Inclusive DIY Space “The Mez” Nurtures Amateur Artists in Nebraska
by Gabriella Parsons for VICE Creators' 50 States of Art Series
I didn't always call myself an artist.
Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, I was made to believe that being an artist was a struggle, a dream accessible only by people in far away, Hollywood-like places. As much as I loved to dance, sing, write and play music, I was, like so many other young people in Nebraska, under the impression that in order to truly succeed in these passions, I'd need to live somewhere else.
The frequent depictions of Nebraska as flat, conservative, and boring blinded me and my friends from seeing our community's potential. While these stereotypes are somewhat exclusive and outdated, they still reflect the reality that Nebraska is losing its young people.
The challenge to keep young people in Nebraska has motivated Nebraska artists to diversify what it means to live, work, and create in Nebraska, subsequently cultivating an even stronger and more vibrant arts community. After seeing many artists and entrepreneurs face Nebraska's adversity with relentless pursuit of their craft, I was inspired to stay in Lincoln to pursue a writing career and a journalism degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
In January 2017, I co-launched an arts collective with my best friend and roommate Joelle Sandfort, a fine artist who studies at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Our partnership formed out of a mutual desire to bring together artists of different disciplines, with the idea that visual and performing arts do not have to be mutually exclusive, but rather be seen as equally important experiences that can intersect and influence one another.
An 800 square foot studio on the mezzanine level of a downtown Lincoln building, The Mez is a substance-free space where artists of varying interests and educational backgrounds gather under the same roof. The Mez attempts to eliminate the division between classically trained, college-educated artists and artists who are self-taught or without a degree. Instead, we provide artists with a platform that frees them from these clichés and assumptions about their identities, allowing their art to be fully appreciated by a diverse, all-ages audience.
In wake of conventional art and concert venues that often treat artists and audiences separately, The Mez rejects this notion and invites people to connect with art in a way that coexists with their own unique lives and experiences. Let me tell you, there's nothing quite like witnessing an audience aged 19-70 cram in a room to watch a nude performance art piece that captures the essence of human nature and connection. That happened during our first show, which also featured contemporary visual artists, spoken word artists, poets and musicians, a handful of whom were debut acts or first-time performers.
Through my work at The Mez, I have begun to call myself an artist. Even if I do more art facilitating than art making, it's humbling to know that my contributions are valued and have a place in my community. Especially during a time when the value of art is receiving national attention and criticism, an unprecedented number of Nebraska artists' voices are beginning to surface.
In January, a Nebraska artist was featured in Buzzfeed for her project that depicts the aftermath of sexual assault. In February, The New York Timesmentioned Nebraska's arts proponents for being proactive in the wake of President Trump's proposal to eliminate the National Arts and Humanities Endowments. This month, a colorblind photographer and filmmaker living in Lincoln was interviewed by Feature Shoot, a prominent online photo publisher.
Recently, Lincoln was ranked No. 3 on Lonely Planet's top 10 list of destinations to visit in 2017, and namely for its music scene. In 2016, Hear Nebraska, a nonprofit music journalism organization that promotes local music and music programs, injected more than $100,000 into the state's music industry, which included paying $61,000 to a combined 140 Nebraska artists through 49 concerts in 16 communities. One of Hear Nebraska's most significant programs, The Good Living Tour, brings local Nebraska artists to perform across the state at free, all-ages and outdoor concerts in rural Nebraska towns. Last year, the tour featured 48 original Nebraska artists in 12 Nebraska towns.
For every well-known creative venture happening in Nebraska, there always seems to be some other idea brewing, or happening just under the surface. In Nebraska, there is now a Porch Fest, a Femme Fest, a Zine Fest, a recently-debuted House Fest and a DIO (Do It Ourselves) Fest, amongst many other music and art festivals that draw regional and national audiences. Another Hear Nebraska program, Lincoln Calling Music Festival, featured 170 artists in fall 2016, and this summer, an annual experimental performance festival, Omaha Under The Radar, is expected to feature over 100 artists from 14 cities around the United States.
It seems that in Nebraska, our sense of place influences the ways in which we approach our work. Many Nebraskans are motivated, now more than ever, to give back to our state in order to help its identity grow. Put simply, nobody around here organizes a music festival or puts on a house show or curates an art exhibition to be recognized for what they do, but rather, to be seen for who they are.