Jane Iten, whose funeral will be Friday, was a friendly hometown girl who had a second life as a nationally renowned artist.
Iten was found dead Thursday evening by her daughter. Her funeral will be at 2 p.m. at Norris Funeral Services, both in person and livestreamed on Facebook.
Robin Iten Porter, who lives in Pittsboro, N.C., said neither she nor her mother’s best friend, Judy Thurston, got any responses from her mother on Thursday, so she drove to Ridgeway to see her.
“She was sitting up reclined on her couch,” Porter said. “She had the quilt that Karen [Despot] had made of my dad’s old shirts tucked around her, sitting up, very peaceful.”
Her mother had not been feeling well lately, she said, with “some upper respiratory” problems and a slight fever of 99.4.
“Of course we immediately thought of COVID,” she said, so last Tuesday she took her mother to get tested for it. Friday – two days after the test and the day after she died -- the test results came back negative.
Porter said her sister-in-law, a registered nurse, and another medical professional told her that, based on the pressure on the chest and the fatigue, plus the fact that she had high blood pressure, her mother probably had been suffering from the aftereffects of a heart attack.
Iten’s first life
It was fitting that her mother was wrapped in her father’s shirts when she died, Porter said, because “They were soul mates.”
Jane and Joseph Iten owned and operated Iten Equipment Company, which provided equipment to the furniture industry. They ran the office in their house and had a warehouse in Axton.
In addition to their daughter, the couple had a son, James Joseph Iten, of Clemmons, S.C., and two grandchildren, Ellyn Iten and Benjamin Porter. Porter said that when her father died six years ago, her mother never quite got over her loss.
Meanwhile, said Porter, her mother and Thurston developed a friendship her mother used to describe as “sisters from another mother.”
Iten and Thurston would visit each other every summer, and once a week they would talk on the phone.
“We just really clicked,” Thurston said. “We both love art, and we just loved one another and our families. … We just shared so much time together.”
Iten doted so much on her grandchildren that they called their stays with her “Nana Camp,” Thurston said. While they were visited, she devoted all her time to them.
“She was the most warm and caring friend and generous to a fault,” Thurston said, her voice cracking. “I am just going to miss her so much and am just grateful I had her in my life.”
Reborn as an artist
Once Porter and her brother left home, their mother “just sort of blossomed after she had the empty nest,” Porter said. “It was like right after we got out of her hair,” she made the transition to full-time artist.
Just two credits short of graduation, Iten had dropped out of college to marry, Porter said. After the kids left home, Porter took classes at Averett University. “Mom and I actually graduated the same year,” 1996, Porter said. Iten then went on to get her master’s degree in with a concentration in studio art from Hollins University.
Her mother always had valued art, she said, but “once she got her freedom, she started taking those painting trips,” studied under various masters and eventually taught both kids and adults in Martinsville.
One group of her long-term watercolor students at Piedmont Arts had the nickname “The Water Ladies:" Doris Falls, Susan Sapp, Susan Moore, Jessie Ward, Becky Kolinski and Annelle Williams.
"Our beginner class was large," Williams wrote by email. "As time wore on we begged for more and more classes, and the numbers tapered down to the real die-hards. ... She shared all her knowledge and helped each one of us find our own way with paint and paper."
Thurston said she and Item met during an art workshop at the upstate New York home of artists the late Sondra Freckelton and Jack Beal.
“Jane was so talented, and she had such a work ethic, that her work just kept getting better and better every year,” she said.
The two friends took many classes and workshops together, including in Italy, and they studied under and visited Freckelton and Beal. Thurston said Iten “did a painting trip to England as well,” and regularly “studied a lot with artists on Whidbey Island off Seattle.
Iten was a member of the Virginia Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society, which have rigorous invitation and acceptance requirements; Lynwood Artists in Martinsville; and several other arts organizations.
Piedmont Arts Director of Exhibitions Heidi Pinkston wrote in an email, “Always eager to help, Jane led classes at the museum, took part in yoga in the galleries, helped install exhibits and was an active member of Lynwood Artists and a true champion for local and regional artists.
“Her kindness and strength showed through in all she did. It showed through in the quality and loving nature of her artwork, which will endure in our galleries, our hearts and our memories of Jane for many years to come.”
Iten’s paintings have been selected to be displayed in exhibits on levels ranging from national to local, including National Watercolor Society and Piedmont Arts, and she has had solo exhibitions including at Piedmont Arts and Eden (N.C.) City Hall.
Her many awards include several from Piedmont Arts’ Expressions exhibits and Virginia Watercolor Society Shenandoah Watercolor Award, and her paintings have been purchased for collections of various businesses and individuals.
“She had so many friends just all over the country,” her daughter said. She was a small-town girl, but she was really nationally known and really for her work and very humble about it.”
Continuing her mother’s love for art and for Piedmont Arts, Porter said, the family suggests Piedmont Arts as the recipient of any gifts in her memory.
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.
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