Originally Published: August 23, 2015 6:02 a.m.
"You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream."
That quote, credited to author C.S Lewis, might well be the motto of 91-year-old Prescott Valley resident Eleanor Gilbert.
At 90, Gilbert returned to studying art at Yavapai College. She'd taken some classes 30 years ago with instructor Dick Marcusen. It was then that she began the giant steel orchids that currently sit in her living room/studio.
The sculptures are made of welded steel. Gilbert heats the metal and, when it's hot enough, bends it to her will and vision.
"It's like a puzzle," she said. "I love to put puzzles together."
One of the orchids is finished. It's been padded, covered with material, primed with gesso (a mixture that stiffens and textures the surface) and painted, and has been on display at 'Tis art gallery downtown.
Gilbert walked into the gallery with a photo of her work and asked them if they were interested in showing it. Stepping inside took a lot of nerve, she said. It paid off when they wanted to display the piece.
The other orchid is a metal framework that she hopes to show without all the padding. At first, she'd planned to finish it, too. Daughter Jill Gilbert, also an artist, told her not to because it was special on its own.
"I think it all adds to it," she said.
The frame orchid sat in her yard for years "and I brought it back in," she said. "Steel rusts very, very fast."
So she had it put on a new stand and sandblasted it. Then she brought it home and started painting.
"It has many, many coats of paint," Gilbert said.
Gilbert has always been artistic. When she came to Prescott 37 years ago from Santa Barbara, California, she'd dabbled in clay, taking pottery night classes in Santa Barbara.
"I made pots," she said. "It's fun."
She and a neighbor friend also had a jewelry-making business, fashioning earrings of copper and enamel.
"We did it in our kitchen with a torch," Gilbert said. They'd make batches of 200 and send them to Knott's Berry Farm. "Because of the crowds of people, they'd be gone in an afternoon."
Despite using a torch in her jewelry-making, she'd never welded when she started art classes with Marcusen. She took to it right away.
"I found it was so interesting. For me, it was so easy to do," she said. "When you got through, you had something that was extremely interesting to look at."
But life got in the way, and Gilbert dropped out of school. Her husband died suddenly when she was 38, leaving her with four children, the oldest a senior in high school and the youngest a toddler. When her youngest started kindergarten, she took a job as a secretary with Santa Barbara County schools and later worked as a caregiver - a job she continued to do until she turned 80.
"There was just something about it that was so rewarding," she said.
At 80, she retired. She lunched with friends, but "I was bored - very bored."
As a caregiver, she learned the key to longevity, in addition to having a healthy body, is doing enjoyable things.
"If you want to live a long time, you've got to keep going, keep your mind on interesting things," she said.
So she decided to take up art classes at Yavapai College again.
"My daughter was wonderful," she said, adding that her daughter would have dinner ready for her when she got home from class.
Yavapai College Professor of Studio Arts Cindy De Cecco, her current teacher, calls Gilbert "very talented."
"She's fearless - and a great designer," De Cecco said, adding that Gilbert's sculptures have good, strong design. She simply needed a refresher on using the torches. "It didn't take her long to pick it back up and go right into it."
Gilbert went to the lab every day. It was hard, she said, "but by the end, I was flying."
She starts art class again the last day of August, and is looking forward to it.
"Being an artist, for me, opens up many avenues of enjoyment," she said. "You see things differently."
De Cecco said non-traditional students like Gilbert bring with them a wealth of experiences. "They are light years ahead just because of life experience."
She estimated that 50 percent of her students are older than 50. Prescott is a big retirement community, and when people retire, they start taking art classes at YC, she said.
"They find us and they blossom," she said.
Gilbert drives a 37-year-old Toyota pickup recognized by many around town, who see her on the road and wave. Some are surprised she drives such an old vehicle.
"I've had it since it was new and it's part of the family," she said.
Her children are long grown. The oldest is 70-something and the youngest is older than 50. When people ask about them, Gilbert said, "I just say, 'Oh, they're old.'"
"It's shocking to see your children get old," she said. "When we're young, we do lots of laughing, we play with our friends and have a great time."
"As people age, they laugh less - and that contributes to feeling 'old,'" Gilbert said.
With her focus on living life fully, Gilbert doesn't have to worry about feeling old. She has her family and her art. Friends have suggested she write a book.
"Maybe I will," she said.
De Cecco considers Gilbert a role model.
"I want to grow up and be like her," she said. "To be able to continue to create and make art into one's 90s, that is in inspiration. She is inspirational."
Follow Arlene Hittle on Twitter @ahittle_dc. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2036, or 928-830-2928.