The Good Life: Possibilities … Endless The Bemis Residency as a Narrative Modeled after A Harlot’s Progress by Hogarth

I miscalculated the time it would take me to drive from Detroit to Omaha. So under the influence of two 5-hour energy drinks, I arrived at the Bemis Center’s parking lot at six in the morning. I saw very hot boys get out of their trucks and walk into a meat-packing factory; the image of corn-fed/farm-bred masculinity made even more promising with the state slogan advertising both the good life and the endless possibilities in Nebraska.

I’m a seasoned residency whore. I like to do as many of them when I can. So I definitely know the drill. My standard operation mode during this very precious time for art-making has always been extremely regimented and strict: I have a plan, I hit the ground running, I execute accordingly in the studio, I leave with a new body of work. The Bemis could have been that in-and-out experience for me. And I am so grateful that it wasn’t just another one-night stand. I know the numerous friendships that have been extended to me within the Bemis community and beyond will continue to be enriching and fulfilling relationships for years to come.

I wanted a sustained period of time to work on a series of drawings. I originally envisioned hypothetical Boy Scout merit badges that would compare my queered system of values to established social/cultural norms. I’m leaving this Saturday afternoon with so much more.

Firstly, in terms of a professional practice, I was allowed the luxury of exploring other formal resolutions for the project. This, for me, is the magic that happens at Bemis. Time becomes fluid and the pleasure of getting to the finish is shared by your fellow residents and everyone else who visits your studio. Local artists, professors visiting with their students from regional colleges and curious groups from other general organizations come by regularly and this opportunity for honest and sincere interaction is thoroughly enjoyable. Critical insights are shared freely and the exchange of ideas happens naturally and instinctively.

Coupled with the consummate care and concern for my total well-being by everyone who staffs and runs the Bemis, the merit badges eventually grew into an installation with a performance component as well as a book project. A production load so huge I would have never thought to tackle it at any other residency. But according to a very satisfied audience during Open Studios, I apparently handled it very well.

Secondly, the willingness for perfect strangers to engage with me calmed any anxiety I had over being able to deliver. For believing in me unconditionally and for seeing in my work things I had never thought about, I am indebted to Omaha.

As a one-day performance throughout downtown, I decided to mark trails with screenprinted wooden discs leading to sites I would need for survival during my time here. Of course, when the Boy Scouts mark trails with natural found materials, they are looking for food, water and safe campgrounds. Amongst the things I absolutely required were: Bodyworks (a tanning salon), Patrick’s Market (an organic market), The Pinnacle Club (a gym), DC’s Saloon (a neighborhood bar) and The Max (a dance club).

Blazing Trails

Every place I frequented gave me the go ahead without hesitation. ætherplough, whose mission to create, produce and present contemporary performance in Omaha even included this event on their calendar. So ironically, in looking for my own kind of shelter, another kind of security found me instead.

Thirdly, I am incredibly inspired by the creative minds that have made Omaha their base camp and are pursuing both art and life simultaneously. Showing me that this can be done with integrity comes at a critical decision-making junction in my life. In particular — Susan Drey (Susan Drey Photography), Scott Drickey (Minor White Studios), Rob Gilmer (RNG Gallery), Brigitte McQueen (pulp), Rachel Jacobson (Film Streams), Elle Lien (soon to be restaurateur of Clean Plate at the Empty Room) and Alyssa Mattecheck (Personal Trainer) — your courage to find happiness, to do what you love and to make it work has made me consider a bigger picture outside of the academic institution where I am currently grounded.

And finally, in case the “I Heart Bemis/Omaha” t-shirt I’m wearing isn’t tight enough, I can only hope that I’ve given as much as I’m taking. The memories of wonderful group dinners, drinking nights, long conversations into the morning, printing with Joey Lynch, karaoke with Heather Johnson, sitting on a panel discussion moderated by Hesse McGraw, dancing with Andrew Hershey and Mark Griffith, sugar highs at the Doughnut Stop on Leavenworth, specialty ice-cream at Ted & Wally’s, jamming with Joel Damon, working out with guitarist Jaime Massey from the band Ladyfinger (ne) and doing the walk of shame into spin class with Trina Sheenan are priceless. This is the good life and a code of conduct worth emulating. Because I’m starting to realize that the beef can be wherever I make it to be. If I can just keep putting it into practice, I know that all my possibilities will be endless.

Joel Seah is an Assistant Professor of Art (Printmaking/Drawing) at The University of Southern Maine. He completed his residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art from February 3 – April 28, 2009 on a Leave for Professional Development from school. He will return to Omaha this June to present the interactive performance/installation entitled Brunch with Hogarth at Dixie Quicks Diner.


Tour of Public Art in Omaha

Check out the free public art walking tour throughout Omaha happening on Sunday, May 17th.  Learn more about the projects that have taken place in Omaha.  See the press release below for more information.

