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Globetrotting artist Dorothy Gillespie
is the ultimate adventurer
By Jeanne Johnson (1997)
Radford University Magazine, Issue May 1997, New York 1997

Dorothy Gillespie believes artists are the ultimate adventurers and she practices what she preaches. Just recently, at age 76, the Roanoke native returned from her third trip to Egypt and her second Kenyan safari, where she arose early every morning to quietly camp out and watch elephants, zebras and cheetahs in their natural habitat. Oh, and by the way, she's also sailed the Indian Ocean.

These all sound like great photo opportunities but Gillespie never takes a camera. "I've learned from experience that if I have a camera, I'm too distracted by trying to capture an image," she says. "I'd rather absorb what I see. There's something so wonderful about the movement."

It makes sense that Gillespie would be frustrated by the two-dimensional, static nature of photography. Her striking, usually large abstract art works are often constructed out of curled ribbons of color-charged aluminum that draw viewers into explosive moments of transition, dynamically frozen in time.

Though her sculptures and paintings are stationary, they seem to possess an inherent kinetic quality. It's almost as if, like the toys in the film "Toy Story," they come alive when humans aren't looking.

Recently named Distinguished Professor of Art at RU, Gillespie possesses the refinement and sophistication of a woman who has seen and done much. Yet she's refreshingly unpretentious, with a true artist's love for the simple joys of movement, color and form.

"Her work is upbeat and lively," says art department chair Art Jones. "There's a spirited quality to her work which reflects her kind and optimistic nature."

The open, exuberant spirit reflected in her sculptures and paintings is also evident in her jewelry. Her enameled jewelry pieces, produced in RU's jewelry laboratory, are colorful, compact and vibrant. They're also multi-purpose: the pieces can either be worn or daintily displayed as small sculptures.

As Distinguished Professor, Gillespie conducts seminars and offers advice on the passion and business of art. She'll also regularly work alongside students, producing art and organizing events and projects.

Jones says that Gillespie has continually been an "important player" in New York's professional art world, particularly as an organizer of women's activities during the onset of the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early '70s. Jones feels that Gillespie's up-close-and-personal perspective adds richness and reality to recent art history, which "brings major art issues to life" for students.

Gillespie was there when the earth shifted - or at least that's the way it seemed. The European dominated art world had always been the focus of attention, laying claim to the world's best-known artists and art movements. But in the 1950s, there was a fundamental shift in the art world's focus from Europe to New York. Gillespie was there among The New York School of artists like Jackson Pollack and Willem deKooning, whose names have become standard fixtures in art history textbooks.

It was an exciting time to be an artist. Gillespie says that when she saw her first abstract expressionist paintings "It was glorious. I knew I had found something." Her own evolution toward abstraction coalesced with this movement, but it was very gradual and personal. She was never a follower of fashion for fashion's sake. "I never jumped on a bandwagon," she says. "I wanted it my way."

Gillespie believes she was destined to be an artist. "I think artists are born," she says. "It's not a thing you choose to do, it's something you have to do." She showed an early affinity for art, which her parents encouraged, at least at first. "When a child is small, I think parents encourage artistic activities because it keeps the child busy and they think it's cute. But once they see you're serious they try to dissuade you."

Gillespie's parents were no exception to the rule. Her parents wanted their daughter to attend Radford, which offered no art degree at the time, and become a school teacher. Gillespie was undeterred.

"You have to realize that, at the time, no girls went to art school, or at least no `nice' girls. My parent kept saying `No,' but I just kept telling everyone that I was going to art school. I figured I had nothing to lose. One time a minister was visiting my parents and he asked what I was going to do. I said, `I'm going to art school," and before my parents could say anything he said that I had a God-given gift. Coming from a minister was about as close to God as you could get, so I was off to art school."

Gillespie attended Baltimore's Maryland Institute of Art where, like another Dorothy, she must have looked around and mused, "Toto, I don't think we're in Roanoke anymore." But as Gillespie sees it, Baltimore was a good place to make the transition from a small city to New York's often no-holds-barred art world.

Art school is where many students have a chance to experiment and engage in "creative rebellion," she says. "We want to look like artists and establish our identities as artists, so we carry around a sketch pad and try to look different, make a statement."

After experimenting with different styles and approaches in art school, she headed for New York in 1943. The arrival of a traditionally-raised Southwest Virginian into New York's Bohemian art world sounds like it could be a recipe for disaster - the makings of a Dorothy Parkeresque descent into cynicism and excess, where there's no reference point for normalcy. But in Gillespie's case, she managed to emerge established, stronger and unapologetically optimistic.

Perhaps that's because the transition was gradual. When Gillespie first came to New York, she landed a job as assistant art director for B. Altman. She was married in 1946. By the early 1950s she was getting up early to paint, going off to work and taking care of two children. Finally, she knew it was time to devote herself to fine art.

When her third child was born in 1957, she said "enough of this. I knew I couldn't wait any longer if I were to be a success."

