Art Professional Profile: Salt Lake
When Paths Merge
Sheryl Gillilan melds a life of community activism and artistic pursuits
Most would-be artists face it: the fork in the road, one path leading to the pursuit of artistic passion (and likely financial turmoil and various renunciations), the other to a (not always) less-demanding but certainly more respectable and stable occupation. A very small minority of those that take the first path are lucky enough to stay on it. In the second group, the lucky ones are those, like Sheryl Gillilan, for whom the forked paths eventually merge.
Gillilan is the Assistant Director of Art Access/VSA Utah, the Salt Lake-headquartered non-profit that "provides equal opportunities to inclusive arts programs for Utahns with disabilities and those with limited access to the arts." Stop in the offices/gallery while she's there and you'll quickly learn she has a sharp mind, quick with both an incisive comment and convivial laugh. Her life-long interest in fiber arts is evidenced by one of her hand-made art quilts that hangs on the wall behind her desk. But listen to her discuss her work at Art Access and it is obvious that what she does to serve the underserved in Utah is as much a passion as anything she creates in her home studio.
Gillilan grew up in Salt Lake with her two brothers under the "Leave-It-To-Beaver" gaze of their Midwestern parents. The first experience that opened her eyes to a world where all is not perfect came when she went abroad as a foreign exchange student in her senior year in high school. She went to the Philippines, "back when Ferdinand Marcos was the dictator and military guys walked around freely with machine guns." The Philippines taught her two important things about Americans. "I really figured out that most Americans have relatively cushy lives. Iím eternally grateful that I have food in my fridge, can get hot water on demand, and am able to voice my opinion about our government without fear of deadly retribution. I also figured out that a lot of Americans arenít really as generous as we would like to believe. Filipinos share everything with you, even when they donít have that much themselves."
Gillilan wasn't home from the Philippines long before she left again -- for Lewis and Clark College in Portland. Here she following a long-time passion for art by taking a number of art classes. But she majored in psychology, and her first job after graduation was working for a residential facility for severely emotionally disturbed children. "They were great kids who managed to land at the bottom of the heap because their parents and their lives were so unstable," she says. Compared to her own upbringing it was "shocking to me to see how damaged kids could be at such a young age."
As she pondered graduate school she was torn between following her continuing interest in textiles -- her junior year at Lewis and Clark she spent five months living in Ireland and researching Aran knitting -- and her desire to commit herself to community service. The offer of a scholarship to Bryn Mawr Collegeís School of Social Work and Social Service outside of Philadelphia decided which fork she would take.
In graduate school Gillilan came to realize that community service is also about political activism. She interned with a non-profit and started a task force to deal with elder abuse. She remembers hearing Angela Davis speak on political activism: "She said she was not any different from anyone listening to her in the audience, but that she had chosen to act on her passions and that had set her apart from others. Her example has encouraged me many times to speak up about circumstances I believe can be better and to offer to work on improving them." Because she came to understand that policy plays a critical role in determining the quality of lives of the underserved, Gillilan earned a second masterís degree in law and social policy.
When she returned to Salt Lake her political training was put to good use: she worked for Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis as a budget and policy analyst. "It was a birdís eye position that allowed me to see the inner workings of a city and to witness the schizophrenic actions of citizens who thought they deserved certain services but shouldnít have to pay for them Ė a contradiction I still donít understand." While working with different community groups she became convinced that Margaret Mead was right when she said, ďNever doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.Ē
With three degrees under her belt and plenty of experience in community service Gillilan found herself facing a new fork in the road: family. She put her career on hold for a decade while she raised her children, a time which had the added benefit of allowing her to rediscover her artistic path. "I was somewhat interested in bed quilts, but my eyes really got opened when I saw what other artists were doing with quilts on walls." She began making quilts, exhibiting them, and even winning awards for her work.
In 2004 Gillilan decided to reenter the workforce. A friend had told her that the person doing the finances at Art Access had just left and there was a full-time position available. "I walked in the door to say hello and started working for Art Access a couple of weeks later. Over the last 6 Ĺ years my job has morphed multiple times and Iíve been able to embrace lots of new opportunities." Those opportunities bring her into contact with a variety of Utah artists, working with them to further their skills and put on exhibitions.
Her return to work hasn't dulled her artistic ambitions, and she continues to quilt, working in two south-facing rooms in the upstairs of her home. "One room has piles of fabrics I've collected over the years and the other has my sewing machine, a design wall, and a big cutting table."
