Tag Archives: Smithsonian

Through A Glass Brightly

June 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article was published in the May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Halfway through our interview, Therman Statom apologizes. He didn’t anticipate our conversation
lasting so long, and he has an appointment at Children’s Hospital he doesn’t want to break.
The internationally renowned glass artist has been working on large-scale cloud pieces for a new
pediatric wing, and although he’s technically completed them, an 8-year-old girl is contributing the finishing touches. “She has cancer, and her father says she used to hate going to the hospital,” he explains, “but now she can’t wait to come” because of this project.

That’s why we take an hour-and-a-half break. The young girl is meeting Statom to talk about the project, and he doesn’t want to cancel or keep her waiting. That commitment to children defines much of the artist’s career. He may be acclaimed for his airy glass houses, chairs, and ladders, but it’s his passion for making a difference in young people’s lives for which he’d prefer to be known.

That passion goes back to his own formative years growing up in Washington, D.C. Although the son of physician, he was a typical “problem child,” going through high school after high school. Unlike most troubled kids who had run-ins with the law, however, Statom did something different: he hung out at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. “The Smithsonian was like a home to me. It was like an extra room in my house. It’s where I found myself,” he recounts. “I was there so much, I got befriended by a curator, and he got me a job mixing clay.”

That job triggered an interest that eventually led to his attending the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1970s, where he pursued clay as an artistic medium. “In clay I made a bunch of ugly pots. They were all brown,” he laughs. “Then I started blowing glass, and I went from very traditional to really exploring. Glass was immediate. You didn’t have to fire it two or three times. You could go into the studio and have something the next day.”

He soon discovered a particular talent for working in his new material. Statom created an arced sculpture out of clear glass cones, which earned him advanced standing at the school and enabled him to graduate early. From there, he went on to earn his MFA in 1978 from the Pratt Institute School of Art and Design, where he made the jump from blowing glass to working with sheets of it. “I didn’t want to be limited,” he explains. “It’s about exploring and questioning creatively and the actual act of making. It’s about challenging yourself and learning as an individual. I have a real interest in that.”

That interest prompted him to push the boundaries of glass as art, often using the material in unexpected ways. “I like to paint on translucent surfaces,” he says. “I consider myself a painter, and I think of glass as a canvas. If I had it my way, I’d paint on air.”

For years, museums have been taking notice of Statom’s unorthodox approach, and today his work is in the permanent collections of, among others, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the place where it all began: the Smithsonian, which features one of his signature painted pieces in the Renwick Gallery at the American Art Museum.

For as important as his own creative success is, however, Statom isn’t interested in his identity as an artist. “You don’t do anything unless you’re actively making a difference,” he emphasizes. “It’s not just narcissistic. It’s about making kids happy here and now. You have to engage. I’m more intrigued with helping people.”

To that end, he’s worked with children through a broad range of organizations, including a children’s hospital in Norfolk, VA, and the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies program, through which he’s led workshops in such far-flung places as Mozambique and Turkey. Closer to home, he’s worked with the Omaha Public School’s Native American Indian Education Department, Kanesville Alternative School in Council Bluffs, Yates Alternative School in Gifford Park, and even local
Girl Scout troops.

No matter where he works with kids, the goal remains the same: to affect change in children through art. “I have kids who claim that activities in art save their lives,” Statom says. “That’s pretty big.”

Another hour into the interview, Statom glances at the clock. “It’s time to go,” he announces. There’s another girl he doesn’t want to keep waiting—his daughter. She’s about to get out of school, and just like the little girl at the hospital, he has no intention of keeping her waiting.

ThermanStaton

History Comes to Life

October 20, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Durham Museum underwent a $1.2 million renovation this past year. But most of the improvements are not visible to visitors, according to Executive Director Christi Janssen. Behind-the-scenes work, such as security cameras and new heating and air conditioning, were main concerns. The renovations were another step forward in improving the visitor experience, the museum’s priority.

The visitor experience also has been enhanced by close relationships with national partners providing exhibits that would otherwise not be seen in Omaha: The Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum; Chicago’s Field Museum; and the Library of Congress and National Archives in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of our physical enhancements have been because of our partners’ needs for their exhibits,” says Janssen. “National museums have standards and requirements for their exhibition partners. They want a staff that understands what it takes to mount a successful show.” Exhibit costs can range from $50,000 to $500,000. “Security is a major part of the cost,” she says. “For the Abraham Lincoln exhibit, we had 24/7 security.”

