Women in the Arts Push Limits

Fall 2017, News

SUPPORTING ARTS COMMUNITY INSPIRES CREATIVITY

BY JENNIFER LITTON

In 1931, during the opening day ceremonies of Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, media magnate Sarah Joslyn famously stated that the museum was her gift to the people of Omaha. She said it was up to them to determine what to do with it. “If there is any good in it, let it go on and on,” Joslyn said. It has gone on, and continues today, 87 years later.

The people of Omaha have kept the arts scene thriving. Suzanne Wise, executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council, says there’s a critical mass of art production in Omaha. Wise says she believes it is because the population has grown and diversified.

“Omaha is still a Midwestern city where it’s relatively inexpensive to live and work.” From visual arts to literary and performing arts, the spectrum of forms to consider is vast. “If you’re talking specifically about actors and actresses, I think Omaha has always had a thriving theater scene, so there are venues to practice their craft,” Wise says, specifically mentioning the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts program at the University of Nebraska Lincoln as one example.

“There have been a number of graduates from that program who are now in Hollywood. There’s this nice little pipeline, so the connection is beginning and functioning. Film Streams has done a lot to educate the public on the various kinds of filmmaking.”

Wise says women are always at something of a disadvantage. “It certainly has taken a long time for women artists in any discipline to be recognized as equal to their male counterparts. The neat thing is that Omaha has a lot of nationally prominent female practitioners.”

Wise prefers the term “practitioners” as opposed to “artist” because the term “artist” often implies visual art. “If you really look across the spectrum, there are numerous examples of women who are making a difference in the arts scene in Omaha, and I think we’ll continue to do that.” Wise also gives credit to female arts executives in Omaha. “In many ways, they are the ones who are mentoring and encouraging young women in their practice.”

Filmmaker Tessa Wedberg

A BOLD LEADER WHO CHANGES THE WORLD

Omaha filmmaker Tessa Wedberg grew up on a farm near Fremont, Neb. and enjoyed its endless spaces for her imagination to run free. “I spent a lot of time outside creating worlds,” she says. “I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but my love of storytelling began early.” Her father wrote poetry and her mother loved music, fine art, photography and film. Wedberg is known for her work on films like “Nebraska,” “Lovely, Still” and “Lucky.” With a list of notable credentials, it might come as a surprise that she once had no idea that a career involving film was an option for her.

After she took a film theory class she describes awaking to a world of possibility she hadn’t considered. She became fascinated by the process and people behind the lens. “I wanted to explore why stories told through film were important; how they impact and change the world.” While attending the University of Oregon, Wedberg enrolled in a documentary survey class that forever altered her world. She describes a list of films that stopped her cold. They include: “Hoop Dreams,” “Harlan County, U.S.A.,” “Salesman (1969),” “Beaches of Agnes” and “Grey Gardens.” “Film is not only art, but compassion, change, activism and healing and reflecting back our humanity,” she says.

She has found other women in her industry to be supportive. For her role as script supervisor on the film “Lucky” starring Colin Hanks, she received some pointers from Omaha producer Lynn Giordano. She also received tips over the phone from a script supervisor in L.A. she had never met. “She was a complete stranger introduced to me through a mutual friend who took copious amounts of her precious time teaching me. I am so grateful to them.”

Wedberg spends time as an activist de At left: Tessa Wedberg, Filmmaker voted to leading the change. She is amember of Nebraskans for Civic Reform’s Circles Program and also volunteers at the Refugee Empowerment Center. She also has worked with a lengthy list of nonprofits, including Planned Parenthood, Omaha Girls Rock, Omaha Community Foundation, Inclusive Communities, Autism Action Partnership and Nebraska Ataxia. She spends her time with “organizations that are focused on empowering young voices and encouraging them to be exactly who they are.”

She looks up to people who have the courage to live their truth, and this includes “anyone who has ever created, even if it’s something they wrote in a notebook or on a napkin or doodled in a book margin that no one has ever seen.” Her role models are “bold leaders who change the world with their every thought, word and action and those who know when it is time to listen.”

