A Glimpse of Nepal at New Art Gallery

Jane Lillian Vance explains one of her works.

by Gene Marrano

An impressive throng of art aficionados was on hand for the recent opening of downtown Roanoke’s newest art gallery. Blacksburg resident and Virginia Tech art instructor Jane Lillian Vance made her debut at 309 First Street during the monthly Art By Night series. Visitors included U.S. Congressman Bob Goodlatte and downtown redeveloper Ed Walker.

Vance, who calls herself a Buddhist, showed off many of the “lineage” paintings she has done in the Tibetan style, narrative works full of detail that tell a story. In fact her journey to deliver one of these paintings to a village in Nepal – so large they had to remove the door of an airplane to fit it in – was the subject of a documentary co-produced by former Blue Ridge Public Television education director Tom Landon.

Landon, who now teaches for the Virginia Department of Education, had originally pitched the project to Blue Ridge Public Television (BRPTV) but decided to strike out on his own in 2007 with co-producer Jenna Swan and make the film “A Gift for the Village,” which has played at several festivals and may wind up on television in the near future.

Swan and Landon had produced another film for BRPTV, Into Nepal: Journey through the Katmandu Valley. “That was where [the Vance film] idea came from,” noted Landon, who was introduced to Vance then, about four years before the crew followed the artist to Nepal and came away with A Gift for the Village.

There is a connection to the Dalai Lama as well; the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader now living in India, hoping that his country is freed from Chinese rule. Vance, who has encountered the Dalai Lama on a number of occasions, would seek his permission before she did a painting in the Tibetan style.

“She knew that no westerner or woman had done it before. She knew that she needed to make sure it was okay. So she wrote to the Dalai Lama,” said Landon. A letter back from the Dalai Lama granting permission “opened so many doors,” for the film team when they were in Nepal – especially when trying to transport the giant 8’ by 12’ painting, done in the Thangka style.

“It’s created to tell a story,” explains Landon, about “an important person or event in their culture.” That person was a Buddhist healer Vance has known for more than 20 years; he had achieved a status worthy enough for her Thangka style, lineage painting. A National Geographic photographer recommended him to Vance years ago. He has since visited the states to teach at Virginia Tech and is an equestrian veterinarian. Landon and Swann’s film premiered in Katmandu and has its U.S. debut at the Taubman Museum. It was shown at the American Embassy in Nepal as well.

Landon has been a producer for a long time but said he had never done anything on this scale. “To have such a great story that had to be told well. We were there to see the impact of the arrival of this painting on that village. To try and translate that to people here was a big responsibility. It was really important that it come out right.”

Vance said the film helped inspire her to open a gallery; she had “stacks” of paintings in her home that had rarely if ever been seen. “For thirty years I’ve traveled in South Asia, and I’ve studied hard,” said Vance, a North Carolina native who “appreciates the appreciation” South Asians have for teachers and their reverence for tradition in general. “Tradition is a form of consolation and reassurance [there].”

She sought out the Dalai Lama in India, brought her children to hear him speak and eventually told him about the lineage painting project. “I knew that I was on that fragile border between tradition and innovation [and asked] him if it would be okay. He said yes, please do it.”  Vance teaches a course called the Creative Process through the department of religion and culture at Virginia Tech, what she terms “a plum of a small course.”

Vance said she “falls in love with an idea,” before she starts on her very detailed, complex paintings, and goes from there. The paintings in her house, some decades old, are finally seeing the light of day at a gallery space owned and made affordable by landlord Dave Trinkle. “It never occurred to me that circumstances would conspire to get the paintings out of my living room. It feels really good to see them on the walls.” She called the gallery opening “an incredible night. I’ve been so fortunate.”

Tom Landon has visited Vance’s home for many years in Blacksburg and often urged her to show off her works locally (she has exhibited in New York and elsewhere). “To be able to get it out of her house and put it on walls where people can stand in front of one of these paintings…to me it means a lot that she be recognized in her own region. A lot of the local artists and art [fans] in the region don’t really know who she is.”

The Jane Lillian Vance gallery at 309 First Street will be open on request and during events like the monthly Art By Night series. Contact stephaniekoehler@cox.net or call 540.204.6708 for details about visiting. Information about the movie can be found at agiftforthevillage.com.