ll ever live in a post-racial world, honestly. Neither of us thinks of us as being in an interracial relationship but other people do, and it does bother me.”

“As far as interracial couples, like it or not it’s something popular now,” says Travis, aka Aso. “It’s just more accepted. If people do have a problem with it it’s more just kept to themselves.”

Not always.

“It does get thrown in your face ,” Emily says. “If you go somewhere    without a lot of diversity you do get looks.”

She says at some schools she’s taught at black women staffers became unfriendly when they discovered she was dating Travis.

“They treated me differently. They were nasty to me.”

“Her dating me has opened her eyes about how differently she’s treated by dating somebody that’s black,” Travis says. “Black women hate to see ‘a good black man’ date a white woman because they look at it like you’re taking that black man away from our community but I don’t look at it that way.

“People want to put you in a category and it’s so stupid.”

 

 

Travis Mountain and Emily Pearce

 

 

The two hail from widely divergent backgrounds. She’s from an intact middle class family in Enid, Oklahoma. He was the only male in a single mother-headed home in North Omaha projects. She says her educator parents brought her up to be color-blind and never had an issue with her dating outside her race. He says the matriarchs of his family disapproved of interracial dating but didn’t have a problem when he did it. Each feels accepted by the other’s family.

“It’s like homosexuality – you can have a problem with it if you want to but what happens if it’s your brother or your kid? So be careful what you’re really hating because it might just happen to you,” says Travis.

“Neither of us set out to be in an interracial relationship, we just liked each other and we really balance each other out and I think it is because of the totally different experiences we have,” says Emily.

Dell and Lena Gines are another 30-something couple. They too faced little family resistance. She’s white and he’s the product of interracial parents. Together 23 years, Dell and Lena have five children. They feel America’s moved forward on race but has far to go.

Lena, a fitness instructor, says Dell’s parents have “shared some of their struggles and we definitely didn’t have to go through the same struggles. I think their generation kind of paved the way a little bit. It’s come so much further from even when we were dating. Seeing that progress is encouraging but it’s very slow.”

“It’s going to take more time,” says Dell, senior community development director with the Omaha Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. “I’ve never met somebody that’s past the race thing but I know people who are comfortable with interracial relationships while acknowledging the race thing. I do think we’re more aware of race and are more willing to recognize people can get together and function in relationships regardless of race.”

Dell grew up in multicultural northeast Omaha, where he says he came up with “tons of mixed kids.” Self-identifyng as black, he and his biracial friends dated both black and white girls.

“It was a normal thing.”

Lena didn’t grow up around people of color. Her first interracial dating experience was with Dell, whom she took for Middle Eastern. When she discovered he was black, she says, “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

For them, it’s never been about race. “We fit and that was it,” she says.

Dell says, “I think it’s very important to note our similarities outweigh our differences.”

“I didn’t even think about the racial thing until he came to my family’s Christmas party, where everybody else was white and I was like, ‘Oh, this looks different.’ Then he took me to an African-American church and it was like reversed,” says Lena.

 

 

Dell and Lena Gines

 

 

The couple intentionally reside in North O for the diversity it exposes their biracial children to.

One of the few times someone confronted her about being with a black man was when a woman at a hair salon called Lena a n_____-lover.

“It took me by surprise,” she says. “That’s when it kind of became real. I didn’t have any friends, black or white, who had any issues with it, but I had other black women say things to me like, ‘You’re taking one of ours’ and ‘Why don’t you leave him to us?’”

Dell says racial baiting is “past the tipping point” now that interracial relationships are trending up, adding. “East of 72nd it’s such a common sight. Maybe if I lived out west I would have a different experience. You’re rarely going to hear it from black guys anyway. You’re much more likely to hear it from black girls. I’ve never had anybody actually come up to me and challenge or question me on that. I would dare anybody to say anything about it to my face.”

He believes intermixing will create a new racial narrative in America.

“You’re going to have kids like me or my children identifying along lines that aren’t so clear anymore. It’s going to change the way people look at race and ethnicity. It has to. Once you can get past identifying people as a class or a group and you identify them as individuals then it’s hard to keep gross intolerance in play.

“The rise of interracial relationships is going to force change because it means families that probably haven’t intermixed now have to. When you meet people on that basis then you begin to see things other than ethnicity or race.”

Ron and Twany Dotzler make their 33-year mixed marriage and large rainbow family – they’re parents to 14  – a living symbol of inclusion and tolerance through their Abide Network and Bridge Church.

The mid-50ish couple met at now defunct Tarkio (Mo.) College, where both played basketball. He came from insular all-white rural Iowa. He was naive about his own prejudice and the plight of Black Americans. She came from an almost exclusively black Washington D.C. neighborhood and the discrimination her family endured made them wary of whites. Twany says she once couldn’t conceive of being with a white man because “I just couldn’t see what two people from different backgrounds would have in common.”

 

 

The Dotzlers, Twany and Ron (holding baby), 5th and 6th from left, back row

 

 

When they got together in the early 1980s his family had no problem with his choice of mate but many residents of his hometown did.

“A lot of people were outraged. A big uproar.”

Twany’s family opposed their union. It took time, but acceptance came.

Each partner also had to work on their own racial hangups, especially when they began having children.

The family’s encountered welcome and disdain. The first few years the Dotzlers were married they lived in Broken Bow, Neb. They moved to the burbs, where Ron says, “Everybody seemed to accept us.” After entering the ministry the pair committed themselves to mission work. North Omaha became their calling. Racial incidents began happening.

“We were at a restaurant in Fort Calhoun and this guy at the bar yells, ‘Hey, you n––––r, yeah, you n––––r, get out of here.’ At a church picnic one of my kids goes to kick a ball and another kid kicks it and says, ‘Aw, go get it n––––r.”

When the couple applied to have their kids attend a small Washington County school local residents turned out en mass at a school board meeting to oppose their admission.

“Other families had been accepted. Our family had been rejected. We were denied access to the school,” Ron says.

“That was a real blow,” Twany says. “They didn’t want us to come.”

Overturning fear-based perceptions is what the Dotzlers do through Abide sponsored home renovation projects, neighborhood cleanups and justice journeys that bring diverse people together.

“I think that’s why I love what we do,” says Twany. “We can be a bridge to expose people to those differences, to people who may not think like you do, act like you do, look like you do, yet if you can just be intentional about getting to know them through relationships you’ll see what we do have in common and what we can do together.

“It’s all relational – seeing a person different from you and being able to value them right where they’re at. We’ve been getting people together to build relationships, to break down those denominational walls, those racial walls, those economic walls, for a long time. When you have to be together for a long period of time you learn some things about yourself and about others.”

Somehow some folks are threatened
by what we represent,
Although to make a statement
was never our intent.

 

 

Michael and Cassandra Beacom

 

 

When Michael and Cassandra Beacom began dating in the ’80s he was not only a newbie at interracial romance but to people of color having grown up in white-centric Keystone and attending white Catholic schools. Moving with her father’s Union Pacific job, she was exposed to both integrated and segregated environs. She dated mostly black guys in college, though a white boyfriend did propose marriage.

