Award Winning Susan McBride Gilgen: Becoming an Artist after Age Fifty
by Rose Datoc Dall
Meridian Magazine, 2003
My first impressions of Sue Gilgen were from about twelve years ago in Madison, Wisconsin, when she was a mother with three remaining teenagers, out of her five children, still living at home. She was the very capable Relief Society President of the Madison 1st ward, and the wife of a bishop, hosting many a youth fireside in her home every Sunday, naturally exuding the aura of “mother” of the ward. She and her husband Read Gilgen represented then, as they do now, a true backbone of leadership.
Until she won First Place at the American Quilters Society International Show, Susan McBride Gilgen had no idea that after raising five children and getting to the other side of fifty, she could start a new career. She has since won first place several times at a long list of important venues.
At church, Sue was also known as a choir member and a very experienced ward choir director. She is a gifted and trained vocalist, having studied voice at BYU. It is not untypical for Sue to be involved in, if not spearheading, a large-scale event from time to time. My memories are very vivid of Sue as the music and vocal director of the stake musical.
So where does fiber art come into play? One has to look back at Sue’s life to see how she arrived at an illustrious and decorated career in fiber art.
PRECURSOR TO A CAREER IN ART
While her husband had a very stable career at University of Wisconsin, in 1983 Sue began her own successful business as a fashion consultant, couture dressmaker, and seamstress of custom bridal gowns. Her home basement became her studio. The creation of her own business was a sensible and practical move, providing an income, but it also moved her a step closer to a career in fiber art. It is clear that, even then, Sue had leanings to do something creative, but she had not arrived at that single vision which would later synthesize all of her expertise into pictorial quilting. While dressmaking, Sue was still working in a familiar medium which she had known from childhood. Through the 1970s, Sue taught her skills in California, Wisconsin and Utah.
When I first met her in the early 1990s, the world of fiber art knew nothing of Sue Gilgen, and dreams of becoming an artist had still not fully incubated. I remember, however, our many phone conversations with the drone of a sewing machine or serger whinnying at high speed in the background on her end. No doubt she was busy working on a project for one of her many clients.
It wasn’t hard to imagine what Sue looked like on the other end of the phone with the earpiece on one shoulder and both hands free to work at her machine. Somehow Sue was able a juggle and process a million ideas at once in some kind of masterful dance, manage a deadline while having a phone conversation about something completely different, like her church calling. Yet, somehow, she was able to make some kind of conversational sense, with humor to boot.
Sue seemed to work, back then as she does now, at a pace that whirls as fast as the bobbin could spin with tremendous focus and drive, living the busy and service-filled life of an LDS and dutiful mother, having seen her children grown, for the most part. This drive, in part, might account for her success upon entering a new career after age fifty.
So what inspired this transformation from seamstress to artist and how did it occur? What happened that sparked the birth of a new and successful career?
I remember Sue’s intimations of a desire to develop and sharpen her drawing skills so that she could replicate the designs in her head and put them on paper. In 1997, Sue “discovered” Landscape Quilting while taking a class from artist Natalie Sewell. The light bulb went on as her years of unparalleled skill as a designer/seamstress connected with the technique. Since she had found a fabulous medium and a means of expression for herself, she immediately hit the ground running.
SWEEPING THE AWARDS
Within months, Sue entered her first quilt show, won the Viewers Choice Award, won several awards, then won the Prestigious First Place Award in 1999 at the American Quilters Society International Show in Paducah, Kentucky in the category of pictorial quilts for her piece Autumn Splendor. This venue is considered the “big-league” in the world of fiber art and Quilting
She remarks in amazement, that she had no idea she could make a career change at that point of life—and do it with such distinction.
Her sweep, year after year, at the annual American Quilters Society venue includes Second Place at their International Show in 2000 for a quilt entitled Indian Summer. Then in 2001, she won First Place for Boundaries Crossed and an Honorable Mention for Forest Fantasy, and First Place again for a pictorial wall quilt in 2002 for Peace Maples Among the Tomoe River.
In addition, Sue’s work has also won First Place at the National Quilt Association in 1998, for The Sacred Grove “Whence Cometh Their Faith” and Third place for best representational quilt for Autumn Woods in 2002.
Again, Sue’s yearly sweep was repeated at the annual Prairie Heritage Quilt Show in Wisconsin. In 1997, she won Viewers Choice, and First Place in 1998 for The Sacred Grove “Whence Cometh Their Faith.” She won First Place for an appliqué wall quilt and Best of Show for use of color in 1999, First Place in 2000 for a wall quilt and also won Second Place for color and First Place for Viewers Choice that same year. In 2001, she won First Place again for group quilt and in 2002, Best of Show, Best in Color and Second Place in Viewers Choice for Peace Maples Among the Tamoe River, Sue’s most decorated and awarded piece.
