Tag Archives: Mary Zicafoose

Mary Zicafoose

October 4, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The story of Mary Zicafoose—and her “Hope & Healing” tapestries—is one of unwavering focus, intensity, family tragedy, and a simple red scarf.

The world-renowned weaver’s two tapestries, each measuring 12 feet long and more than 9 feet wide, were recently unveiled in Omaha.

Not in a gallery. They’re in a hospital.

“Hope & Healing” hang in the lobby of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center. The words “hope” and “healing” are woven in 16 languages. The two tapestries greet those entering through the center’s front doors.

“It’s very powerful to put all who come into the cancer center at ease—from our patients, their families, staff, students, and visitors,” says Amy E. Jenson, executive director of the Healing Arts Program at the Buffett Cancer Center. The Healing Arts Program aspires to reduce pain perception, anxiety, and depression in cancer patients.

It took Zicafoose, with the help of three studio assistants, almost one year to create the two tapestries. They worked up to seven days a week in her separate wet and dry studios in Omaha. They worked daily in front of dye pots and looms. Her process, called ikat, which means “to wrap,” is methodical and intense. Ikat is a meticulous “resist dye” textile technique, measuring and stretching individual threads, grouping them into bundles, and wrapping portions of the bundles with fabric into a specific design. The threads are immersed in a dye bath, where the unwrapped areas soak up the dye while the wrapped areas resist it. All this happens before they are woven into a fabric. Precise measurement in the project was crucial, as the words “Hope” and “Healing” had to be wrapped, dyed, and woven exactly where the design specified. In the end, 1,000 skeins of yarn were used.

“Watch Mary working at her loom for just a couple of minutes, and you’ll witness this incredible connection between maker and material that a lot of young artists dream of achieving,” says Karin Campbell, Phil Willson Curator of Contemporary Art at Joslyn Art Museum. “She is deeply invested in not just the outcome of her weaving, but also the process. This commitment to the handmade and her willingness to toil sets Mary apart.”

In an artist statement on her website, Zicafoose describes the process as a “meditative activity that draws you in, not out. One that has triggered my memory of who I am and what I came to do.”

While at work on the project, Zicafoose says her thoughts often turned to family. To her brother. The one she lost.

Her brother died of cancer. The five panels of the two tapestries were, after all, destined to hang in a cancer center.

Zicafoose explains that his death fueled her perception of illness, and in a way, led to a mission that was years in the making.

“If there’s any way I can facilitate healing as an artist, I want to do it,” she says while seated in the contemporary lobby of the cancer center.

She did not take a direct route to get to this point.

Cancer took Zicafoose’s brother while they were both in high school in Michigan. Following the tragedy, everyone assumed she would be inspired to become a nurse, like her mother. But Zicafoose wasn’t interested in healing the world that way. Coming from a family of many artists, she gravitated toward creative therapy. 

She studied photography as an undergraduate at St. Mary’s College/University of Notre Dame and then moved to Chicago, working in clay as a graduate student. While still in graduate school, she married and moved to Nebraska. The young couple lived on her husband’s family farm outside of Mead.

One prophetic day, a studio neighbor invited her to sit at a loom.

Her first piece was far from perfect (“It was a simple little red mohair scarf,” she says). Nevertheless, seated in front of the loom, Zicafoose felt she had discovered her destiny. She describes the artistic epiphany as a switch turning on.

“I’m glad it was so clear,” she says.

Knowing nothing about weaving, she learned the way everyone else has for the past 2,000 years: one baby step at a time. From weaving simple scarfs she moved to blankets, then she began to make tablecloths—approaching each piece as a fine artist rather than a craftsman.

Early on, she had big ideas but lacked the ability to realize them—at least not yet. She joined the Hand Weaver’s Guild of Lincoln for guidance, and, through several years of hard work, her abilities finally caught up with her ideas.

“I envisioned doing large-scale, graphically impactful tapestries. That was always the mission,” she says. “And today I am there, which is really satisfying.”

Zicafoose’s work hangs in U.S. embassies around the world, and in galleries, corporations, and homes throughout the country, including the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. They also hang in museums closer to home at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha and the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. She teaches, writes articles, and has held leadership positions, including eight years as co-director of the board for the American Tapestry Alliance.

“In her leadership role with ATA, Mary spoke passionately and eloquently as an advocate for contemporary tapestry,” says Mary Lane, executive director of the American Tapestry Alliance. “She inspired a level of professionalism and commitment in those with whom she worked…Despite her very successful and demanding career as an artist, Mary is always willing to give more.”

Others echo similar sentiments about Zicafoose’s work and dedication.

“She’s someone who’s enjoyable to work with because of her intensity to her art,” says John Rogers, owner of Gallery 72, where Zicafoose’s work once hung.