The Beacoms fell head over heels upon first meeting at a party. When they became a couple not everybody approved.

“The girl that introduced us was not thrilled with us being together,” Cassandra, says, “so you find out who your friends are or at least their viewpoints anyway.”

“Some friends said we support you, we’re behind you all the way,” Michael says, “and some others cut and ran or had their thing about it.”

He says her parents were cool but while his folks liked her as his friend they were “definitely not prepared” for him to have a black girlfriend.

“They said horrendous, horrible, evil, terrible things, to the point where I understood I would have to be saying goodbye to my family.”

Nothing negative was said to her, an administrative assistant with the Omaha Public Schools, only to Michael, a senior agent at PayPal.

“They gave him all the grief, they didn’t give me the grief,” says Cassandra, who adds she only found out much later the extent of his family’s unease.

Rather than cause a scene, the couple eloped and kept their marriage secret. Michael says, “I was terrified.” When Cassandra got pregnant with their first child, the family embraced her. The big wedding the couple put off was finally held. She and her late father-in-law became close and she’s tight today with her mother-in-law.

Their biggest hurdles with race have been with institutions. They say racist assumptions forced their son into foster care before a court intervened. That separation trauma still hurts. As do double standards that have seen her treated one way because she’s black and him another way because he’s white. Then there’s the times people assumed they couldn’t possibly be a couple.

 

 

Tim Shew and Brigitte McQueen Shew

 

 

Union for Contemporary Art founder-executive director Brigitte McQueen Shew upsets expectations in northeast Omaha. Not only is she a mix of African-American and Iranian-Chaldean, she’s married to a younger white man, chef Tim Shew.

“I have run-ins with people who say I’m not black enough to understand the African-American crisis. I do feel because of my work here, my advocacy for North Omaha and the fact I live in this community there’s an element of surprise when people realize my husband is not African-American. This is nonsense. Could we stop doing this to each other?”

The couple’s experience differs from that of her parents, whose extended families wanted nothing to do with Brigitte and her siblings.

“We were the yellow kids with funny hair. We were different and were always treated as such.”

She says she’s glad things have progressed to where she and Tim don’t have to go through what her interracial parents “went through in the ’60s,” adding, “It’s interesting how much of a non-issue that factor is in our relationship.”

Brigitte, who grew up in Detroit, dated interracially from the jump.

“Race is not a criteria. It’s not something I think about, it’s more about personality and who the person is than what color they might be,” she says. “With my mom it never mattered. I had moments with my siblings where it was like, ‘Why is it you always seem to be dating white guys?’

It wasn’t an issue, it was more of an observation. I don’t think anybody would say that if you were dating someone who was blonde or brunette. I realize not everybody has that sort of blindness to it.”

Tim, who grew up in west Omaha, was curious about brown girls but never did anything about it until Brigitte. Their families have always been fine about their relationship. She says the only time her race has come up with them was at a birthday party for one of his nephews.

“I made a chocolate cake. We were all at the table and I was sitting across from this sweet little boy who said, ‘Why are you the same color as the cake?’ Some people were really embarrassed and Tim’s brother totally defused things with, ‘I’m glad somebody finally asked that question, I’ve been wondering that since you started coming around.’ It was just this perfect moment.”

The Shews plan to have children one day. Though aware biracial kids can have a tough time they take solace in the fact their families and friends don’t hold the prejudices earlier generations did.

“I’m excited for our child to be part of the family we’ve created,” she says. “It’s a brilliant thing.”

We sense their eyes upon us:
the glance, the stare, the gaze.
Some puzzled, some condemning,
some burn with inner rage.
With but a few accepting,
some hurl the jagged knife.
A DIFFERENT SHADE OF LOVING,
a different color of life.

Lyrics are from “A Different Shade of Loving” by Mick Terry.

Omaha Culinary Tours: New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction

February 5, 2014 Leave a comment

It wasn’t so long ago that when you thought about food and Omaha your palate memory went to steakhouses, Italian restaurants, a few other Old World ethnic eateries, and the usual assemblage of local diners, drive-ins, and dives.  Fine dining options were, well, rather limited.  With a few exceptions, it was a bland, one or two note  food landscape dominated by Euro-American influences.  Locally owned, chef-led restaurants were relatively few and far between.  Food trends took a long time to get here.  The use of locally produced fresh food products was rare.  Innovation and experimentation was not much on the menu.  There was a dearth of food from Africa, South America, Asia, India, et cetera.  Many ethnic foods simply couldn’t be found here.  But as the Omaha cultural scene has blossomed the last two decades, so has the local food culture and scene, so much so that you can now pretty much find anything here that you can find anywhere else in the States, with the possible exception of New York City or Los Angeles.  The cuisine has dramatically increased in terms of, variety, nationality, daring, and quality.  I don’t claim to know all the reasons for this phenomenon but a few may be:  The Insitute for Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College is a feeder of highly trained chefs; Omaha’s seen an influx of new immigrants from many different parts of the world and their national dishes have been introduced here; more and more Omahans travel for busines and pleasure and they bring back a demand for the eclectic flavors, ingredients, and dishes they sample; social media and the Food Network have similarly opened the horizons of diners and proprietors alike to vast possibiltiies in food; more chef-owned eating spots have opened under the direction of cutting-edge artists who craft meals to appeal to the growing foodie population and their ever broader, more sophisticated tastes.  These same trends apply to a growing number of gourmet and specialty food stores here.  A local startup, Omaha Culinary Tours, is taking full advantage of these trends by making the burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction.  Learn about this company in my Reader (www.thereader.com) story below.  Look for a coming cover piece that attempts to take stock of how Omaha’s gone from a food deadend to a food mecca.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Culinary Tours: New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The recently launched Omaha Culinary Tours looks to capture foodies and urban explorers alike.

Owners Jim Trebbien, Jen Valandra and Suzanne Allen are banking this town’s rich culinary scene is destination worthy enough to support their business. For a fee OCT offers guided tours of locally owned restaurants and food stores and the historic districts they reside in.

Satisfied with test tours conducted in December, OCT is now taking reservations for walking tours that are also urban adventures. Its Midtown tour is the lone active trek right now but new ones are in the works for the Old Market, Dundee, Benson and downtown. A craft beer and pizza tour is likely to be a staple along with a ballpark fare tour come College World Series time.

A Valentine’s tour is also being planned.

Transportation-provided journeys will be offered, including steakhouse and comfort food tours.

Each walking tour covers about a mile while visiting six or seven venues in a span of 2 1/2 to 3 hours. At each stop guests sample food prepared fresh on-site just for the visit and meet the venue’s owner, chef or manager.

A well-informed guide leads the way, sharing back stories about the food places and the neighborhoods. OCT limits public tours to groups of 6 to 16. Private tours can accommodate more guests. Private tours can be designed to fit whatever theme clients desire.

