NOTE: My apologies to those who read this post when I first put it up, as it was filled with typos. I failed to proof the copy and it made for a very rough read. It won’t happen again.
With this post I am starting a periodic series featuring favorite stories of mine from deep in my archives. The story below is from 1990 and profiles a charming man, Paul Schach, who has since passed. I got to know Schach just a bit when I worked as public relations director at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. My friend, then Joslyn western history curator Joseph Porter introduced me to Schach, who was engrossed in a multi-year translation project of a vast set of journals or diaries that German explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied kept of a historic expedition he made of North America. The 1832-34 expedition also had a fine artist along, Karl Bodmer, who made sketches and watercolor paintings of the vanishing West. The Maximilain diary and the Bodmer artworks are in the Joslyn’s permanent collections and I was struck both by how uniquely suited Schach was for the project and by how deeply connected he felt to Maximilian.
Also on this blog is a story I did a few years later about an artist who drew inspiration from the life and work of Karl Bodmer. That piece is titled, “Naturalist-Artist John Lokke – In Pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and in the Footsteps of Karl Bodmer.”
From the Archives: Cowboy-turned Scholar Discovers Kinship with 19th Century Expedition Explorer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Orignally published in Omaha Metro Update (now Metro Magazine)
In his 52 years as a language scholar retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Paul Schach has seldom strayed far from his German heritage and rough-and-tumble roots. It’s only fitting that Schach, who loves a good yarn, has lived a storybook life – from cowboying along the Arkansas River to doing top-secret intelligence work during World War II to forging a distinguished academic career.
Until his 1986 returement Schach held the Charles J. Mach professorship of Germanic languages at UNL, where he taught 35 years. The noted philogist has traveled widely to record and study ethnic languages and literary traditions native to Northern Europe. He’s published his work in scores of articles and eight books.
Schach’s work has taken hiim to Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Germany. A companion on some of his overseas trips was his late wife, Ruth, who was also a colleague. She typed and proofed all his work during their 48-year marriage. In 1956-57 the couple and their three daughters lived in Germany, where the children attended public school while Schach taught and worked on a book.
“Ruth typed the manuscript of the first book I ever published, during the winter of 1956 in Germany,” Schach said. “That was a cold winter and buildings were only heated two hours out of 24 because of fuel shortages. I would come back home at noon for lunch and she’d be at a little red Remington portable typewriter.
“She had a sweater, overcoat, woolen cap and scarf on. She’d type for awhile, stop, blow on her hands, put on gloves, blow on her hands a bit and then type a few more sentences. And that’s how that first book came to be typed. I’m just beginning to realize now she did about half my work for me. I got the credit for it – she did the work.”
Today, the 74-year-old is still busy writing and researching, only now his daughter Joan is his proofreader. Schach hopes to finish three books yet. But one project in particular has occupied much of his attention the past three years. It’s the translation of the diary kept by German explorer-naturalist-ethnologist, Maximilian Furst zu Wied of his 1832-34 expedition to North America with Swiss artist Karl Bodmer.
Maximilian’s chronicles, along with Bodmer’s paintings and sketches, document their historic journey along the Missouri River. The diary, artwork and related articles are housed at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Center for Western Studies, where Schach commutes from his Lincoln, Neb. home to work with the original manuscript. Scholars regard the collection as an unparalleled record of the early American West.
Translating the epic, 4,000 -page diary is painstaking work which Schach is uniquely qualified to do. He grew up speaking and reading a dialect very similar to Maximilian’s – one few are fluent in today. As a boy Schach reveled in stories told in German by his extended immigrant family.
Schach’s work is made more difficult by Maximilian’s tiny script, which can be read only with the aid of a magnifying glass. The diary will be published in four volumes by Joslyn and the University of Nebraska Press. Schach has only a final reading to do before volume one is published within a year. Work on volume two is nearing completion and by July Schach said the translation project should reach its halfway point.
His careful reading and meticulous translation of Maximilian’s observations have put him on intimate terms with the man, whom he feels a close kinship with by virtue of their shared dialect, heritage and interests. Strengthening the bond is the fact Maximilian spent a summer in Pennsylvania, where Schach was born and raised.
“I’m seeing parts of that state much more clearly now through his descriptions. So many of the things he describes are things I have experiencd in my life,” said Schach.
Just as Maximilian spemnt a lifetime as both a rugged outdoorsman and rigorous scholar, so too has Schach. During his long career Schach has remaimed true to bedrock values learned as a boy gorwing up “mainly in mining camps and cow towns” during the Great Depression.
Despite harships, he enjoyed an arcadian youth in the fertile back country of eastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal mining region, where he developed a lifelong love for the great outdoors.
“Until I was about 20 I lived outdoors whenever I could – hunting, fishing and trapping. My father was a coal miner. Some days he’d strike it rich, and then for weeks he wouldn’t have any money at all. We spent quite a bit of our free time fishing and hunting for food. Yes, times were hard, but people in those times were hard, always shared things. Everybody helped everybody else. I was always being farmed out to work on different farms when someone got hurt or sick.”
Schach learned a healthy respect for nature and the land from his maternal grandfather, nicknamed the “Old Black Hessian” for both his dark features and horse-trading skills.
“When people came and wanted to buy soome wood on his farm, he refused to sell. They said, ‘We’ll pay you more money for those trees than you’ll get for the rest of your farm.’ ‘It belongs to the farm,’ he replied. ‘Well, the farm belongs to you, doesn’t it?’ He wasn’t quite sure,” Schach said, “because it would go to his son or daughter. It was his farm, but it was there for people to use and the idea was to make it a better farm then when he got it from his father.”
Schach laments, “There’s not so much of that (philosophy) “left anymore – people are mining the soil and destorying the forests.”
A Karl Bodmer watercolor from the expedition
He said Maximilian espoused the same Old World wisdom and was “shocked, even at that time, at the way Americans were destrorying their forests and their soil. In Europe, if you cut down a tree you have to plant two to replace that one.”
According to Schach, Maximilian’s enlightened environmental concerns were typical of a man who was ahead of his time. “There were so many ways in which he was so very modern, such as the idea of conserving the soil and forests. There’s so much to learn from a man like this.”
Far from a rural idyll, however, life for the Schachs was full of severe trials, just as Maximilan weathered blizzards, epidemics and other miseries on his trek.
Then there were the man-made problems the Schachs and their neighbors confronted.
“There was a lot of trouble in the coal mines,” Schach said. “The owners would shut down the mines so the miners wouldn’t ask for more wages. You couldn’t even buy coal in the coal regions – you had to go out to slag dumps at night, where we were shot at frequently. My father wanted to get out…there was just no future there because he didn’t own any land.”
The family pulled up stakes and headed west. They settled in Colorado, where Schach’s father hoped to dig for gold but was disillusioned to find “the gold mines had petered out just as coal had in Pennsylvania.” He opted for running a grocery store instead.
Schach helped support the family of eight by working as a hired hand on a cattle ranch along the Arkansas River, riding horseback in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. The full-fledged cowboy broke wild horses, drove cattle and lived a Western life most young men only dreamed about.
“I enjoyed working on the farm and especially on that ranch. Coming from the East to the West, I suppose, made it more romantic.
“We used to move the cattle up in the spring to a higher pasture in the mountains and then, in the fall, bring them down. When you brought them down they were just as wild as buffalo. you could handle them on horseback, but on foot they’d either run away from you or they’d come right at you, in which case you ran for the closest fence,” he recalled, laughing heartily.
“I liked working with horses, but I guess I was never too good at it because I’ve been banged up pretty badly several times.”
The last time he tried taming a horse was just 10 years ago. The result: three broken ribs. Years later he still feels the effects and carries the scars of his horse spills. He joked that it’s open to question whether he broke horses or they broke him. “But I still love them,” he said.
Schach passed on what little horse sense had to two of his daughters, who are “very good with horses.” He sometimes goes riding with them at a local stable. But to his daughters’ amusement a bronco buster’s old habits die hard. He’s been bucked, bitten and kicked enough times that he mounts any horse, even a tame one, as warily as if it were a time bomb.
“I set up close to the shoulder, facing the back, so he can’t get me with his foreleg. I pull his head away from me so he can’t bite me. And I watch his hind leg and am conscious to get my left foot in the stirrup and to swing into the saddle. Then I wait to see what’s going to happen. Of course, with these horses around here, nothing happens. He just sits there,” said Schach, who delights in telling the story.
A Karl Bodmer watercolor from the expedition
He exchanged a saddle for a school desk in the mid-’30s, when he enrolled at Albright College in Reading, Pa. Although he was a roughrider, Schach always found time for books and writing. He had as his models two older sisters who taught school.
“I always read a lot. I read German and English from the time I was 5. I used to keep notebooks with lists of all the words I could find in German and English of colors, for example. Or synonyms of all kinds.”
He was immersed in his people’s rich reservoir of culture and language. “The Old Black Hessian was a marvelous storyteller. I remember one story had two different endings. When I was about 10 I got up enough courage to ask him which of the two stories was the true one. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Paulos, the one is as true as the other,’ which was a marvelous answer.”
Schach, who’s recorded German immigrant dialects from Canada to Texas, has collected Russian-German folktales handed down through generations. He cherishes both the grassroots education he got at home and his formal training in high school. He feels today’s students are shortchanged.
“If you intended to go to college you had to have a thorough knowledge of French, German and Latin. You took science and math courses straight through, including trigonmetry and geometry. I would say graduates of my high school in 1935 or so had a much more solid education than the average college graduate today.
“We’ve lost touch. I read European newspapers all the time…people all over the world are talking about what’s happened to the United States, how we’ve fallen behind in science and can’t make anything that meet their standards. The neglect of languages has been a terrible handicap to our country and we have suffered greatly from it, too.”
