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).
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.