Other notable honors are the Springville Museum of Art National Quilt Show’s Award of Merit, Directors Award and People’s Choice Award in 1997, and First Place and Masters Award in 2000. And again, Autumn Woods won its best distinction, Best of Contest, at the 2002 American Quilters Society Exposition. In addition, Sue’s work has consistently won many awards in many other state and local shows and exhibitions..
To add to Susan McBride Gilgen’s distinctions, her quilts have been featured at the New England Quilt Museum in 2002 and have been exhibited in Japan in the Winner’s Exhibit at the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival in 2002. Sue’s work has also graced the cover of American Quilters Society Catalog 3 times, while being featured 2 times in the American Quilters Society Calendar and has been written up numerous times in several publications.
And amongst her most recent honor was the Museum purchase of her entry in the Church’s Sixth International Art Competition, “Latter-day Saints, Yesterday and Today,” by the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City. Her entry, Within the Shady Woodland can be seen with the rest of the exhibition display until September of 2003.
It is almost hard to believe the amount of success that Sue has achieved in under a decade in this field. Over the past six years, Sue averages about six to over a dozen quilt competitions and exhibitions per year, a pace that is mind-boggling, if not exhausting, and wins honors at most of these competition, a consistency that is rare in any field of art.
THE PROCESS AND TECHNIQUE
Sue undergoes a very interesting process technique when she quilts. “I do not use patterns. Often the composition goes in directions that I did not fully envision. Letting that happen and working through the tight places takes lots of time. Sometimes at the end of the day only a few inches are accomplished. Larger works often take 2 to 3 months to complete the designing.”
Often the images that Sue uses in her art are scenes of places that she has visited before, such as the Sacred Grove. “There are always emotional ties as in the sacred grove,” remarks Sue. “The emotion is usually the byproduct of the initial sighting or adventure. Revisiting all those feelings in the challenge of recreating a scene in fabric is a big bonus.”
Sue then proceeds to replicate colors and effects that she sees in nature with fabric. “Some fabrics are dyed, over dyed, painted, and over painted to achieve the necessary colors and effects. Many batiks are used.” Sue remarks that “auditioning of fabrics to add greatly in this preparatory stage. It makes a huge mess but gets the work moving forward. I do some sketching to make sure that what is cooking in my head actually looks good on paper…The fabrics themselves are a huge inspiration to me,” describes Sue. “A surprise piece from a day of dyeing can be the entire focus of a quilt.”
After selecting the fabric, she then cuts fabric “into shapes resembling natural elements” and layers them onto a larger muslin backing to create the picture. It is like piecing together a puzzle. Sue then secures each piece with a “free motion overcasting” technique to encase the raw edges, to “enhance and [to] fine tune the branches, leaves and grass, and so on.”
Sue essentially paints with fabric. A photograph of one of her quilts has the effect of a watercolor, and one often has to take a second and closer look to really discover that the image is made up entirely of fabric. Of course, the bumpy texture of the quilting remind us that we are not looking at a watercolor, but a complex mosaic of variegated pieces of fabric. The overcasting stitches along the edges of these shapes are reminiscent of a helation technique in painting, like that of Wayne Thiebauld, who distinctly outlined his shapes with colors.
Some of Sue’s compositions such as Autumn Woods, have a complex richness, which have the similar effect of a painting by art nouveau artist, Gustav Klimt, who painted fabulously elaborate backgrounds which were rich in design and pattern. Klimts incorporated that oriental sensibility by the flattening of the surface, or pushing the perspective, so to speak, a harmonic push-and-pull of the 3-D and the 2-D.
After the top of the quilt is created, Sue quilts it to its batting and backing layers. She uses an unconventional free motion quilting technique, which is done in a meandering, free-directional manner. “The actual quilting takes about 1/4th of the total creation time,” remarks Sue and “is as much a part of the artistic product as the initial design.” This process is very physical, trying to negotiate layers of fabric of a large quilt through a machine while trying to achieve evenness and flatness to the overall piece. Only years of experience as a seamstress give her the edge to accomplish this challenging technique.
When it all comes together, the payoff is literal. Executed with unsurpassed skill, a mid-size quilt can sell for up $2000- $4000, and a larger quilt can sell for “three or four times that amount” due to their proportionate “complexity and difficulty.”
FORMULA FOR SUCCESS- PERSONAL VISION, DETERMINATION, FAMILY SUPPORT AND THE SPIRIT
So what is the secret to Susan McBride Gilgen’s success, as a wife, mother, artist, a person? It all seems to be there, the best of all worlds, a stable home and family life, a rich life of service, and a thriving art career, although occurring later in life. There is no doubt that there are some key ingredients, not in the least being self-determination, personal vision and a lot of hard work, but indeed a formula of balance can be derived.
