Tag Archives: Hesse McGraw

Old Buildings, New Art

November 3, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Since Omaha was founded nearly 160 years ago, many of its older buildings have seen their demise. But in at least two of Downtown Omaha’s historical structures, creative artists and imaginative entrepreneurs have replaced staid bankers and burly beer makers, enabling these pieces of history to continue on with a new purpose.

Carver Bank

An abandoned building near 24th and Lake streets became a renovated space this year for:

  • Artists in residence. Visual and performance artists receive workspace and a $500 monthly stipend for one year.
  • Art. Exhibitions, events, and workshops are available for youth and adults.
  • Participation. A cultural and economic resurgence is happening in North Omaha.
  • Environmentalism. Finishes inside are mostly made of salvaged and recycled materials, such as a gymnasium floor from a decommissioned school in Panama, Iowa.
  • Delicious food. Big Mama’s Sandwich Shop is open till 4 p.m. every day but Sunday, even serving a roast-beef sarnie called The Carver.

Carver Savings and Loan, named for scientist George Washington Carver, opened in 1946 as Nebraska’s first African-American bank. Vince Furlong, who conducts walking tours for Restoration Exchange Omaha, says that the bank closed in 1966. After housing several nonprofits, the building shut its doors in 2006.

In 2010, Hesse McGraw, then chief curator for Omaha’s Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates began talking to people in the neighborhood about the needs of North Omaha, according to Jessica Scheuerman, program coordinator for the Bemis Center.

After two years, McGraw and Gates decided to renovate the abandoned Carver Bank building. They wanted to spearhead a program with an emphasis on visual and performance artists of color or who are North Omaha-minded.

Patricia “Big Mama” Barron, the eponymous owner of the sandwich shop, says the neighborhood was excited about the renovation that began last year. “People would come by and talk about how happy they were to see something go in there.”

The Carver Bank building is owned by the City of Omaha and leased for $1 over five years to the Bemis Center, which renovated and programs the space.

The artists’ program fits in well with the City of Omaha’s long-range, public-private plan to revitalize North Omaha, focusing on the 24th and Lake Cultural Arts District.

The building’s renovation is a good example of recycling. Framing lumber torn down during the building’s demolition was reused to frame new walls. Says Barron: “I’m a person who believes in recycling things, and I hate to see old buildings torn down. That’s a part of history being torn down.”

Anheuser-Busch Beer Depot

The stable is gone. The ice house is gone. Even the beer vault is gone. All were destroyed by a fire.

What remains is a quaint, brick building that was an office when the brewery’s complex was built in 1887. At 1213 Jones Street near the Bemis Center, the building has housed The New BLK (pronounced Black) advertising agency and art gallery for three years.

“‘The new black’ is a term in fashion for the next hot thing,” says Brian Smith, who gives his title as connector, catalyst, and co-conspirator.

The building was remodeled in 1988 by its current owner, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, which had offices there before moving. The architecture firm added a mezzanine loft area for nonprofit offices, and the space is still set aside for that use. “A recent example was Aqua-Africa, which builds wells in South Sudan,” says Smith.

The New BLK spreads out on the main level in a modern, open, workspace. The advertising firm also runs an art gallery on the lower level, featuring emerging artists.

Gerard Pefung, born in Cameroon, is one such artist who exhibited his work at The New BLK. “He recently did a mural installation at Omaha Police Headquarters,” Smith says. “Some of our partners are active artists and some have managed artist studios in Europe.”

Michael Jones McKean’s Rainbow

August 20, 2012 by
Photography by minorwhitestudios

Try to catch a rainbow.

Michael Jones McKean pursued this alluring and evanescent image for 10 years before “unveiling” The Rainbow: Certain Principles of Light and Shapes Between Forms at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. An arc of iridescent light shimmered above the Bemis and admiring patrons, over the purr of tires on brick, above surprised Old Market visitors, above the sounds of music and laughter and evening birds. “The spirit of the rainbow is egalitarian,” McKean told me. “It can’t be owned; it can’t even be fixed. It’s very mischievous.”

Rainbows are made of sunlight and water drops. As light enters a water drop, its cargo of collective color refracts into a prism of brilliant individual hues. These are reflected and re-refracted, emerging as seven bands of color, from outermost red through orange and yellow, cool green, blue and indigo, to sweet violet. But there’s the first sign of mischief—rainbows shine in a continuum of color, not bands. One color mists into the next, and more or fewer colors may be seen depending on one’s vantage point, vision, and atmospheric conditions.

Bemis curator Hesse McGraw (left) with McKean.

Bemis curator Hesse McGraw (left) with McKean.

Rainbows are a universally recognized image. They appear in art, mythology and literature, religion, and science throughout time and around the world; they’re eye-catching marketing tools; they’re seen as magic by the child in each of us.

For McKean, the intrigue was in trying to understand such a complicated object. In a poetic sense, how does a rainbow, a timeless and iconic image, define our concept of beauty, of the sublime? That process of discovery began by studying rainbows produced by car washes, paint sprayers, and irrigation equipment. Step by incremental step, from these prosaic beginnings, McKean continued his autodidactic ambition. He devised experiments and tested equipment, read, listened, and persevered. He never doubted that he could catch, if not keep, this ephemeral quarry.

Hesse McGraw, Chief Curator at the Bemis, knew McKean’s work and of his rainbow trials. In 2008, newly hired by the Bemis, he contacted the artist to commission a project. When McKean described his ideas, McGraw wondered, “Is it possible to do this?” The following day, McKean faxed “the blue sketch” and three words: “Anything is possible.”

The water apparatus atop the Bemis in action.

The water apparatus atop the Bemis in action.

From this nebulous beginning, it was quickly clear that creating a rainbow would be enormously complex. A team was assembled that included, in addition to Bemis staff members, electricians, plumbers, structural engineers, experts in myriad aspects of water—harvesting, containment, dispersion, purification, etc., an atmospheric scientist, film documentarist, and computer wizards.

Recirculating rainwater is stored in six 10,500-gallon tanks; one of them near the Bemis entrance. Seen inside, a pump delivers water to nozzles on the roof at the rate of 2,000 gallons per minute. This visibility of the project’s working components celebrates the efforts and collaboration of its many diverse contributors. The Rainbow’s gallery component also includes a display of objects that represent what McKean calls “a small poem on the nature of space and time”: a bristlecone pine (Bristlecones may be the earth’s oldest living organism; this one is watered by the same rainwater that makes up the rainbow.), a meteorite from Argentina’s famed Campo del Cielo, a Micronesian conch shell, and a 19th century handmade quilt.

The project’s subtitle, Certain Principles of Light and Shapes Between Forms, expresses McKean’s sense of the rainbow as a bridge. Its arc connects the viewer to a meteorite hurled to earth 5,000 years ago; connects workers and thinkers from disparate fields; connects the forms, the buildings, people, plants, and activities of an urban landscape under its variegated canopy. It connects idea to reality…if rainbows are really real. Try to catch one.