The inaugural resident artists at the Carver Bank cultural center couldn’t be more unalike in some ways and more congruent in others.
Carver is the new Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and Rebuild Foundation endeavor at 2416 Lake Street that houses a Big Mama’s Sandwich Shop, a gallery- performance space and artist studios. Artist and urban planner Theaster Gates of Chicago is the facilitator-instigator of the project. Caver is one of several projects he’s done through his Rebuild Foundation that repurposes abandoned structures in inner cities to house art-culture activities that engage with community.
Each Omaha native participant was selected in line with Carver’s mission of providing work spaces and showcase opportunities for underserved artists of color whose creativity deserves wider support and recognition
The artists cut across a wide range of disciplines and starting with the Carver’s March 29 grand opening they’ve been displaying their respective chops in performances, readings, exhibitions.
Program director Jessica Scheuerman says the artists “care deeply about the cultural resurgence of the Near North Side,” adding, “In addition to their individual practices, they have quickly taken to the role of host and are developing public programming that will enrich the space throughout the year and expand the roster of artists presented in the space.”
Shannon Marie is a 20-something hip hop and R&B artist. The single mom works full time to support her dream of making it big out of her hometown.
Dereck Higgins, 58, is a pioneer of the Omaha alternative music scene as a bass player, drummer and arranger. This champion of psychedelia recently left his career as a licensed mental health professional to devote all his energies to his art.
Bart Vargas, the lone visual artist of the group, is a 40-year-old art educator and creator of salvage-based paintings and sculptures.
Portia Vivienne Love, 56, is a sometime singer and full-time poet and writing workshop presenter now also penning murder mystery short stories and novels.
Three of the four have close ties to the symbolically potent 24th and Lake area. Once the commercial-entertainment hub of the local African American community, its live music scene used to draw national artists. Love’s late father, saxophonist Preston Love Sr., cultivated his music passion there as a fan and player. The catty-cornered Loves Jazz & Arts Center is named after him. Higgins’ late father, James “Red” Higgins, was a contemporary of Love’s and also haunted the Deuce Four.
Marie, who’s real name is Ennis, grew up a few blocks from Carver. She’s adamant about developing a national name for her writing and singing.
“I’m definitely confident about it,” says Marie, who’s produced several mix tapes. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s where you want to go. I can make it happen.”
If it doesn’t happen here she may leave to try her hand elsewhere, though she admits she needs more polish.
“I feel like I need to be more prepared before I step out with the big dogs.”
She got serious about rapping as a junior at Benson High School. Her early professional forays taught her lessons about not selling out.
“I would contact promoters and they’d just kind of brush me off like, ‘Who is this chick?’ Now when they have something going on I’m one of the first people they contact. I’ve gained their respect. They’ve seen the growth and they know I have people backing me.”
Her YouTube videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. Her Omaha fan following is such she gets recognized most everywhere she goes.
Gone are the days when promoters tried extracting sexual favors from an aspiring newbie. “It’s a male-dominated industry and sometimes guys look at females like a piece of meat. You have to be confident to let people know, Hey, you cant treat me like this. Now they’re like, ‘She’s just about her business. She’s not about sleeping her way to the top.’
“I kind of had to learn the hard way in some cases. I still have to learn a few things. But it’s a lot better now than me being naive and saying, ‘OK, let’s just do music.’ All that glitters isn’t gold.”
A dispute with a local record label resulted in some of her original music being withheld from her. She’s moved on.
She plans a Carver event featuring herself and other empowered women who’ve overcome obstacles. She’s also planning a listening party for her new work.
“Now I’m here, I’ve got my opportunity, everything is still possible.”
Working alongside fellow residents who are “so different,” she says, “is going to be interesting.” She adds, “We really do vibe together. There’s going to be positive stuff going on. I want to support everybody and I want them to support me, too.”
She feels the love from friends, family and fans. “Everyone is excited for me.” She terms the multicultural turnout for Carver’s grand opening “a beautiful thing” and encourages all of Omaha to support its programs. “It’s for everybody.”
She’s eager to add to the area’s rich music legacy, saying, “Now it’s our time.”
Dereck Higgins is intent on opening the Carver to a broad range of artists and audiences.
“It only makes sense that if Im going to be down here I try to get some of the people that work with me everywhere else to work with me down here,” says Higgins, who jams with Nik Fackler as part of InDreama. Higgins is presenting a Night of Sound Exploration with saxophonist and electronic musician Curt Oren from 7 to 9 p.m. on June 7.
Higgins, who has his own DVH Records label and an extensive vinyl collection, makes trippy music that draws on traditional instruments as well as a panoply of electronic and ambient sounds.