He believes language studies are vital “not only for what they tell us about language” but for what they reveal about culture, history and ourselves. As an ethnologist, Maximilian studied the cultures and languages of Native Americans from a humanist perspective rare for expolorers of the period. His progressive learnings helped him empathize with the Indians while his scientific training lent his descriptions great objectivity. He approached the study of Indians not as something strange, not as the savages we’re used to reading about in cowboy and Indian stories, but as human beings. He didn’t idealize them. He didn’t denigrate them. They were people – good, bad, indifferent – and he just portrayed them as they were,” Schach explained, adding that Maximilian’s accounts are treasured for their wealth of detail and accuracy.
Statue of Karl Bodmer and Prince Maximilian at the Castle of Neuweid in Germany
Maximilian, whom Schach described as “a very well-educated man,” had both a priviliged and liberal upbringing. A nobleman by birth, Maximilian’s inherited title was Prince of Wied. His grandfather had established the city of Newied, on the banks of the Rhine, as a refuge for victims of religious persecution. The family castle was located there.
“Early on, Maximilian was in contact with peoples of all nationalities, religions and so on,” said Schach. “I think this was a big help to him when he studied the Indians.”
Schach’s own educational pursuits have been diverse. After graduatiing from Albright in 1938 he began work on his master’s degree at the University of Pennyslvania. Before finishing his thesis, World War II erupted and Schach soon found himself putting his language skills to use in the U.S. Navy. He was the only U.S.-born member of a translation project team assigned the top-secret duty of translatiing captured documents on Germany’s jet propulsion and rocketry programs.
“As soon as they developed something, we knew about it,” said Schach. “The material was easy to read and understand, but we had no (compatible) terminology in English. We hadn’t done anything in those areas yet. We literally had no words to translate into English. That was a strange and a frightening situation.”
It was all the more frightening, he said, because “we knew the V-2 was designed for an atomic warhead. We also knew there were German engineers who could construct an atomic bomb.”
The stateside team based in Philadelphia did hands-on work as well – once reconstructing a Messerschmitt 262 from parts of three of the German jet planes that had crashed. It flew, too. “I guess that the first jet plane to every fly on this country,” he said.
After the war Schach taught at Penn, where he also earned a doctorate. He taught several years at Albright and at North Central Collge in Chicago. He joined the UNL staff in 1951, lured by the opportunity to study the area’s many varieties of German, Czech and Scandinavian dialects. Another factor was Lincoln’s close proximity to Colorado, where the Schachs often vacationed summers, roughing it in the outback.
“We never had much money. The salaries were miserable then. One summer we had $75 – I took the tent, a gun and my fishing pole and we all headed west in the car.” En route to Colorado their meager funds were cut by a third when a flat tire needed replacing. To conserve money that summer the family ate whatever Schach hooked or shot. “We ended up eating mostly fish that summer. At one point the children just sort of sat and looked down their noses at the fish, and Ruth said, ‘You better go to town and buy some hamburgers.’”
Until recently Schach still hunted regulalry, favoring the Nebraska Sand Hills for ducks and the Pine Ridge area for deer. He ventured as far north as Ontario, Canada for bigger game, including a bear he bagged with one shot.
Translating Maximilian’s diary leaves precious little time for the outdoors these days. “I’ve become perhaps too much interested in the man. This is one of only several major projects I’ve been working on. But it’s like reading a good book – you read it four times and you see things you didn’t see the first time. Maximilian was a very remarkable person.
Some would say Schach is no slouch himself.
- Smithsonian Archives unveils new website (gadling.com)
- A World We Have Lost (online.wsj.com)
- From the Archives: Opera Comes Alive Behind the Scenes at Opera Omaha Staging of Donizetti’s ‘Maria Padilla’ Starring Rene Fleming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Eighty Years and Counting, History in the Making at the Durham Museum (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
UPDATE: The subject of this story, artist Frederick Brown, passed away in the spring of 2012.
An Omaha cultural venue that has never enjoyed the attendance it deserves is the Loves Jazz & Arts Center. Then again, poor marketing efforts by the center help explain why so few venture to this diamond in the rough resource. The fact it’s located in a perceived high-risk, little-to-see-there area doesn’t help, but without the promotional initiative to drive people in numbers there it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of folks avoiding the area like the plague. All of which is a shame because the center’s programming, while lacking full professional follow-through, has a lot to offer. An example of some very cool LJAC programs from a few years ago were workshops that noted artist Frederick Brown conducted there in conjunction with an exhibition of his work at Joslyn Art Museum. Some of Brown’s paintings of jazz and blues legends ended up on display at the center. I interviewed Brown during his Omaha visit and I think I managed capturing in print his spirit. The story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art: Passage Across Form and Passing on Legacy
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Leading contemporary American artist Frederick Brown offered a glimpse inside the ultra-cool, super-sophisticated New York salon and studio scene during a June visit to Omaha in conjunction with his current exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum. Showing through September 4, Portraits of Music I Love is a selection of Brown’s huge, ever expanding body of work devoted to jazz and blues artists under whose influence he came of age in the American avant garde movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.
The Georgia-born Brown was raised in Chicago, where he was steeped in the Delta Blues tradition that seminal figures like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed, neighbors and friends, brought from the South. He grew up with Anthony Braxton. Later, in New York, he fell under the spell of jazz masters Ornette Coleman and Chet Baker. His intimate circle also encompassed the who’s-who of post-modern American painters, including his mentor, Willem deKooning. It was in this rarefied atmosphere of appreciation and collaboration Brown blossomed. He observed. He absorbed. He shared. The only condition for hanging with this heady crew, he said, was to “be unique — to bring something to the table.”
“At that time one of the nice things about living in an artist’s community like SoHo was that you had these people all around you who were at the top of their game and of the avant garde scene and of the aesthetic thing. I didn’t have to invent the wheel. The standard was set. Plus, right in front of me, I saw the work ethic. You could go to their studio or they could come to yours, and you could partake in whatever you wanted to partake in and discuss aesthetics at the highest level. You had all this kind of wisdom, information, feedback and back-and-forth,” he said.
Given all the time he’s spent with musicians, it’s perhaps inevitable Brown speaks in the idiom of a jazzman. That is to say he patters away in a hip, improvisational riff that sings with the eloquence of his thoughts, the musicality of his language and the richness of his associations, stringing words and ideas together like notes.
New York was the start of his being consumed with making it as an artist. “Total immersion. 24/7. Total commitment. Either I make it or die. A total spartan kind of situation,” he said, adding the artists befriending him “accepted and encouraged me.” Art is not only his inspiration but a legacy he must carry on. A set of musicians he was tight with, including Magic Sam and Earl Hooker, made him pledge long ago that after they were gone he’d preserve their heritage through his work. Then, after emerging as a bright new force in New York, his chronically troubled tonsils grew infected, but Brown had neither the insurance nor the cash to pay for an operation. He was resigned to dying when an anonymous benefactor stepped forward to foot the bill. It was 20 years before he learned his musician friends had ponied up to save his life. Ever since then, he’s felt a debt to further the art of jazz. His paintings at Joslyn represent a fraction of the music portraits he’s done as the fulfillment of that “promise.” At his 30,000-square foot studio in Carefree, Arizona he’s working on a 450-work National Portrait Gallery-curated series of jazz icons that will tour the world under the aegis of the U.S. State Department.
Frederick Brown, center, at a jazz summit
Architecture was Brown’s first field, but when painting began speaking to him more deeply, he chose the life of an artist. He hit the ground running upon his 1970 arrival in New York, where he was immediately embraced for his talent, intellect and curiosity and for the fluidity of his technique and the originality of his vision.
“I’ve always had an innate ability to look at something or hear something and then do it. I could always paint in every style. If styles are languages, then I’m fluent in all of them. I never felt like any were above me or below me,” he said.
In amazingly short order, his work was exhibited in the Whitney Biennial, the Marlboro Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He first made his mark in the realm of abstract expressionism, but always looking to stay “10 years ahead of the curve,” he changed directions to more figurative work and is often credited with helping bring back the figure in contemporary art. The small selection of his paintings at Joslyn are expressionistic figurative portraits that employ iridescent colors and bold brush strokes to evoke the singular essence and creative spark of such artists as Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Billy Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington and the late Ray Charles.
The prolific and versatile Brown is that rare artist with the ability to produce at the highest level while churning out a prodigious volume of pieces in quick succession. He’s tackled ambitious series’, massive single works, “mosaics” that fill entire rooms and themes ranging from the history of art to the Assumption of Mary. Still indefatigble at age 60, he can paint for hours without a break, as he did 13 hours straight during celebrated tours of China in the late ‘80s, and complete a fully realized work in the span of a musical cut or joint, something he’s done on countless occasions at rehearsals and recording sessions with musicians. Hanging with “the cats” at those jams, Brown does his thing and paints while they do their thing and play. Together, in harmony, each gives expression to the other.
“When you have people expressing, live, their spirit — in music, dance, poetry — these elements are cross pollinating the whole environment and gives the place another spirit and vibe and rhythm, too,” he said. “I’ve always painted very quickly. I can paint in the same rhythm and motion as the music. In fact, I can do one painting while they do one tune. So, every day doing that, doing that, for like 15 years — 30-40 paintings a day — every day, every day for all those years, you get to a certain level where it’s just like natural and you forget that it’s anything special.”
His experiences with performing and visual artists have prompted him to explore the mysteries of capturing music on canvas via color. “To hear Ed Blackwell play, it sounded like it was raining on the drums,” he said. “So, how do you translate that into color?” To get it right, Brown embarked on a study of color theories, harmonies and contrasts. “It’s like what color do you put next to another color to make that color brightest? It’s the same kind of thing you have in music. They’re all just notes. It made me have to think about this, where before it was just instinctual. Once I got it down, I didn’t have to think about it. It became subliminal again. And then I was just reacting to the sounds…and seeing the music.”
