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Omaha Magazine

Picking Up What the Universe Lays Down: Bekah Jerde at Ground Level

Aug 27, 2021 04:17PM ● By Kim Carpenter
woman poses by bob kenney bridge in omaha

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

“Sixteen years. I keep telling myself to just focus on the excitement of a new house,
new adventures. But. Sixteen years. Drunk. Sober. Single. Married. Lost. Found.”

Bekah Jerde’s Facebook post from mid-June highlighted her long fall from grace and her equally arduous crawl back to redemption, with all the grief, pain, and self-loathing in between (the “lost”), and ultimately, the love and joy that she’s experiencing now—her hard-earned “found.”

The 43-year-old artist and assistant director at Radio Talking Book Service has been through hell and back, and wound up happier than she ever thought she had a right to be. But those who know her realize just how much she deserves everything she’s earned.

Jerde grew up on a cattle ranch in Reva, South Dakota, on the same land her Norwegian great-grandfather homesteaded. It was, she said, “an amazing place to grow up.” A voracious reader, she and her younger brother, Micah, a budding artist and her “soul companion,” attended a two-room schoolhouse from kindergarten through sixth grade, later commuting 70 miles a day to attend high school.

After graduating from high school in 1996, she left for Creighton University, where she majored in the classics, including Greek, Latin, philosophy, and more. She was on her way to earning her degree when everything was put on hold.

In 1999, while away at college in Sioux Falls, Micah died unexpectedly of complications from diabetes.

Jerde was utterly bereft. 

She coped by self-medicating with alcohol. Full-blown alcoholism—and DUIs—weren’t far behind. “Something died in me,” she recounted. “I even stopped reading.”

Although she managed to complete her Creighton degree in 2006, she was still heavily drinking, enabled by jobs in the food industry, where she waited tables and overindulged at the bar with friends and colleagues. 

A turning point came in May 2012. “I went to jail at night, and when I woke up in the morning, I felt utterly exhausted and defeated to my core,” she said.

On July 22 that year, Jerde began outpatient treatment. “Maybe I won’t drink this time,” she thought.

She didn’t, but she had to face consequences for her multiple DUIs and returned to jail, this time for a little over a month, in the beginning of 2013.

Still, Jerde had turned a corner and was “walking to recovery,” as she puts it. That walking was literal.

After losing her driver’s license and having to take public transportation, she began noticing her environment from a new perspective. It was also the first time she had a smartphone, and she started documenting what she was noticing.

“When you’re walking to the bus stop, you pay attention and walk differently than when you’re just out walking to enjoy a lovely day,” she said. “You walk with purpose and you see all these fantastic tableaus that you wouldn’t see otherwise.”

Those tableaus included everything from vine-choked doorways to discarded undergarments. Jerde started commemorating her finds and sharing them on Instagram under her “bobekah” account. Pedestrian Perks was born. 

The series captures what most people never notice, such as shattered glass strewn across a sidewalk or a single, battered pink stiletto. Clever captions often accompany the images, such as the witty #poofoflife under some puffy alliums. 

While working on this project, other momentous changes occurred. In 2015, Jerde landed at Radio Talking Book Service, which serves some 10,000 people in Nebraska and Southwest Iowa. 

“I’d never worked in the nonprofit world before,” she said. “It’s been fantastic.” Within a year, she worked her way up from an office manager and grant writer to assistant director.

In the meantime, Jerde returned to the activities that made her life whole, particularly reading and writing. In March 2016, she participated in an Amplify Arts workshop, where she sat next to Bart Vargas, one of Omaha’s better-known artists. 

He was immediately smitten. Within 30 minutes of the workshop’s conclusion, he messaged her. They texted back and forth for an hour and went on three dates the first week.

They married 18 months later.

Vargas adoringly calls his wife “The Lady Jerde,” because, he noted, “It’s a royal title that counters her humility and recognizes how strong, capable, and selfless she is.”

He is immensely proud of her recovery, career, and art. 

“The compositions in her photos are so strong,” he said. “She’s a true street photographer. I am so glad she’s getting recognition.”

That recognition happened rapidly. In 2016, Jerde had her first show at Howlin’ Hounds Coffee. That same year, she participated in an international street photographers showcase at the Des Moines Art Center—an unprecedented jump for any artist. In 2019, she gave a talk and led a workshop at Kaneko. Since then, other shows have followed, featuring both Jerde’s photography and her vibrant architectural paintings.

Today, she’s represented by Landlock Gallery. Molly Hobson Vaida, Landlock’s curator and manager, loved the story behind Pedestrian Perks, and, when she opened her gallery, immediately reached out to the artist.

“What strikes me about her project is that she takes the time to notice what is unique and look at it in a different way,” Hobson said. “What I really appreciate about Bekah and her work is how honest it is. It reflects who she is as a person. When I see the beauty and simplicity in her work, I see her.”

Jerde continues to see the world around her. Looking ahead, she said, “I’m staying an active participant. If I’m present in the moment, I can see—even though it scares the bejesus out of me. I’ll take a full breath and come through the other side. I’m picking up what the universe is laying down.”

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This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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