Nourishing the nation’s soul

Jane Andrle Gillette, a fourth-generation Iowan, admits that images from the heartland inspire her work.

Gillette, one of 19 artists who work at The Loft Gallery, an art cooperative in Occoquan, started work on a series entitled “Fly the Flag” after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. She set out to capture the American flag as a symbol of patriotism in neighborhoods everywhere — hanging by the front door, mounted beside windows, peeking out from behind trees.

The paintings, a portrayal of flags displayed in everyday settings, express the unity Americans felt after Sept. 11. “No matter who lived behind those doors, we had something in common,” said Gillette.

The transplanted Midwesterner,

originally from Algona, Iowa, now calls Mount Vernon home, where she lives with her husband and her daughter, Sandy Andrle. She has been a member of The Loft Gallery for nearly three years and sells her watercolor paintings through the cooperative, which does not take a commission on the artists’ work but relies on membership dues to keep the gallery running. “Because we’re a cooperative, people can pay less. The money goes to the artist,” said Gillette.

As a fine arts major at the University of Iowa, Gillette studied the old masters and thrived in art history classes. “You really learn the history [of a culture] just by what the painters portray,” she said. Since then, she has worked professionally as a graphic designer and has moved away from oil painting to specialize in watercolors.

Gillette is known for painting architectural landscapes, and has been commissioned by homeowners to paint watercolors of their houses. On her own, however, she seeks out landmarks and houses that have history behind them. “People call them house portraits, but they’re more than that,” said Gillette.

“Historical buildings are a reflection of America’s development. I don’t have the same emotional response to newer houses. I always seek out the historic area when I’m in a new place,” she said.

Members of Gillette’s family are history lessons themselves. “When my grandmother was born, Abraham Lincoln was still president. She was born in 1864, and he was assassinated in 1865,” she said. “I’m the baby of an old family.”

Her great-aunt, a country schoolteacher, kept a detailed autobiography that rated country schools on par with city public schools. Gillette’s father recorded a hometown history that has piqued the interest of professors at her alma mater.

Gillette herself has experience with history. She participated in the VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) Volunteer program, which is a domestic version of the Peace Corps. The volunteer service program included social work and counseling duties. The program required that volunteers live in the communities they were assigned to help in order to work closely with the residents. “I really think that experience gave me the skills to go in [to situations] with a blank slate,” she said.

Her hometown roots show when Gillette is explaining her work. Her recent works have centered on the idea of the front porch — which traditionally is a source of community in a small town. She fears that the lack of connection to a community’s roots that so many people experience is damaging to the nation. “I think we’re in danger of losing that because people are so transient,” she said.

Through it all, Gillette still finds art is her release. After the terrorist attacks, she bought a poster at the Newseum printed with different news headlines from Sept. 11 and hung it on her wall at home. Later, she framed a letter that she had received from the University of Iowa, which expressed compassion and concern to alumni living in the Washington, D.C., area and added that to the wall. Eventually, she included tin stars. “I have this great wall going,” she said.

“I don’t think Americans realize how important the arts are. After Sept. 11, when they were playing patriotic music and people were hanging the flag … it fed the nation’s soul.”

Staff writer Stacey Shelton can be reached at (703) 878-8057.

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