Nancy Gill is “in her element” when she’s helping others discover that they have creative potential they never knew they had. When adults tell her they “have no creative bones,” she offers to teach a creativity class once a month for people who feel that way. She doesn’t take “No” for an answer. If they say they can’t afford art supplies, she tells them that Home Depot is her art supply store of choice, and arrives with sheets of underlayment cut into 18 x 24 pieces, discontinued quarts of Martha Stewart house paint on sale for about $5.00 each, black sponge brushes used for painting cupboards, and a canvas tarp or two to protect the worktables. In half an hour, those same adults, many who have never drawn or painted anything in their lives, are filling their “canvases” with original and colorful designs.
When school principals ask her to “do something” with the sixth graders who are “always getting sent to the office,” she seeks out the “trouble-makers,” learns their names, and asks if they might be interested in making something out of clay that she can fire in her pottery kiln at home—and then praises them in front of their entire class for their wonderful imaginations and their mature and cooperative spirits. “Thank you so much for letting us do this,” they say, over and over. “You told her that already,” their friends say, laughing. They know that. It’s just that positive attention is so—well, so welcome, and so wonderful, and so encouraging, and such a huge relief.
When nursing home residents lie in darkened rooms, dozing in front of their television screens, she taps them on the shoulder, introduces herself, tells them that she has heard they used to be interested in art, and asks if they’d like to have a one-to-one art show of her unorthodox paintings. Known for her “stories” that accompany just about everything she does, she cheerfully explains how she paints and why. A week later, they are drawing and painting together, and hanging their work on the wall.
One person explains that she can’t paint because her hands shake. “No problem,” Nancy says. “All I need to do is lay my hand on top of yours, and your hand will paint by itself.” Another insists, “Oh, I don’t have talent. It’s my daughter that’s the artist in our family.” Nancy grins and whispers, “She got that talent from her mother!”
Nancy is convinced that every single person has unexplored, unappreciated talent, and it is her mission to point that out and tap into it. She simply never tires of it, and never gives up.
That also includes herself. In 1969, after a serious car accident, she was told by her doctor that she should not get her hopes up; it was unlikely that she would ever walk again.
“Too late,” she said. “My hopes are up! If I don’t learn to walk by September, I will lose my job as a college professor!” By August 8, she was out of the body cast and out of the hospital, and, by the end of the month, even though she couldn’t yet drive a car, she was back in the classroom.
In 2000, she contracted the shingles virus in her formerly “good eye,” and lost almost all her sight in that eye. “Get used to the idea,” her doctor said. “You’re going to go blind.”
“Then I’ll have to build my art studio first!” Nancy told him, and, after her doctor appointment, went straight to the local building supply store, sat down on a sofa there, sketched out a plan for her studio, showed it to the staff at the contractor’s desk, and purchased half a dozen pier blocks, all that would fit in her VW Golf. The next week, after her next doctor appointment, she was back for half a dozen more. Never mind that it was December. She had already spent a year digging out the glacial cliff behind her cabin with a pick, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow. She spread out a blue tarp, lay down on it, and in a week, leveled her fifteen pier blocks, and then went on to build the floor, the walls, the roof, and the deck. That was more than thirteen years ago, and she’s not blind yet. Granted, she sees five moons in place of one, like a slinky going down stairs, she paints in a manner reminiscent of Monet, and she refers to herself as a natural impressionist, but that doesn’t stop her. She just keeps creating “from the inside out.” listening to her own creative voice.
At forty, she hiked fifty miles by herself on the Appalachian Trail, She’s backpacked alone around Europe five times, she’s been on a study tour of Senegal, she’s driven across the United States alone three times, and, at sixty-three, she hiked across the Grand Canyon. She makes anagama and raku pottery and does photography, watercolor, and collage, and, in the last year, has loaded and unloaded more than ten thousand pounds of granite to create a rockery in her back yard. At the age of seventy-one, she also walks/jogs five miles a day five days a week. She is the author of two books: Helping Kids Hope, and Shine In Your Own Way, and is working on a third about nurturing creative spirits.
“If I can do these things with my broken bones and blurry eyes,” she tells her students, “You can do things you’ve never done before either. Name your dreams, and take steps toward them. That’s all you need to do. Just move in the direction you most want to go in. And don’t take no for an answer. No one can define you but yourself. Be on the side of your spirit, and never, never give up on it.”