Wedberg says that the path of a freelance creative is not for the faint of heart. “There are inherent challenges built into a career without a steady paycheck that I’m sure I’ll always be navigating, but it is the only life I know and I’m grateful for every moment.” She is working on the New American Voice (NAVA) project, which is a group of artists building compassion and community through storytelling. “Refugees, immigrants and migrants enrich and strengthen our city and state and are a crucial part of Nebraska’s history and future. Through collaborative writing, photography and film, we have developed ways to listen, learn, document and tell stories with New American artists at the forefront of the process.”

Wedberg says the goal is to promote empathy and understanding and to empower and engage artists, leaders, thinkers and doers. She is currently working on a short documentary with the Umoja Choir from Omaha. Wedberg has many projects on her plate, including a short film she is producing with a group of friends in Nebraska. Another project is based on the diaries of her great uncle, Raymond J. Fritz. “He traveled the world, which I believe is its own form of art.”

Wedberg says her uncle documented his experiences through photos, personal writing and correspondence. No matter the project, Wedberg’s days are often long. When she is working on her own projects, she juggles multiple jobs, and if she is working a specific job, she will go to a production office or be on set every day. Days on set are a minimum of 12 hours.

One day on set was particularly memorable for Wedberg—the day Martin Landau played a practical joke on her during the filming of “Lovely, Still,” written and directed by Omaha’s Nik Fackler. Wedberg described how the word “moist” had just been named the most loathed word in the English language. She was script supervising and had headphones on at the time and was listening intently to a close up-shot of Landau looking into a mirror and talking.

“I couldn’t figure out why he was deviating from the script so much and the take was running much longer than the previous takes. I was confused up until he said the “m” word and started laughing only the way he can. He looked right into the lens and the crew began to clap.

“Martin passed away this year, and he was one of the most incredible actors I have ever had the privilege to know and watch work, and one of the best people I have ever met. This wild career has given me more love and joy than I could have ever imagined.”

One of Wedberg’s favorite things to do is watch films with her mother. “She immerses and engages in the work. She has an intellectual, emotional, visceral experience.” Wedberg loves discussing all of the intimate details of film, such as dialog, acting, editing, wardrobe and camera work with her mother.

“She cares deeply about the art and the artist and her curiosity, compassionate awareness, passion for the arts and loving support quietly gave me the permission to head out and become who I am.”

 

Filmmaker Tessa Wedberg

Filmmaker Tessa Wedberg

Wedberg spends time as an activist devoted to leading the change. She is a member of Nebraskans for Civic Reform’s Circles Program and also volunteers at the Refugee Empowerment Center. She also has worked with a lengthy list of nonprofits, including Planned Parenthood, Omaha Girls Rock, Omaha Community Foundation, Inclusive Communities, Autism Action Partnership and Nebraska Ataxia. She spends her time with “organizations that are focused on empowering young voices and encouraging them to be exactly who they are.”

She looks up to people who have the courage to live their truth, and this includes “anyone who has ever created, even if it’s something they wrote in a notebook or on a napkin or doodled in a book margin that no one has ever seen.” Her role models are “bold leaders who change the world with their every thought, word and action and those who know when it is time to listen.”

Wedberg says that the path of a freelance creative is not for the faint of heart. “There are inherent challenges built into a career without a steady paycheck that I’m sure I’ll always be navigating, but it is the only life I know and I’m grateful for every moment.” She is working on the New American Voice (NAVA) project, a group of artists building compassion and community through storytelling. “Refugees, immigrants and migrants enrich and strengthen our city and state and are a crucial part of Nebraska’s history and future.

Through collaborative writing, photography and film, we have developed ways to listen, learn, document and tell stories with New Americans artists at the forefront of the process.” Wedberg says the goal is to promote empathy and understanding and to empower and engage artists, leaders, thinkers and doers. She is currently working on a short documentary with the Umoja Choir from Omaha.