The partnerships that Omaha’s regional history museum has forged have led to a new era of exceptional traveling exhibits.

Partners on Display

In 2004, the Velde Hall of American History was completed, providing environmentally controlled space for traveling exhibits, which further encouraged national partners to send exhibits to the Omaha museum.

In January 2011, the Library of Congress sent to Omaha With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition. “The Library of Congress said it was the best installation in the five-city tour,” Janssen says.

The Durham works with other partners, too. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry sent Mindbender Mansion this year, among the museum’s best-attended exhibits. More than 70,000 people visited. Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, an upcoming exhibit (that includes Lady Gaga’s meat dress) will be on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Feb. 9-May 5, 2013.

Traveling exhibits from partners are sometimes matched with a compatible exhibit put together by Durham Museum curators. Examples are current exhibits now on display: The American Soldier reflects soldiering from the Civil War to the War in Iraq. Its companion exhibit, Worn with Pride: Americans in Uniform, gives a local angle to the same topic.

You may be surprised to learn that the museum’s largest artifact on display is right before you as you enter the parking lot. It’s the Art Deco-style building the museum sits in. The building was constructed in 1931 by Union Pacific as a station for railroad passengers who traveled in elegance.

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Walking into the museum’s Suzanne and Walter Scott Great Hall for the first time is an awesome experience. Interior walls are limestone with polished black Belgian marble and terrazzo floors. The ceiling is gold, silver, and aluminum leaf. Brass lighting fixtures hanging from the 65-foot-tall ceiling each weighs one ton. It takes 45 minutes to replace a light bulb.

Architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood said he designed the building “to depict the strength and masculinity of the railroad.” Because Omaha is Union Pacific’s headquarters, an all-out effort was made to construct a special building.

As airplanes, interstate highways, and Amtrak provided new ways to travel, passenger trains dwindled. In 1971, the final UP passenger train left the station. UP donated the building near downtown to the city. The building became the Western Heritage Museum in 1975. The regional museum is now called the Durham Museum after philanthropists Chuck and Margre Durham, who led a $25 million renovation effort to create the museum seen today.

Membership at the Durham has more than doubled since 2004. About 40 to 45 percent of visitors are from out of town, leaving behind money at local shops, restaurants, and hotels.

Education at the Museum

Households with children predominate the list of visitors coming through the museum doors, a major change since 2004. The Durham has set out to make the museum a place of education as well as fun for children. Museum staff follow state education standards, work with local Nebraska and Iowa school districts, and distribute curriculum guides as a resource for teachers.

An example is the curriculum ‘Hail to the Chief.’ Students are asked to identify a U.S. president, his years in office, and a major event tied to him.

The Velde Gallery of American History is a destination for many class field trips. Children also can sign up for summer camp and for summer workshops that offer educational games and tours.

These upcoming exhibits throw a spotlight on topics of educational interest:

  • Girl Scouts: 100 Years of Courage, Confidence and Character—Nov. 3, 2012 – June 9, 2013
  • We Want the Vote: Women’s Suffrage on the Great Plains—Feb. 23 – May 26, 2013
  • A T. Rex Named Sue—May 25 – Sept. 8, 2013
  • Goose Bumps! The Science of Fear—Sept. 28, 2013 – Jan. 5, 2014

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Saving Omaha’s Pictorial History

Two years ago, Durham Museum staff began the long process of digitizing more than 700,000 historical photos from the 1860s to the 1990s and making them searchable online.

Yes, you read that number correctly. More than 700,000 photos that document Omaha’s history from frontier days to modern days are in one archive. Some of the negatives and prints are more than a century old and were in danger of being lost to history as they deteriorated.

The Durham turned to interns for help. Each spends about 20 to 30 hours a week to archive and document the collection. The interns also get hands-on experience by building exhibits around the photo archives. Photos are organized in 17 different collections. So far, 50,000 of the photographs in the archives have been posted online, where they can be viewed or purchased for a minimal amount at durhammuseum.org.

“Ak-Sar-Ben is the most recent collection of photos and artifacts,” says Janssen. “We want to be the repository for all things Ak-Sar-Ben.”

Some people using the photographs are compiling family or local histories. Others are writing books or producing documentaries.

“There are not many communities that have this kind of historical documentation,” says Janssen.