Tag Archives: Georgia

Gabrielle Union

December 21, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed

Actress Gabrielle Union projects her natural intelligence and feistiness in whatever role she undertakes. The Omaha native is never at a loss for words or opinions. She decries Hollywood’s male-dominated, white-centric ways and lack of opportunities afforded to women of color. She recounts her experience as a rape survivor and preaches the need for women to speak up against violence.

It took Union a while to be regarded a serious artist. Early roles included that of a wealthy suburban teenager in 10 Things I Hate About You, followed a year later by a role as a cheerleader in Bring It On. Twenty years later she’s matured into a real force both in front of and behind the camera. She expertly balances being a fashion- and fitness-conscious celebrity, the wife of NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, and a mother, actress, producer, and activist.

It is not surprising that as her life has broadened, so has her work.

Ambitious projects such as Think Like a Man and Top Five find her giving deeper, more complex performances or satirizing her own mystique. Today, as the star of the popular and critically acclaimed BET series Being Mary Jane, she represents the modern American black woman navigating her way through personal and professional relationships. In mid-October, the actress sued for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation, claiming the network is combining seasons four and five to lower her pay and extend her contract.

Further proof of her take-no-prisoners attitude was her role in one of the most talked about films of 2016, The Birth of a Nation.

The film dramatizes the historic Nat Turner-led slave revolt, a subject of interest for Union that goes back to her Omaha childhood.

“It was a story my mom made sure I knew about. I remember going to the library and her telling me to do research on him. It wasn’t until later I realized my mom had noted I was very passive in the face of adversity and injustice, and I wasn’t willing to speak up, not only for myself, but for anyone else. She thought I might need some additional heroes to look up to and she introduced me to the story of Nat Turner,” Union says.

The interest in Turner continued for years.

“In college I learned even more about Nat Turner and I was drawn to the sense of pushback against oppression–the idea that there are stories situated in slavery where we are not waiting for someone else to save us but that we were actively trying to save ourselves. Really the story of black resistance and black liberation, I’ve always been drawn to.”

gabrielleunion2When the script first came to her attention, she says she determined that, “I had to be a part of telling this incredibly powerful chapter of American history.”

That chapter took years to produce. The film’s producer-writer-director, Nate Parker, who also portrays Turner, had a hard time getting financing for the project.

“There’s a reason the Nat Turner story has never made it to the big screen [before now],” Union says. “There’s a lot of fear of black resistance and black liberation. We see that with what’s happening with Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the professional, college, and high school athletes who are taking a knee to combat and shed light on racism, discrimination, police brutality, inequality, oppression everywhere. We see the pushback, we see people protesting [being] labeled as unpatriotic. I feel quite the opposite. I don’t think there’s anything more American or patriotic than resistance to oppression.”

With such a struggle ongoing, Union says, “I think there’s never been a better time for The Birth of a Nation to come out.”

Union plays an unnamed character who does not speak. The part was written with dialogue but she and Parker decided the woman should be mute.

“I just felt it would be much more symbolic and realistic if we stripped her of her voice, of the ability to speak, of the ability to have power over her own body and over the bodies of her family and her community,” Union says. “That was true for black women during slavery, and it’s still true for so many women, specifically black women, who are voiceless and powerless at the hands of oppressors. Sexual violence and racial inequality have always existed for black women at that very crucial intersection.

She says it was liberating to play a background character.

“Part of that was just being much more committed to the character than when I was younger. When you’re starting out, you want to stand out in every single role. I’m not as concerned about that anymore. I have enough projects where my face is recognizable and my name is out front…I’m much more interested in being fulfilled creatively.”

The film was shot on an actual Georgia plantation that stood in for the site where the historical events took place in Virginia. The dark spirit of the plantation’s past weighed heavy on Union and company.

“Every actor of color on that set felt the pain and the horror that our ancestors felt. It’s in the soil, it’s in the air. You can’t escape it, you really can’t escape it.”

She is offended that the former plantation used in the film is rented out for weddings and parties.

“It’s unfathomable,” she says.

She considers the conversations she and Wade must have with their boys about the threats facing young black males “infuriating.”

“How do you explain that to children?”

