Giving voice to the voiceless

Can a piece of art be a window into a terminally ill child’s hopes and fears? Can it enable you to imagine what it would be like to be homeless? Can it serve as a tool to reach the community?

Mount Mercy Professor of Art Jane Gilmor’s work can, and it has. She has impacted students and the community through art for more than 36 years — with her own special flair for challenging conventional wisdom with a sense of compassion and wit.

It would be tempting to place Gilmor’s work in the “raises eyebrows” category and dismiss her as yet another nameless, faceless contemporary artist. Her artwork expresses her trademark tongue-in-cheek humor, but also addresses deeper subject matter about belonging, fear, and one’s sense of home. Gilmor carefully crafts into each piece beautiful layers of meaning — conveying depth and perspectives from their subjects that far outweigh the material.

“I remember once hearing a gentleman walk past one of my exhibits and he said, ‘Just a minute, I have to check this out,’” says Gilmor. “I could tell from his voice that he was thinking, ‘Look, another piece of modern art that doesn’t mean anything.’” The exhibit he stumbled upon, however, was no ordinary piece. Gilmor was commissioned to create a special exhibit at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital as a way for terminally ill children to express themselves through art.

The exhibit consisted of small buildings that the children could crawl into, and where they were able to draw what they see through their “window” on a small square of malleable metal. The exhibit allowed the children to create a representation of their experiences as a patient, with the window serving as a physical porthole and as a way to visualize their hopes and fears. “It allowed them to see outside themselves for a moment,” says Gilmor. “It asked them an open-ended question and invited them to explore.” The metal squares were then attached to the outside of the building structures, allowing visitors to glimpse the world of a terminally ill child. Inside each structure were additional notebooks where visitors could record their own experiences of illness. The exhibit was eventually purchased by the Des Moines Art Center.

Gilmor later had the opportunity to speak to the gentleman. As she explained the meaning to him, she sensed him understand its purpose. “It really opened his eyes,” she says. “People are so afraid of what they don’t understand. I’ve always thought it’s a good policy to investigate.”

jane-art2Art for the voiceless

Giving a voice to traditionally voiceless demographics has always been a strong element of Gilmor’s work. She is passionate about empowering people who are powerless — especially children and the homeless.

In collaboration with the Catherine McAuley Center and the YWCA’s Madge Phillips Center, Gilmor created installations and workshops tailored to benefit those individuals walking in off the street — rather than the typical museum audiences and gallery visitors. “I requested the exhibit be free for the people staying at the shelters,” she says. “Museum visitors could come right across the street to the YWCA and experience another part of the exhibit in a non-traditional venue — visible to everyone.”

The exhibit consisted of notes and writings from the homeless, which Gilmor gathered from workshops held in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Visitors could read reflections on what “home” means to those who are homeless.

“Jane reaches out to a variety of demographics in her work to make art something that is accessible to everyone,” says Meghan Bean ’08, who took classes with Gilmor. “She always taught us that art should not only be available to museum- and gallery-goers, but for public consumption to inspire creative thinking.”

Engaging community members to explore new perspectives is important to Gilmor. “It’s about going beyond investigating your own connections and images to giving others a voice,” she says. “Community based art projects can help give a voice to the disenfranchised and marginalized.”

“Jane’s interest in including the community in her work demonstrates the power of visual art,” says Bean. “Occasionally people think of artists as individual geniuses working in an isolated studio disconnected from their audience. Jane’s work contrasts this idea by engaging with her audience and opening up a dialogue within the community to address social issues.”

Exploring the art-science connection

The duality of Gilmor’s roles as professional artist and faculty member illustrate a common characteristic of her work — the existence of layers. Her knack of uncovering layers can be traced back to an early academic interest: science.

“The investigative nature in science is similar to the arts,” says Gilmor. “I’ve always had an interest in natural things, in human things; in seeing what things look like and how they work.” It’s a marriage that people might separate in their minds, but Gilmor views the juxtaposition as natural. “Investigation in the natural sciences can be similar to the artistic process; you are looking for new visual and intellectual questions and connections that expand and bring meaning to our lives, sometimes in the smallest of ways.”

