The theme — “National Identity” — had the ring of a paean to Americana, a stirring show of patriotism for the month in which we celebrate independence.

That’s how Jennifer Perry, director of exhibitions at the Center for Visual Arts Bonita Springs, recalls setting the theme of the exhibition opening Friday, July 9.

But her decision was before the COVID-19 pandemic burst through its initial three-month projections to gulp down nearly a year of business, set neighbors against each other and turned the economy into a thorn bush.

Then the presidential election of 2020 detonated, with denials, charges, endless recounts.

Then came Jan. 6 — the storming of the U.S. Capitol that left five people dead and 140 injured. 

“Obviously, I could have no idea what meaning it would be taking on,” Perry conceded of her theme. But she intentionally had couched it “in very loose terms. I like to celebrate the positive but want to give artists room for their own interpretation of it.”

The pandemic filters into art

The depth of experiences thrust upon America in the last year, painful as they have been, enriched this show substantially, she said.

“It’s a very meaningful exhibition for very many reasons.”

Two works stimulated by the pandemic come to mind immediately for her. The first is  local artist Rose Jung’s work detailing her emotions, as a woman of Asian heritage, when elected officials began calling COVID-19 “Kung Flu.” Its layered pieces articulate feelings such as fear and shame being thrust upon her.

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The other is Mark Giersch’s outsize pandemic mask, created of remnants from facemasks Giersch cut himself to sew for health care workers. Perry observed casually to him that a wall piece of those mask scraps would be a wonderful addition to the “National Identity” exhibition, Giersch recalled.

He agreed. And started sewing.

“It came out to be 72 by 54 inches. I had a lot of remnants,” he said, still slightly surprised. Quilting friends helped him create the shape and fasteners for what emerged as a 72-by-48-inch super-mask. Giersch then added photos, transferred to canvas, of the two latest American vice presidents, without and with masks respectively, as well as several American flag symbols. 

“I wanted to provoke a conversation. I wanted people to really think about: When you wear the mask, what does it mean to you, psychologically as well as politically? Do you see yourself as a part of America protecting others, or if you refuse to wear it, do you see yourself as an American who is fighting for his freedom?”

He doesn’t expect a resolution of the two perspectives.

“But I want there to be discussions about what people think and why they think what they think so they can listen to the other party without all this ‘venomacy’ and polarization.”

The power of the uniform plays large

Several of Giersch’s works are actually in the Center for his own micro-exhibition in the Tranovich Gallery. Those works focus on his father, a World War II veteran whose poignant letters home were found after his death. Susan Bridges, executive director for the center, suggested to Giersch that he somehow incorporate them in his art, and he has.

Artifacts such as his father’s induction notice, a commendation letter from the Secretary of State and one of his particularly difficult letters have been photocopied onto canvas and sewn in among snippets of tattered World War II uniforms and other war historical fabrics bought online. Photocopies of the letters and several pieces of GI uniforms such as helmets are also in the gallery to reinforce its theme.

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Another of his wall hangings is in “National Identity.” It is evocative in a different way, joining strips from business suits to depict American modern history from within its power structure. The suits are business wear from the 1940s to 2010, with the bar substantially raised when World War II ended.

“After 1949, when the government released its rationing on fabrics, all sorts of designs and styles were developed, with rayon, Spandex, polyester, sateen, silks,” Giersch said of his research.

“So from the Fifties, there was an explosion of decoration and colors,” he continued. “And in the Sixties there was this profound movement toward hippie fashions and casual fashions.” Nehru jackets, anyone? 

Seventies meant leisure suits; Don Johnson of “Miami Vice” set the ’80s suit trends, as did the internationally idolized TV series, “Dynasty,” which held sway into the ’90s. The suit wall hangings could be their own conversation magnets, he said.

“Those suits … were designed to grab attention and hold it,” he said. They were both a symbol of power and an avatar for the American economy. 

Themes-in-theme stimulate the show

In “National Identity,” there are many more perspectives. Perry pointed out Gilberto Sanchez’s memorial for 9/11 and several works that just took in the beauty of the day’s fireworks.

Jack O’Brien, former curator for Naples Art, was the judge for this exhibition, and he observed that it unfolded into three distinct directions: the joy of the celebration, contemplation and identity. “And that could be symbols of our own identity, too,” he said. 

“There are so many things here,” he said of the works’ individuality.

One of his surprises was a bald eagle wheeling in the sky in a light-hearted way.

“We always see it on coins and statues as a symbol of power,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see it depicted differently.”

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/ Reach her at 239-213-6091.

‘National Identity’ 

What: Exhibitions in both the main and Tranovich galleries through July

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, July 9 to July 29

Where: Center for the Visual Arts, 26100 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs

Admission: Free

Information: or 239-495-8989

Something else: A gift shop includes some locally made items

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/ Reach her at 239-213-6091.

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