Wedberg has many projects on her plate, including a short film she is producing with a group of friends in Nebraska. Another project is based on the diaries of her great uncle, Raymond J. Fritz. “He traveled the world, which I believe is its own form of art.” Wedberg says her uncle documented his experiences through photos, personal writing and correspondence.

No matter the project, Wedberg’s days are often long. When she is working on her own projects, she juggles multiple jobs, and if she is working a specific job, she will go to a production office or be on set every day. Days on set are a minimum of 12 hours. One day on set was particularly memorable for Wedberg—the day Martin Landau played a practical joke on her during the filming of “Lovely, Still,” written and directed by Omaha’s Nik Fackler.

Wedberg described how the word “moist” had just been named the most loathed word in the English language. She was script supervising and had headphones on at the time and was listening intently to a close up-shot of Landau looking into a mirror and talking.

“I couldn’t figure out why he was deviating from the script so much and the take was running much longer than the previous takes. I was confused up until he said the “m” word and started laughing only the way he can. He looked right into the lens and the crew began to clap. “Martin passed away this year, and he was one of the most incredible actors had the privilege to know and watch work, and one of the best people I have ever met. This wild career has given me more love and joy than I could have ever imagined.”

One of Wedberg’s favorite things to do is watch films with her mother. “She immerses and engages in the work. She has an intellectual, emotional, visceral experience.” Wedberg loves discussing all of the intimate details of film, such as dialog, acting, editing, wardrobe and camera work with her mother.

“She cares deeply about the art and the artist and her curiosity, compassionate awareness, passion for the arts and loving support quietly gave me the permission to head out and become who I am.”

Visual Artist Elisa Morera Benn

CREATING A RECORD AND REFLECTION OF HUMAN HARDSHIPS

When painter Elisa Morera Benn was a 7-year-old in San Jose, Costa Rica, she was small, thin and had a very quiet voice. She says that she would often go without lunch at school because boys would push her out of the line. “Even if I would scream, nobody could hear me over the background noise,” she says. She luckily made friends with a girl from Cuba named Elena. Elena’s voice was loud.

“She was no bigger than me, but God how she shouted. Her shrill voice could be heard 100 meters away.” The students’ daily homework involved drawing pictures of a story told by their teacher. Benn’s early work garnered praise. “My teacher told me all the time that my drawings were very beautiful and almost always gave me an excellent grade with a star.”

Benn says that her friend Elena only received negative comments about her work. Elena said to her, “Eli, you have problems with your food and I have problems with my painting.” The duo made a deal. Benn would create her friend Elena’s paintings over break time and in return, Elena would buy her food.

“Elena with her very strong voice immediately got the attention of the lunch ladies and in five minutes, I had my lunch,” Benn says, adding that this led to her first commission at age 7. “I knew then I was going to be an artist.” Benn comes from a family of artists. Her grandfather played in a string quartet, her brother plays classical guitar and she has a cousin who is a painter. She is married to Creighton University School of Dentistry Professor Douglas Benn, D.D.S., Ph.D.

A mother of two and a grandmother, Benn has worked for 35 years as a professional artist and is responsible for forging greater connections between artists in Omaha and Costa Rica through a cultural exchange program she founded with the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery. She spent 17 years working with several artists in Costa Rica who encouraged her to develop her own style and provided free art classes for those who could not afford them.

Women and children are the focus of Benn’s art. The images are full of bright, beautiful colors and stark contrasts. “I like painting faces of women and kids with strong expressions. I hope that I can convey my thoughts to the viewer, invoking their feelings. That’s a challenge,” she says. “I love the way kids think, which is pure, without malice, and they always tell the truth.”

Her current work is inspired by this theme. She focuses on kids in the middle of destruction—wars, climate change and abusive situations. “These “Holocaust Children” inspired me to develop a collection of work to express my thoughts and feelings,” she says. Benn draws inspiration from her role model: civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, who as a 7-year-old was the first girl to desegregate an all-white elementary school in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in 1960.

