Still Here

Still Here: Sheryl Gillilan

With our “Still Here” series, we are checking in with members of Utah’s art community to see what the past several months have meant for them. Sheryl Gillilan is an award-winning quilt artist who has lived in Salt Lake City most of her life, with the exception of 10 years when she lived in Ireland, the Philippines, Oregon, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. She is the executive director of the Holladay Arts Council and the former director of Art Access. She shares her home with her daughter, dog, cat, four pet rats (the Ratty Boys), and lots of fabric.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions because I always break them within weeks, if not days. I made two of them for 2020, however, maybe because the start of a new decade with double 2s called for committed action. Given my track record, the first resolution had a deliberately low threshold for success: Make my own granola—which I am happy to say I’ve done all year and enjoyed immensely with my morning fruit and yogurt.

The second resolution was robustly ambitious, and as it turned out, prescient: Embrace cognitive dissonance, i.e., hold two paradoxical ideas in my head at the same time and not sacrifice the truth of either one. I’ve since learned this is a good strategy for coping with ambiguous loss, which has proven to be the overarching theme of 2020: I am fortunate to still have two parents, and it’s challenging to be a caretaker again; I hate Zoom, and I love Zoom; I’m an introvert, and I miss in-person contact with good friends; I love my job, and it’s a struggle to work within Covid regulations to bring art to the community safely; I was excited to be part of a 3-person art quilt exhibit, and it was postponed until next year. And most of all – I thrive when I’m in control, and the illusion of control has utterly vanished.

The resulting anxiety chased me back to my sewing room in May to reclaim my creativity after the production of 250 face masks. But nada. Zip. Nothing. No creativity. What?! After many failed attempts I gave up, pulled out some fabric I’d bought in Amsterdam years ago, and decided to make a log cabin bed quilt. The quilt required little thinking or planning, and I eventually discovered that the whirring of my sewing machine and the repetitive movements of cutting, sewing, trimming, pressing, were enough to calm my mind and give me a concrete goal to strive for over time. And thus was born the Apocalypse Quilt – the end of one thing and the beginning of something new.

Apocalypse Quilt

The Apocalypse Quilt catapulted my creative brain back into action and suddenly I was a quilter on steroids.  A friend and I hatched an idea for a new exhibit of art quilts based on the juxtaposition of opposite elements (!), and ideas streamed into my head. I’d be cutting fabric for one quilt and thinking of another one at the same time, and my design wall filled up with art quilts in progress.

The anxiety I couldn’t dissipate with creativity sent me in search of “podcasts as therapists,” and I highly recommend What’s Essential with Greg McKeown, The Happiness Lab with Laurie Santos, Sugar Calling with Cheryl Strayed, and Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Books I’ve found insightful are The Happiness Trap, by Russ Harris; The Socrates Express, by Eric Weiner; and Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande.

All said, I’m still working on that second New Year’s resolution and plan to keep it going into 2021, but I think I’ll opt for a really easy one as well. I’m planning to re-read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness . . . “

Still here!

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2 replies »

  1. Stunning quilt; quite the message. Copied your podcast and book suggestions. Glad your loss seems artistic and not family or friend, though I am assuming there. Though each is to the soul. Very glad you are Still Here!

  2. Sheryl—you are an absolute delight, as ever. I discovered Quilt fifty years ago and have been a serene fan of all things textile ever since. I love the way the forms in Apocalypse Q disintegrate, only to reappear along the path. I may have to quit staring at it if I can’t quit seeking out, like a tongue to a broken tooth, that hanging chad in the corner (which corner? Who am I to spoil someone’s pleasure in looking?) You haven’t stinted to write a quilt pattern into your essay, either: what begins with several paradoxical ideas in the same thoughts (or as I call them, sentences) travels around a great circle and ends with Dickens and the French Revolution. Best and worst of times, indeed. Creativity is the only answer to Destruction.

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