Welcome Home by Frederick Brown
In a series of cooperative workshops Brown conducted at the new Loves Jazz & Arts Center on North 24th Street, he simulated the fertile environs of the haute couture salons and loft studios he’s so familiar with. As his workshop students applied brush to canvas, bongo players beat out a driving rhythm, life models struck dance poses and Brown, turned out smartly in suit and shades, navigated the room, stopping at each easel to offer insight and encouragement to the students, who included some of Omaha’s best known artists. It was a sensual, visceral experience.
Brown’s painted this way for decades, using music as a channel for summoning his muse. “I always have music when I’m painting. I listen to a whole spectrum of music.” It’s about setting a mood for ushering in the shamanistic spirit he feels he possesses. Art as communion. “It’s like doing a jazz solo. You’re in that stream. It’s like a total zone you’re in and it just happens. You’re not conscious of it. In one sense my painting is like automatic writing,” he said. “No one can reproduce it, either.” It’s how he goes about painting his portraits of singers or musicians.
“When I’m doing this stuff I have their music playing or I have a photograph of them out,” he said. “Their spirit has to agree to come into that painting. In essence, I provide a painterly body for their spirit to inhabit. I’m a vehicle or a conduit for this information to pass through. Until the painting has a soul or a spirit, then it’s just paint on canvas. I just work on it until their spirit is satisfied,” he said. “You have to get in this like protective, almost out-of-body experience. With some people, like Johnny Hodges, you can express everything about them very quickly and simply. Others, like (Thelonious) Monk, are more complex. But sometimes you can catch the most complex situation in the fewest strokes.
“People always say, How do you know when you’re finished? Because it won’t allow you to touch it. The thing is complete. It doesn’t need any more brush strokes.”
Brown made his Omaha workshops a vehicle for exposing participants to new “possibilities” — “pushing” artists beyond self-imposed “limits” by having them, for example, create 24 paintings in a single night. He also made the classes a means for imbuing the Loves Center, whose mission is to be a venue where all the arts meet, with a synergistic “energy” open to all forms of expression. “What it comes down to is one person expressing themselves in a certain way and being inspired by different mediums. It’s getting more people involved. It’s opening minds, just like Ornette and them did for me.”
- When Jazz Married Art (doublelattebooks.wordpress.com)
- Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Camille Metoyer Moten, A Singer for All Seasons (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Frederick J. Brown, Painter of Musicians, Dies at 67 (nytimes.com)
- Eddith Buis, A Life Immersed in Art (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- For Love of Art and Cinema, Danny Lee Ladely Follows His Muse (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jazz-Plena Fusion Artist Miguel Zenon Bridges Worlds of Music (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Peter Buffett Completes the Circle of Life Furthering the Legacy of Kent Bellows (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
The following article appeared a few years ago in The Reader (www.thereader.com) announcing plans for the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts named in honor of the late great American realist visual artist. That artist’s work is the focus of a current exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where Bellows made his home, and the studio center where Bellows created many of his pieces is now open to the public. As my article mentions, Bellows was known for his generosity towards young people with a passion for art, and the studio center pays forward the encouragement he provided young people by offering a mentoring program for high school students with a penchant for making art or pursuing art studies. Students are paired off with professional working artists in mentoring relationships that give young people an intimate, real-life experience in the art world. Students and their mentors collaborate on some projects and students work independently on others, and now that the studio center is complete, this creative community expresses itself in the very digs where Bellows himself worked and mentored. See more of my stories related to Bellows and the studio center on this blog site.
Kent Bellows Legacy Lives On
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When renowned Omaha visual artist Kent Bellows died suddenly in 2005, his family didn’t know what to do with his studio, where remnants of his career and life were everywhere.
The studio was stuffed with his life: eclectic stashes of books and CDs, mosaics of cut-out images, wall scribbling, monster figures, art supplies and his signature parka hanging on a hook. After Bellows living and working there 16 years, the two-story studio, at 33rd and Leavenworth streets, became a multi-planed art piece in itself. It’s survived as tableaux of his stilled creativity, not unlike one of the wall sets he built for his hyper-realistic work.
Bellows’ family knew the circa-1915 brick building contained artifacts that should be preserved, not packed away or thrown out. The site, which used to be the Mermaid Lounge, was imbued with the legacy of someone who encouraged others, especially young visual artists and musicians. Family and friends deliberated how best to honor his memory.
Griess, her sister Debra Wesselmann and other Bellows family members formed The Kent Bellows Foundation in 2007 and envisioned the nonprofit as an arts education haven with a strong mentoring component. It will serve area youths, ages 14 to 18, grades 9 through 12, with artist-in-residence, studio thesis and gallery internship programs/classes. Board members include artist Keith Jacobshagen, designer Cedric Hartman, art educator Dan Siedell and composer Peter Buffett. Now, after two years of planning, the Leavenworth studio is due to become the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts. The Kent Bellows Foundation announced plans for the new arts organization on-site at a recent open house attended by friends of the late artist. If enough support is found, site renovations could begin this summer and the center could open by early 2009.
“We couldn’t make any rash decisions about it, it was just too important,” said his sister Robin Griess. “So fortunately we hesitated.”
$725,000 in renovations are needed to fix a leaky roof, replace mold-infested walls, make the structure handicap accessible, add a museum-grade HVAC system and construct multi-use gallery, studio, classroom and office spaces. The foundation is looking for public and private donors to help.
Working visual artists will act as mentors, offering students real life lessons on being a professional artist (did someone say this?) and helping them learn to create a studio space, network and market, build a portfolio and deal with galleries.
A close student-mentor ratio will ensure highly individualized instruction (who said this?). Bellows Education Coordinator Rebecca Herskovitz wants to create a comfortable, nurturing environment, she said, where students can be themselves and take ownership over these spaces.
“My goal is to create an art learning family,” Herskovitz said.
The Foundation has broad goals. Partnerships with local arts organizations will provide students more educational opportunities. Lesson plans and resources will be made available to art educators. A scholarship and stipend fund will assist students electing to study art in college.
“It’s a completely new take on arts education,” said Bellows Executive Director Anne Meysenburg.
Early on, the family determined art education as the focus. The specific mentoring mission evolved with input by Bluestem Interactive strategic planners. (We need some attribution in this paragraph, too. Who said these things?)
“When the mentorship idea came to us it made such sense because that’s who Kent was and to mesh that with his legacy and with this inspiring space was just the perfect idea,” Griess said. “We always kept in mind, ‘What would Kent want?’”
She said Bellows was “this wonderful big brother” to not only her and her sister but to many others.
“Whatever your thing was he would just celebrate it,” she said.
When he did break from his meticulous work, Griess said, the studio was a vibrant spot where he showed pieces, discussed ideas and jammed with musicians. Creativity was always in play. She hopes students can soon tap into the spirit bound there.
“To emulate that place of creativity and to inhabit it is absolutely contagious,” Herskovitz said. “You can just feel it’s a place where magic was happening. For kids to walk in there every day will be an enchanting thing.”
Randy Brown Architects’ design will alter and open up the studio, though portions will be preserved as Bellows left them; notably the south rear space where his easel still stands and his hand-sharpened pencils lay ready. The upper floor is home to undisturbed set pieces and backdrops. These expressions of Bellows will be conserved, pending funds, by the Ford Conservation Center in Omaha. (Who said this?)
“The ultimate goal,” Meysenburg said, “is to inspire and to ignite the creative spark in the artistic youth of this community.”
The job of documenting Bellows’ prolific original works continues. Researchers are working to create a comprehensive catalogue raisonne of Bellows’ work as Joslyn Art Museum prepares a fall 2009 Bellows retrospective.
Griess called the search a treasure hunt: some previously undiscovered works have turned up, and other notable pieces are still missing in action.
It’s all part of ensuring the Bellows legacy.
“We feel a heavy responsibility about doing this right,” Wesselmann said.
Mentoring programs start this September in yet-to-be-named art facilities, and the foundation has some potential site leads. The foundation is currently recruiting students and staff for its first 16-week semester.
- Debate rages over arts curriculum (theage.com.au)
- Getting Back to the Phantom Skill – NYTimes.com (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Expressive Drawing Class for Youth offered at Lincoln Street Center for Arts and Education (thevalleyvoice.org)
Opening this weekend at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha is a major exhibition of work by the late master American realist artist Kent Bellows, whose exacting drawings so deeply penetrate their subjects that they move beyond the documentation afforded by photography to capture another level of expressiveness. My rather short story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) isn’t so much about his art as it is about the pains that went into organizing the exhibition, the largest single showing of his work ever assembled. The Bellows name may be new to you, but once you see his work you will recognize his genius and if you do any reading or research about the artist you will soon discover that he was widely respected in the art world. His work almost literally sold right off his easel, which meant it ended up in the hands of dozens of collectors all over country, even all over the world, a prime reason why it took some doing to get together a representative selection of his work for the show.
To view his work and to learn more about this artist, visit http://www.kentbellows.com. I will be posting other stories related to Bellows, including stories about the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts (www.kentbellows.org) that his family and friends launched in his honor.
Kent Bellows: Soul in Motion
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)
Born in Blair, Neb., Bellows made Omaha his residence and artistic home. He remained here even though his work sold well through such New York galleries as Forum and his pieces were acquired by such prestigious bodies as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Only 56 at the time of his death, the prolific artist created a body of work that proved daunting to index. Start with the fact he left behind shoddy records. Galleries representing him keep equally sparse files. Most Bellows work is in closely-held, rarely seen private collections scattered about the U.S.
A five-year journey to locate, document and catalog the work is resulting in the largest Bellows exhibition to date. Opening September 25 at Joslyn Art Museum, Beyond Realism, The Works of Kent Bellows 1970-2005, will feature more than 70 of his precisely rendered, emotionally penetrating paintings, drawings and prints. The pieces are drawn from some 25 collections. The exhibit continues through January 16, 2011.