The first part of the equation might be the loving support of family members and loved ones. “My husband is the real star on my list of supporters. He has encouraged me every step of the way. He helps
me in everything imaginable. When deadlines loom, he takes over the household…He is my biggest and most important admirer,” observes Sue.
As for Sue’s children, they “see me in an expanded light...not just as their mother...but a person with something to offer many others as well,” remarks Sue. “My children are very supportive of my art work. I like to think it is because we have always been supportive of their endeavors…While my five children are on their own, I have tried to always be available when they really needed me. Every birth, graduation, and special occasion required a trip to Utah usually for a few weeks. They have expressed a great deal of appreciation for my successes and I hope [that] it gives them encouragement in their own lives.”
The most important part of the equation is the use of the Spirit and inspiration. “After I put my head on something, I do a lot of pondering and listening to the spirit before setting forth,” remarks Sue. “Actually, when my life is not headed in a direction that is in sync with what Heavenly Father is asking of me, I find myself in a fog and cannot be the least bit creative… Without the spirit I am surely insufficient as an artist or a person.”
Closeness to the Spirit can teach how to manage time. Prioritizing and managing time are the “never-ending battle,” as Sue describes it. “For most of the time I have been doing Landscape Art Quilts, I have served as the Relief Society President, choir member and sometimes conductor, visiting teacher, and an ordinance worker in the Chicago Temple. There is no question that many times what I wanted to do in my studio was put on hold.
“Becoming a good delegator was the first order of survival. I often felt that organizing my time to do what was required of the Lord, made me work more efficiently. I find that the more organized and service- oriented my life is the more creativity I seem to have when I need it. I am always amazed at the final product. It always seems to be more than I had imagined it when beginning.”
“I feel closer to my Heavenly Father when I am in the thick of it. Serving family and church callings keeps my feet on the ground. The balance is necessary. I see the world in a different way now than ever before. I notice the smallest things and feel more gratitude.”
“Success, however, would have to be defined in my relationships with my family and friends. With how well I have used my gifts and talents to the enriching of others lives. My greater goal would include a productive life with my wonderful husband doing what we can to help build the kingdom. I desire that each of my children recognize their relationship with their Father in Heaven and seek to develop their talents in obedience and service to Him. Through the sacrifice of the Savior we might be together again in His presence. Fiber art is a medium of artistic expression that can be an avenue of communication and heighten my awareness of the power of God in my life.”
“I think more than ever before, we have the time and sensitivity to broaden our awareness of God’s role in the universe through art. It is wonderful that so many [LDS artists] are attempting to explore and define our relationships with God and each other in creative ways. To evoke goodness in others through art is a very fine thing.”
Perhaps, the beauty of beginning an art career after age fifty for Sue is the opportunity to look back and to synthesize everything. From a lifetime of expertise and skill, to her experience as a designer, from wisdom from a lifetime of service, to her personal passions, Sue has re-filtered them through her own creative vision, and hence, come up with an art which she can call her own. “All the other things I had been engaged in along the way in regards to sewing, designing, analyzing, etc were now able to be focused on a more creative venue.”
Of course, the ability to assimilate a lifetime of skills, retransform life’s experiences and retranslate these ideas successfully into media is the ultimate goal shared by all artists. Not all artists achieve this goal, and certainly not all artists are recognized for having done this in their lifetime. Sue luckily has a persistent drive to put herself out there, knowing not only her medium well but her market and her audience. Being able to marry those elements is a definite skill in its own right.
Moreover, there have been definite advantages to beginning her career at a later juncture in her life. She has lived her life in a manner in which she could enjoy the blessings of having a family, has conformed her life to righteous, wholesome living, dedicated herself to the Lord, and has found the opportunity to further develop her gifts. Perhaps with clarity of the Spirit, more focus on what is real in life, and more time once the kids are grown, her creativity has had the opportunity to soar. And soar it has for Sue.
“Wow, life is good. The best moments have often been the quiet ones when you turn a corner and see a newly finished piece out of the corner of your eye and feel that it has materialized into something good. [Or] when someone catches [his or her] breath upon a first viewing [of a piece], that is a most invigorating feeling [which] sends me back into the studio for more.”
Susan McBride Gilgen continues to produce in her home studio in Madison Wisconsin, working at a feverish pace, exhibiting and producing about five to eight pieces a year. While she and her husband plan on serving a mission within a few years plan, Sue plans on producing on into her husband’s retirement, health willing.