To give the impression of being a stay-at-home mom, "I would go to the studio after my children had left for school and come back 15 minutes before they were expected. The implication was that I was always home, and I don't think they ever knew the difference."

She was also saved by her gender. Women weren't welcome among the art world's hard-drinking Boys' Club, "but since we (the women) weren't welcome at the bars we didn't become alcoholics," she says. "The men from that inner circle drank themselves to death."

Instead of uniting in destructive pursuits, the women united to make their voices heard. Almost no women were represented by major art galleries, so the women formed their own galleries and group shows. To make a political statement, no men were allowed. Their efforts revolutionized the art world, so that today, almost every major gallery represents women artists. "It was our way of being visible and we did change things," she says.

Gillespie has demonstrated an uncanny ability to be on the forefront of trends, yet always maintain her own, unique style. "People ask me the secret to success in the art world and the best answer I can give is that it has nothing to do with being good or bad. The art world must be hungry for a certain vision." She started out as a painter, but experimented with environments and "happenings" in New York in the 1960s - art events that featured things out of context, like a table and chairs positioned in the middle of the street.

Gillespie-orchestrated happenings included "The American Way of Death," a deliberately gaudy treatment of American funeral practices and "Made in the U.S.A.," which used shadow boxes and blinking lights to comment on food, fashion and other American obsessions.

"If it weren't for my participation in "happenings" I probably wouldn't paint the way I do today," says Gillespie. "After `happenings,' my paintings started to come off the wall and intrude into the spectator's space."

After moving to Florida, Gillespie gradually achieved more and more success, to the point where she felt she had to escape her notoriety in the Sunshine State, where she was receiving a lot of exposure on television and in local newspapers. "It got to the point where I would go into a supermarket and people would come up and say they'd seen me on television - but they didn't know anything about my work. That's terribly dangerous for an artist."

She returned to the welcome anonymity of New York for a while, where she was known more for her work than her public personality, but continues to travel back and forth between New York and Florida.

Though Gillespie managed to forge out a career as a successful artist, she doesn't think art students should set their sights on money and fame. "When I was starting out, I just worked," says Gillespie. "I worked for the respect of my peers and to have a body of work. It had nothing to do with money. Now, people fresh out of school want instant success. It doesn't work that way."

Gillespie considers it part of her mission to inspire and educate young artists, including RU's young artists. "I tell it like it is," she says.

Gillespie provides young artists with realistic assessments that test their devotion to art. "You'll probably never achieve fame as an artist," she says, "but you have to prefer being an unsuccessful artist to a successful something else. Let's just assume you won't be famous. Will you still produce art? The work is the important thing." Gillespie is ever-mindful of her roots in Roanoke and she's delighted that RU now offers an art degree with a well-rounded program.

Her enduring relationship with Radford began when the university received a donation of Gillespie's work from her sister, Elizabeth Richards, who lives in Radford. Today, Gillespie's paintings and sculptures are featured throughout campus, from office buildings to the Hickory Hill home of President and Mrs. Douglas Covington. She is, in essence, the founder of RU's permanent collection of art, having donated approximately 30 major works to the university and persuading fellow artists to contribute work. Radford would send an "art van" to New York and Gillespie would go from studio to studio, persuading fellow artists to contribute. Why did she go to such trouble? "I think permanent collections are important and I like to start things," she says simply.

Her work also can be found around the globe in museum collections, private collections, commercial buildings and city parks. Currently, she's working on several simultaneous projects: four commissions; the publication of the first book devoted to her work; and shows in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Sarasota, Florida. Besides being Distinguished Professor of Art at RU, she also visits other schools and universities as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, an honor that is bestowed on some of the world's most prominent leaders. "I joke around with my friends that if I ever get my obituary in the New York Times, it will be because I'm a Woodrow Wilson fellow," says Gillespie.

In Roanoke, Gillespie is perhaps best known for her prominently-featured work in the Center-in-the-Square atrium. She also created a colorful 50-foot-square mural featured on the old Grand Piano building. Her visibility in Roanoke is sure to increase in January 1998 when "Sculptured Paintings and Painted Sculpture," a traveling exhibition of her work, will be shown at the Art Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke.

The opening of her show will be accompanied by the release of the first complete book of Gillespie's work, which will include essays by Richard Martin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, University of Alabama professor emeritus Virginia Pitts Rembert and George S. Boige, director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

To comInforate these special events, Gillespie has completed an edition of 20 sculptures and four artist's proofs offered for sale with proceeds to benefit the RU Foundation.

Gillespie is looking forward to guiding young artists through a continued relationship with RU. Her final advice to art students? "It's not a sure thing, but if you learn your craft well, maybe some kind of magic will happen."

"At the time, no girls went to art school, or at least no `nice' girls. One time a minister was visiting my parents and he asked what I was going to do. I said, `I'm going to art school," and before my parents could say anything he said that I had a God-given gift. Coming from a minister was about as close to God as you could get, so I was off to art school."

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