Local artists make it big, still choose to live in and work from their beloved hometown.
| 2016 Q3 | story by JULIE DUNLAP | photos by Steven Hertzog
Working Planet Earth
“International superstar” isn’t usually the kind of phrase one expects to be followed by the phrase “from Lawrence, Kansas,” but for artists like Stan Herd, known around the globe for his earthworks, multimedia art composed of organic matter such as vegetation, rocks, soil and water, and nurtured on the ground, the two terms are inseparable.
A Protection, Kansas, native and former art student at Wichita State University, Herd’s farming community roots and deep connection to the beauty of the environment eventually drew the artist to a Kansas field in 1981, where he created his first earthwork, a portrait of famed Kiowa Chief Satanta. He moved to Lawrence shortly after to be a part of what he calls “the most vibrant arts scene in the Midwest” and has lived here ever since.
As his national reputation as an earthwork artist grew (he has no formal representation but says the international earthwork network is tightly connected), Herd balanced family life in Lawrence and a career far outside the city limits. Near the turn of the millennium, with career opportunities tempting and wooing him to leave his adopted hometown behind for other literal, though not necessarily greener, pastures, Herd was introduced to TV journalist and Kansas native Bill Kurtis, owner of the Red Buffalo Ranch, in Sedan, Kansas, who hired Herd as an artist-in-residence at the ranch. .
During his tenure at the ranch, Herd found a renewed sense of purpose, saying, “I made the decision to make a difference and join the great stalwarts who stayed (in Lawrence) instead of heading for a coast.”
Herd is quick to list a large number of area artists and supporters committed to nurturing arts in the city, stating, “Art is a community,” a philosophy driving the manifestations of his imagination in a way that makes “his heart feel good,” he says with a warm smile.
His most recent earthwork was installed during the Olympics in Rio, Brazil. Local citizens of all ages took part in the careful planting and placing of natural media with all vegetation planted to be distributed within the community long after Herd has made his way back home … where he will prepare for his next project, a 5-acre piece in China titled “Young Woman of China.”
A Place To Create
Like Herd, Lawrence artist and University of Kansas (KU) Distinguished Professor of Art Emeritus Roger Shimomura has also displayed his art far outside of the 785 city limits while calling Lawrence his home.
As a young boy looking out to the world through the barbed wire surrounding the Japanese internment camp in Idaho, where his earliest memories were formed, Shimomura never dreamed a love of art would land him happily in the Midwest with a life that reaches so far beyond visible boundaries.
After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Washington in Seattle and an Master of Fine Arts degree from Syracuse University in New York, Shimomura came to Lawrence in 1969 to teach at KU for what he believed would be a few years.
“A few years turned into a career,” he laughs.
“Lawrence has a atmosphere that fosters art-making,” he affirms after nearly 50 years as a Lawrence-based artist. “The community is welcoming and forgiving,” he adds, giving him the freedom to experiment and push himself creatively.
With connections on both coasts, Shimomura’s early career quickly spanned thousands of miles. But even with his wide reach and the support of the Lawrence community and critical acclaim, Shimomura’s Asian-inspired works, many depicting scenes from or including visual references to his time in the internment camp in Idaho, failed to resonate with serious buyers. “Paintings of identity,” as works featuring the struggles of underrepresented sects of any population are called, turned out to be a harder sell at the time Shimomura was trying to get his work to New York’s highly regarded Chelsea-area galleries. .
Not one to give up, however, Shimomura continued building a name for himself in other markets. Eventually, a sold-out show in Chicago led to a show in Washington, D.C., where he caught the eye of Bernice Steinbaum, a gallery owner in the SoHo neighborhood in New York City. Steinbaum invited him to install a show at her gallery, which ended up selling well enough to snowball into others, including a fortuitous show in Miami, where he met Chelsea-area gallery owner Eleanor Flomenhaft, who invited him to do a show shortly after.
“I haven’t sought a show in 25 years,” Shimomura says of the impact of those connections.
Throughout this time, Shimomura stayed and taught in Lawrence, traveling every summer to Seattle to visit his children and grandchildren.
“It is possible to have a career in New York and still live in a small town like Lawrence,” the highly prolific Shimomura shares, “but you’ve got to devote a lot of time. It’s not a part-time thing.”
Hollywood on the Hill
Lawrence filmmaker Kevin Willmott agrees whole-heartedly.
“The thing I’ve built here that allows me to do what I do,” Willmott explains, “took me a long time to build.”
A Junction City native with an Master of Fine Arts degree in dramatic writing from New York University (NYU), Willmott spent three years working in New York City before moving to Lawrence to film his first feature-length movie, “Ninth Street.”
His timing could not have been better.
Willmott connected with the Film Commission of Greater Kansas City (now known as the Kansas City Film Office) upon his arrival in 1991, both just beginning to spread their wings in the area. After a seeming whirlwind of conversations and meetings, the KC Film Commission announced Willmott’s “Ninth Street” would be a part of its inaugural endeavors.
“They announced it, so I had to do it,” Willmott chuckles about the sudden thrust into the world of filmmaking in the Midwest.
