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Art in His DNA

Local artist and UNLV alumnus Troy Gillett created an inspiring art piece to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.

People  |  Sep 13, 2011  |  By Cate Weeks

In bits of red and white and blue, the twin towers spiral up three stories at the entrance of the Lied Library. The installation is easily recognizable as a strand of DNA. Each layer along the double helix's backbone is built from a precisely folded T-shirt.

Ten years ago, in the months following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, those shirts were left by the thousands under the faux skyline of the New York-New York Hotel Casino. Fireman, police officers, and military veterans from around the world visited Las Vegas for various reasons. They scrawled messages of sympathy and remembrance alongside their departmental insignias. When the impromptu shrine began to overwhelm the resort's entrance, officials asked the library special collections department to catalog and preserve the mementos.

Bringing them out from the archives now is Troy Gillett. With the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, UNLV Libraries dean Patricia Iannuzzi wanted to bring attention to the unique archive through art, and mentioned it to Gillett. Inspired, he immediately put together a proposal and won the commission.

Gillett envisions the people represented by each shirt, those lost when planes smashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Building. And he was moved by the individual act behind each token left behind. It was at once an intensely personal but communal act.

"One of the things we human beings have in common is our instinctive coming together in times of tragedy," Gillett said of his piece, titled "Common Threads." "No one needs to be leading the way. We seem to connect with one another on a level that is beyond our conscious thought. We reach out to the dead, and find comfort in sharing the experience with another human being. It is this quality that ties us together."

Rediscovering Art

Just two years ago, Gillett could not have envisioned himself landing such a commission and working alongside three student artists to install the massive piece. Two years ago, Gillett was a business owner. Art had long ago fallen by the wayside.

The Gillett family had been in construction for generations, and Troy spent summers working for his father's company in Calgary, Alberta. As he finished high school, a downturn in the Canadian building industry led to the company folding. "I resisted construction at first because of that."

The family relocated to Nevada and Gillett soon enrolled in UNLV. Talented at drawing, he discovered printmaking here. The process of creating a print was so fascinating to him that the actual piece became almost secondary. But when he graduated in 1994, he had little confidence in himself as an artist. "I was just plain lost," he said. And Las Vegas was entering its big construction boom.

With few opportunities for printmakers, he took a job as a carpenter with J.A. Tiberti. He discovered that construction offered him some of the same sense of fulfillment that art had. Like printmaking, carpentry immersed him in the process of creating something. He met his wife through work and later launched Gillett Construction in 2003 along with brother Darren, another Tiberti employee. Their projects include Simon restaurant at Palms Place, multiple projects at Southpoint Hotel Casino, and the Titanic exhibit at the Luxor.

Then the economy and Las Vegas's construction industry took a dive. Gillett Construction has continued to win projects, but not at the same clip that it had before the recession. Troy found himself with time and a growing desire to do something meaningful with it.

A random conversation with a family friend, a professor in Colorado, inspired him. "Maybe this is obvious to everyone else," Gillett said, "but he explained that the most economically vibrant, successful cities also have good higher education facilities backing them up. He helped me understand that without a successful university, our town would suffer."

He gave UNLV a call: What can I do?

Encouraging Young Artists

The UNLV Alumni Association had just reorganized its membership programs to place more emphasis on the relationships graduates formed through their majors. Association chapters, based around a college or major, give members more opportunities to network with like-minded graduates, stay in touch with old professors, and volunteer in the classroom and at events.

Gillett remembered that feeling he had as a young artist. He'd lost touch with his own art and wanted to encourage today's young artists to stick with it. He became a member of the College of Fine Arts advisory board, and soon fellow members encouraged him to start creating again himself. What could it hurt?

Within months, Gillett's art literally burst out, from the drawing and prints he made in college to three-dimensional sculptures. "Being a contractor, building and assembling things is not new to me. I think that's why I've gravitated to sculptural art."

By January 2010, he set the goal of completing one piece a month. He also enrolled in professor Emily Kennerk's sculpture class. "She gave me the best piece of advice: to trust my gut," he said. "I would get these ideas and after a period of time, start second-guessing or really revising. I had to trust that the initial idea was strong."

On his art website, he describes himself as a "low-brow conceptual artist and builder of things." And his work shows a fondness for puns and slightly deviant sense of humor. One piece features a red Radio Flyer-style wagon. The wheels are cut down so it looks like it's sinking into the ground, perhaps stuck in the mud. Lying beside it is a taxidermied terrier named Paul. The piece is called "Paul's Wagon." Get it? Paul literally is dead (and was abandoned by his owner at the taxidermist). His wag is gone.

Then there's "Hard Pill," an oversized wooden Viagra pill, and "Soft Light," a 4-foot, foam and upholstered compact fluorescent light bulb. "My wife rolls her eyes at the titles."

With other pieces, you can see strands of his construction industry background. The "Americana Povera" series transforms a wooden pallet and overlapping paint sample cards into a striking wall sculpture of a tree.

The Libraries' Sept. 11 piece took a scissor lift and about 100 hours for Gillett and the three art students to install. He is proud that the Libraries' commission provided summer funding to the students -- Marlene Sui, Kurt Chang, and Javier Sanchez. Along with physically helping Gillett bring his vision for the sculpture into reality, the students worked with library archivists to choose items from the collection to display in cases throughout the library.

"I volunteered with the (College of Fine Arts) specifically because I wanted to help students," he said. "It's been a pretty gratifying experience. I really didn't expect that volunteering would help me (in turn) like this."

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