 

 

 

 

The set Midtown tour features Chef2 (Trebbien is part owner), Brix, The Crescent Moon, The Grey Plum, Marrakech and Wohlner’s. In addition to tasting different cuisines it’s a sampling of three distinct districts – Blackstone, Gold Coast and Gifford Park.

On the December 28 Midtown tour superstar Grey Plume chef-owner Clayton Chapman personally greeted guests and intro’d the tastings menu served. He even stuck around to answer questions. It’s all part of what Allen calls an “interactive thing.” “

Valandra says, “Part of the experience is seeing the pride in the owners when they talk about their food and tell their stories. They’re sharing part of themselves.”

“It’s communion, it’s sharing food and conversation with other people and community. You learn about an area, you sample the food there, you meet some of the people there,” says Trebbien.

Allen says OCT’s getting strong buy-in from venue owners.

“They want to be a part of it, they see the value of it. They’re getting potential customers. They’re getting a chance to wow people that maybe wouldn’t have walked through the door before.”

“A “novice foodie” with “an appreciation for the culinary scene,” Allen holds a regular job doing sales and heads OCT’s marketing efforts. She got the idea for a food tour company on her travels across the U.S. She noted food tourism’s a popular activity for folks to explore the cultural landscape of cities they inhabit or visit.

“More of the masses are wanting food as as event. I’ve taken these tours around the country and I’ve loved the experience. I thought Omaha’s ready for this.”

 

 

 

 

Trebbien and Valandra felt the same way and began pursuing the same vision. He’s dean of culinary arts at Metropolitan Community College and an Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame.inductee. She’s an MCC culinary arts graduate and works under Trebbien as culinary project coordinator. She previously ran the Medusa Project, a now defunct local presenting arts organization. The self-described “serial entrepreneur” has established several startups. The first time the pair heard of Allen is when she called for advice on her planned food tour startup. Rather than compete, the threesome decided to partner.

“It became obvious we needed each other,” says Valandra. “We work really well together and complement each other.”

“We have three different skill sets that intertwine,” says Trebbien.

“It was very clear we could get a lot more accomplished together than we could alone,” says Allen. “it’s taken off since we came together.”

Allen says they share a bullish passion for Omaha’s assets. They feel the depth of the emergent food scene and resurgent urban environment may be what finally puts Omaha on the map, It’s why they’ve moved fast since forming the company in August. Sporadic tastings and festivals may celebrate food here but they say there hasn’t been a dedicated food tour operation. Noting that successful food tourism businesses operate all over, even Des Moines and Kansas City, they feel the local market’s overdue to be tapped.

“Years ago in Omaha if you wanted to go out for fine dining you were pretty much confined to a steakhouse and now fine dining is the best cuisine from anywhere,” says Trebbien. “There’s a number of James Beard Award nominated chefs around town. The culinary scene has changed tremendously and it changes tremendously every year. Omaha’s being discovered for its amenities and food is part of that.”

 

 

 

 

Allen says OCT’s not just for visitors but for locals.

“Omahans have their favorites but taking a tour like this allows them to get out and experience six or seven new places in one afternoon or evening. They can find a new favorite or add a couple new places to their comfort zone.”

While not a progressive dinner, the food served on OCT tours should fill most guests, the owners say. Then there’s the added sustenance of discovering new places and learning some history along the way.

“It’s part of the culture,” says Allen.

For schedule and booking details, visit http://www.omahaculinarytours.com.

Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer

February 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Americans are notorious for having short memories and that’s unfortunate when people and actions that merit rememberance are so quickly and easily forgotten.  A pair of Omaha sisters, Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moors, are starring in an Omaha Community Playhous production of the Emily Mann play Having Our Say that features the real-life experiences of  the Delany sisters, whose lives intersected with much of the African-American experience in the late 19th century and most of the 20th century.  The Metoyer sisters are struck by the close parallels between the high achieving, activist Delany family and their own.  In doing interviews to promote the play the Metoyers are getting the chance to educate the public about the important work their parents Ray and Lois Metoyer did in the civil rights movement here.  My story about this art  imitating life experience includes comments from the Metoyers’ brother, Ray.

 

 

Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten

 

Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Art imitates life when siblings Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore evoke the Delany sisters in the African-American oral-history show Having Our Say at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Just as the play’s real-life Sadie and Bessie Delany followed their family’s barrier-breaking path the Metoyers hail from high achievers and activists. The black branch of the Delanys’ mixed race Southern lineage produced land owners and professionals. Their father was the first black bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Sadie became a teacher. Bessie, a dentist. Similarly, the Metoyers trace the mixed heritage on their father’s side to the Melrose Plantation in La. where ancestors formed a black aristocracy, Their mother and her family made the black migration from Miss. to the North for a better life.

The Metoyers, both veteran Omaha theater performers, say they’ve never before played roles whose familial-cultural threads adhere so closely to their own lives. Like their counterparts, the Metoyers put much stock in faith and education. The play’s also giving the sisters and their brother Raymond Metoyer, an Atlanta, Ga. broadcast journalist whose news career started in Omaha, a platform to discuss the vital work done by their late parents, Ray and Lois Metoyer, in the struggle to secure equal rights here. The couple were involved in the Nebraska Urban League, which the senior Metoyer once headed, the local chapter of the NAACP and the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). They participated in marches. They had their family integrate a neighborhood. They sent their kids to white schools.

Their father was active in the 4CL’s predecessor, the De Porres Club.

“We knew our parents were trailblazers but we held a lot inside and this ([play) gives us a voice to be able to elevate them,” Lanette says.

“I’m really happy about this opportunity to bring to light all the things our parents did and worked so hard for,” Camille says.

“I’m very proud of my parents,” Raymond says. “They were very much strong foot soldiers in the civil rights movement in Omaha. They were part of a collective effort to improve housing, education and employment for minorities. They were more interested in the results than in individual glory, which seems to be something lost today. Working together to make things better was very much part of what they believed in and pushed for as a part of that collective.

“They instilled in us that same striving for being better.”

The siblings say their parents shared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that blacks “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Lanette says her kid brother, L.A. musician Louis Metoyer “became exactly what our parents wanted for all of us because he got to reap all the benefits of us moving into an all-white neighborhood. He was able to play with white kids and make lasting friendships.”

Camille says, “Out of all of us I think he is the one who sees no color.”

Raymond says his folks believed in “leading by example” and thus his aspirational father, a Boys Town senior counselor and owner of the family’s barbecue joint on North 24th Street, took great pains with his appearance and speech.

“It wasn’t just about getting there. it was about how you handled yourself when you got there that made a difference,” he says.. “Our father always carried himself with dignity and strength. He projected the image he wanted people to see African-Americans could portray. He was just trying to show he belonged, that he was a significant member of the community because he had a right to be. My mother had that same persona. Both our parents instilled that in us. too.”

 

 

Ray Metoyer

Ray Metoyer

 

Raymond’s continued this leadership legacy in the National Association for Black Journalists and in his civil rights documentaries (Who Killed Emmett Till?). He admires his sisters for continuing the legacy as well.