She’s banking on Birth to trigger change.

“What we keep saying is, it’s not a movie, it’s a movement. No one I know who’s seen the film is unmoved and unchallenged to re-examine everything. So I hope people walk out of the theater energized and inspired to do better, to really identify oppression and to fight back against it.”

Visit bet.com/shows/being-mary-jane for more information.

Craig Lee

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Do you ever wish to go to sleep under a star-filled sky? Create a woodland view in that drab and windowless back room? Or present a unique atmosphere for your office? Craig Lee can and does make wishes come true. He has won praise and clients for his trompe l’oeil murals and paintings that do indeed fool the eye into believing the unbelievable.

Most of his commissions are for home or business interiors. A ceiling may become a field of stars or an elaborate Renaissance-style illusion with figures and architectural features; walls may open onto a view. Faux finishes are a choice for details or an entire surface.

Take time to see his outdoor mural at 35th and Center streets. Lee’s gift to Omaha [he donated his time and materials] is an homage to the Hanscom Park neighborhood, where he lives, and to the sensual delights of spring and summer. You’ll find sweetly perfumed lilacs, wide-porched houses shaded by a great silver maple, butter-yellow lilies, and tantalizing tomatoes. “I want people to be able to hear cicadas when they look at it,” Lee says.

One of Lee's murals at the Hands of Heartland Center in Bellevue.

One of Lee’s murals at the Hands of Heartland Center in Bellevue.

The 18’ x 62’ mural was painted last summer. Preparation of the badly damaged wall required a week of painstaking cleaning and restoration, plus a month to cure the lime-based mortar. Painting the mural took a full month (A video of the process is available here).

Eddith Buis, an artist, educator, and longtime public art advocate, is thrilled with the Center Street mural. “It brings good art to the public,” she says. And per this feature, “As a muralist, he doesn’t have exhibitions, so it’s important that his work be recognized.”

While a graduate student at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art, Lee followed the gestural style of the Abstract Expressionists until an instructor challenged him with the question, “What is your experience?” Lee recalls, “Art got really hard after that because realism involves so many brain cells. I want to leave some room for the viewer to be creative, and not simply reproduce what I see.” To that end, Lee uses line and color to create directional rhythm, highlights, and markers so that viewers can “read” the painting. All the senses are enlisted so one can almost feel the breeze and smell the flowers. By engaging viewers in these ways, their own stories are interwoven into the one depicted.

Sometimes, the narrative requires Lee to work against such realism. Painting scenery for Blue Barn Theatre’s Christmas spoof, Who Killed Santa?, he sought a more limited, generic representation; the kind we’d see in advertising or packaging. Every log in the cabin wall, while recognizable, is similar. “They’re more toy logs than real logs,” he says. “It’s hard to pull back, but the painting is in service to the story.”

A backdrop for Creighton University's production of The Nutcracker created by Lee.

A backdrop for Creighton University’s production of The Nutcracker created by Lee.

Lee’s mural subjects are often larger than life and highly individualized. Three murals at Domina Law Group picture Nebraska history, renowned trials, and the firm’s own key cases. The first is encountered in the reception area, on a curved wall opposite the entry. Large portraits beg identification; soon, we are lured by details and following the ever-modernizing route that winds through the prairie.

Lee began his professional life as a scenic artist at Omaha Community Playhouse. He began to get private commissions for murals as well as other freelance work and formed his own business, Craig Lee Fine Art, about 15 years ago. (One of his early murals, of Downtown Omaha, graces the wall of Omaha Magazine’s conference room, in fact.) “There were some lean years,” he admits, but he felt compelled to paint. “You only get one life, so your work has to have meaning.”

Lee's yellow lab, Georgia, who is inspiration for his mural on Center Street.

Lee’s yellow lab, Georgia, who is inspiration for his mural on Center Street.

Georgia, a yellow lab, looks at him with adoring, melted-chocolate eyes. Her response to his comment is clear. Lee rescued her from a puppy mill where she was a breeder. Slowly, she achieved physical and emotional health, and has a starring role in the Center Street mural. Any of us, however, can find our own imaginary place in the scene, our own private entrance. And with Lee’s painting as medium, the story becomes both personal and plausible.