The intense and immediate notoriety paid off. Roughly 700 people showed up for the auditions; props and costumes were collected. Willmott and his crew shot scenes, and funding and manpower allowed more than four years, a prolonged time frame that not only gave Willmott the space to take in and learn the nuts and bolts of filmmaking on the job, but provided him with opportunity to cast Hollywood actors Isaac Hayes and Martin Sheen, working in nearby films, as their schedules allowed.
The entire production process, from preproduction to distribution (1999, by Ideal), lasted eight years … just enough time for Willmott to make a home here in Lawrence, where he raised his five children and teaches film at KU.
With one feature film under his belt and his family happily planted in Lawrence, Willmott’s professional life outside of Kansas took off, from commissioned television and film scripts for Hollywood studios, to writing and directing his own feature films here in Lawrence, including “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” which was distributed by IFC Films after an enthusiastic reception at Sundance Film Festival in 2004. .
More doors continued to open for his career after Sundance. Willmott’s resume includes such producers as Oliver Stone and Jamie Lee Curtis, and recent success with Oscar-nominated writer and director Spike Lee, with whom he wrote the 2015 feature film “Chi-Raq.”
Through his hard work and success, Willmott has accepted dozens of writing opportunities, often with a pull to move to Los Angeles or New York. While the chance to work in a state-of-the-art, well-funded facility certainly has tempted him to pack up and head for a coast at times, Willmott remains loyal to the unparalleled assets in Lawrence.
“The relationships I’ve made here are more important than any facility,” Willmott beams, adding, “if you’re good at what you do, it doesn’t matter where you live.”
Taking the Show on the Road
Lawrence-area singer Vanessa Thomas can attest to that.
Thomas travels the country performing with world-renowned Grammy Award-winning maestro Doc Severinsen, all while working as a vocal coach, accompanist and Lawrence Free Methodist Church service director, and raising her four children here in Lawrence.
“I recently performed in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Bowl with Doc and his orchestra. It was my first time performing there, and the audience was on their feet applauding. I got back home to my kids and found myself helping dig coins out of the toilet my son had dropped,” Thomas laughs of her double life. “I went from the Hollywood Bowl to the toilet bowl!”
Before leading the jet-setting life of a professional performer, Thomas graduated from KU with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in vocal performance in opera. After spending a few years performing and teaching in Kansas City, Thomas came back to Lawrence.
“Lawrence is a good place to have a community, establish a career and have a family,” she explains.
Thomas spent nearly a decade teaching and performing locally. She was asked to return to her hometown of Clay Center in 2010 to sing in a show honoring the town’s musical matriarch, Pauline Snodgrass, a show which would also feature a longtime supporter of the town, Doc Severinsen.
Thomas had never met Severinsen until the trumpeter overheard her during a sound check. He circled the auditorium as she sang, ending directly in front of Thomas as she finished her song.
“He said to me, ‘Do you know who I am?’ ” Thomas recalls. Of course she did. He then asked her to join him for a show in Minneapolis that year. That first show turned into the next six years and counting of performing across the country in some of the most famous music venues.
“The fans can get pretty crazy,” Thomas says. For the most part, however, the fans have been gracious and the opportunity unforgettable. Speaking of the band, Thomas reveals “these people are at the top of their game, and I get to work with all of them.”
Teaching the World To Sing
Music also has a unique reach from Lawrence in the written form. Choral lyricist and composer Charles Anthony (“Tony”) Silvestri began his professional music career in 2000 when his good friend, famed choral composer Eric Whitacre, persuaded Silvestri to translate an English poem into Latin for his piece “Lux Aurumque.”
A high school history teacher at The Buckley School in the Los Angeles area at the time, Silvestri was unsure whether he was qualified to set Whitacre’s music to words. But Whitacre would not take “no” for an answer.
Sixteen years, twelve composers and dozens of written pieces later, Silvestri has established himself in choral circles from the Sydney Opera House to St. Peter’s Basilica as not only qualified, but accomplished, publishing works, teaching classes and sharing his talents with the confidence of a lifelong professional, with one audio performance even reaching astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle.
This musical journey has been far from smooth, however. Silvestri moved to Lawrence from Los Angeles after his wife passed away from ovarian cancer, leaving him with their two small children and no family nearby. Encouraged by his sister and parents, all of whom had relocated to Lawrence from the west, Silvestri moved his son and daughter to be closer to family, a move he is glad he made, nearly 10 years ago.
“I found Lawrence to be a welcoming, progressive place,” he says. “I was happy to see hills and trees. I grew up in Las Vegas, so green makes me smile.”
Silvestri, a lecturer at Washburn University since 2009, has spent the busiest half of his professional writing vocation in Lawrence, where his proximity to family has allowed him to cultivate a career that manifests in venues all around the world while maintaining a home for his children in a city he quickly grew to love and appreciate.
“I get the vibe from the city that they care about public art,” he says, adding that the Lawrence Arts Center and Theatre Lawrence venues add immense entertainment and educational value to the town, especially one this size. Silvestri has even performed in productions with his children, experiences he has treasured during his Kansas years.
While he still has several years before his nest completely empties, for right now, Silvestri sees no need to leave the city he has grown to call home.