“I’m so proud of my sisters being in this play because they’re carrying   themselves with the same dignity they were brought up with.”

As kids the siblings got caught up in some of their folks’ activism.

Camille was 8 when she was taken out of school to accompany her parents in a 1963 4CL demonstration for open housing at City Hall.

The marchers proved well-schooled in nonviolent civil disobedience.

“We were walking around in a circle in the chambers carrying placards,” recalls Camille. “We were asked to disperse and of course we refused, and then they called the police in and we all sat down on the floor. I was with my dad in his lap when the police literally picked the two of us up and carried us out with me still on his lap.”

Before Metoyer, with Camille in tow, got transported to police headquarters officers let him down. As he carried Camille in his arms a news photographer snapped a picture of this dignified, loving black father comforting his adorable little girl, who sported braids and with tortoise shell frame eyeglasses. The photo made the wires.

The events made an impression on Camille.

“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important and I knew it was about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”

 

 

Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten

 

Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.

“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together,” says Camille, “and all the conversation was about what was going on.”

The Metoyer children often tagged along with their progressive parents to meetings and gatherings. It meant getting to hear and meet Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson, in 1964 and 1969, respectively. Between those events the Metoyers integrated the Maple Village neighborhood in northwest Omaha in 1966.

“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the frontlines,” says Lanette.

Raymond recalls the angry stares the family got just while driving through all-white areas. A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in. On move-in day some neighbors gathered outside to glare. At night his armed father and grandfather stood guard inside. It reminded his mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Miss. The house only got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.

Camille and Lanette remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. At their various schools the kids encountered racism. They followed the example and admonition of their parents, whom Camille says “always addressed discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.’”

Little by little the Metoyers found acceptance if not always fairness.

The OCP production of the Tony-nominated Having Our Say by Emily Mann, a past Great Plains Theatre Conference guest playwright, is a catharsis for the sisters.

“Doing this play has helped us in our relationship as sisters,” says Lanette. “We love to laugh just like the Delanys do. We’re storytellers like them. That tie between us now is stronger, especially after going through what Camille went through this past year (breast cancer).”

On another personal note, the play honors figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” says Camille.

The play runs through Feb. 9. For show times-tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunityplayhouse.com.

Paying it Forward…The best endorsement yet for my Alexander Payne book

February 4, 2014 Leave a comment

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
For those of you needing a boost of inspiration or proof that your works make any difference at all in the world, and believe me I despair about this myself, I offer you the following message I received from a young man named Bryan Reisberg.  He emailed me out of the blue the other day to tell me how much my book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” meant to him.  His beautiful sentiment moved me deeply and with his permission I’m sharing the gift he gave me so that I can give it to you.  I’m touched that my work had a positive impact on someone who’s definitely going places in the world.  Let’s all pay it forward.
•     •     •

 

Hi Mr. Biga,

You don’t know me but I’m a young filmmaker in NYC and I purchased your book on Alexander Payne I think back in November of 2012. I was always a fan of Alexander Payne’s work, and was simply searching for anything I could find on him. I wanted to write and tell you that your book has helped me immeasurably as a filmmaker. I imagine now, being a bit older than I was while in film school (now 25), I have much more of an interest in the academia of filmmaking. Whereas in school, I was 18 and living in New York City. Come on, gimme a break.

Your articles and interviews became a critical (and previously absent) entry point to discover and dig deeper into learning more about directors, films, and film history. I came to not only respect and admire Payne as a filmmaker, but also as one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. And I can say that to date, starting with your book, what I’ve learned about the craft and history of cinema has been unparalleled and invaluable.

A few years after graduating film school (’09), I was fortunate enough to have my screenplay financed so that I could direct my first feature, BIG SIGNIFICANT THINGS, which I completed back in May of 2013.

And it was just announced that my film will have it’s World Premiere at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival. Mark Orton, who I’m sure you know did the score for NEBRASKA, is composing the score for my film.

http://schedule.sxsw.com/2014/events/event_FS14936

I wouldn’t be here without Alexander Payne and your book. Well, maybe I’d be here, but I wouldn’t be nearly as (hopefully) knowledgeable and skilled as a filmmaker.

So I just wanted to extend my gratitude, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Best,
Bryan Reisberg

Big Significant Things

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At 26 years old, Craig (Harry Lloyd) seems to be doing pretty well for himself. He has job stability, a supportive family, and is about to start a wonderful new chapter with his girlfriend. With big life changes on the horizon, what better time to lie to your girlfriend so you can go on a road trip by yourself to the south?

The Designers: Omaha’s Emerging Fashion Culture

February 2, 2014 2 comments

Fashion writing keeps coming back into my wheelhouse.  What’s interesting about this is that I never suspected fashion writing could even be in my wheelhouse given my less than fashionable wardrobe and my own disregard for elements of style in the way I dress.  Don’t get me wrong, I like to look nice as much as the next person, but I’ve never spent much time or effort considering or cultivating a personal look or style for myself and I don’t pay much attention to buying fashionable brands.  But in the last half dozen years I’ve found myself writing a fair amount about fashion.  Part of that is a function of the fact that I am a cultural writer and fashion is a part of the cultura fabric, so to speak, of any metropolitan area.  And so just as I write about film, television, theater, literature and many other aspects and streams of Omaha’s cultural life, I have found myself writing about fashion.  Still, I likely wouldn’t have begun covering the fashion scene were it not for falling in with some of the very people who have nurtured the fashion scene here.  That association led me to write about Omaha Fashion Week just as it was taking off and before I knew it I was penning stories about Omaha fashion, past and present, for Omaha Fashion Magazine and other publications.  You’ll find those stories on this blog.  The following story for Metro Magazine profiles four designers who are a part of that emerging scene.  Has any of this work about fashion made me more fashion conscious in the way I dress?  Not really.  But I do have an enhanced appreciation for what individuals do in the fashion world, whether designers or models or hair and makeup artists.

 

 

metroMAGAZINE

the designers

Omaha’s Emerging Fashion Culture

BY LEO ADAM BIGA
Now appearing in Metro Magazine

Though far from a fashion center, Omaha’s always been home to people involved in the design, merchandising and consumption of fashion. While still not a couture capital, the city’s seen the emergence of a fashion culture giving local designers more opportunities to get their work seen and fashionistas new talents to support. 

Helping lead this revolution is Omaha Fashion Week and the professional platform it provides independent fashion designers to showcase their work. The companion Fashion Institute Midwest nurtures aspiring designers and supports the region’s fashion ecosystem through training, resources and business incubation.

OFW designers are a diverse lot but all embody a passion for fashion and creativity that is part of their DNA. The four designers profiled here create highly distinct collections that are personal expressions of themselves. Each has been immersed in fashion for as long as they can remember, Each has been embraced by the local fashion community. They are part of a burgeoning creative class scene and design-style conscious movement that’s changing the perception of Omaha from fashion desert to oasis and from nondescript Midwest town to exciting hub for sophisticated fun.