A companion catalogue reproduces the exhibit works, plus many others. The show and book offer an unprecedented look at the Bellows oeuvre. ”Nobody has ever seen that many pieces of Kent’s brought together at one time,” said Debra Wesselmann, a sister. Another sister, Robin Griess, described the scope of it all as mind-boggling. “You look at his body of work,” she said, “and it’s like many lives of art. Just so many blood-sweat-and-tears pieces, so meticulously done, so passionately done. And you think, How did this guy do it? Obviously he had to dedicate great periods of time to his work.”
Archiving it all led to many discoveries, including some remarkable things we didn’t even know existed — studies and things he did for people, said Griess. “It’s a little like hunting for treasure.” The two sisters have led this painstaking, time-intensive process. In many cases a piece’s title, date or medium varied from artist to gallery to collector. Crosschecking and verifying details is the only way to ensure accuracy.
“We feel a heavy responsibility for getting it right,” said Griess, who knows the data will guide future art historians. “We tried to do it as carefully as possible.” It meant adhering to strict procedures and collaborating with curators, gallery owners, collectors and friends of Bellows. In the end, she said, “we feel good about what we’ve done.”
Exhibit guest curator and catalogue editor, Molly Hutton of Buffalo, New York, said in an e-mail she believes the projects “will serve to establish Bellows as a key figure within the history of realist practice in this country,” adding, “He was on the verge of such recognition at the time of his death, so this in-depth presentation of his work should only fuel interest in the further study of his artmaking.”
“We’re absolutely thrilled to get it (the work) out there to the public,” said Griess. “It’s work that’s awe-inspiring. You want to take it in and see it again. They’re like pieces of literature, you can get so much from it. One of the most thrilling things for us is that this community will be seeing a lot of Kent’s work for the first time and they will be amazed that an artist of his ability lived right here in their own backyard.”
The goal of bringing Bellows more into the mainstream of public consciousness is being realized with a confluence of events this fall. Coinciding with the exhibit will be the grand opening of the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts. This combination mentoring project, studio space and gallery is housed in the nearly century old brick “Mahler” building, 3303 Leavenworth St., where the artist lived and worked the last several years of his life.
Upon the artist’s passing, family and friends formed the Kent Bellows Foundation, which soon launched the Bellows Studio-Center, an immersion space where young people passionate to make a life in art are mentored by professional artists. Its mantra, “igniting the creative spark,” is a homage to the influence Bellows had as a mentor to emerging artists.
Omaha native and Bellows Foundation board member Peter Buffett credits Bellows with encouraging his music. Photographer Patrick Drickey, a classmate of Bellows at Burke High, said, “Kent was my friend and counselor. He inspired me to achieve success in my field by teaching me the language of the visual arts — composition and light. Elements of what I learned from him remain as the cornerstone of my work today.” Drickey photographed most of Bellows’ work from 1970 on. Since 2008 renovations to the old Bellows studio have been underway.
Meanwhile, the mentoring project has operated out of the Bemis Underground, an apt place given that Bellows did a residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Students and mentors will move into “The Bellows” in time for its official opening. Parts of his old studio are intact, including his main work space on the ground floor and elaborate sets he built into the walls on the second floor.
Executive director Anne Meysenburg said visitors to the center can glimpse artifacts of Bellows’ inner world during the exhibit’s run: “We will be open every Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., during the month of October with the intention that people can attend Beyond Realism at Joslyn and then come over to see the work-and-live space of the artist.” The center plans a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony, a community open house and a celebration for friends and stakeholders.
“The goal is to get as many people in the building as possible to witness the entire legacy of creative process that has been facilitated on Leavenworth,” said Meysenburg. “Kent left an amazing legacy we get to live and breath every day. His talent and desire to help other artists develop brought us to where we are. We are truly excited to share his talent and desire to mentor with the community. ”
Griess feels the center and exhibit will complement each other: “How many times do you get the opportunity to see an artist’s work and then to go right over to see where he completed that work, where he lived his dreams out, and where he was inspired?” The Joslyn plans classes and workshops on Bellows, his artwork and techniques.
Anything that fleshes out the Bellows story is welcomed by Hutton, whose interest in the artist began in 2004. “It has been incredibly gratifying and illuminating to have the opportunity to meet so many of Bellows’ close friends and family members and collectors of his works,” she said. “I’ve gained new insight into his rigorous working methods and routines, his feelings about being an artist in a competitive contemporary art market, his utter devotion to his family…and place, which kept him in Omaha instead of migrating to New York, as his gallery would have liked.”
All of it informs her catalogue essay and any future writing she does about Bellows. “I’ve come to appreciate how beloved he was in his community and what an infectious personality he possessed, a situation that necessitated he become more reclusive as his career surged, so that he could have the time to work.”
Joslyn Deputy Director of Collections and Programs Anne El-Omami said, “The museum has been astounded by the response from collectors of Kent’s work. Not only did they collect Bellows, but they were great friends of his, and are all committed to ensuring the legacy of this extraordinary artist. Everybody is so passionate, it’s just incredible.”
Hutton says the exhibit and catalogue “should definitely help disseminate the works to a broader audience.” The Bellows bandwagon may just be starting. Plans call for a comprehensive catalogue raisonne featuring the entirety of his life work and a traveling exhibition.
- Rackstraw Downes’s Landscapes, at Three Sites (nytimes.com)
- Do van Gogh’s self-portraits reveal his madness? (pbpulse.com)
- Swann Galleries Showcases Art of New York City (luxist.com)
- Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- El Museo Latino in Omaha Opened as the First Latino Art and History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Naturalist-Artist John Lokke – In Pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and In the Footsteps of Karl Bodmer
This is the kind of long-form journalism that’s become increasingly rare in city newspapers and magazines. My profile of naturalist-artist John Lokke is one of my personal favorites among my own body of work. The nuances and connections made throughout the article represent the kind of context and texture that is just not possible in a short piece. I wish I had the opportunity to do this kind of writing, for pay that is, more often, but the realities of 21st century journalism preclude it. I found Lokke an utterly fascinating figure and after reading the profile for the first time in a dozen years I must say I still find him as compelling a subject as I’ve ever encountered in a quarter century of journalism, over which time I’ve interviewed and profiled hundreds of people from literally all walks of life. It helps when you come across, as I did with Lokke, a subject who expresses himself so well and who has an appreciation for not only his passion but for how it fits into the big picture. And that very quality, of honing in on the specific while keeping in mind the big picture, is one of the things that distinguished my work. The story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and this is the first time it’s been republished since then. I eventually lost track of Lokke, but I’d like to think he’s still out searching for the Timber and painting his heart out.
Naturalist-Artist John Lokke – In Pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and In the Footsteps of Karl Bodmer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Snakes have served as potent cultural symbols since, well, Eve was led astray by one in the Garden of Eden. Whether it’s the Hydra of Greek mythology or the serpent (read: Satan) in the Book of Genesis, snakes have long been equated with treachery if not outright evil.
The tendency throughout history has been to regard all members of the Serpentes family — even non-poisonous ones — as deadly threats to be eradicated at all costs. That bad rap, combined with their demonized place in myth and holy scripture, gave rise to the notion the only good snake is a dead one. Indeed, snake hunting has made some species scarce and others extinct. Then too there’s the creature’s cold calculating eyes, sinister scaly body and slithering, secretive ways.
Still, not everyone has bought into the snake-as-devil doctrine. Native American rituals, including Hopi Indian dances and Lakota Indian vision quests, celebrate the snake as a symbol of power and regeneration. Sierra Club types contend snakes are wildlife treasures unfairly maligned for instinctive traits borne of evolution not evil.
Then there’s John Lokke, a local herpetologist, naturalist and watercolorist who combines his interest in the Timber Rattlesnake (“the largest and most imperiled venomous snake in Nebraska”) with his love for the Missouri River Valley, his interest in this region’s history and his rigorous artistic vision. Lokke, a 43-year-old Omaha native, creates paintings capturing the ever-changing face of the river bluffs where the Timber once roamed in great abundance across southeast Nebraska but, due in part to extensive rock quarrying operations begun in the 1930s, has been nearly wiped out. Until then, the snake went largely undetected, but once discovered became a target for residents who killed them in great numbers.
Today, the snake, whose range in Nebraska was always limited to the extreme southeastern corner, is rarely reported within the state’s borders. In 20 years of searching for them Lokke estimates he’s seen dozens, with the vast majority in Kansas. “They’re not easy to find. They blend in beautifully with their surroundings. It’s a big beautiful snake. A really large one is just a little over four feet long. Probably what accounts for it being rarer or absent today throughout its range in Nebraska and in other parts of the country is that its habitat has been degraded to the point where it can’t carry on its life cycle,” he explained.
He blames rampant tree succession, which unchecked prairie fires once controlled, for spoiling the high rock outcroppings favored by the Timber. “As the trees fill in the rocks no longer get the warm sun in the spring, when the snakes emerge from their dens, or in the fall, when they retreat back into them. Bluffs are slowly but surely being consumed by the trees, including dogwoods, cedars and cottonwoods.” Further eroding the snake’s habitat, he added, is a widespread phenomenon called slumping in which tons of dirt slide down from atop a bluff to cover or bury a rock outcrop, effectively making it uninhabitable.
It is tempting to compare the tall, tapered Lokke, who began studying and collecting snakes as a child, with the Crotalus Horridus he often seeks and paints on field trips in far southeast Nebraska. Much like the Timber, he has a quiet, still presence and patiently bides his time before acting in precise, definitive ways.
Since the mid-1990s this rather sober artist has been on a self-appointed mission to document a stretch of the Missouri along the Kansas-Nebraska border where the Timber once flourished but is now mostly vanished and where noted 19th century Swiss artist Karl Bodmer traveled with German Prince Maximilian of Wied, a noted naturalist, to explore the then pristine American West. He not only makes drawings, paintings and photographs of riverscapes but collects data on the area’s history through interviews with long-time residents, including old quarry workers whose labors inadvertently revealed the snake’s existence and sealed its fate. Why does Lokke do it? To leave a record of how the river, the land and the snake’s habitat has been altered by man’s presence in the ensuing years since Maximilian-Bodmer journeyed there during their 1832-1834 trek. It is Lokke’s way of providing a link to the past and a gauge for the future.