“Every conversation I have with Mary reminds me of why I became a curator,” Joslyn’s Karin Campbell says. “She is skilled, generous, insightful, and, perhaps most importantly, she possesses an unwavering faith in the power of art.” 

Zicafoose explains her approach to the Buffett Center tapestries: “If you’re going to devote a year of your life to creating art for a building, the work must be powerful and the process so worth it.”

Zicafoose looks around the lobby of the cancer center, pausing to think about the work she’s done.

“We know that healing is a very complex paradigm, and Western medicine can only take us so far,” she says. “The arts are doorways to access subtle energy fields, that is what they do best. And if per chance the arts can carry and stimulate subtle energy for healing, then fill this place up with great art.”

Visit buffettcancercenter.com/facility/art-healing for more information about the Buffett Cancer Center where the “Hope & Healing” tapestries hang. Visit maryzicafoose.com for more information about the artist.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Gallery 72…Anew!

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As a new year emerges from the old, so do a renowned art gallery and a historic South Omaha building. Artists and afficianados, community activists and preservationists, business owners and curious neighbors are all watching the goings-on at Gallery 72’s new location, 1806 Vinton Street. Perhaps even Janus (the ancient Roman gatekeeper who is remembered by the word “January,”), the god of beginnings and transitions, is curious. It’s an exciting moment, a time to look, as Janus does, both back and forward. And it’s a time to celebrate.

Mary Zicafoose: Tapestries, Prints, and Carpets is the exhibition marking the Grand Opening of this new space. “The launch of the new Gallery 72 is a bold and exciting ‘YES’ for the arts in Omaha,” says Zicafoose, an internationally known artist. “I am very, very pleased to have my work selected for the inaugural show.”

For Gallery 72, a longtime art landmark in Midtown Omaha, the move underscores its transition from fabled owners, the late Bob and Roberta Rogers, to their son, John. The gallery first opened in 1972 at an address on 72nd Street. When it moved to 27th and Leavenworth, the gallery retained its name and became a hub for contemporary art. Everyone was welcome.

“Bob and Roberta” became a watchword for a warm welcome, and newbies could count on a user-friendly introduction to art. In fact, Bob and Roberta have been credited with educating Omaha about contemporary art, and in 1990, were honored with the Partner in the Arts, Governor’s Arts Award. Bob’s passion continued after Roberta’s death in 1999, and in 2007, Bob was honored with the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Board’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His response to the audience’s cheers and standing ovation was, “Keep it going. Keep this high energy moving forward.”Gallery72_20130131_bs_4500

Bob died this past December at age 94. Now, it’s John who intends to keep the energy going. Since retiring from teaching physics, he has taken on full-time management of the gallery. If physics is the study of movement, energy, space, and time, then his background is a perfect fit. “I’ve always been interested in the commonality between the sciences and culture,” he says. In his classroom, he hung John Himmelfarb prints, Barbara Morgan photographs, and fine quality posters of Calder and Miro.

Gallery 72 moves to a neighborhood that is seeing fresh interest and investment. The single-story building, which dates to 1922, is an integral component of the Vinton Street Commercial Historic District. Photographer Larry Ferguson, who has a history of service on Omaha art boards, bids a warm welcome from his studio in the next block, saying, “Gallery 72 is an amazing addition to the district.” Visitors will notice the red brick building, with its twin at 1808, framed by taller buildings on either side. This draws attention to the crenellated parapet roof and the facade’s decorative brickwork with stone accents. Wide southeast-facing windows entice us inside.

The L-shaped gallery is open and inviting. With more than 1,750 sq. ft., the showroom allows uncluttered display of two- and three-dimensional work. Careful planning directed a total renovation and resulted in efficient support space for office, specialized galleries, and storage. Gallery 72 exhibits and sells work by recognized regional and national artists in a range of media. Rogers also offers consultation and installation and hopes to develop a secondary art market. “I enjoy the art atmosphere and working with artists and clients,” he says.

Gallery 72 begins this new year with new life. Rogers looks forward to “revitalizing Gallery 72 and its importance to the arts of Omaha and Nebraska.” He has some innovations in mind but plans to retain its most-valuable traditions, such as the gallery’s name and well-earned reputation, and fosterage of a welcoming art environment (including potluck suppers and chocolate chip cookies). Upcoming solo exhibitions feature Deborah Masuoka, Carol Summers, and John Himmelfarb. A highlight of the spring schedule is An Evening of Art (May 11), the annual fundraiser for Friends of Art, a volunteer support group for UNO’s Department of Art and Art History.

Gallery 72
1806 Vinton Street
402-496-4797
gallery72.com