They will be among the featured designers during the March 4-9 OFW event at the Omar Building, 4823 Nicholas Street.

 

Meet the designers:

 

Kate Walz at work

 

 

Kate Walz
Seventeen-year-old Millard North High School junior Kate Walz has already shown her chic designs in her hometown, in Kansas City and in New York City.

She did her first OFW show at 13 and has now presented eight collections there. She made it to the Big Apple when she debuted her fall collection in an offsite New York Fashion Week show. She’s also Spokes Designer for Fashion Camp NYC, a day camp for teens wanting fashion careers.

All in all, she’s just the kind of promising young talent Omaha style-conscious, fashion-forward patrons hope to put over the top.

Walz doesn’t get caught up in her fast rise or bright future because she’s doing what comes naturally to her.

“My mom says I’ve been drawing dresses since I could hold a crayon. I first started sewing and draping at 8 in 4-H. I participated in the fashion and sewing competitions and found success, winning the title Grand Champion against all the high school kids. When I was 12 I started making my own patterns and selling my garments at Bellwether Boutique in downtown Omaha.”

She describes as her “biggest mentor” Bellwether’s late owner, Jessica Latham.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am in my fashion career if she hadn’t let me start selling my designs in Bellwether. I value the advice she has given me the most.”

Walz says she appreciates OFW showing her “what it’s like to be in a professional environment,” adding, “They’ve given me exposure and experience I haven’t found anywhere else.” Fashion Institute Midwest workshops, she says, have taught her pattern grading and pitching her brand. The Institute sponsored her New York Fashion Week trip.

She absorbs all she can from more experienced designers.

“My biggest inspirations are some of Omaha’s local designers: Buf Reynolds, Dan Richters, Jane Round, Megan Hunt, Audi Helkuik. They all have given me such great advice. It’s an honor to get to work alongside some of them.

“Really all local designers have been great mentors to me. The OFW team has also been a big help in directing me in the right path for both my design work and business decisions.”

Walz says she’s “tried all different kinds of looks” for her women’s wear line while “searching for my signature voice,” adding, “What I try to achieve as a designer is a balance between being conceptual, conventional and cohesive. Reoccurring characteristics in my clothing are femininity, attention to detail and a vintage vibe.”

She embraces Omaha’s growing fashion scene.

“The exposure has opened so many doors for us local designers.”

At a tender age she had to prove herself to doubters, though she finds widespread acceptance today.

“One of my biggest challenges has been people not taking me seriously because I am so young, although it’s not much of a problem anymore.”

Walz counts her greatest triumph being selected Spokes Designer for Fashion Camp NYC.

“They flew me to New York for 10 days to mentor fellow fashion campers from all over the world. I also had the privilege of meeting people at the top of the industry.”

After high school she has her sights set on attending Parsons The New School for Design.

“It is my dream to one day open up my own boutique in New York and eventually have my clothing carried in high-end department stores.”

Follow her at http://www.katewalz.com.

 

 

Aubrey Sookram walking the runway with child models wearing her designs, ©James Burnett, Omaha World-Herald

 

 

Aubrey Sookram
Hartington, Neb. native Aubrey Sookram has created a boutique children’s brand, Markoos Modern Design, that’s carried on the popular shopping site for moms, Zulily.com.

Her passion for fashion began as a girl.

“I wore a uniform to school on a daily basis all the way through high school,” she says “I definitely took casual days and dress-up days as an opportunity to express myself.”

Her creativity comes out in multiple ways.

“It actually took me a bit to decide what medium I was going to focus on. I adore interior design. I also like power tools. I will try creating anything at least once.”

She’s been intentional about making fashion a career.

“I have a degree in marketing with minors in merchandising and fashion design from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I taught myself to sew.”

Ideas for her children’s wear designs come from various sources for this wife and mother of three.

“I love vintage Dior and the simplicity of modern designers like Ralph Lauren, Halston and Kate Spade. I like clean design. A lot of my designs are a hybrid of retro and modern styles. I find inspiration in everything from architecture, fine arts, designers old and new and pop culture. Right now I am finding a lot of inspiration from music and movies from my youth.

“My new fall collection is based on a movie from the ’90s. Stay tuned.”

Her penchant for eclectic combos helps her work stand out.

“I love to mix patterns, colors and textures.  Many designs start with fairly classic silhouettes but seem to morph into something more modern. I adore bold color.”

This entrepreneur appreciates the support she and other designers find through OFW.

“Omaha Fashion Week has been an incredible confidence booster and resource. I have gotten the chance to work closely with other children’s designers, such as Hollie Hanash and Yolanda Diaz. All the designers are supportive of one another. They’re a source of endless wisdom and practical knowledge.”

She says a fashion designer from here can be a success nationally but many hurdles must be cleared.

“The logistical issues are daunting. There is a limited number of fabric stores in the metro, so one can expect to travel to larger cities for fabric sourcing and production. As my business has grown, this problem has as well.”

Then there’s the time and money it takes to market your work.

“You can design the most amazing line but if no one knows about it you may as well pack it up and head home. Finding the right marketing streams is so very important and when you are starting out you need to do it as frugally as possible.”

Undaunted, Sookram says she’s moving into production. “I am working to get into boutiques and stores throughout the country and will be continuing my relationship with Zulily.com. I am always keeping my eyes open for new opportunities.”

Shop Sookram at http://www.etsy.com/shop/MarKoosModernDesign.

 

 

Fella and model walk the runway, ©Matt Miller, Omaha World-Herald

 

 

Fella, aka Wayne Vaughn
No matter where Fella, aka Wayne Vaughn, lived growing up in an Air Force family he indulged his love for clothes. His immersion in things couture went to a whole new level when at 14 he got the opportunity to work and hang out backstage at an Ebony Fashion Show.

“Being that close to those beautiful garments I knew then I wanted to design clothing,” says Vaughn, who has a Fella line of men’s and women’s clothing, costumes and wedding dresses. He paints, dyes and weaves some of his own fabrics..

In his late teens he lived in the United Kingdom, where he graduated from Lakenheath High School in Lakenheath, England. After his father was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb., Vaughn studied his craft at UNO and UNL, steeping himself in textiles, clothing, design, art, art history and costume design.

In 20-plus years as a designer he’s developed a look that emphasizes color, assorted patterns and interesting textures. He counts as influences Ralph Rucci, Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen. His extensive travels offer further inspiration.

His own work increasingly expresses thematic concerns and narratives. He says he imagines storylines about the women who wear his clothes and why they need his designs, His last collection’s colors were red and black and took their cue from a 19th century woman he concocted. He says of his muse: “She just got some new fabric from India and gave it to her dressmaker for a new wardrobe. The woman just had a new beginning and she needed clothing to party in.”

Vaughn’s new fall-winter collection is winter white gold with pops of color and incorporates Eskimo and Russian influences.

He’s now collaborating with two Omaha area designers, hatmaker Margie Trembley and crocheter Susan Ludlow, on his new collection.