When, in 1996, Lokke discovered he had been drawn in his search for the snake to visit and paint some of the very sites Bodmer had before him, it revealed fresh connections and sparked renewed dedication to his mission.
“I had made three initial watercolor landscapes in Cass County of King Hill and of Indian or Ace Hill. When I discovered Bodmer had painted these hills it absolutely bowled me over,” he said. “It was through repeated searches for this snake I really became enamored with the beauty and mystery of those hills. I always knew there was something very powerful, very special about those hills, something a little more deep and more rugged than the others, and obviously a scientist from Germany and an artist from Switzerland 160 years earlier thought so too, and I thought that was pretty amazing. To see that Bodmer had chosen these hills was very validating for what I was trying to do because, you know, I went into this basically cold.
“I believed in what I was doing — I knew it was important — but I wasn’t sure of an historical context. But when I saw Bodmer’s work, that all changed. I now had a link with my natural history interests and a tie to the past through art history. I made up my mind then I was going to make a lot more of these paintings and make them ever better. That I was going to work at this very hard and push this as far as I can…and maybe I could leave behind some paintings that will be as useful to people in 200 years as Karl Bodmer’s are today. I got very invigorated by that possibility, and I went to work.”
The bridge between Lokke and Bodmer takes on added interest in that Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, where Lokke worked as an art education intern, is the repository of the internationally renowned Maximilian-Bodmer collection. The collection, under the auspices of the museum’s Center for Western Studies, includes hundreds of Bodmer watercolors and sketches as well as three journals kept by Maximilian that detail the expedition’s day-by-day progress. Joslyn has featured the Bodmer collection in major exhibitions and catalogs.
By 2001-2002, work should be completed on a new book detailing all 81 of the hand-colored engravings Bodmer made from his on-site watercolors, and during 2003-2004 a first-ever European tour of the Bodmer watercolors is scheduled. The long-anticipated publication of Maximilian’s German-language diaries is still two or three years off, according to museum officials.
Lokke, who discovered his link to Bodmer in the book “Karl Bodmer’s America,” envisions an illustrated book of his own someday that, in his words, “will tell the story of this amazing snake and its habitat and all the changes that have happened along this habitat in the 20th century.” The book will also document his own personal journey of discovery in the places he’s visited, the people he’s met, the stories he’s heard and the paintings, drawings and photographs he’s produced.
Beth Irwin, a former teaching specialist at Joslyn who supervised Lokke at the museum, is familiar with his work and its reverberations with Bodmer. “The feeling you get from John’s work is similar to the feeling you get from Bodmer’s. The Bodmer watercolors have a strong feeling of immediacy because they were painted more quickly — done maybe over a day’s time — where John’s are probably done over a month’s time. But they both have that freshness and immediacy in common.”
After working as a commercial artist during the 1970s and ‘80s, Lokke decided to embark on a fine arts degree about 10 years ago. Now a year-and-a-half away from earning his degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Lokke brings a non-traditional maturity and vision to the classroom. One of John’s teachers at UNO, associate professor of art Bonnie O’Connell, said Lokke distinguishes himself by “his extensive experience out in the field” as well as by “the research he’s done. He’s quite delightful because he’s literate and articulate.”
Frances Thurber, an associate professor in art and art history at UNO, has taught Lokke and seen his watercolor work develop. “John really took to watercolor and became quite facile with the medium. He has a natural affinity for it. John really looks at the subtleties of that paint. He has a fine eye and a fine hand,” she said. “And I think he’s found a real niche for himself by incorporating his interests as a naturalist with his historical recording and his gifts as an artist. He has very much a scholarly approach to things. His work is precise and deep. He’s very gifted.”
To date, the artist has completed some 23 paintings and drawings relating to the Timber’s historical range and/or updating Bodmer’s views of the region. His watercolor landscapes, which have shown in a few area exhibitions, will be on display at the Omaha History Center through the end of October.
Finding the subjects for his watercolors requires Lokke venture to some off-the-beaten-path spots. He backpacks into remote wooded areas along the river, accessing long-abandoned quarry sites and mining towns. His favorite haunts include the Barada Hills, Jones Point, Morgan’s Island and the site where the Big Nemaha River meets the Missouri. Since much of the territory he covers is private land, he asks residents permission to traverse their property. Through such contacts with locals he’s heard many tales about the Timber Rattlesnake and about life along the once free and wild river.
“I’ve had some great experiences talking to these guys. They provide a glimpse into pre-World War II life on the Missouri River, before it was managed. Life then was simpler. Much less mechanized. Farms were smaller. A lot of southeastern Nebraska was devoted to fruit production. More families fished the river commercially. There were a number of small ferrying operations. The Schmid brothers, a pair of bachelor farmers who came to the United States from Switzerland in 1930 and settled on some land at the base of Indian or Ace Hill, remember being able to walk out their door, cross a flood plain and find an oxbow or slough full of fish in clear water. They feel the river is less for the better through channelizing. A lot of the wildlife and natural beauty is gone. Their opinion is it probably should have been left alone.”
Pete Everett, a 95-year-old ex-quarry worker, has told Lokke of the time at King’s Hill Quarry when a mound of loose dirt was removed from a bluff to reveal a depression in the ground. Digging turned up a den of 40 hibernating Timber Rattlesnakes. Lokke practically drools at the thought. His works include a series of “illustrated narrative” paintings depicting some of the snake tales the men have told him. He relies on the memories of men like Everett to inform him what those hills looked like and what habitat they sustained. He says his work is “increasingly becoming a tribute to the old men who have provided me with such wonderful stories. The greatest satisfaction I get is when I show them the paintings and watch 40 years fall off their faces.”
While far from a raving John the Baptist in the wild, Lokke concedes his quest is all-consuming, leaving him somewhat out-of-step with the times. “I’m much too slow for the 20th century,” he said. “I barely know computers. To tell you the truth I miss probably about 90 percent of popular culture. I don’t know what’s going on. I kind of live in my own oblivion. You kind of have to, you know?”
He prefers old-fashioned American music and often plays it on one of his National resophonic fingerstyle guitars. He also composes original tunes based on sounds that come to him on his river sojourns. “If I do something quite rigorous, like hiking or struggling with a drawing or searching for snakes, I’ll start hearing a recurring sound in my head — a riff — and once I get it in my head I try mentally playing with it and expanding on it and then I try to find it on the guitar. Some, I discard. Others survive to become what I like to think of as soundtracks to the places I go and the things I see.”
He looks to the past for much of his inspiration and, a la Thoreau, to nature for his sustenance. During one of his many Missouri River haunts, when he variously searches for the Timber and for just the right vantage point from which to paint its river bluff environs, he is a man in tune with himself and with his universe. At one with the rushing wind, the streaming river, the warbling Thrush. “It is essential,” he said of communing with the Great Outdoors, “because when I’m out there, even if I’m having a really bad day and just can’t get it together, I still think I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It can certainly become a spiritual experience.”
In his work Lokke calls on both his training as an artist and his knowledge as a natural history buff. “I do go out there with the overt intention of striking a balance between what I know from my artistic training is aesthetically and
compositionally engaging and what is of historical interest or importance. My basic technique is to make as detailed a drawing as possible in the field. Then I take a few color snapshots just to help my memory with the colors I was seeing out there at the time. The drawing is really the skeleton and essence of what’s going to become a painting. In the drawing I bring out details lost or distorted in the photograph. I transfer the drawing directly onto good watercolor paper.” He often returns several times to the same site before finishing a painting.
For someone as passionate about nature as Lokke, working with a sketch pad outdoors can prove distracting. “It’s absolutely overwhelming to draw outdoors because I have a naturalist’s eye and I’m trained to see as much as possible, so I have to be selective. You cannot take it all home. After awhile a sense of what needs to be there will come through. But it’s very hard. I’m usually pretty tired by the time I’m done with one.”
Just as the remote bluffs that once provided a perfect haven for the snake and its dens have changed since Karl Bodmer’s time, so has the muddy river below — owing to massive dike-building and channelizing efforts aimed at taming floods and aiding river navigation. Lokke, who has a river’s stillness and serenity accentuated by his deep gaze, long slow gait and deliberate manner of speaking, would have loved to glimpse the Missouri and its surrounding hills in their pure wild state.
Crafting his words as carefully as he renders the details in his fine paintings, he said: “Often times when I’m driving home I get this deeply satisfying sensation that I I’m somehow connecting with the history of the place. The recollections of the old men come back to me strongly when I’m painting. My imagination gets keen with how it must have looked when this was frontier. I see it in very idyllic terms: The hills are a savannah that are basically open, with a spangling of hardwood trees through them; the bottoms are extremely rich with grasses, trees, water, birds and fish. I try not to think about the mosquitoes or the mud or the other problems.”
He appreciates that while he sometimes contends with tough conditions out in the field, ranging from hordes of nagging insects to severe heat or cold, he can always retreat to the comfort of his car and to a warm soft bed at night whereas Bodmer was exposed to harsh elements for weeks at a time, with only the bare provisions and flimsy accommodations afforded by the Yellowstone Steamer he and the rest of Maximilian’s party used to ply the Missouri River.
“He dealt with things that were much worse than what I face,” Lokke said. “From what I’ve been able to glean from notations in the journals, Bodmer was not just an artist for hire but also a crew member who was expected to go ashore and cut wood and hunt animals and assist when the steamboat got caught in snags or mired on sandbars, which was a common problem. It was a very difficult journey.”
