Friday evening’s gallery opening from 6 to 8 p.m. at Foothills Arts Council will feature sculptures by artist Jan Detter. The show is entitled “Swansong: Ode to Mending.”
“We’re excited to have a regional artist share her wonderful work with us and the community and we hope everyone will come out,” said arts council Director Leighanne Martin Wright.
“This should be a great show. Jan is a synthesizer and connector, of both used objects and of ideas. Together they combine into art that is delightful, moving, and likely to make the viewer look at the world in a new and deeper way,” added gallery committee member Anne Gulley.
Detter, a native of Catawba County, grew up in a family transitioning from farming to the mill industry. She began her own career working in a mill to help pay for her college education. Detter studied art, design and textile work at UNC-Greensboro and has worked in the arts for most of her career. She teaches creativity and innovation at Wake Forest University in the entrepreneurship program. She took the summer off from teaching to create Swansong: Ode to Mending.
“The show is not just about mending, which of course is the title, it’s also about damage,” Detter explained. “If you don’t have damage, there’s no reason for mending. I have made pieces that will reflect that in a variety of ways somewhat historical in relationship to women; whether it’s fixing themselves up to meet society’s standards or fixing a part of their culture that has been damaged and they’re suddenly responsible for fixing it, and even fixing the buttons on one’s shirt. All the ways in which women are basically given a responsibility for stitching the world back together.”
Detter said she was very interested in the identity that women are given at birth.
“I think it’s a very legitimate time to rediscover that in an age in which even gender is being reassigned based on people’s internal notion of identity versus what culture imposes on them based on biology.” She said she sees this struggle played out often among her students as they attempt to figure out their identity and place in the world.
A year and a half ago, Detter faced her own struggle when she was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, all while continuing to teach at the university. This damage and healing within her body has had a tremendous effect on her art and her life. It’s a reminder, she said, to be grateful every day for the simple pleasure of being alive.
“We’ve really got to mend ourselves every day towards a notion of connectivity and wholeness as opposed to just putting it behind us,” Detter said. “I think we live in a culture that wants to forget adversity. I don’t want to forget adversity, I want to take adversity with me as a reminder of my resilience, my hope and my faith in the future that whatever comes, I’ll be ready for whatever my life requires of me.”
Her experience of growing up in a time of transition in a small community has colored her work for the show as well. Growing up in the ’50s, Detter recalled that the desire was always for things that were new. In her sculptures, however, she incorporates old things in a new way.
“I’m really interested in art that pulls on found materials as opposed to thinking everything has to be new,” she said. “I think the world has plenty of things in it, part of what we need to do is find a new purpose for things that have lost their purpose.”
Her theme of mending ties in perfectly with the concept of reusing old items to create something new. This concept is also something she teaches her students at Wake Forest and also a relevant message for North Carolina and the entire nation.
“That’s what creativity can accomplish, it’s looking at something that used to be something and now it’s something else. So it’s not just mending as an activity, it’s mending as an attitude about living. When you can create beauty and meaning and maybe some symbolic resonance for people about their own lives when they look at work by taking these objects that still have life they just don’t have the original life. Much as North Carolina has had to find new life for its citizens after it passed from the agrarian state to the industrial state and now in the post-industrial time.”
“That’s very frightening for people who were full ensconced in the notion of being industrial or being agrarian,” Detter added. “I don’t think we’re ever going to be one again. We can’t get back what is gone, but we can take aspects of it and reinterpret it in ways that give people meaningful work.”
As a child of working class parents, the notion of work is also very important to Detter and something that her art represents for her as well. Her themes look at what work is, who does what work and how that shifts over the course of a lifetime.
“Working and mending and upcycling becomes one more way of creating a new reality for all of us,” Detter said.
As the economy and nation continues to shift and change, creativity and innovation are needed more than ever and it’s something that Detter said she hopes to model for her own children and students and to the community through her art.
“We’re in a time that requires great resilience and patience and bravery. I think part of what bravery is, at the root, is not just endurance, it’s the smarts to pay attention and innovate.”
One of her pieces in the show illustrates this concept with a nod to one of her personal heroes, Henry Croft. An orphan born in England in 1861, who became a street sweeper, Croft brought about social change in a most unlikely manner. While sweeping the streets, Croft would collect stray buttons that had fallen from the clothing of passersby. He used these buttons to create beautiful costumes which were sold for great sums. He then used that money to send up funds for sick children who needed medical care.
“He made his fortune, if you will, by picking up buttons on the street, the lowliest form of enterprise and yet he became this paragon of virtue, a philanthropist, by picking up one button at a time. It’s a remarkable story,” said Detter.
In an age when the idea is of the system being rigged in favor of the rich, this story still resonates as one of hope for the average person.
“We don’t always need a million dollars or a billion dollars to create change, what we need is love in our hearts and more than love though, is the capacity to see ourselves as powerful in whatever sphere we live in,” Detter said. “We can’t all be Warren Buffett, but we can be the best version of our self where we are, and if we’re that best version of ourselves then we have the capacity to be like Henry Croft and create massive change in society a button at a time because we decided it was worth our attention.”
The story of Henry Croft is a reminder that even something as small as a button can matter a great deal if someone takes the time to make it matter.
“That’s the beginning of death to me, to think I have no power and therefore I don’t matter. I think we all matter, but we can’t just look and say we matter, we have to look and then we have to reflect and then we have to act and acting can happen at the most minuscule level, but over time the accumulation of many small steps is a massively rich life, not always financial, but in terms of the impact we have on each other, the impact we have on nature, the impact we have in a larger community. What we do matters every day.”
Friday’s gallery opening will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. at Foothills Arts Council, 129 Church St., Elkin, and will feature light refreshments. Visit other area galleries Elkin Artisan Market and Wanderlust Studio as part of the the Downtown Elkin Art Hike. For more information on upcoming art events in Elkin, visit www.foothillsartscouncil.org or visit the Foothills Arts Council Facebook page.
Kitsey Burns Harrison may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter and Instagram @RippleReporterK.