Vaughn gets his work seen at private viewings and trunk shows. Maude Boutique in mid-town Omaha carries his clothes. He says OFW gives him yet another “great platform to showcase my vision of fashion.” The exposure from OFW events, he says, helps him “gain more of a customer base.” He says his last collection sold especially well and netted him a new batch of clients.

For anyone trying to make it as a fashion designer in Omaha, he says, the key is “getting your name out and letting people know that a custom-made garment may not be as expensive as they think.” He says designers like himself can help in creating “a tone for your life.”

Looking ahead, his goal is to be in more boutiques and to have his own string of Fella shops.

Sample his work at fellavaughn.com.

 

 

Jeffrey Owen Hanson and designer Caone Westergard at OFW

Jeffrey Owen Hanson

 

At 20 Jeffrey Owen Hanson of Overland Park, Kansas has achieved recognition few people realize in a lifetime. He was 13 when his original abstract paintings got so popular he began donating them to charitable auctions, where to date his work’s raised more than one million dollars for various causes. He then branched off into hand-painting dresses designed by Caine Westergard. Their collaborations adorned the OFW runway, thus linking him to the burgeoning fashion scene here.

Hanson’s success is remarkable given that he accidentally stumbled upon his gift and that he deals with a serious visual impairment. He has a genetic condition, neurofibromatosis, that resulted in an optic nerve tumor. The tumor that he nicknamed CLOD left him with severe vision loss. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation. None of it interfered with Hanson becoming in-demand philanthropic artist.

A real clothes horse, he refers bold colors in his own wardrobe and in the hand-painted gowns he creates for his Jeff Hanson Collection.

The self-taught artist sees the world in vivid colors despite a limited field of vision he describes as “seeing through Swiss cheese.” Yet he’s grateful for his condiiton because it’s led him to use color and texture in ways that make his vibrant, tactile art singularly his own.

As a child, he says, “I painted on rocks and I did dot art and that type of thing.” His mother says ,”He did the kinds of crafts and arts things kids always do but really is art wasn’t anything special,”

At her suggestion he began painting notecards for something he and his friends could do when he had visitors over while recovering from treatments. His creations immediately stood out. He sold his early watercolors on notecards from a lemonade stand outside his house. He gravitated to making acrylics on canvas sold in galleries and auctions. Commissions for his work now flood in every week.

Much of his approach seems intuitive though his impressionistic landscapes are often inspired by places he’s visited.

High contrast colors characterize his work. “I just think I have a good eye for color,” he says. And a feel for texture. “Almost all of my paintings have really thick modeling paste spread all over to give texture,” he says.

He often incorporates materials into his work, even making woven canvases, to add layers of depth and form. Always though his work exudes the most iridescent tones. “The colors I like to use are bright colors, like lime green, pink, purple. Bright happy colors.” The buoyant colors are a direct reflection of his joyful personality.

For his work as a fashion artist he now collaborates with a seamstress on dress designs that complement his art. Once a gown is designed, the drape of the fabric is analyzed and then hand-painted and signed.

OFW shows have given him a new market for his hand-painted gowns and commissioned paintings.

His story, now told in a book, has found him hailed a People magazine “Hero Among Us” and featured on CNN’s “Impact Your World.” Huffington Post readers voted him “Top Kid Making a Difference.” Prudential gave him its national Spirit of Community award.

Check out his work at http://www.JeffreyOwenHanson.com

For OFW show details and tickets, visit omahafashionweek.com.

Upon This Rock: Husband and Wife Pastors John and Liz Backus Forge Dynamic Ministry Team at Trinity Lutheran

February 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Northeast Omaha is often portrayed as an exclusively African-American district and while it’s true that it is the historical center of the city’s black community and it’s where a large number of the metro’s black population still resides, it has always been and continues to be a mixed race area that sees much interaction between black and white folks.  Increasingly, Asians and Hispanics are part of that blended dynamic.  Trinity Lutheran doesn’t have much diversity in its pews for its main Sunday services though it does host chapel services for a Sudanese congregation.  But its social justice conscious husband and wife ministry team of pastors John and Liz Backus take the lead in making sure the church actively engages with the diverse community around it.  They bring very different styles to the pulpit but at the end of the day they are all about love and welcome, service and community, faith and action.  My New Horizons profile that follows fleshes out these two very human servants of God and charts the paths they’ve taken to do the good work they do and to lead the exemplary lives they live, warts and struggles and all.

 

 

Cover Photo

 
New Horizons Newspaper

 

 

Upon This Rock: Husband and Wife Pastors John and Liz Backus Forge Dynamic Ministry Team at Trinity Lutheran

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

The husband and wife pastor team of John and Liz Backus minister to an old-line Swedish-American parish in Omaha, Trinity Lutheran, at 30th and Redick Streets. But their real mission is tending to the church’s impoverished mixed-race neighborhood beset by high rates of illiteracy, unemployment and sexually transmitted diseases.

Upon arriving in late 2008 they found a parish little engaged with its community and desperate to retain a shrinking membership. Under the couple’s leadership Trinity’s stabilized its numbers and added new members. The church adopted nearby Miller Park Elementary School and its predominantly African-American student body. John runs a reading program there for 2nd graders. Trinity conducts neighborhood cleanups, participates in Crossroad Connection Prison Ministry, supports the North Omaha Summer Arts Festival and partners with Omaha North High School.

The pastors continue the church’s hosting of the Ruth K. Solomon Summer Leadership and Arts Academy. They’ve deepened relations with the Blue Nile Sudanese congregation that worships in Trinity’s chapel. They’ve taken a personal interest in Trinity’s long partnership with a sister church in Tanzania the couple visited in 2010.

 

 

Children at the Solomon Summer Leadership and Arts Academy

 

Social justice and multicultural inclusion come natural to the couple, who are adoptive parents of children of color.They support lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender rights. Everyone’s welcome at Trinity.

They live three blocks from the church in an old California bungalow-style house they extensively restored. Their home is an extension of their ministry as they host garden parties and meetings there. They also embrace efforts like the Minne Lusa House across the street.

“We’re glad to be in partnership in caring for the neighborhood,” John says. “We’re doing amazing things at Trinity and now we’re getting the community to do amazing things with us. The first step in redevelopment is recognizing that if you’re not involved in the community you’re just a dead body that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. I’m determined to do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen to Trinity.

“Lutheran churches are often self-insular. But the building at 30th and Redick is not there just to hold services or to be a social organization for us. The church is to be a hospital in a sick place, to be a gathering place for God’s people to go out of the building and do God’s work. It’s not about how many more posteriors can we place in a pew, it’s about are we being faithful to the call of Christ when we walk out the door.”

The Backus’s are among few ordained spouses in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They say what makes them stand apart from other clergy couples is that they pastor together. Married in 1976, they’ve been co-pastors since 1982. Trinity is their third shared “call” after pastoring stints in Kansas City, Mo. and in Minnesota

“it’s really just a way of life,” says Liz. “We can play on our strengths and we have the other person to talk things over with. It’s been good for us because we can do what we want to do. I was senior pastor in Kansas City and I’m not now, and it’s John’s time to run with it, and that’s good, too.

