When entering the Merryman Performing Arts Center (MPAC), the visitor’s gaze is immediately captured with Tumbleweed Symphony, a large 13 ft. diameter suspended kinetic mobile. This truly distinctive, new art installation speaks to the spirit of Central Nebraska and engages visitors of all ages as they enter the performing arts center.
The commissioned artist, Leslie Bruning of Omaha said, “In Western and Central Nebraska, one of the manifestations of the wind is the constant rolling of tumbleweeds across the plains. In this suspended brass and glass kinetic mobile, the swirling winds are depicted with moving arms delicately balanced with clear glass balls infused with streaks of gold on the inside of the circle and counter-balanced with glass spines on the outside edges. Suspended in the center is a glass tumbleweed that transforms what farmers call a dreaded weed, into the grace of a chandelier.” Bruning Sculpture
Merryman Performing Arts Center Background
In 2005, the Kearney Public Schools, in a truly innovative, collaborative project with the community, “imagined the possibilities” of an arts center for Kearney by raising 5.2 million dollars to renovate the former junior high auditorium and add a beautiful new lobby entrance, offices, reception hall, restrooms and marshaling area. The grand opening occurred in 2006.
Approximately 15 years later, a committee of Merryman board members and community arts advocates began the search to expand those possibilities with an innovative permanent installation of visual art in the soaring lobby entrance. This same entrance annually invites thousands of residents to enjoy nationally touring music, theatre and dance performances as well as well as regional performing arts organizations such as the Kearney Symphony Orchestra, Kearney Concert Association, Axtell Oratorio Society performing Handel’s Messiah or the performances of a local professional theater company, Crane River Theater. As a cultural “hub” for the community, area residents attend events from barbershop quartets to elementary school music concerts in the Merryman theater. For many of these visitors, attending their child’s or grandchild’s music program will be the only reason they enter this performing arts center.
The Making of Tumbleweed Symphony
The Merryman is unique; it is the only performing arts center located in an active elementary school in Nebraska, and possibly the Midwest. Each day, nearly 250 Central Elementary students pass through the Merryman lobby. In addition, approximately 3,000 elementary students will experience this suspended brass and glass sculpture each year as they participate in scheduled programming in the theater. Through its strong partnership with the Kearney Public Schools, MPAC provides outreach resources for elementary teachers who are in turn a resource for MPAC. For example, Kearney Public School elementary art instructor Maria Buecke assisted in creating writing prompts for this sculpture project.
The making of the lobby sculpture engaged elementary and area high school students in several planned outreach activities that provided a major component of this project. Beginning in August of 2022 the Merryman presented 3 to 5 elementary student matinee programs for 14 elementary and parochial schools. In the time before the mobile was installed, the Merryman had the opportunity to engage elementary students attending performances. They were asked to stand or sit in the Merryman lobby space or to view the space from the stairway to the second floor to observe and reflect on questions such as: If you could make a sculpture for this space, what would it look like? What materials would it be made from? What colors would you use? How big should it be? Would the parts move (kinetic) or be still (stationary)? What would be a good title for your sculpture? Among other questions, students grappled with–What is something on this sculpture that catches your eye or is interesting to you? What do the shapes on this sculpture remind you of? And, If you were going to give this sculpture a title, what would you call it? Students were encouraged to draw what they imagined in the space.
Another important outreach component of this project was an opportunity for area high school art students to travel to the artist’s studio at Hot Shops Art Center in Omaha to observe the fabrication of Tumbleweed Symphony. Also there is now a potential outreach to nearby rural school students to have the same opportunity to visit Hot Shops where there more than 80 artists in 50 studios. The mission of the studio is to allow and encourage the public to witness the creative process and interact with the artists. For many such students, such a visit is their first opportunity to experience a large working arts center.
Another Student Outreach Program: NET Nebraska Stories
Yet one more outreach activity is the potential involvement and partnership of Nebraska Public Media. The Merryman has proposed the creation and installation of Tumbleweed Symphony as a future feature on NET’s Nebraska Stories. As described on their web-page, “Nebraska Stories explores the richness of our state through the people who call it home.” The hallmark of the series lies in the feature-oriented content produced by a variety of talented storytellers who travel statewide to bring viewers a celebration of our culture, history, arts, science, nature, sports and more. Nebraska Stories producers Kay Hall and Michelle Wolford and their staff traveled to Omaha to interview the artist and film production of elements of the brass and glass sculpture as it was created. Other media outlets were invited to be present for the installation and premiere of Tumbleweed Symphony. Those who attended the installation of Tumbleweed Symphony included such media, folks associated with Kearney Public School, elementary school children and high school students, some of whom had traveled to Omaha and the design studio, MPAC board members, former director of the Museum of Nebraska Art Audrey Kauders, MPAC director Denise Christensen, and of course the Artist himself. MPAC Director Denise Christensen hopes for a gala dedication ceremony in May 2023 when the donors can be present.