Building connections to the community through art

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Artist Jillian Webb Herrmann has built connections in northeast Iowa through her paintings and photography. (Submitted photo)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

It was a thousand-mile transition from North Carolina to Clayton County, the place where Jillian Webb Herrmann’s husband, Zach, has roots, as his parents and grandparents were all born and raised here. The adventure brought them, but it was the community that kept them here. It’s a community that has been lauded for its serene ability to welcome the transitioning traveler or the returning native. 

So, it was with no great surprise that Jillian, art enthusiast, photographer, painter and Tar Heel, with a degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found meeting people and gaining the support of the community rather easy. 

It also helps that the mother of a spunky four-year-old daughter has been an active member of the community upon arrival, devoting countless hours as a volunteer with the Art in the Park committee since its inception, as well as other community events. Zach, the Clayton County Attorney and her biggest supporter, serves on several local boards. They’ve put down their own roots and have become intertwined with all things Elkader. 

For Jillian, it’s all a “labor of love,” a passion that is intent on turning northeast Iowa into an art destination, not only for the benefit of the town through tourism, but also for the local artists who keep the community vibrant through their hard work, dedication and passion. 

“It brings me pride and joy seeing the growth of the arts and culture in our area over the past seven years,” Jillian said. 

But where did this journey for Jillian start? “I’ve been an artist my whole life, but it was in college that I decided to make a career out of it, and since 2007, I’ve been a professional artist,” she said. 

As an artist, she describes her style as a form of contemporary abstract expressionistic, and through art, she has a tool for self-expression and a “way to connect with people.” This self-expression takes place in her rural farmhouse studio, where painting allows her to “deal with the spontaneity and chaos of life, the illusion of control and our perception of reality.” 

It is from this chaos that Jillian finds the “harmony and creates the beauty” that hangs in several galleries, including G’s Closet and Gallery in Elkader, The Left Bank Shop and Gallery in McGregor and The Guttenberg Gallery. Her work has also been on display at numerous exhibits and art festivals over the years. 

Beyond the beauty and promotion, art, for Jillian, is also about how it “allows us to speak without words and connect with people across the world, across language barriers and across a variety of other barriers. Art can make you think and feel. Art can inspire and uplift.” 

Jillian’s own inspiration comes from the beautiful mess that is life. “It’s calm and chaotic. There is joy, and there is suffering. It’s hard, it’s easy, it’s emotional…it’s everything all at once,” she said. 

Out of all this, her main goal is to make people feel calm in the middle of the chaos of life because for artists like Jillian, “art is important. It’s a vehicle for escape, for thought. It’s a subconscious and conscious mood lifter.” 

However, it doesn’t end with painting. When Jillian isn’t providing the calm with texture, colors and visible strokes of the brush, she is doing portrait photography. 

While painting allows her to space into the solitude of her studio, it is the photography that takes her outdoors when the weather is cooperative, allowing her to interact with people. Photography is where the human connections are made, through the family, senior or wedding photo sessions that bring “genuine joy, smiles and interaction.” 

She described taking pictures as a dream. “It’s about helping people feel at ease in front of a camera, showing them how gorgeous they are through my lens and becoming friends and watching them grow with their families through the years,” she said. 

It’s all about making those connections, digging those roots and growing branches. There are certainly dozens of places around northeast Iowa to accomplish it as a photographer. Some of Jillian’s favorite places to make the lasting memories and connections are Motor Mill, Backbone State Park and her rural St. Olaf farm. 

But, as with everything in 2020, COVID put a halt to many of the photo sessions and art festivals and gallery openings, so instead, Jillian worked on commissioned pieces and updating her website and online storefront. She completed a new collection of abstract works which was released a few weeks ago. 

The shutdown also brought heartache with the cancelation of Art in the Park, which she said, “was thoroughly thought through” and given all the unknowns, the committee “decided to save resources and plan for a really great 2021 festival.” 

In place of Art in the Park, Jillian mentioned there are plans to host gallery crawls, workshops and other small events over the coming months. She also encourages everyone to continue supporting local artists online. When they thrive, the community thrives in the beauty of their artistry. 

Jillian has faith in the community that welcomed her so many years ago and that has built an art community to rival most American towns. She knows nothing is accomplished in a vacuum, alone, and without support. It takes family, friends, clients and a community that appears to live up to the hype. 

As Jillian said, “I’ve lived in numerous places over the years, and I feel so grateful to have settled down in such a wonderful part of the world. Northeast Iowa is truly a special place, and Elkader wouldn’t feel nearly as picturesque without its amazing community. Thank you for making this such a fantastic place to raise our family.”

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