Other than a rather arid climate and the identical first four letters of their names, Australia and Austin, Tex., share little in common, but those are the places that cemented an artistic vision for Amber Keller.
“I had worked a couple graphic design jobs here [in Omaha] before I realized something was missing,” Keller says, “so I sold most of my belongings, threw my art supplies in the car, and hit the road, creating as much art as I could along the way.” It was when she unpacked her bags in Austin for a few months in 2011 that she discovered RAW: Natural Born Artists, an international nonprofit program that acts as an incubator for new and emerging artists. They described themselves, Keller recalls, as being “for artists, by artists.”
“I did my first RAW show in Austin,” says the woman who is now director of Omaha’s RAW affiliate. “I knew the model could succeed here because our city has such a strong arts community. There’s just an amazing amount of talent here.”
Before returning to Omaha, Keller further satisfied her wanderlust by paring down her already meager possessions to backpack through Australia, where she did a RAW show in 2012.
RAW held its first annual local RAWards Semi Finals in November at Sokol Auditorium. Three finalists in nine disciplines showed their work to vie for the honor of winning a shot to advance to nationals in Los Angeles. Artists competed in the categories of visual arts, photography, film, music, performance, fashion, accessories, makeup, and hair.
The L.A.-based RAW now operates in 60 American cities along with an increasing footprint in foreign countries. Omaha’s roster of 120 RAW artists ranges in age from 17 to near retirement age, and various artists displayed their work in a series of four showcases throughout 2012. There are no membership fees to become a RAW artist, but showcase participants are expected to sell tickets to the events so that RAW reaches the widest possible audience.
“RAW helps build an artistic community, but we do it as team,” Keller says. “The semi-final event was a competition, yes, but we’re still working together, not against each other. RAW helps foster collaborations between artists, and we support each other here in Omaha in a way that is kind of rare for a city our size.”
Tim Guthrie, a visual artist and experimental filmmaker who is a Creighton University professor of journalism, media, and computing, was one of three judges for the event. Joining Guthrie on the panel were Andrew Norman of the music-centric Hear Nebraska and Shane Bainbridge of design-focused The New BLK.
“It wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t know anything about RAW,” says Guthrie, “which is almost kind of appropriate in that it parallels the theme of what RAW does in terms of building visibility for artists. Omaha’s art scene is amazing, but it can be a little cliquish. It’s still a very friendly atmosphere, but there is a hint of ‘the haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ when it comes to being widely known. With a lot of dedication and hard work from these artists, it is my hope that RAW helps more of them into the category of ‘the haves.’”
RAW Artists Advancing to Nationals:
Film: Rob Kasel
Visual Art: Madeleine Thoma
Photography: Michelle Woitzel
Fashion: Haus of Donna Faye
Makeup: Lyndee Marie
Accessories: Casey Jones
Performing Art: Flying Eagles Acrobalance Troupe
Music: Omaha Street Percussion
Work and videos by these and other RAW artists may be seen at rawartists.org.