It is not an exaggeration to say Lokke feels a kinship with Bodmer that extends beyond simply retracing the earlier artist’s historic steps. For example, Lokke paints in the same medium (watercolor) as his predecessor did and shares with him an affinity for nature and a sensitivity for accurately portraying flora and fauna.
“The kinship I feel with him is that we both work in watercolor, which can be a difficult and unforgiving medium…an elusive way to do art. At the same time, the properties of watercolor — the transparency and the way the paint behaves — are very conducive to rendering nature. There’s something about the way the colors lay on the paper, especially a fine rag paper, and the way that beautiful white paper shines through this paint.
“Bodmer was an immensely talented man. I love the way he handles his colors. His paintings have great economy. He can depict a whole line of trees along the river with basically just two layers of color whereas I have to use half-a-dozen. The greatest thing about his paintings for me is how his use of colors evoke the last glimpse of an unspoiled continent. The colors have a softness and sophistication that I think, more than any frontier artist I’ve looked at, capture the innocence of the North America he saw.
“The real connection I feel with Karl Bodmer is he had a real love for details and it was important to him that the plants and animals and the people and their tools were all done accurately. Bodmer was one of hundreds of artists in the 1800s sent far away to bring back imagery of foreign lands for review at home. Topographical artists like him were the camera of the day. Pictorial accuracy was paramount.”
In 1998 Lokke’s own skills as a representational artist led the then director of the UNO-sponsored Bethsaida Excavation Project, Richard Freund, to commission him to visit the Holy Land and paint historic sites documented by 19th century
topographical artist David Roberts. It was his first trip abroad. “That was a chance for me to live out every topographer’s dream,” Lokke said. His resulting paintings are currently on display in Hartford, CT and will tour other cities across the U.S.
Lokke is not the first Nebraskan to feel a keen personal kinship with the Maximilian-Bodmer odyssey. The late Paul Schach, emeritus professor of modern languages at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, worked 12 years on the translation of Maximilian’s diaries. In a 1990 interview Schach, who grew up in Pennsylvania speaking and reading a dialect similar to Maximilian’s, said the painstaking translation put him on intimate terms with the man, with whom he shared more than a common heritage and language. Just as Maximilian spent a lifetime as a rugged outdoorsman and rigorous scholar, so too did Schach, who admitted to having “become perhaps too much interested in the man.”
Although Lokke regrets the fact he and Schach never met, Lokke feels they shared a bond no words could have expressed. Each felt the pull of the frontier West. Each identified with his own historical counterpart. Each in his own way delved far into the past in order to extract a better understanding of then and now. Schach is gone now, having left behind a vital store of knowledge. Lokke hopes to leave behind a legacy of his own whenever his time comes. A legacy staked out in the footprints of Bodmer.
- Man bit by rattlesnake he tried to move off of Ocean County road (nj.com)
- Pa. snake roundup rouses some, rattles others (philly.com)
- Dueling Banjos & Baked Rattlesnake (raspberryblues.wordpress.com)
- Eye to eye with a copperhead (beetlesinthebush.wordpress.com)
I first wrote about Omaha photographer Monte Kruse more than 20 years ago, and even in all the intervening years and stories and personalities I’ve come across, he still rates as one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever met. One day I will post that story, as it’s always been one of my favorites — I think because of the subject and for the way I captured the essence of his otherness. Monte definitely marches to his own drummer. Like a lot of creatives, some can find him strange or difficult, but that’s just Monte being Monte. Of his talent, there is no question. When I encountered that first time he was doing great humanistic work and as I recall more or less living out of his car, flitting between places and assignments. He’s come a long way since then. The last time I ran into him, which was for the following story, he had a downtown loft that served as both residence and studio. I believe he’s still there, but I don’t know for sure. What I do know for sure is that wherever Monte lands he’ll always find a way to do things his own way.
This blog also contains stories of mine about several other Omaha-based photographers, including Jim Hendrickson and Don Doll, who are friends and mentors of Kruse, as well as Rudy Smith, Larry Ferguson, and David Radler. By the end of the year I will be posting a major piece on 2010 World Photographer of the Year Jim Krantz. Additionally, the blog features pieces on many filmmakers, including Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler, Dana Altman, Jon Jost, John Landis, Joan Micklin Silver, Gail Levin, and Charles Fairbanks.
Photographer Monte Kruse Pushes Boundaries
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Omaha photographer Monte Kruse muses about his darkly erotic work “pushing the limits” and getting “him noticed” he sounds every bit the impetuous artist that he is. A sensualist in his life and in his art, Kruse makes striking nude images that actually fulfill his expressed intention to “stretch the bounds” with “edgy work” that elicits strong responses from viewers.
The large-format black-and-white images, which explore the male and female body in evocative contexts, have attracted the very attention he seeks via a slate of local gallery showings displaying his work and the recent gift of one of his prints, Debris IV, to the Joslyn Art Museum permanent collection. While holding court at an Old Market bistro one spring night, the enigmatic Kruse discussed what lies behind the improvisational approach and primal effect he has hit upon with his latest series of nudes.
“I was making money shooting standard portraits but I said to myself, ‘I’m not doing anything that stirs interest or makes people think. How can I do that?’ And I thought, ‘Well, the best way to do it is to photograph the nude, but not the classical nudes of beautiful bodies entwined on a beach with the ocean in the background. Instead, I wanted to do something more like snapshots — images that come out of found moments that have some mystery to them.’ So, I looked at a lot of film noir. I liked the darkness and the moodiness of it. The mystery of it. The detective-style quality to it. And that’s what I was searching for,” he said that night above the din of the busy bistro.
The result, he explained, “is photojournalism, combined with mystery writing, imbued with a mood. It’s the kind of work not typically seen. It’s not real pretty. It’s dark, it’s personal, it’s edgy. It’s not so much about the person as it is the moment — the specific truth of the moment. I don’t want anything posed. I go in without any preconceived ideas, except to bring out a certain element of intrigue. It’s like a diary. It’s my experience with that person in that moment. There’s one like that of me and my girlfriend naked in a hotel room. It just happened. Another time, someone I was with took a shower and, boom, I shot it. Once, in a hotel, a person opened a window across the way and I said, ‘That’s it — I’ve got a photograph.’”
Striving for verisimilitude, Kruse often uses found locations and objects rather than sets or props, relying on available light and “a gut feeling.” When not shooting in a studio, he employs minimal artificial lighting and staging. The idea, he said, is to let the process be as natural and instinctive as possible. “I’m photographing without safety nets. I don’t want to do things that are going to be perfect. I don’t want to have it all sketched out. The more off-handed I get, the better I get. I let the subconscious free. I want to be surprised by my own images. The whole thing is just moving and keeping your energy flow up and shooting different angles and not being afraid to take chances. It’s like jazz — it moves from one thing to another. It’s free-flowing. It just goes.”
Later that same night in the Old Market Kruse retreated to his spacious Bemis loft apartment/studio, where he showed some acquaintances the very pictures he was describing. Upon seeing the pulp-fiction-like images, the assembled agreed the photos capture private, unguarded moments suggestive of any number of storylines or histories.
Snapped amid such naturalistic settings as bedrooms and bathrooms, the images offer views of nude individuals and couples in intimate, impromptu moments of a post-coital nature, although nothing overtly sexual is revealed: the shape of a voluptuous woman leaning with a nonchalant attitude in a hallway; a half-glimpsed man standing over a woman lying on her back in bed, gently stroking her pelvis; a well-hung man descending a staircase; a woman with a full bush getting dressed. The pictures, both stark and dreamy, offer a post-modernist’s view of the human form and make the viewer acutely aware of his/her role as voyeur and as purveyor of certain attitudes.
Janet Farber, associate curator of 20th century art at Joslyn Art Museum, said, where images of “the traditional nude” focus “on the beauty or the form of the human body in an isolated context,” Kruse’s images explore the nude in “contextual-narrative” ways that imply certain socio-psychological-sexual dynamics. She said his interest in evoking an atmosphere imbued with subtext is achieved in various ways.
“He’s really paying attention to the range of tones and the intensity of black and white. He creates a tension within the image that allows room for the viewer to bring something to it or add something to it in terms of the implied action. One of the ways he does that is by leaving important bits of information out. Quite often his models are anonymous or somehow their identity obscured. I think that’s part of the effect that brings into play the imagination of the viewer.”
Kruse said his increasing output of male nudes, which has included pictures of gay men interacting, compel people to confront things they may rather avoid, such as homophobia. “I’m not necessarily trying to shoot provocative images, but let’s just say the male nude is always something a little bit scarier. Anytime people see the male nude then all of a sudden there’s the assumption that you or the subject is gay, which doesn’t matter. People are going to bring those attitudes. But with my new series I’m trying to evoke some political questions about what love is and isn’t and what’s wrong with viewing the male body and what’s wrong with the gay culture. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with it.”
He said by presenting the male nude in different ways, he hopes people see beyond questions of sexual proclivity and instead view the male body as a natural and legitimate subject and one not yet exploited or perverted like the image of the female body. “When people ask, ‘Why are you interested in the male nude?, I say, ‘Well, because it’s beautiful.’ The female nude has been done to death. It’s a cliche. The male body has just as much validity as the female body. It’s just me pushing the parameters a bit. I take these snapshot-like images and blow them up into huge prints that people are forced to confront on a wall, where they’ll love it, hate it, whatever.”
Carol McCabe, who has printed many images by Kruse at her Professional Darkroom Services, said she saw the artist go through a phase where he ratcheted up the emotional tenor of his work to the point of shock value. She said where his work was once “more literal and straightforward” it now displays a “much more formal, sophisticated” and subtle interplay between elements in tension, whether shades of light and dark or moments of action and repose.
She said while “there’s a lot of physical power in the images, a big piece of what he wants to do is create ambiguity, as seen by his interest in androgyny. I think he pushes the envelope with his work more than anyone else I’ve seen in Omaha. He brings a passion and honesty and compassion to his work that makes people respond.” McCabe said Kruse is also meticulous, going to great pains to study how master visual artists have used light and paying close attention to every detail in the darkroom.
