Nebraska artist Kent Bellows (1949-2005) was a master of Realism known for creating stunning, life-like portraits. For 20 years, he lived and worked in a two-story brick building in Omaha that he remodeled himself. To honor his legacy, the Kent Bellows Foundation commissioned a transformation of his live/work space into the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts, a gallery and community arts center that hosts workshops and mentorship programs for young artists.
Local firm Randy Brown Architects completed feasibility studies, drew plans, and obtained permits for the project. However, it hit a budget roadblock with only $150,000 to cover construction costs, so the traditional bidding process wasn’t an option. Principal Randy Brown had a solution: “I thought it would a be a perfect opportunity for my summer program to come in and complete the work.” Since 1998, he has led a 14-week summer design/build workshop for architecture students at the University of Nebraska. He asked 2009 students—Myles Andrews, Laura Brodersen, Jamison Burt, Tyson Fiscus, Bob Kanne, Dale Luebbert, and Jason Wheeler—to expand upon his preliminary designs and make the Center a built reality.
The design process was emotional for Bellows’s family and the Foundation, and “there were many discussions about what was off limits and what we could change,” recalls Brown. Several artifacts were preserved and the interventions made were minimal. The architect and his students found guidance in a quote from Bellows himself: “I think my pictures have stories behind them, but I like to leave a feeling of openness. I hope that things keep going in the viewer’s mind.”
A new storefront establishes the Center’s presence while referencing its past. The students preserved glass blocks, which Bellows installed himself over the entrance, by building shoring while they replaced the plywood wall beneath. They designed a new system of steel plates and tubes that form seating, signage, and the entrance frame. Inside, the design team and foundation identified several other artifacts to preserve that “tell a story about the artist and how he thought,” says Brown. The floor of Bellows’s studio is a veritable canvas, covered with splattered paint and the artists’ footsteps, and the students used clear polyurethane to coat and protect it. The team also preserved a light fixture with a pulley system installed by Bellows, as well as backdrops from his paintings and wall murals.
The students designed a staircase and catwalk from a continuous steel plate that connects the entrance and ground floor gallery to a new library and office on the mezzanine level. The library, which serves as a meeting and reading space, hovers above the gallery. Plywood panels fold to form its walls and ceiling, and the structure frames Bellows’s moving backdrop wall beyond.
Brown believes the design/build experience allows students to gain valuable firsthand knowledge of job site issues including budget and safety. However, he was also impressed with the students’ ability to take his firm’s initial design ideas and push them further: “They had the opportunity to look at what we had done, change it, and improve upon it—and it turned out to be better than we had originally drawn.”