“The City of Omaha announced today that the Omaha Public Art Commission (PAC) will host its  first Public Art Tour, featuring public art in Downtown Omaha on May 17, 2009.  Walking tours will begin at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m.  The event is free and open to the public.  The tours, led by Public Art Commissioners, begin and end at the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1001 Farnam St.

The PAC’s Public Art Tour will showcase twenty-one pieces of public art in Downtown Omaha, including pieces located at the Gene Leahy Mall, Qwest Center Omaha, the Hilton Omaha Hotel, the Energy Systems Building, First National Bank, and the W. Dale Clark Library.  The route is 2 miles long and is expected to take approximately two hours.  A short tour of art in the Gene Leahy Mall will also take place.

As an official City of Omaha commission, the Public Art Commission is made up of nine members appointed by the mayor.  The PAC oversees a system for reviewing, accepting, and maintaining public art, aims to increase the public’s exposure to art and strives to educate the public about visual and cultural aspects of the city.”

Artists Contribute to Urban Renewal

“Artists have long been leaders of an urban vanguard that colonizes blighted areas. Now, the current housing crisis has created a new class of urban pioneer. Nationwide, home foreclosure proceedings increased 81% in 2008 from the previous year, rising to 2.3 million, according to California-based foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac. Homes in hard-hit cities such as Detroit and Cleveland are selling for as little as $1.

Drawn by available spaces and cheap rents, artists are filling in some of the neighborhoods being emptied by foreclosures. City officials and community groups seeking ways to stop the rash of vacancies are offering them incentives to move in, from low rents and mortgages to creative control over renovation projects…”  From the Wall Street Journal

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Mapping the Cultural Buzz: How Cool Is That?

“Apologies to residents of the Lower East Side; Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and other hipster-centric neighborhoods. You are not as cool as you think, at least according to a new study that seeks to measure what it calls “the geography of buzz.”

The research, presented in late March at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, locates hot spots based on the frequency and draw of cultural happenings: film and television screenings, concerts, fashion shows, gallery and theater openings. The buzziest areas in New York, it finds, are around Lincoln and Rockefeller Centers, and down Broadway from Times Square into SoHo. In Los Angeles the cool stuff happens in Beverly Hills and Hollywood, along the Sunset Strip, not in trendy Silver Lake or Echo Park…” From the New York Times
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Art and artists can do something new for life

The Bemis Center’s curator Hesse McGraw will be lecturing at the University of Kansas Friday, April 3rd.  His lecture celebrates contemporary artists who crack up places, communities and social space. Plato thought artists disturbed social order by traversing classes, yet their unique ability to infiltrate social structures creates transformative cultural power. The lecture features artists inventing new life forms, launching community gardens, mapping networks of capitalist corruption and establishing new nation states. It further chronicles the rise of collaborative practices, where artists working with individuals as diverse as architects, doctors, chefs, meteorologists, psychics, ministers and others have madly conjoined formerly discreet disciplines. The talk proposes the integration of artists within urban development, social justice and ecological efforts, with examples of upcoming projects at the Bemis Center with artists working in the expanded field.

At the Bemis Center, which is both a laboratory for artists and a cultural hub, artists reshape their environment, and Omaha’s, on a daily basis. There is benevolent danger in the way art can bring us boldly to our culture’s frayed edge, a place of lurid complexity and enlivened possibility — in the midst of the morass of federally-subsidized greed, artists offer a solution. Let’s put faith in the gift-giving and creativity at the core of art making, rather than the mirage of the engorged self. Art and artists can do something new for life, because not much else can.

Hesse McGraw is the curator at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the former assistant director of Max Protetch gallery in New York City and was the founding director of Paragraph, a contemporary art gallery operating under the non-profit Urban Culture Project in downtown Kansas City, MO, where he also served as senior editor of Review magazine. He received a BFA from KU in 2001.

Purpose Driven Part:1

This post is the first in a week-long series of pieces about art and activism. Artists have always played a role in raising awareness of critical issues. More and more arts organizations are taking part as well with purpose driven fundraising and proactive community involvement. A growing number of non-profits are being created to specifically facilitate art as activism. A few examples: (The project was a commissioned art project done by Brooke Singer. They visited and documented 365 superfund sites throughout the US)  Omaha is featured at this link:

Watts House Project in LA: collaborative art project as neighborhood redevelopment

Prospect 1 New Orleans: Biennale in New Orleans meant to spur redevelopment after Katrina

Matt Dehaemmers, "(402) Disconnect/Reconnect"Matt Dehaemmers, "(402) Disconnect/Reconnect"Matt Dehaemmers, "(402) Disconnect/Reconnect"

photos by Chris Machian / Minorwhite Studios