During a recent shoot in a side corridor at the Bemis building where he resides, Kruse photographed a nude male in a series of primal, pent-up “action” scenes against the backdrop of a brick wall. Beyond some minimal track lighting overhead, the only fill light Kruse brought to the location was something he calls “my genius light.”
Without any firm idea of what he would shoot, Kruse tried conjuring some compelling image into being out of thin air. He moved everywhere in the tight space, searching for angles, compositions, shadows, texture, depth, mood, feeling. He had the model, Greg, try any number of clinging, crouching stances along the wall, having him insinuate his body like a snake slithering across a rock face. In some cases he had Greg hoist himself up on a lead pipe and then twist his body and turn his face from the lens. In others, he had him make like he was scaling the wall, ala Spider-man, or else like a cat burglar or prowler caught with his pants down.
In a photo session Kruse charms his model like the seducer he is in order to get the results he wants. “You’ve got to be able to read people. You have to become their friend for that moment. You have to develop that trust. You have to be alert. You have to be open. You have to take risks.” he noted. In an almost constant patter, he reassures and directs his subject: “Beautiful, hold it right there. Bring your legs down. Bring ‘em up. Now, a little bit further down. Throw your head back. Yeah, that’s it. It’s gorgeous.” He also exchanges quips. “You kind of look like Jesus up there,” he told Greg, who at the time clung from a wall with his arms splayed out. “I’m feeling a lot like him right now,” answered a flushed Greg.
A frequent model for Kruse is Claudia Einecke, Curator of European Art at the Joslyn. Recently, she dropped over Kruse’s place while he was shooting painter Helen Braugh. After finishing with the petite and politely British brunette Braugh, he turned his attention to the sleek, blond Einecke, a German emigree who oozes a pouty sexuality without trying. As she nonchalantly sat on the arm of an easy chair, hands propped on her knees and long legs opened, Kruse clicked away from the floor with his Canon AE-1 camera. He also favors a Pentax 645.
Einecke described what it’s like being the object of his intense gaze: “Although it looks like he’s just waiting for something to happen,” she said, “there is an energy and a tension there because he’s making those things happen. It’s always impressive and interesting to see Monte at work and the concentration he brings to it. He’s always looking for the unplanned. Usually, his best photos come out of moments he recognizes that you and I would probably not see as photographs. Monte reminds me that at first I thought his new work was just awful, but now that I’ve gotten used to these images there are some that I think are really lyrical, beautiful and gentle.”
In some recent images, Kruse goes for extremities — capturing the taut muscles and bulging veins of, for example, Greg straining to support himself at the Bemis. “Where before I was dealing in found moments,” Kruse said, “now I’m trying to step-up the intensity. I’m after something real urban, real dark, real menacing. I’m pushing the model to the extremes. I’m capturing the pain, the tension, the exertion, the danger. I want to make it real hip, real cool, but not contrived.” In other shoots he’s done along these lines, he achieves ambiguity in images of naked men caught leaping through the air without a familiar context to ground their actions in. The models “are not objects,” Einecke said, “but are subjects in a narrative. You don’t know what’s going on, but you feel something is going on.”
For Kruse, photography is all about the possibilities it affords as a medium of self- expression and personal growth. The life of this former Iowa farm boy was transformed when he turned his back on a promising baseball career while a Creighton University student in the 1970s to pursue photography. With world-renowned photojournalist Don Doll and sculptor Richard Hunt as mentors Kruse developed into a sought-after image maker adept at capturing poetic human scenes for such diverse sources as news publications, galleries, corporations and private clients.
In the photo-journalistic vein, he has documented AIDS patients, homeless individuals, developmentally disabled residents and poverty-stricken natives of foreign lands. For the art market, he has shot a wide variety of stunning nudes. For a personal series of artist portraits, he has photographed such leading lights as author Studs Terkel, the late actor Jason Robards and filmmaker Sydney Pollock.
Ever the iconoclast, Kruse long ago eschewed a mainstream career for independence. His romantic idea of being an artist found him living out of his car between assignments and adventures in Israel, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. He took his obsession with photography to the limit. “If I had a choice between buying film and food, it was generally food, but it was a really close call. I’ll be honest — I stole, I cheated, I lied — I did everything to keep going. And now I’m in a position where I don’t have to do that. I’m not as desperate as I was.”
With age and maturity he now lives a settled life, supporting himself by working as a hotel doorman. This solid foundation actually frees him to experiment more with his work. “Before, I was so desperate to please and to get other jobs that I’d shoot this stereotypical stuff. My photography was based on pictures I’d seen. Now, I’m doing individual images that are uniquely my own. I’m less self-conscious. I’m more confident. If I don’t want to work with you, I can say the two magic words in the English language, ‘F_ _ _ you.’ Plus, I can create here. When I lived in other places, like New York, I couldn’t create because I was so caught up in just surviving and making the rent. Here, I can shoot all day long.”
Finally, Kruse feels photography is what ultimately defines who he is and what his legacy will be. “I pick up the camera, man, every day. I shoot images every day. I’ve shot countless images in my life. My photos are like a diary of my life. I can look back at photos I shot years ago, and it’s like yesterday. They’re proof of my existence on earth. I think the last picture I’ll take, if I can, is of all the people gathered around my bedside.”
- Fashion, photography and the art of the nude (thestar.com)
- ‘Censor This’ erotic photography exhibit in Harrisburg draws critics before it opens (pennlive.com)
- Marie Claire: Nude Is The New Black, If You’re White, That Is [Color Patterns] (jezebel.com)
- Exploring the Female Nude (thelastnoel.blogspot.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jesuit Photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University Documents the Global Human Condition One Person, One Image at a Time (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
When I read about world famous glass artist Therman Statom relocating to Omaha, I I knew I would one day pursue a story about him, and I finally did a year-and-a-half ago, and I’m glad I did. He has a soft spot for kids, and my article for the Omaha City Weekly explores his work through the prism of his working with children. In charting his interaction with kids in a variety of settinsg, I more and more came to see him as a kind of Peter Pan figure who’s never really grown up himself, and it’s this innocence and curiosity which may account in part for his imaginative works.
Artist Therman Statom Works with Children to Create Glass Houses and More
©by Leo Adam Biga
A shorter version of this story appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacitywekly.com)
When you picture internationally-renowned visual artists you don’t immediately associate them working with children. The image that likely comes to you is of an intensely-focused, hyper-kinetic figure slaving away in isolation or else imposing his will on a crew of assistants.
Acclaimed glass artist Therman Statom of Omaha fits that figure to a tee as he juggles a hectic, globe-hopping schedule of commissions, installations, openings and workshops. Yet he also loves sharing his skill and knowledge with youths. Amid all his demands he still heeds the Peter Pan in him by stealing away a few hours a week to take kids on journeys of discovery.
His 2006 move here began with him showing curious neighborhood kids around his immense downtown studio just southeast of 20th and Leavenworth Streets. This year he began formally working with kids from the Wesley House Academy of Leadership & Artistic Excellence in northeast Omaha. The at-risk African-American students at the academy, a United Methodist Community Centers Inc. program with a 136-year social service history, come from single-parent homes in many cases. They live in an area where drugs, gangs, poverty and violence persist, where positive adult male role models are scarce, where educational achievement lags and where hopelessness pervades neighborhoods.
Much as Wesley director Paul Bryant is dedicated to raising these children’s expectations, Statom tries exposing them to larger possibilities. He wants them to know his world can be theirs, too. He wants them to tap their rich imagination and full potential in pursuit of their own dreams, their own rainbow of desires.
It’s what happens when Statom hosts students at his 20,000 square-foot facility. There, in a white concrete block building that housed a window manufacturing company, an art and industrial wonderland awaits his young guests. They call him, “Mr. Therman.” Part studio, part factory, part gallery, the operation’s attended to by Statom and a team of assistants, including wood-metal craftsmen.
Fabricating machines, work tables, floor-to-ceiling storage bays, lockers, tools, forklifts, ladders, crates and sections of wood, metal and glass fill the space.
Ah, glass. It’s everywhere inside the cavernous environs. Assorted bins, boxes and buckets contain glass shards. A kaleidoscope of translucent shapes, colors, textures, friezes, panels, frames, shelves, boxes and mirrors greet you. Hanging on walls and strewn here and there are finished and unfinished glass pieces. More yet is shrink-wrapped in plastic bundles — for shipment/storage protection.
Carts variously hold tins with brushes, jars, cans and tubes of paint, glass beads and piles of old world atlases and art books, whose maps, illustrations and indexes he cannibalizes to add layers of narrative and symbol to his work.
He’s a glass virtuoso. He blows it, cuts it, molds it, paints over it, photo-etches on it, inserts objects in it, attaches things to it. He instructs children to do the same. “The kids can sort of absorb what I do at a moment’s glance,” he said.
On a recent visit the Wesley kids made to his glass works he announced, “Today, this is your studio. You can use the whole studio.” They did, too, as soon as he broke them into pairs for a drawing project. One kid would lay down on an over-sized sheet of paper while the other traced their outline, braids and all. Each team interpreted their life figure in paint — alternately dripping it on, smearing it on with their hands or brushing it on. The figures were then cut out and displayed.
“It had a good energy to it. They were really having at it,” he said. “One kid had this brush out. He was going at it. He mixed the colors up right here on the floor. It was very powerful. In many ways it was like a Jackson Pollock action painting.”
In July he led the kids on a tour of Joslyn Art Museum’s contemporary galleries, where they saw everything from Steven Joy’s abstract paintings to a George Segal sculpture to a techo piece by video artist Nam June Paik. When they got to the enormous glass sculpture in the atrium he informed them he’s a friend and former student of its creator — Dale Chihuly.
