Photographer Jean Lewis said she's always been intrigued by country cemeteries, finding herself wondering about the lives of the people laid to rest there and what their lives must've been like.
Now Lewis' latest works are on display at the Great Plains Art Museum in Lincoln, and they show the marriage of her two passions: the ethnic past and the present of Nebraska country cemeteries.
The exhibit, "Czech Memories: Ethnicity and History Preserved in the Built Environment," also features scenes from Wilber and other immigrant communities in Nebraska. The display coincides with "Czech and Slovak Americans: International Perspectives from the Great Plains," a symposium sponsored by the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The black and white photographs depict stylized architectural elements in gravestones, cemetery gates and storefront shops. Lewis took the photos during her 20-year career in Nebraska.
Each photograph is accompanied by an artist's note, giving added insight to the historical significance of the image.
Lewis said she's not sure why she's drawn to cemeteries.
"I just get in the car and drive, and sometimes that's where I end up," she said.
Her inspiration for this exhibit came much in the same way, by chance.
Over time, Lewis noticed something about the Czech cemeteries that seemed universal: They were well-cared for. The detail led her to look into history to learn more about Czechs in Nebraska, and why the cemeteries remain so important to the communities where they are, even today.
Lewis said the pride in the small Czech communities stood heartily over time. By submersing herself in the culture she photographed a small part of, she began to understand the pride with which Nebraskan Czechs honored their ancestors by tending to the cemeteries, meticulously, year-round.
Though not all the photos show burial sites, the ones that do are perhaps the most haunting.
In Wilber, tablet grave markers depicted in photos reveal haunting gray hues - a remembrance of times past and a culture that lives on through its deep roots in Nebraska.
Amber Mohr, museum administrator and curator of the Great Plains Art Museum, said the reason the cemeteries are typically exclusively Czech is a matter of the historical record.
"About 50 percent of Czechs who immigrated (to America) had no religious affiliation," she said. "They were agnostic and called themselves ‘free thinkers.' Because of this, Catholics and Protestants refused to bury them in their cemeteries. So the Czechs had their own."
What's more, it's not unusual to see Czech communities that didn't assimilate into dominant American culture during spikes of immigration in the 19th century, Mohr said. As a result, many Czechs carried on their customs in isolation, farmsteading in rural Nebraska, away from the pressure to be more Americanized that people in cities experienced.
Mohr said she was looking for work that featured Czech culture prominently to coincide with the upcoming UNL symposium on Czech and Slovak Americans. Mohr said Lewis' work resonates strongly with the museum's patrons, many of whom have Czech ties.
For the exhibit's curator, Lewis's work was a perfect fit.
"A lot of people are already aware of Wilber. But Czech culture and heritage is more that kolaches, of course," Mohr said.
Reach Lisa Munger at LisaGMunger@gmail.com.