Imagining an Icon: professor Sanda Iliescu and her "Painting and Public Art" course create their own interpretation of the iconic American flag

University of Virginia art and architecture professor Sanda Iliescu still keeps the small American flag that her mother waved when welcoming President Richard Nixon to Romania in 1969.

It was the first time an American president had visited the Communist country, and for Iliescu’s mother – a Romanian dissident – Nixon’s visit was a powerful reminder of the freedom she dreamed of. A few years later, Sanda Iliescu, then 17, and her family fled Romania to chase their own version of the American dream in the United States.

Now, more than 40 years later, that same small American flag sits on a table in Campbell Hall, carefully protected in a Ziploc bag as Iliescu and her students work on creating their own larger version. 

Each year, her “Painting and Public Art” course hosts a public art project as part of their final exam. This year, the class wanted members of the public to come together to paint a new interpretation of a shared icon: the American flag.

“Because of so many national political events, and because of the tragic events here in Charlottesville, we thought this might be a good time to meditate or think about what the United States means and what our country means to us,” Iliescu said, referring to last summer’s white supremacist demonstrations. “That is why we chose the American flag.”

For 10 days, they transformed a corner of Campbell Hall into a temporary art studio, brushes and paint at the ready for anyone who wanted to pick them up.

The project, called “The American Flag: A Study in Gray,” was originally intended to include mostly gray hues, a neutral color that Iliescu said can reflect a range of emotion. However, the end product was much more colorful.

“That is what is nice about public art. It is out of my hands; I get to let it be what it becomes,” Iliescu said. “I let people choose where and what they want to paint. Some chose to write; some chose to create patterns.”

Graduate student Lemara Miftakhova said she appreciated the chance to take a step back and think about what the flag means to her and to others.

“It’s interesting to see the result, to see people’s thoughts and feelings in the painting,” she said. “It explains so much without having to say much.”

Miftakhova, who moved to the United States from Russia a few years ago, also appreciated the feeling of community that came from creating something together.

“I really enjoyed imagining such a big community participating in this one piece, with me as a part of it,” she said.

In addition to painting, Iliescu also asked participants to write a brief response sharing their feelings about the flag. The anonymous public responses reflect a ... range of positive and negative reactions, encompassing emotions like pride and thankfulness alongside serious concerns about social and political problems.