He’s always coaxing responses from the kids. Never talking down to them, he strikes an easy balance between serious and casual. “I just try to treat them the way I’d like to be talked to and treated,” he said. Refusing to dumb things down, he challenges kids to consider the intentions and themes artists investigate. “What do you suppose the artist is trying to say here?” “Does anyone know what a metaphor is?” “What do you think a museum is?” “What’s contemporary art?”
At one point on the Joslyn tour he sat the kids down in the tiled fountain court to say, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that all of you can grow up and create work that can be in a museum. You’re capable. The bad news is you have to work really hard to be able to do it. I grew up in these kinds of spaces, and that’s where my education started — at a museum like this.”
Washington, D.C. museums became his playground after moving with his family near the nation’s capital around age 9. Some classmates at Georgetown Day School were the children of prominent artists. Cady Noland introduced Statom to her father, painter Kenneth Noland, whose work is part of Joslyn’s permanent collection.
“When I was 13 I knew him. He is the first person who introduced me to painting. I’ve been lucky enough that all these artists in this gallery, except for one guy, I knew,” Statom told the kids. “I met them when I was your age and I didn’t know what art was.”
The more he immersed himself in art the more he learned.
“I remember the first time I went to the Smithsonian was through a school tour to see the Mona Lisa and standing in a big old line to see this painting. When I got to it I didn’t think too much of it but I was amazed by the line to go see it. Once I discovered the museums were free I’d go on the weekends. Then I was able to meet people whose parents were artists and we would go for fun.”
He said Noland was “nice to me, and I respected that.” Visiting the home-studio of a working artist let him know a career in art was possible. “I thought, ‘Well, I can do that. Why don’t I pursue that field?’ It seemed like a pretty open field.”
He tells kids museums also became his hideaways. “When I didn’t go to school I would come to a place like here because it was free,” he confided. He doesn’t condone kids play hooky but if they do they could do worse than hanging out at the Joslyn. Whole worlds await exploration there.
“I love museums,” he said. Finding these sanctuaries — what he calls his “home turf” — was key for Statom because for a long while he didn’t know where he belonged. Art changed all that. “I wasn’t very great at math and sciences but I loved painting and sculpture.”
This affinity became transformational when he had trouble adjusting to diverse, urban D.C. after living in Winter Haven, Florida.
“Coming from the South,” he said, the move up North “was tough for all of us.” The cultural differences profound. He said he struggled with identity issues and “being in a new culture.” He attended several schools. “I remember once I told a class I was Jewish — just to fit in. I didn’t even know what it was. I was just scared.”
He and his family adapted. Statom said, “My father ended up being a really great physician in Washington, D.C. He really did a helluva lot for a lot of people. He was a general practitioner. He catered to a largely poor black community there. He took care of people. I think the average visit until his retirement was about $20. That’s if you paid cash. He had patients that paid with food or trade.”
Statom’s mother was an elementary school teacher. She was also a self-styled spiritualist who brought her old soul, country healing ways with her.
“She didn’t advertise. It wasn’t very formal,” he said, “but it was definitely an issue in our raising. It was a part of our scene. It definitely added a different kind of context to our sensibilities as we got older. She taught me a lot of things.”
He learned he didn’t need to connect with a Higher Power in “a structured orthodox religious setting.” His art’s an expression of intuitive-spiritual journeys.
Just as he found himself through art he tries helping kids do the same today .
“The thing that’s great about me being able to do this,” he said, “is that the kids are exposed to world-class standards. There’s absolutely none of this, Oh, you’re from a bad neighborhood, so it’s OK if you have a mediocre art program. I’m establishing a precedent of the highest standard. I won’t accept anything less.”
That’s why he made sure Joslyn curator of contemporary art John Wilson met them. “I want the kids to have a sense that they met with someone that’s really responsible. I want them to have a sense of importance…” Both Statom and Bryant say it’s vital Wesley kids buy-in to the notion they belong, they matter and they deserve the same opportunities as anyone else.
Wesley went from no arts program last fall to “a world class arts program” in 2008, Bryant said, thanks to the participation of Statom and figures like Hal France, director of the Kaneko creativity center in the Old Market. “It’s a beautiful thing because it fulfills a dream I had for the Leadership Academy,” Bryant said. “Now our kids are attending the symphony, they’re making art, they’re meeting artists.”
About Statom, Bryant said, “We just connected immediately. He just has a passion for kids and he loves what we’re doing here.”
Statom, the father of an infant daughter, engages kids in various ways. He conducts workshops at the Wesley that involve students in hands-on projects. “A lot of times I don’t have specific guidelines. I like them to decide what we do in workshops,” he said. “They’re ready to go.” He often asks, “What do you all think of this idea?”
Sometimes he incorporates their creations into his own. He did that with his Nascita (Origin) installation earlier this year at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Under his supervision the kids made glass houses — forms he makes himself — which they then adorned with paint, images, words, objects. He integrated them into his sprawling, multi-gallery sculptures, devoting an entire section to them.
Statom also had the kids paint over portions of the installation.
“Some of these paintings they did on top of my paintings — I’m amazed at what they came up with,” he said. “They have so much natural ability. I let them know they actually gave me insight into my own work. It really brought out a lot of things. It really changed it a lot and it actually made it better.”
For similar shows he’s done in other cities he’s had kids clean mirrors and glass plates and apply silicon scales to the snake figures that recur in his work. He views his interaction with kids as a true collaboration.
“I don’t take this lightly. They really do teach me things all the time. They kill me.”
For another workshop at the Wesley he had the kids work in clay — making objects as Mother’s Day gifts that were later fired and painted.
Statom installation and exhibition at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts
The kids are hesitant at first before warming to the task. He said it’s all about “getting them to trust themselves.” The responsibility of working with them weighs heavy on him. He confessed to students, “Every time I come here to assist you all, I get really nervous. Sometimes I talk to maybe 5,000 people at one time but I get more nervous here than there.” A little girl asked why. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe because I like you guys so much. Maybe that’s it.” The girl smiled.
Later, Statom amended that to say “it’s because this is so important to me.” Why? “I just know I found a sense of place and empowerment through art and whatever part of my brain it embellished or helped I see it as being possible for other kids.”
The way he indulges children — letting them go crazy with clay-paint-charcoal or showing them cool places — is akin to a favorite uncle spoiling nephews-nieces. Certain ones he dotes on, including two of the smallest, Leonna and Gordon.
At the Joslyn he gave students, sketchbooks in hand, an assignment — find a piece they like, draw it and describe what it means to them. Once set loose they rushed from one gallery to the next — sitting or sprawling on the floor to sketch. In these settings Statom’s always on the move, going from kid to kid, checking on their progress, offering suggestions or just as often asking what they want to do.
Kids being kids, questions and issues arise. He’s patient, encouraging, prodding. “How you doing?” “Excellent.” “You did a really good job.” “Don’t give up.” “Give it your best shot.” He chides as needed. “I want you to do another one.” “Now you all were pretty good but you can do better with the noise.” “Listen up.” “Don’t touch.” One of his favorite expressions is, “You know what I mean?”
Gregarious, attentive, sweet, fun, he’s an animated teddy bear energized by how much he wants to show them, tell them, teach them. He’s a big kid who never grew up. A Peter Pan in paint-splattered T-shirt and shorts — eager to “take these kids where they’ve never been before,” he said. That’s what it’s all about.
Sometimes he stops to snap a picture to record the moment.
For Statom, working with kids is a creative act itself. “Each class is almost like a painting to me,” he said. “Figuring out what happens and what we are going to do. I like teaching. I think I always wanted to be a teacher. Teachers are creative.”
When he’s with young students, he said, “I get outside of myself. It makes me feel better — just as a balance — to what is otherwise a pretty self-absorbed activity. I’m just thrilled to be able to affect someone’s life. I’ve always been intrigued by how art affects someone’s life.”
He said his work with kids has “evolved” over time as he’s seen “what the art could do as a tool for inspiration. The one thing I know is that art makes kids smarter. It actually facilitates their ability to do academics. And so one of my first intents with the Wesley House was to use art to supplement what they do in the academics.”
He’s not so much concerned with product as he is process.
“Purely from an empowerment point of view, product doesn’t matter,” he said. “I really care about what goes on within the group effort, what goes on from a sense of self and how they define themselves…The act of doing sometimes becomes so enriching. These kids are just beginning to do something with their lives and if you can help them realize they can do anything, that they can make something that has value — that’s what’s important.”
His busy schedule may prevent him from working closely with the Wesley kids this fall but he’s laying a foundation for others to pick up the slack.
“I’m hoping about seven artists in the Omaha area will supplement what I want to do. I’m really interested in being more of a facilitator.”
As a Bemis friend and Kaneko board member, Statom wants to involve those arts venues and others in ongoing partnerships with the Wesley. He’s looking at the kids making regular visits to artist studios, art galleries and the Joslyn and taking extended glass blowing workshops at the Hot Shops.
He’d like to expand his youth-centered work to kids in the juvenile justice system and to students at downtown area schools. Opportunities to impact kids abound.
“There’s no end to it,” he said. “I’m just getting started. Once I get really organized there’s a lot I want to do.”
For Statom, who’s lived on both coasts as well as Denmark, where his artist-wife is from, and Mexico, where he has a studio, working with kids “gave me a reason to be here. It really did. It’s an honor for me to be able to work with them. It’s like a dream for me, it really is. I must admit, I do love those kids.”
They love you, too, Mr. Therman. Just promise to never grow up.
For more information on the Wesley House Academy of Excellence & Artistic Leadership, call 402-451-2228. To find out more about Therman Statom or to see more of his work, visit his web site, www.thermanstatom.com.
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- Pastor, artist collaborate to realize unique image at East Memphis church (commercialappeal.com)
- Art of glass (theage.com.au)
- Art Review: Who’s the Voyeur Now, Picasso? (nytimes.com)
- Frederick Brown’s Journey Through Art is a Passage Across Form and a Passing On of Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)