Bill Farmer: Portraits of Marge

By Tim McMahan

Bill Farmer walked slowly across the Antiquarium's top-floor art gallery -- named in his honor -- and looked at drawings and paintings of his wife made during one of the darkest times of her life.

There they are, on display for anyone to happen across on a warm Friday afternoon - drawings, paintings and images of a woman bent in pain and fear, clutching her head as if being dive-bombed by invisible bats. In some pieces, she looks merely tired, reclined in a bed or sleeping chair. In others, she's confused and afraid, surrounded by her ghosts.

"We were down in Mexico and Margie got hepatitis," Farmer explained. "She was in bed a lot, she didn't have much strength. So I had a perfect model."

It was 1966. The Farmers were living in Mexico City, where Margie had been given a job to start a school based on the Montessori methods. It was an innovative, individualistic approach toward education that had become a focus in her life after she became disenchanted with traditional education.

"I think she got it from a Benedictine monastery up in the hills," Farmer said of the hepatitis. "The flies there were horrible, just everywhere. It was in a neighborhood that was completely walled in, with a bunch of apartments inside. Hers was a severe case that lasted for three years."

Along one gallery wall, between two series of smaller paintings, hangs a large canvas panel of a lone figure, a grim-reaper character, bent and holding a shovel. It stands alone and seems disquietingly out of place.

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"When you have hepatitis, you're very sensitive," Farmer said, "and you're afraid a lot of the time. That's how come I painted the phantom, there. I call it 'The Phantom Is You.' It's ready to dig a grave. She's pushing it off, pushing the spirits away.

"I remember how easily she cried back then. One New Year's Eve, she took a drink of alcohol, she thought she could get away with a little wine. It threw her into a fit of tears and I had to get her home. One time I went to a movie and when I came back, she was terrorized. Fear is part of hepatitis; it affects you all over."

It seems hardly an appropriate style in which to portray your wife, especially at an exhibition that honors her 70th birthday. But this is Bill Farmer, and if there's one thing his Omaha audience has come to understand, it's that he never does anything in a conventional manner.

The exhibition has been on display at the Farmer Gallery for the past few weeks, and will come down after Sept. 27 -- Marge's birthday -- when a "closing party" will be held from 2 to 6 p.m.

The works are in a variety of media and styles - paintings, drawings, pen & ink, oil, latex or a combination. All are done in Bill Farmer's unique style. Whether you love it or hate it, you have to admit it's original, uncompromising and ultimately unforgettable. As Farmer talked that afternoon, people wandered into the gallery and reacted in a variety of ways to his art. Some hastily glanced from piece to piece. Others looked confused, while some stopped and stared at a single painting as if waiting for the figures to move.

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At 76, Farmer remains a fixture of the Omaha art scene, whether or not the local critics, museums or galleries want to admit it. He has made an impression on those who have sought out his work, be it his paintings, early forays in multimedia or his bronze sculptures that are deemed masterworks by a number of adoring fans. The "Marge exhibition" is comprised of work painted mainly in the '60s during Farmer's maverick years, when he was at his peak both productively and creatively.

Near the gallery's north wall next to the windows are a couple of portraits that differ from the other works on display. One drawing is in a completely different style, a portrait of a young woman in her prime. "This was done when I was a student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It's one of the oldest drawings here. Margie was in the music school and I was in the art school. I met her in a math class, which she dropped. I took voice lessons, I thought I might meet her during class. I thought she was pretty attractive, a really neat person, which she turned out to be, very loving and caring, with empathy for others in trouble."

They were married their senior year and graduated together from UNL in 1950 (they celebrate their 50th anniversary Dec. 27). It's almost impossible to talk about Bill Farmer and his work without thinking of Margie. Her work was responsible for most of their travels, as she was called to set up Montessori schools in countries throughout the world, including Spain, Ireland and Mexico. While in Spain in '53, Bill studied the works of El Greco and Goya. He says their work,continues to influence him to this day, along with the art of Max Beckmann, who Farmer studied under at the University of Colorado in 1949.

"I was chosen to be in Beckmann's class when my name was drawn from a hat," Farmer says. "He didn't speak much English. He always said, 'ya, ya…' He had quite an influence on me. I suppose expressionism crept in from Beckmann. He always had something to say in his work, and that inspired him."

Farmer also speaks through his work, whether it be a political or spiritual statement. "Spirituality and social commentary are my two strongest themes," he said. "If I didn't like something, I would paint it. I painted against Castro for killing freedom. I don't feel that way today. Now I think socialism is good if practiced religiously."

He talks about how he painted on large sheets of paper in the streets of Mexico, of trading art lessons for art supplies and painting on the interior walls of their home on 42nd and Burt streets when there was nothing else to paint on. "On one wall, I painted Mary and the Women of the Well. In the front room it was the Good Shepherd. The landlord was rather pleased; he took a door I painted off the kitchen cupboard and took it home."

He first dabbled in abstract painting while studying at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1951 and was among the first Omaha artists to attempt abstract multimedia presentations.

"I put on something called 'The Event' in 1968. It included 16 mm, 8 mm, and slide film, actors in a boxing ring, anti-meetings and anti-church. It was a social criticism and was well publicized at the time. Very disturbing. I didn't know how they'd take it."

He says it never really mattered to him if his work was accepted. And that is probably the reason the Farmers never got fat off Bill's art. "We always just had enough," Margie says. "We just kind of alternated -- sometimes I was not working, sometimes Bill wasn't working. But we always had enough between the two of us."

These days, Farmer produces less art then in his youth, though he continues to use innovative methods to convey his ideas, such as concrete sculpture. Parkinson's symptoms and bouts of anxiety have slowed him, he says. "These days I usually start my drawings in the afternoon on the front porch. I work a couple three hours a day more or less, depending on what else I have to do. I used to work 'til 11 at night. I have to strain for it today.

"My work remains a way for me to continue to speak out. Certainly the same injustices are evident in the world today, maybe even worse than ever before. When I look back at my lifetime of work, I'm satisfied with what I've accomplished."

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Originally printed in The Reader September 24, 1998.

Copyright 1998 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

"If I didn't like something, I would paint it. I painted against Castro for killing freedom. I don't feel that way today. Now I think socialism is good if practiced religiously."