“Why would you want two of the same people?”

Depending on who’s leading Trinity’s 10:45 a.m. Sunday service, worshipers will either get his high energy flamboyance or her subdued solemnity. His charismatic stage presence was honed during 10 years performing with the touring gospel quartet, The Fishermen.

Despite their differences they stand firm in solidarity about their shared passion to serve others.

“When we’re really wrong we’re really wrong together but when we’re right it strengthens us,” Liz says.

But there’s no getting around they do come from two markedly different backgrounds.

Ordained ministry was his goal from as far back as he can recall while Liz only felt the call after meeting him. Three years older, John entered the seminary while she was in college. Liz soon followed his path.

“I never wanted to do anything else,” he says. “When I was a little kid I would run up to grab the pastor’s leg when he was trying to preach, and my parents would usually catch me but not always, and I’d scream, ‘I want to do this, I want to do this.’”

He grew up outside Chicago. She grew up in rural Indiana. Both came from interfaith families. The only reason he became Lutheran is that his German-American father, who came from an abusive home, found refuge in that church as a boy and remained faithful to it.

“There was this Lutheran family down the street that would take my dad to church. Anything to get him out of the house was good. He loved the church. It was a place of safety for him. He loved his pastor and he wanted to be a pastor. There was no money for him to go to school so he left school in the 8th grade and went on to become a railroad machinist. But he always wished he’d been a pastor.”

John says things got so bad for his father as a boy that he “was kicked out of his house” at age 8. “He walked from Chicago to the suburb of Downer’s Grove and moved in with an aunt and uncle who raised him. That’s who I always knew as grandma and grandpa growing up.”

John was born in Chicago but his family moved to the suburbs when he was a child to escape the harsh legacy of his Italian-American mother’s gangland family and their link to infamy.

“My mother’s father was a driver for Al Capone in Chicago. I know that when Al Capone went to jail and my grandfather needed a job he voted for a certain mayoral candidate a number of times in one election and as a result got a job driving a garbage truck for the City of Chicago.”

He says the story goes that “when my grandfather died a gentleman came to the funeral and put an ice pick in the corpse’s shoulder to make sure he was dead.” Backus says quite a few older relatives on his mother’s side worked as mob functionaries. Some died in prison.

“My mother’s brother is either still in prison or he’s died now. He was a minor league leg-breaker.”

Dysfunction ran through his clan.

“You know in all of your good mafia dramas one person will turn to another and say, ‘You are dead to me,’ well, I watched that play out in my extended family over and over again. My maternal grandmother was angry my mother married someone who wasn’t Italian. That dismissing another human being doesn’t solve the problem because you just fight it out with someone else. That is something my beloved Elizabeth has taught me – that you need to just see things through.”

John’s grateful his folks survived the chaos and made a deliberate decision to move from that environment. Still, Backus is mindful he’s inherited a dark side that if he’s not careful can overtake him.

“That past is true and it’s woven into who I am. It’s so long ago now and yet when someone really angers me my first thought is, What do I need to do this person to get my way? How bad do I need to beat them? That’s horrible and I’m not afraid of confessing this. That’s not who I want to be and so that’s who i choose not to be.”

His love of singing is a byproduct of his parents, who moved the family to Neb., first to Lincoln and then to Elmwood, when he was a teen because of his dad’s railroad job,

“My father loved to sing hymns and my mom was a rook ‘n’ roller – Elvis Presley, roller skates, poodle skirts. She sang rock ‘n’ roll all the time. And I always liked to sing.”

At one point the man he most admired, his father, who taught him to fix anything, was ready to disown him. In 1972 the Vietnam War and military draft were still on. Backus, then 18, held genuine pacifist beliefs and had already applied to seminary, but the real reason he didn’t want to serve is that he feared the obesity he battled then – he weighed nearly 300 pounds – made him an easy target.

“I knew if I got sent over there I’d be dead. I knew some people who’d gone and died. At that time the deferments were all gone.”

 

 

Exterior and interior images of Trinity Lutheran

 

He joined other war opponents in a public protest that culminated in them burning their draft cards. He served a few days in jail for his action and was put on the military’s undesirable list. He’d considered more drastic action. “I was prepared to run. I figured I’d head north (to Canada).” He says his dad disapproved, telling him, ‘If you go you can never come back. But if you stay I will do everything I can to help you.”

Backus gets emotional explaining why his dad reacted so strongly.

“My father was an Army infantryman in the Second World War. He never talked about it but at the end of every month he woke up screaming. We found out later he was in the group that took Peleliu.”

The small Pacific coral island, now known as Palau, was occupied by Japanese forces embedded in trenches, caves and tunnels. Enemy positions could only be rooted out by men on the ground and by so-called “tunnel rats.”

“My father was a tunnel rat. The island was supposed to be occupied in a week but it took months. There were heavy casualties. So it was very difficult for him to see his son refuse to serve his country.”

Father and son reconciled and when John was ordained no one was any prouder than his old man.

“He loved it, he was so happy I stayed with it.”

By comparison, Liz says she comes from “a normal” background minus all the drama or rancor. When the liberal, long-haired John swept into her life it caused a rift between the young lovers and her parents. Her folks ran a printing company in Maryville, Indiana. They expected Liz to complete college and start a career before getting involved with someone, and then preferably with a well-off, buttoned-down fellow.

Spirituality fascinated her from the time her father took her to guitar masses at the Catholic church they attended during her childhood.

“I was always interested in church. I loved the liturgy, I loved a lot of things about it. But I knew I didn’t want to be a nun, so there wasn’t really a place for me I didn’t think.

“I was exploring all kinds of things.”

She aspired to a career in journalism but one year studying it at Indiana University convinced her she wasn’t cut out for it. She was still in high school when the singing group John was in came to town. She joined other area youths to campaign for a man running for congress, Floyd Fithian. The candidate’s nephew was The Fishermen’s lead singer and so the quartet, Backus included, drove to Indiana to lend their support. The youth volunteers were boarding a bus to go canvassing when Backus noticed a lovely coed.

He remembers, “I literally grabbed Floyd by the arm and said, ‘Do you see that girl who just got on the bus?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘That’s Liz Danko,’ and I said, ‘Put her with me.’ And 300-plus letters later, because we lived 500 miles apart, we moved into the same town, Dubuque Iowa, where she was in college and I was in seminary, and a year later we were married. I asked her to marry me the third time I saw her.”

“An unusual courtship,” says Liz. “Yeah, we do not recommend it,” John says, “because you look back and it’s romanticized but at the time it was really hard.”

Among the difficulties was gaining her parents’ approval.

“My father and John had a lot of arguments having to do with his pacifist leanings. The rest of my family loved John but you know parents have such a high stake in everything.”

Then there was their resistance to her being a pastor’s wife.

“My parents thought a pastor’s wife was too hard of a job, that you don’t get any notoriety, you’re not a person in your own light, you’re in somebody’s shadow, you’re on their coattails. They worried, ‘You’re going to marry this man, get pregnant and quit school.’”

