City creatives: Donna Lee Gallo

City creatives: Donna Lee Gallo
Donna Lee Gallo's "found object" pieces are assemblages of various items Gallo has found around the city or in her travels. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

The saying, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure,” is abundantly clear in local artist Donna Lee Gallo’s work.

Her “found object” art, which has been shown at the Del Ray Artisans’ Gallery, The Art League and Palette 22 in Arlington, brings dignity and beauty to the battered, broken things that have been left by the wayside.

“A lot of the stuff that I use has been cast away by other people and for some reason that draws me to take it in and make it nice and give it a place. It doesn’t matter that they’re not human,” Gallo said.

Although she’s lived in Alexandria and the D.C. area for the past 15 years, Gallo still calls New York City home. She was born and raised in the Bronx, on the Yankees, Al Pacino and the vibrant arts culture of the city that never sleeps.

Growing up, Gallo was surrounded by the arts. Her mother and father encouraged her almost preternatural attraction to creative expression. Music was a constant companion in her house, whether it was coming from the record player or her father’s Saturday night jam sessions with his friends.

Gallo and her father were like “two peas in a pod,” she said. He would wake her up in the middle of the night to show her a movie on T.V. or listen to her favorite albums with her and play along on the guitar.

From an early age, Gallo displayed a fascination with lost and destroyed objects.

“Even when I was very little, I was always very interested in the things that were outside, things that were destructed,” Gallo said. “I don’t know why, but I loved that kind of stuff. I remember being with my dad and walking around somewhere and there was a house that must’ve been on fire or something, and I was so excited.”

Gallo knew she wanted to go into the arts – even though her mother wanted her to pursue something more practical – and ended up getting a one-year scholarship to go to St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, New York. After the year was up, she transferred to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

Gallo used charcoal in most of her early work, and even as she learned new styles and skills, her work resisted a tendency toward realism. Even now, with her found object work, Gallo’s pieces abstract emotions and ideas in a way that prompts the viewer to find meaning.

Gallo has shown her “found object” pieces at the Art League gallery, Torpedo Factory and Del Ray Artisans Gallery. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

“There’s a meaning behind everything I do, but you would never know what it is because it’s not in a realistic look,” Gallo said. “But I never do an art piece just to do it. It’s always something in my mind and it comes out in an artistic way.”

After art school, Gallo worked as a graphic designer and art director at a number of different agencies in New York City. When an art director position opened up at the University of Maryland, Gallo applied and eventually got the position.

“You get tired of doing the same thing, and I love taking classes,” Gallo said. “The University of Maryland was looking for an art director and I said, ‘Maybe the classes are good there.’”

Once she moved to the DMV, Gallo started to more fully explore her “found object” art style.

(Read more: City creatives: Vi Trinh)

Rusted nails pulled from construction sites, driftwood dragged out of the Potomac and pages torn from forgotten, sometimes centuries-old books all become pieces of Gallo’s collage-like works of art.

“At the library, they sell really old books. They’re falling apart and no one can read them,” Gallo said. “I’ll actually buy them and donate to the library so that I can take them apart because I love to use anything old and not have it go to waste. …If I can use them in art, I feel like, to me, I’m passing on that book.”

By rescuing these objects, Gallo constructs memorials to the forgotten and shrines to the battered and broken.

Foliage and flowers, usually dried and flattened in the pages of a book, are a constant presence in Gallo’s work. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

As a student of art history, Gallo said she marvels at art’s ability to bring the past into the present and connect people from across generations and nations through a single physical object.

“It opens up the world to you because all these people who were doing this artwork, depending on how they’re feeling or what they’re living through, in all different countries and peoples that do it, to me, it’s history,” Gallo said. “It’s all history.”

Gallo’s ramshackle, improvisatory process mirrors her work. She starts with little more than an idea or emotion that she hones piece by piece, moment by moment.

While working on a piece, Gallo gives her art her full attention. She said she often loses track of time; she’ll look up from her work and see her once tidy kitchen table strewn with all kinds of detritus that didn’t make the cut.

“I can’t sleep well at night, or if I don’t feel well, that’s what I’ll do,” Gallo said. “I’ll just start and think, ‘Well, I probably won’t be able to do anything.’ Boom. As soon as I start, it just goes.”

Gallo said she becomes focused entirely on the piece at hand while she’s at work. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

Lately, Gallo’s work has changed, but not of her own volition.

On Oct. 26, 2018, doctors at Walter Reed Medical Center informed Gallo that she had a brain tumor.

Since the prognosis, Gallo’s life has been defined by pain. In addition, she’s gone deaf in one ear, and her memory has deteriorated.

Gallo has tried to “tough it out,” she said. She dedicated herself even more to her work and found that the tumor and her feelings surrounding it have impacted her work in unexpected ways.

Gallo’s work is suddenly more urgent, and she’s trying new things, like bright colors.

“Now I’m just doing things that I’ve never done before or that I’ve wanted to do before,” Gallo said. “Now there’s no wait ‘til later. I don’t believe in waiting anymore.”

“I’ve been using a lot of color lately – usually I didn’t use color – because I just felt like, just in case something happens, I want to use all colors that I haven’t used or do things I haven’t done,” Gallo continued.

The mental, emotional and physical experience of going through radiation treatment and reckoning with her own mortality have led to some of Gallo’s most significant critical success.

One of her found object pieces – “Fui, saro, non sono,” or “I was, I will be, I am not” – drew attention at local gallery showings and even earned several awards. It centers a scattered collection of natural objects around an illustration of a head crowned by a rusted chain. The scene is abstract but symbolically clear enough to convey the burden Gallo has felt over the past few years.

Although Gallo’s pieces are often ambiguous enough to allow for different interpretations, “Fui, saro, non sono” was specifically meant to evoke the burden Gallo feels because of her brain tumor and treatment. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

One of Gallo’s more well-known pieces was an installation at the Torpedo Factory, created in collaboration with Pamela Underhill, that featured several healing sticks. Gallo first learned about healing sticks, objects found among various Native American tribes, at an art class in college.

“When somebody died, someone they loved or someone that was a warrior, they would use a branch of a tree,” Gallo said. “And, of course, they would [put] bones or blood on the edge of it, they would hang their clothes or wrap their things and have these things called healing sticks. This way, when they wanted to remember them, they healed themselves by looking at these branches.”

The branches are a symbolic balm in times of grief or pain. Gallo sends them to friends and family when she knows they are going through something difficult.

“Even if some 2-year-old boy got excited because I had branches with stuff on it, how could you not get happy about that?” Gallo said. “… That’s what I think a lot of art should be. Besides teaching you stuff or using environmental stuff, just to make someone happy and smile and not be negative, I just think art’s so important.”

Like the pages of those discarded library books, Gallo’s work will live on and keep her connected to her loved ones and those who matter to her. To Gallo, art isn’t just an outlet for expression; it’s a refuge.

“I just feel alive, just incredible, being around art. Even just walking into a museum, anything, just the hush, to me it feels like I’m in my place,” Gallo said.

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