As an undergraduate at Iowa State University, Gilmor majored in medical technology before changing to textile design, receiving her Bachelor of Science degree in 1969. She studied at The School of Art Institute of Chicago, and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree and a Master of Arts degree from The University of Iowa School of Art. Since then she has continued her artmaking while living in New York, Italy, London, and Lisbon during sabbaticals or summer breaks.

jane-artMore telling of Gilmor’s artistic prowess are the ideals she infuses in her students; a “no boundaries” attitude which enables students to exceed their own expectations.

“When students arrive here they often don’t see themselves as going to New York and turning into great artists or designers,” says Gilmor. “But they do.” Gilmor credits the close connections with faculty as the reason students thrive in an artistic environment, and later succeed in whatever field they pursue.

“She does a good job of pushing her students to go farther,” says Cody Schmitz ’10, a graphic design major from Central City, Iowa. “I think the most important thing she’s taught me as an artist is that I can always push things farther and that my work is rarely ever done.”

As a current graduate student at Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts Washington University in St. Louis, Bean recognizes that Gilmor’s tutelage has fostered in her an ability to excel. “When brainstorming ideas for projects, Jane would encourage us to imagine that there weren’t any restrictions,” says Bean. “This always gave us a sense of freedom and Jane
would say, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ I have her to thank for giving me the confidence to advance myself in a career field that I am incredibly passionate about.”

“Everyone’s an artist,” Gilmor says. “Everyone is born creative, but education in the arts will take you to a level that is beyond the average person.” Gilmor notes that Mount Mercy students can take advantage of the strength of the art program while also reaping the benefits of the small class sizes — a combination that does not exist at other colleges. “We have a strong gallery, theatre, and music program at Mount Mercy,” says Gilmor. “There are a lot of public projects, we are constantly doing things in the community, and our faculty present their work all over the country — that’s important to a small school.”

But it’s student feedback that really impacts Gilmor. “There are cumulative effects here you don’t see until later,” she says. “It’s most gratifying when they come back and say, ‘I wouldn’t be where I am if not for you and Mount Mercy’s Art Program.’”

As she looks back on her career and ponders the future, Gilmor is confident that she will have new avenues to explore and new questions to raise. “I don’t answer my own questions very often,” she says, “or I wouldn’t have anything to do.” She will continue to create pieces that require people to search for an explanation. “There will always be people who aren’t interested in that search,” she says. “If everyone loved my work I’d be worried.”


Retrospective of a successful career

Gilmor recently completed her latest exhibit, The Architecture of Migration: I’ll be back for the cat, which premiered at the Humanities Gallery at Long Island University (LIU) in Brooklyn, New York. The exhibit was a unique display of wearable, readable containers that invited members of the LIU and Mount Mercy communities to connect through sharing and describing a remembered place. Contributions to the exhibit can be viewed by visiting

Other recent exhibits include Blind, a one-person exhibit at A.I.R Gallery in New York’s Chelsea art district in 2005, and A Semester at Sea, displayed at Maharishi International University, in Fairfield, Iowa. Gilmor’s work has been exhibited throughout the country and the world, including exhibits in Portugal, Washington, D.C., France, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Mexico, and Chicago. Gilmor has been awarded residency fellowships in Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and the United Kingdom. Two films have been made regarding her work, one by Iowa Public Television in 2007, the other by the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis in 1996.

Gilmor is the recipient of a 2004 Fulbright Senior Scholar/ Research Fellowship at Evora University in Portugal. Other notable grants and fellowships include two National Endowment for the Arts Artist’s Fellowship grants, a Banff International Center Artist Residency Fellowship from Banff, Canada in 2000, and a McKnight Foundation/Intermedia Arts Interdisciplinary Fellowship in 1997.

Gilmor’s work is a celebration of the art of raising questions — questions seeking answers best sought by listening to another person’s perspective and learning their story. Her wearable artwork lends itself perfectly to the art of “seeing” the outside world through someone else’s eyes.