“This girl had a big dream and wanted to be different,” she says. “You have to dream big to have something big and fight for this dream. My exhibition is devoted to these children who want to change the conditions to live in a better world. Those are Holocaust Children.” Her current exhibit “Holocaust Children: When the Soul of the Kids Talk” runs through October 31 at the Jewish Community Center Omaha.

The exhibit features 25 pieces that illustrate different aspects on past, present and future holocausts or man-made catastrophes. Pieces will be available for viewing after October 31, at Benn’s studio at Hot Shops Art Center.

 

Artisan/Maker Chelsea Ranger

Artisan/Maker Chelsea Ranger

INSPIRING OTHERS TO BE THEIR BEST

Described as a modern and whimsical twist on reclaimed wooden signs, the Etsy business Wildflower + Whimsy began as Chelsea Ranger and her fiancé Cody Maple were chatting at their kitchen table. “I was stressed out because we were too poor to buy our family Christmas presents, so we did a little brainstorming and came up with the idea to make little wood signs out of pallet wood we had in our backyard. Cody grabbed them, we took them apart and the rest is history.”

Ranger remembers being 10 years old and sitting on the couch writing out business plans in her Lisa Frank notebooks. “One idea that really sticks out in my head is “Butterfly Bliss.” I was going to design some rad comforter sets for girls only. It was like a girls-only comforter club and I was so excited about it. Fast forward 16 years later, my little comforter club dream did not pan out, but I think dreaming big like that really helped me to end up where I am now. Dream big always, no matter what.”

She was inspired by her creative and stylish mother, who liked interior design. “I remember flipping through Shabby Chic décor magazines and Better Homes and Gardens for hours with her. She would always take me along to markets and shows and paint and furniture stores.” Ranger cherishes those times because her mother has since passed away. “Her style has definitely carried through into mine and I get to see little reminders of her in our designs and home every day,” she says.

Wildflower + Whimsy’s signs say things like “It is well,” “Let it be” and “Once in a while right in the middle of an ordinary life, love gives us a fairytale.” Rangers’ hand-painted signs evoke emotions and reflect modern day sentiments. Parents often order custom-order signs of their children’s names for nurseries.

Every design is made with 100 percent reclaimed wood. Ranger and Maple source wood from rescued properties in Nebraska. “We try our hardest to keep track of where the wood for your sign comes from, so when it’s hanging in your home, you can continue to tell its story,” she says. She says that the handmade/artisan art community in Nebraska is outstanding and welcomes everyone with open arms. “Cody and I have met so many like-minded individuals who kick butt at what they do and inspire us constantly. There is a lot to be said about people who choose love and community over competition. We are very lucky to have that here,” she says.

Recently, Wildflower + Whimsy became available at all Younkers and Herbergers stores across Nebraska. Ranger attributes her persistence to this big win. “When I learned that Younkers was accepting artisans to be a part of their “Close to Home” shops, I stayed up half the night reading articles on how to score wholesale accounts.

The thing that stuck with me the most was to be persistent.” Ranger says buyers get hundreds of emails daily. “You really need to stick out in their world. If they don’t email you or call you back after the first time, dust yourself off and try it again.” Ranger attended The Art Institute of Michigan and studied interior design. “I’ve always had a thing for creating beautiful and comfy little spaces, so I was thrilled to be studying and learning the ins and outs of just that.”

She says that she is inspired daily by working with Maple. “Wildflower + Whimsy would not be where it is today if it wasn’t for him.” She works full time making signs and says that working together in close proximity can take its toll. “Life is not all sunshine and rainbows, but at the end of the day, it’s all good because we’re honest with each other and have developed very good communication skills.”

“I know that he will never let me give up on my dreams and I won’t let him give up on his, so I think we’re a darn good team.” Ranger works all day at her business. “I think anybody who owns a small business knows that you never really stop working, your brain never really shuts off.” Rangers loves what she does, so it doesn’t feel like working to her. “I’m just making pretty signs and talking and meeting awesome people along the way.” W

 

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