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2015 Spring Conference & Seminar a Great Success

2015 Spring Conference & Seminar a Great Success

Friday, July 24, 2015

2015 was a very special year for the Willa Cather Foundation’s annual Spring Conference. As we celebrated our 60th Spring Conference in Red Cloud, we also welcomed the return of our International Seminar to Nebraska by combining the two events into a weeklong, Nebraska-wide celebration of Cather’s work. In all, we welcomed scholars and guests from 25 states and 5 countries to Red Cloud and Lincoln, with 289 taking part in the activities and paper sessions. The conference theme, “’Fragments of Desire’: Cather and the Arts,” focused on both the publication centenary of Cather’s novel, The Song of the Lark, and the larger discussion surrounding the novel, that of Cather’s engagement with, love of, investment in, and representations of art forms and artists of many types.

Cather was inspired by a number of works of art, mentioning many of them in her writing. Of these, My Ántonia’s story of Pavel and Peter, the sleigh-driving Russians who were pursued by packs of hungry wolves, may be her most vivid account. It was with great anticipation, then, that the audience in Red Cloud welcomed painting conservator Kenneth Bé of the Nebraska State Historical Society’s Gerald Ford Center for Conservation. Bé has spent considerable time cleaning and repairing Paul Powis’s 1887 Sleigh with Trailing Wolves, perhaps one inspiration for Cather’s anecdote, and his presentation on the process of his work was well-appreciated by Cather enthusiasts, many of whom saw the painting for the first time.

Of course, as we celebrated The Song of the Lark, it would be remiss to fail to mention Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton’s 1884 painting that served as the novel’s namesake. Though there are many prints of that famous painting, the original hangs the Art Institute of Chicago, just as Cather describes it in her book. UNL’s Cather Project, in coordination with the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, brought Breton’s original to Nebraska to serve as the centerpiece of Visual Cather: A Writer’s Pictorial Imagination, an exhibit arranged by UNL’s Lindsay Andrews and Ashley Hussman. For many Cather scholars and fans, this is a rare chance to view the painting that inspired Cather’s inspiring portrayal of the growth of an artist.

Cather, though, inspired many works of art herself, and many conference and seminar activities prominently featured artists and artwork that were inspired by her work and her life, such as Friday afternoon’s presentation and premiere of Christine Lesiak’s documentary, Yours, Willa Cather. A veteran filmmaker with NET Television, Lesiak incorporates Willa Cather’s letters and focuses on a number of close friendships from Cather’s lifetime. Yours, Willa Cather is slated to air in September.

24 well-known regional artists participated in The Growth of an Artist: Commemorating 100 Years of The Song of the Lark, a unique exhibit celebrating the publication centenary of Cather’s book. The pieces, which will remain on display in the Red Cloud Opera House gallery through August 31, were all created in response to Cather’s novel. The exhibit contains mixed-media pieces, photography, painting, stained glass, textiles, and metal work, and proceeds from the sale of these pieces support the mission of the Willa Cather Foundation.

The Red Cloud Opera House also welcomed back Superior, Nebraska, native, A.P. Andrews. Now a New York-based playwright, Andrews assembled a cast for an intensive 3-week artists’ residency in Red Cloud to develop Lark/Song. Andrews’ piece, at once a modern retelling of Cather’s classic and a response to Cather’s legacy in Red Cloud, moved quickly from comedy to tragedy and back, with musical interludes—the most notable being the show’s opener, young Neah McMeen of Superior, who performed a moving rendition of The Decemberists’ “I Was Meant for the Stage” with singer-songwriter-actress Kerri Lowe. Other cast members included Adin Lenahan, Alton Alburo, Kaela Garvin, and A.P. Andrews.

Nationally-recognized historian Richard Norton Smith also returned to Red Cloud to give the keynote address in the Red Cloud Opera House. Smith, who talked of Cather’s work and her enduring legacy, and the importance of creating literary and cultural opportunities in rural Nebraska. Smith congratulated the WCF for its own legacy of historic preservation, education, and providing cultural and artistic awareness in the community. The at-capacity auditorium responded enthusiastically to Smith’s remarks.

Due to the combined Spring Conference and International Seminar, a second keynote address was given in Lincoln. Nebraska native Terese Svoboda spoke about how her Nebraska roots have shaped her own work, including her novel Bohemian Girl, a genre-bending homage and response to Cather’s work. Speaking at the Center for Great Plains Studies, Svoboda drew a capacity crowd, with a book signing and reception that followed.

Performing at the Burlington Depot in Red Cloud was Daniel Martinez, a Peruvian guitarist and song-writer, now living and working in Lincoln, Nebraska. Martinez showcased traditional Spanish-American music and folk songs as a nod to Cather’s character “Spanish Johnny” in The Song of the Lark. The evening outdoor concert was preceded by a barbecue on the grounds, an event that is quickly becoming one of Spring Conference’s most anticipated events.

The week's activities concluded with a brilliant performance of The Fine Things of Youth: Willa Cather's Lucy Gayheart in Words and Music. Performers Jill Anderson, Evan Bravos, Mark Kurtz, and David Porter brought the musical world of Lucy Gayheart to life at the Studio Theatre in UNL's Temple Building. The performance, with its dramatic lighting and minimal set design, showcased the music of Franz Schubert, Sir Hubert Parry, Michael Balfe, Felix Mendelssohn, and Gustav Mahler before a capacity crowd of Cather fans.

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