John understood their misgivings. “Elizabeth has always been brilliant, an incredible student, great grades. Her dad and mom looked at it as she’s bound to do great things and I’m going to ruin it.”

“They were so upset,” says Liz,

It didn’t help matters, she adds, that “John was cocky and arrogant” and I was young.” Against her parents’ wishes the couple got married after her second year of college. “Not a real happy day but they were coming around.” All was forgiven when her parents saw none of their fears realized. Liz finished school as planned, then after embracing Lutheranism went on to seminary and got ordained. Instead of playing second fiddle to her husband she became his equal partner.

“John and my father got to be really good friends,” she says.

Women ministers were still a new reality in the Lutheran Church and thus Liz was one of only a few females in her seminary class. John’s father was delighted to have a second preacher in the fold.

“His respect for our profession was deep and he was very happy when Elizabeth entered ordination.”

They feel they made the right decision to enter ministry, though there have been doubts and struggles along the way.

“I think at first I was trying to save myself but I learned you can’t. What keeps me going is when the phone rings and somebody says, ‘I just had a baby,’ and they are so happy and they want to tell me. Or they call and they say, ‘My father is dying,’ and they are so sad and they want to tell me. I get to live the heights and the depths of people’s lives and just stand with them and be there with them through all of it.

“It’s an incredible joy and what tells me it’s right is that I’m 60 years-old and I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had. It’s great.”

Liz says, “I think at first I just was so drawn to the mystery. The call is such a challenge and it’s a privilege to be with people. I think I can make a difference sometimes. Like you can be in the right place at the right time and that’s really humbling and captivating.”

 

 

John, Liz and their granddaughter Presley

 

Their first assignment together was in Lanesboro, Minn. When they adopted children from Korea and Thailand they introduced the only people of color into an otherwise all-white community.

“Everybody loved them,” Liz says. “Being the pastors’ kids they were aware they were treated really nicely but increasingly they felt they were the only people of color. They were big fish in a little pond. Also we didn’t feel we could afford to stay. We couldn’t have sent them to college making what we did. That was really the only reason we moved. It was a wonderful way of life.”

It was there the couple began their advocacy for LGBT rights. The church sometimes moved more slowly then they wanted but they’re pleased by the progress it’s made.

“When we first started speaking out about this in church assemblies it was just a matter of we need to let gay and lesbian people in our churches,” John says. “It’s ended up in this wonderful place we are now where persons who are lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgendered can have life partners and be pastors in this church. It took a long time to get there.”

“Gay-lesbian rights has been very important to us,” says Liz, who was active in groups that lobbied to get women bishops.

In Kansas City the couple brought already progressive St. James Lutheran Church into the reconciling or affirming movement  It was a congregation in turmoil after the previous pastor resigned in the wake of accusations he had inappropriate sexual relations with members.

John says the unsavory situation “left the congregation divided and angry.” “Some of our predecessor’s strong supporters had left but some of stayed and that was part of what we dealt with,” Liz says. The couple set about healing the wounds and doing things the right way.

“One of the strengths of being a married couple is that we have good boundaries,” she says. “We were real intentional in what we did. We didn’t tell an off-color joke. The two of us were always present when somebody was in the office. We kept doors and windows open.”

Before their arrival in 1995 it was a church that talked social justice but they encouraged members to begin practicing it in their own backyard. The couple found a real home in that church community and in the neighborhood they resided in. But in 2007-2008 things changed.

“The work got more difficult,” says John. “Our leadership had always been greeted well. All of a sudden we realized things just weren’t going the way they should. We decided if we didn’t get good results at the next (parish council) meeting then it’s time to leave. The meeting went very badly. We would find out later a relatively small group of individuals had committed to having us removed. It’s much easier to get a pastor to quit then to get them removed.

“That group of people was making life difficult for us. I don’t know their reasons but I know they wanted us gone and worked very hard to make sure that happened. What was most painful for us is that no one came to us and said, Do you know what’s happening? We had the sense no one had our back.”

Feeling it was time to exit gracefully rather than subject the church to another upheaval, the pastors stepped down, though they hoped their self-imposed exile would be temporary.

“We thought, We’ll let them sort this out and let them get back on their feet,” says Liz.

But as time went by the severing became permanent. Stunned, John and Liz felt they were through with the ministry. They gave away all their theology books. That meant finding new jobs, only the timing couldn’t have been worse because of the economic collapse. John tried selling cars and digging ditches. Liz worked at a Panera’s.

“We just couldn’t make a living,” says Liz. “Things just did not work out.” “I applied for 200 jobs,” says John. “It was a very difficult year.”

They vacationed in Yellowstone to clear their heads and unburden theirs hearts. Upon returning home John announced: “I cannot be without a church.” So they searched for pastorships all over the nation. Omaha’s Trinity Lutheran, dedicated in 1922, proved the right fit for this pair with so much to give. They were just what was needed to awaken this somewhat sleeping, struggling urban parish.

 

 

John Backus and Matt Kong

Pastor John and Matt Kong talking social justice

 

He says the Lutheran Church recognizes “there are all these inner city ministry sites that have dwindled for 50 years and are incredibly important places for ministry to take place,” adding, “Often because of financial resources or not knowing what to do they’ll put someone there, a first year seminarian, who’s not ready to tackle the challenges that we as an experienced couple have tackled.” He says he believes “there are ways to make those congregations not just survive but thrive and we’ve already taken the first couple steps toward that at Trinity.”

They acknowledge the way they left K.C., where they expected to retire, hurt them, but they’re grateful to have their new ministry home.

“I think I’m broken now because of St. James,” Liz says. “Probably every other day we have a discussion about why things went wrong there. I mean, this is not over for us. I feel really bad about we were unable to take them to the next step.

“But I also think there is a call here (at Trinity) and that while all this has messed me up I’m not as afraid as I was. We have a steadiness and a wisdom and we’re not afraid of failing. And we have an energy and a drive that just may be what these people need.”

John says, “In eight more years it is our intention to have the parish so ingrained in missionary service that Trinity will be a teaching congregation. My passion and goal is that people can come out of seminary to Trinity and be taught how to do street ministry by a faith-filled congregation.”

The couple see a neighborhood and parish believing in themselves again and feeling good about the difference they can make, a sharp contrast to the hopelessness they found.

He’s encouraged by the generosity people are displaying and the progress beige made. A woman donated copies of The Littlest Lion to every 2nd grade student at Miller Park Elementary. An anonymous benefactor left an envelope with $500 and a note that read. “I like what you’re doing at Miller Park, use this.” Miller Park’s gone from one of Omaha’s lowest achieving public grade schools to one of its highest. Parishioners donated boots to prison inmates on work release.

“That’s God’s physical presence in our life today,” John says. “God doesn’t have to be anything more than that to me because God is alive and active in that gathering of people to love one another.”

Liz says, “We just abide and we keep doing it day after day.”

For a list of services and events, visit trinityomaha.org.

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