“It’s personal, that’s ultimately what it is,” he says, “and that’s probably why I’m not more commercially along the way because I don’t know what genre to be in and I’m not interested in it and I don’t like it. When people say to me, ‘I don’t know what you are,’ that’s a great compliment and I want to stay there.”
Since walking off his 30-year job at Community Alliance in 2012 he’s made music his number one priority.
“I’ve always been a real artist-musician but a hobbyist. Making the break from the job and now doing this Carver thing is really allowing me to embrace truly, fully the role of artist-musician. I’m very thankful. This is a luxury. I can come down here and I can work, experimenting with music and sound ideas at my makeshift little audio studio. I’m already working on my next album.”
He creates the collage artwork that adorns his album covers.
“I’m broker now than I’ve ever been as an adult but I’m happier,” says Higgins, who along with his fellow artist residents receives a $500 a month stipend.
It’s no coincidence that Bart Vargas, the lone Carver resident artist who’s not African American, though his dreadlocks often prompt people to assume he is, makes art from salvaged materials. Just when it looked like his life was a thrown-away bust, he found salvation.
Growing up in a chaotic home with a mentally ill mother and alcoholic father Vargas sought refuge in art. “I escaped through drawing,” he says. “Drawing was a way to have control over something and make believe and go other places. When I was 16 I was young, angry and confused and this other family saw the situation and offered me a safe place and took me in. So I have my biological family and what I consider my real family – the family I associate with all these years later.”
Vargas, a Nebraska Air National Guard veteran, feels his salvage art parallels the Carver project and its adaptive reuse of the long abandoned Carver Savings & Loan building and city plans to revitalize other long vacant North Omaha properties.
“Everything has a potential. The only place trash is made is in our head…when we decide something no longer has value.”
Bemis chief curator Hesse McGraw says the hope is that by nurturing artists Carver “can generate some cultural heat and create a magnetic lure in North Omaha.” Another hope, he adds, is for their work “to have an impact on public perception of the neighborhood. Imagine when the Near North Side is again known as a place that artists live and work, and where we all can be part of that resurgence.”
A self-described “mixed blood” who’s white and Mexican and not sure what else, Vargas used some of his Carver money to take DNA tests to determine his ethnicity.
“I’ve thought about doing this identity painting after finding out what my genetic markers say I am.”
Or he might adapt a painted words series he began s few years ago to express musings about “my American ‘muttness.'”
The University of Nebraska at Omaha and Metropolitan Community college art instructor says he’s already made word paintings “specific to this place or neighborhood,” adding, “I want this part of the city to become part of the work I do here. Before I even moved in I painted ‘Carver.’ My goal is to cover the wall in my little corner in ‘Yeses.’ To have this wall of positivity. I want to start it out with really good energy.”
Portia Love understands why she’s identified with her father, whose band she sang with for several years, but music was his thing, not hers.
“The writing thing is mine,” says Love, who retreated into words and stories as an “introverted” adolescent and began winning recognition for her work at Marian High School.
She went on to work in and teach human services but always wrote on the side. As a veteran artist with Why Arts she conducts writing workshops for people with disabilities. She also holds workshops through the Bemis.
She’s self-published two books of poems, Eclipses of the Sun and Redefinition. She creates poems by commission for clients, placing her original works in designer boxes, frames and photo albums.
WriteLife is publishing her debut novel, The Men’s Club, as well as a book of short stories, High Heel Shoes, Bright Red Lipstick and Strange Love.
Carver appeals to her for practical reasons.
“I went after it for the working space and the recognition. I’m real if nothing else. I tear my house up doing this stuff. Now I have a studio to work out of. This is my time for me and my writing. This is an opportunity that I hope is going to put me to another level. i hate anybody trying to put limitations on me and what I do.”
Moving artists along is part of the idea.
“We hope this opportunity provides a crucial jump for the residents and that they are able to move their artistic practices to new levels,” says McGraw.
Love says Carver’s location is “significant,” adding, “The whole thing is significant. I love that Hesse (McGraw) said the Bemis cannot be this white organization that ignores the fact there are people of color in this city with talent. And yes this is the perfect place for it, 24th and Lake. I think about my dad and how much he would have loved coming through here wearing the hell out of everybody. I think he would be so overjoyed to see me excelling at something that was not his.”
Love’s hosting a poetry reading from 3 to 6 p.m. on May 25. She’s invited her fellow resident artists to add their distinct flavors.
Carver events are free and open to the public.
For Carver updates visit carverbank(at)bemiscenter.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.