In Tribute to a Grandmother's Love
by Janine Pilkington

Empress Books
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Winter/Spring 2006

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     She was only a shell, a shining sliver of the woman. I somehow knew when she had passed on in July of 2005. We had that kind of connection to each other. Gramma, my mother’s mother, thrived in the love of her family and she lived to take care of them.
     "I’m so happy to have everyone here, all together," she would remark on holiday get-togethers, and we’d laugh because her words were so predictable. Whether she was reminiscing on her favorite memories or scolding my father for pouring her another glass of wine, she was always smiling and she always seemed happy.
      When I was growing up, Gramma always had elaborate gardens -- mostly vegetables, which seemed to grow magically under her care, and then come August, those gardens were alive with the crimson, salmon, yellow and white of gladioli blooms. She’d cut gigantic bouquets, so big they seemed to fill the room, and place them in the center of the kitchen table.

"Eva's Gladiolas"

      As Gramma grew older, her gardens grew smaller, but the memories have stuck with me. Those memories, and my grandmother’s appreciation for some of the simplest pleasures in life, have had a profound influence on my artwork. Eva’s Gladiolas, a large vibrant acrylic, was painted in late 2003. It was accepted into Providence Art Club’s open juried competition, my first juried show, and I traveled to Providence, Rhode Island with my sister in early 2004 for Eva’s debut. The East Side, where the gallery is located, is all hills, lined with elaborate 19th century homes and cobblestone streets. It is also the heart of the Rhode Island School of Design campus, where I went to college. I was proud to see this tribute to my grandmother displayed in a place I knew well and where so many could view it.
      I longed for even a fraction of the sunshine that Gramma radiated. Years spent battling depression have been an upward climb, like trying to learn the art of happiness you’re your mind doesn’t want to cooperate. The hardest part has been that "empty, hollow feeling", where you wonder if things will ever get better, and you’re frustrated because you can’t just be satisfied with your life. It’s been good and bad for me; good, in the sense that this frustration has been a motivator with the constant need to better myself, and that things will be better down the line has given hope. The downside is that sometimes a frustration clouds my thinking until I can’t concentrate, and that’s when doubt and indecision creeps in, to the point where I feel paralysed.

"Hibiscus Reverie"

" Blue glass lampwork beads designed by Janine"

"Yellow-green glass lampwork beads designed by Janine"

     Painting, like any other art form, is an escape and perhaps I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to escape. These feelings absolutely drive the way a painting will look – the color choice and combination, the subject, the composition. Many of my paintings are a contrast between darkness and beauty, and the 2004 acrylic Hibiscus Reverie illustrates this very well. I look at it now, and I see the flowers as trapped; existing in an alternate, dream-like world.
      Things have changed so much for me in the past couple of years. I feel like I’ve made great strides, and established a style that is all my own. My work has appeared in a series of small shows in local libraries and restaurants, which has been a rewarding experience. I’ve also branched out. Part of the excitement for me has always been in learning and mastering new techniques, new avenues for expression.
     The decision to try "lampworking" took some time. I’ve always loved making jewelry, and for awhile, sold jewelry I’d made, and vintage beads. Jewelry is challenging because it is so small, and I discovered that I enjoyed making parts for jewelry more than entire pieces. I carved pendants out of mother of pearl and abalone, but there was something about glass that was so appealing. I finally broke down and bought a lampworking kit, which included a torch, glass rods, and some tools that looked like they belonged in a dentist’s office. Like everything else in my life, I dove in.
      Let’s just say it took a while to get used to the medium. Molten glass is more difficult to control than a paintbrush, and cooling glass is prone to misbehave if it’s not handled properly. I’ve had more misshapen beads, more beads shatter because they were stuck to the mandrel (metal rod), as well as problems with discoloration, and glass that was overcooked. I never took classes, just read everything I could about how it was done, and maybe that’s why it’s taken me longer to become proficient at it.

      It may sound cliché, but the possibilities really are endless with glass beads. The bead is a miniature canvas, where you can use any color imaginable, and embellish them with materials like metal leaf and foil or enamels. After a little over a year of working on my technique, I finally bought a small kiln, which is necessary to anneal the glass. (When glass cools too fast, it can become porous and brittle. Annealing is the process of heating the beads, then soaking them at a high temperature and slowly cooling them so that the glass is stronger and lasts a long time.) In a way, purchasing the kiln made this "hobby" more permanent.
      Sometimes I look at what I’ve done and think I’m nuts. My interests are all over the place, from painting florals to bead making to writing about ice hockey (believe it or not, I’ve taken that up as well). I’ve never completely abandoned any medium or technique, but I’ve also tried so many that it would be impossible to do them all at once. The trick is just to find the right balance between them all.
      Each skill has a different meaning in my life. Painting is very emotional, like expressing the love for my grandmother, my confusion about life, or my unhappiness. Bead making provides a different kind of release. It is a challenge, but I love the process, and that the beads can stand alone, or be used to create something new. Writing is much more cerebral. Watching sports was always big in my family, and hockey is one of my favorites. It fulfills a completely different part in me -- the movement, the excitement, and the competition, and within the sport there are so many stories to tell.

      Gramma was always proud of me, no matter what I did, and losing her this past summer was a huge blow. My grandparents were the rock of the family. When I was growing up, they helped my parents so much, and our entire family gathered at their house on the holidays. It’s been tough watching their health deteriorate the past few years, because it seems like it happened so fast. Now Grampa is in a nursing home and very weak, and their house is about to be sold. In the end, no matter how much it hurts, I know it is part of the cycle of life. Gramma had 86 wonderful years on this earth, 65 of those spent married to my grandfather. When I am feeling down, it helps to think about what a great family I have, and how lucky I really am. To love and be loved, that is one thing she taught me that I will never forget.

Copyright © 2006: Janine Pilkington

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