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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

180+ alums show the depth, breadth and longevity of ISU's School of Art at University Galleries

A white-walled gallery with windows out to a bright, snowy street. The wall has a teal and purple graphic reading 2024 Alumni Spectacular
University Galleries
University Galleries hosts its first open-call, large scale alumni exhibition since 2015. The 2024 Alumni Spectacular is on view through Feb. 20.

The University Galleries of Illinois State University celebrates its 50th anniversary this year; as part of the celebrations, the Alumni Spectacular returns for the first time in nearly a decade. More than 180 artists who, at one time, crossed paths with the gallery as a student at ISU, have works on display in the Uptown Normal gallery as part of the free exhibition running through Feb. 20.

Mixed media artist and Twin City gallery owner Jan Brandt is one of those alumni, but hers was a nontraditional path. Brandt graduated from Bloomington High School in 1975 and went straight to ISU intending to study art.

“Some people think art school is easy,” Brandt said. “It’s really hard.”

Brandt changed majors to environmental design, paid her way through school and worked in interior design for 25 years. During that time, she contributed artworks to shows and fundraisers around town. She recalled one Easter Seals benefit when her piece was placed beside one by Normal-based, internationally renowned artist Nicolas Africano.

“His wife at the time, I told her I hadn’t finished art school and I didn’t know if I belonged there,” said Brandt. “She said, ‘I can tell you have an artistic temperament. Keep at it.’”

A woman wearing a colorful sweater holding a whimsical sculpture made of felt flowers sits in a radio studio and smiles at the camera.
Lauren Warnecke
Jan Brandt's whimsical fiber sculptures are inspired by her childhood growing up with a mother and grandmother who were always making things. Brandt returned to ISU to finish her art degree after a 25 year career in interior design. She owns Jan Brandt Gallery in Normal.

It was those words of encouragement and a small inheritance from her father that brought Brandt to ISU for a second time. She completed her bachelor's of fine art degree in 2011. And as an artist in the Alumni Spectacular, she finds her work sitting near Africano’s again.

Her work is in the same exhibition as Africano, a 1971 graduate of Illinois State's School of Art. Brandt also runs a small gallery near Africano's home at the former site of Illinois Soldiers and Sailors Children’s School.

Brandt said attending ISU was “the best thing she ever did,” and she tries to pay it forward as an active alum who features students and fellow graduates in her gallery.

Staying connected

University Galleries Director and Chief Curator Kendra Paitz first met Brandt at ISU. Paitz organized the Alumni Spectacular and has been affiliated with University Galleries for more than two decades.

“University Galleries has been such an instrumental part of my life,” Paitz said. “I think it’s such a special place in the ways that relationships can be nurtured.”

Case in point: One of several companion events is a fiber sculpture workshop with Brandt, who will be part of a hands-on session inspired by her unique relationship to bright colors and textures made largely from up-cycled materials.

Brandt said her aesthetic stems from childhood. Her mother and grandmother made flower sack dresses during the Great Depression. Brandt’s style also is about embracing play.

“My mom would make my Barbie clothes,” she said. “Her hands were always busy. It’s part of my DNA.”

A white gallery wall has paintings and a felt flower sculpture hung at eye level.
University Galleries
Jan Brandt submitted one of her signature sculptures, center, for the 2024 Alumni Spectacular.

For Paitz, it's the connective tissue between visiting artists, alumni and current students that she’s most drawn to —never clearer than unwrapping and staging pieces for the Alumni Spectacular.

Collectively, they demonstrate the sheer talent and diversity of voices who have crossed paths with the Wonsook Kim School of Art and University Galleries. A multiplicity of mediums and styles saturate the gallery’s walls and pedestals, with submissions from graduates as early as 1968, and as late as last year.

“It’s an exciting place to be,” Paitz said. “All of these people you’ve cared about also care about what’s happening here. I think that’s unique for an institution, to be able to have so many sincere, deep relationships and see how they grow over time.”

One of those relationships is with a familiar voice around WGLT. Multihyphenate Morning Edition host Ariele Jones is an alum of the Wonsook Kim School of Art, where she majored in art and specialized in photography.

Jones said she learned to embrace her eclectic arsenal of talents at ISU. She heard about the call for alumni to participate in the Alumni Spectacular, looked through a supply of never-before-seen photographs and submitted one for the exhibition.

“When I left ISU, the ‘real world’ wanted me to pick a lane, stay in that lane and then retire. I tried that for a year or two and I felt like my soul was dying,” she said. “ISU helped me get to know myself, learn about what I’m called to and listen to those callings.”

The Alumni Spectacular continues through Feb. 20 at University Galleries, 11 Uptown Circle, Normal. The gallery is free and open to the public. The fiber sculpture workshop with Jan Brandt is from 12-2 p.m. Feb.17. Registration is required.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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