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Photos courtesy of Gerald McCarthy
The work of late artist Dorothy Gillespie can be seen in Roanoke’s Market Building and the Fort Lauderdale airport.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
We often hear a song that brings us back to a distinct memory of when it was a hit on the radio. We celebrate birthdays, holidays and special events. In this case, years ago, I made the date “First of May” my own special holiday.
It was 1984. I had just finished producing a documentary about artist Elaine de Kooning. She will be forever associated with the Abstract Expressionist Movement that essentially is responsible for moving the center of the art world from Paris to New York City in the middle of the 20th century. The de Kooning documentary was shot in New York, the Hamptons and at Radford University.
I was anxious to follow up this effort with a new video about another woman artist of note. I read in The Roanoke Times that artist Dorothy Gillespie would be visiting Radford University to produce a “site specific” art installation. I made a few phone calls and found out there was a party scheduled for Gillespie near the Radford campus. I also found out that Gillespie would be painting the glass bricks of a 13-story dormitory. These bricks let in natural light along the stairway in the front of the building.
While on my way to (crash) this party for Gillespie, I stopped at Lowe’s and purchased a glass brick. I found the party in Radford and waited in a receiving line to meet the artist for the first time. The glass brick was my calling card, and I presented it to Gillespie. She was most grateful.
She had purchased a variety of paints, mostly from Europe, that were meant to be used on glass. She quickly realized that she could now test these paints from the comfort of her visitor’s apartment and not have to walk over to the building. We talked a bit, and I told her I was interested in producing a documentary about her. She agreed to my request, and I started getting ready for this documentary.
As fate would have it, the documentary and the painting of the glass bricks began on the First of May, 1984. In addition to the Radford University installation, many interviews were conducted, and I spent several days taping at her studio at 547 W. 52nd St. on the west side of Manhattan. I also taped her judging an art show at a museum in Raleigh, N.C. She named a metal piece she was working on in New York the “First of May” and surprised me by shipping it to my home as a gift. It arrived in a huge box via UPS. I was worried at the time that someone had shipped me a deceased relative, but thankfully, it was a Gillespie called “First of May,” and it still hangs over my front door.
Since that fateful First of May, I’ve had the good fortune to produce three additional documentaries about Dorothy Gillespie. I would often ask her questions about decisions I would be making when editing another video about her. Each time, she would tell me that it was her job to make art, and my job to make videos. She was always hands-off about my video work.
My questions were often about musical selections for editing a piece. It turned out that classical music always worked best. In the opening narration of “First of May,” I referred to the spring like nature of her colors and the sense of new life and excitement her joyous colors exhibited. My favorite example of serendipity was when she later told me that the first of May was also her mother’s birthday.
With Dorothy’s passing last September, I will be breaking the cycle of sending her a bright, colorful bouquet of flowers this first of May. Fortunately for all of us, her positive spirit remains with us through the work she created.
I will always celebrate this date because of what I learned about life and art from my wonderful, talented, down-to-earth artist friend, Dorothy Gillespie.
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