Gillilan says it took her a long time to consider herself an artist,
"not because I work with fabric and that's considered 'crafty,' but because I don't have an art degree. It always seemed kind of pretentious to compare myself with classically trained painters or sculptors." She thought degreed artists knew exactly what they were doing, executing their works with little effort. "Now that I've seen behind the curtain, however, I understand that being an artist is about exploring new ideas, pushing a medium to ever expanding limits, and having a deep passion for creation. It's also an incredible amount of hard work."
"A quilt has to live for a long time in my head before it ever gets made," she says. "And then, of course, it takes on a life of its own when it's being created and I'm never quite sure what I'll end up with." For bed quilts she uses a sewing machine, but her art quilts are made "almost" entirely by hand. "The design process and choosing the right fabrics is intense and sometimes frustrating, but the hand stitching is quite Zen-like. My day-to-day life is really fast paced, so sitting down by the fire in my living room and working with just a needle and thread is the perfect antidote."
The fast pace of Gillilan's work load keeps her busy but she's eager to take on even more challenges. Since Art Access Executive Director Ruth Lubbers is planning on retiring this year Gillilan has let the organization's board know that heading the organization is a path she'd like to pursue. "Art Access is really the ideal place for me to work because it melds my community service passion with my art passion. I mean, really, if you had told me years ago that I wouldnít have to choose between my two life-long interests and could pursue them both at the same time, I never would have believed it. How lucky can one person get?"
Exhibitions Review: Salt Lake City
A Harmonious Transformation
Kristin Calabrese and Joshua Aster's Honeymoon
Someone immediately disagreed with my opinion of the Salt Lake Art Center's latest exhibit Honeymoon. A group of us were enjoying a post gallery stroll meal and comparing notes on what we'd viewed during the evening and I said that Honeymoon, Micol Hebron's first show as Senior Curator, is a satisfyingly successful exhibit. One of my dining companions was quick to say that while both artists Kristin Calabrese and Joshua Aster are clearly talented the show felt disjointed because while it is billed as "a harmonious marriage of opposites" there are very few similarities between the couple's work.
This led me to wonder: without the exhibit title and the accompanying brochure would it be readily obvious that this is a show that celebrates two individuals while highlighting their "harmonious" similarities?
It's true there is a stark contrast between the artists' painting styles. Calabrese creates realistic images so true to life that it's easy to imagine pulling wet noodles from the canvas of "Spaghetti."|0| Aster sticks with abstract work in bold, vibrant colors. Despite this major difference there is a common ground where the two artists meet in their work and the boundaries of this territory range from obvious to quite subtle.
One of the more apparent overlaps comes in Calabrese's "Stains" |1| and Aster's "fillintheblank."|2| In both pieces the artists are depicting a tight, clustered, repetitive floral pattern but both have remained true to their own aesthetic. "Stains" features a realistic wallpaper pattern in blues and greens that has been literally transformed into wallpaper at the Art Center. Overlapping the flowers, symbolic drips of paint streak downward, serving as a reminder that a flawed world lies outside the veneer of perfection. Aster's "fillintheblank," with its flowers that sprawl across the canvas in a kaleidoscope of yellow, pink, and orange, is a sunny contrast to his wife's cooler view. They have tackled the same subject matter and painted it from different perspectives.
In some pieces the artists only appear to diverge from each other completely. In her memorable work "Lean" Calabrese depicts a woman leaning uncomfortably against the wall with crossed arms and hunched shoulders.|3| It's as if her subject is restrained by canvas and doesn't want to touch the edges for fear that she might be burned. This theme is continued in the way the painting is displayed. The painting itself leans against the wall, jutting out into the room the way its subject would if she were there. The painting sits awkwardly below eye level so the viewer is looking down on the vulnerable subject; if she weren't so terrified she might run.
Meanwhile Aster's painting "lightleaks" is an energetic layering of red and purple with broad electric strokes of yellow and blue that fan out from a central point at the bottom of the painting.|4| It's such an explosive piece it's surprising that some of the vibrant patterns don't ignite and fill the room. Both artists have created pictures that are begging to leave the canvas, but for very different reasons. This similarity and others like it aren't readily apparent until you've spent some time looking at the exhibit. The paintings reward patient observers with surprises, like hand-written messages buried in "Stains."
Between the obvious similarities and the subtle ones this exhibit could convey its message without the title and the accompanying brochure. With these interpretive materials that provide context for the show, however, viewing Honeymoon does become a richer experience. The understanding that the artists are a recently married couple adds an additional layer because it seems natural for newlyweds to be expressing themselves as individuals while learning to find a common ground. This kind of dialogue ultimately becomes the hallmark of a successful relationship; each person maintains an individual voice at the same time that a meaningful conversation is taking place. In Honeymoon the viewer becomes a witness to this intimate "harmonious" transformation.