This month’s “Meet This Artist” is written by guest blogger Elisabeth Lewis Corley.
Something about this sylph who is also a fierce arts community fixture begins to make sense when you learn that she was a Chapel Hill art history major who ended up in deep Chatham County in a home she built on land she chose because of the stately willow oak that defines it.
She is the child of Kerstin McDaniel—who was born in a textile town in Sweden, studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, became a designer of a line of children’s clothing called Gildafrox, and is now an artist of needlework liturgical pieces owned by churches throughout the southeast—and the late Holcombe McDaniel, a partner in Gildafrox and other clothing enterprises, and leading community theatre actor.
Gilda McDaniel works professionally at Fearrington Village, where she is the angel of a thousand details in events and weddings as the Director of Weddings and Special Events; but the special event outside of work that has been her fixation for the past eight years, and one of the many areas in which her eye, her attention to detail, her passion for the meaning of things, is ClydeFEST, the yearly festival put on for kids by the Chatham Arts Council. Here, as in so much that she offers to her community, her contributions are less like event planning and more like an art installation.
Ask her about ClydeFEST and she’ll talk about legendary Chatham County folk artist Clyde Jones and his motto “it’s all about the kids” or about her partner, Stephan Meyers, and his contributions to the layout of the Bynum Ball Field, where the magic happens, or about all the things that a thousand others do and have done to make ClydeFEST the kind of other-worldly, kid-centric, space for the imagination and for hands-on arts experiences that it has been for sixteen years. “The images of crazy quilts and jigsaw puzzles come to mind—both old-world ways of amusing kids of all ages. It’s all about community and kids and art and it is a joy to see all of those pieces come together—like a quilt, like a puzzle—to make an event that is unique to Chatham, and illustrative of all the color of Chatham.”
Note that, in all of this, she doesn’t talk about herself. She has a kind of genius for deflecting, for slipping into the shadows and letting others take center stage, perhaps protective coloration for a person who spends much of her working life with brides.
She was brought up in Asheville when it was a sleepy little town and came to Carolina in 1984, majoring in English and History. And then, in her final year she discovered Art History. “Okay. Now my world just opened up. Because of things I was learning in a survey course, I would walk around in the world and see things differently. A kind of layer of meaning.”
Perhaps this course connected somehow with resonances of all the museums and galleries she had visited with her mother as a child. In any event the decision to add an Art History major left her devouring Renaissance Painting, Contemporary Women in the Arts, Asian Art—with field trips to the Freer Gallery of Art in DC, where her professor, Dr. Sherman Lee, was greeted as a visiting god of that world—all in one year.
“Here I was trying to do it all at once, the end of the spring semester, and I got sick, had to have surgery. My mother was finishing up her BFA at UNC-Asheville at the same time and yet she still wanted to know what she could do for me. I said, ‘Will you go to my classes for me?’ And she did. Participated, took notes, everyone loved her. And with her notes I was able to finish. We graduated on the same weekend.”
And then there was the scheduled trip to Europe, for which the financial planning called for two weeks of extra shifts at Crooks Corner, where she was then working. “Bill Neal was still in the kitchen. I loved working there. But then there was a plumbing issue. And the restaurant closed. I had to find work, and fast. I landed a temporary job on the garden crew at Fearrington, and loved it. After the trip, I returned to Fearrington, doing odd jobs until R. B. Fitch offered me a job managing what was then called the Market Café. Later I moved to catering manager. Now I’m Director of Weddings and Special Events. And I get to walk around those gardens both as a meditation and as part of my job. So, yes, basically, I’m one of those fortunate people who came to Chapel Hill to go to school and never left.”
Well, she did come to Chatham County. And through her work with the Chatham Arts Council made ClydeFEST what it is today. “The field itself is a piece of art that has a specific layout that looks a lot like a star or rising sun from above.” She is quick to give credit for this design to Stephan Meyers, who was, when they met doing ClydeFEST, a newly-arrived-from-NYC singer-songwriter based in Bynum. And the rest, as they say, is history. “When Stephan got involved, it truly got its shape. He’d keep coming up with creative ideas and I’d run them down.”
Gilda McDaniel is also responsible for matchmaking the move of the Small Museum to its current location in Pittsboro, outside the Small Café. She serves as President of the Board of the Small Museum of Folk Art, is Chair of the Board of Directors of Arts NC, a statewide arts advocacy organization, and is a long-time board member of the Chatham Arts Council. She works with Kirsten Lindgren on the annual Folk Art Show in Fearrington Village and volunteers every year at the Penland Benefit Auction.
When construction was complete on her house, designed by an architect in Maine who specialized in small houses and tweaked by Jon Condoret, the architect at Fearrington Village, her builder said, “Well, you live in this community now, so you have to get out there and give back.”
“And that’s how I’ve found my friends and made a life here. I once thought I wanted to go into museum work. Well, here it is. I’m living in it.”
FROM THE ARTIST
My full name is: Gilda Kristina McDaniel. My mother was from Sweden and my father from Kentwood, Louisiana, population circa 2000, famous mostly for having been the birthplace of Britney Spears. I was named after my Great Aunt Gilda Magee.
I live in: a glorious part of deep Chatham, shaded by one of the Grand Trees of Chatham, a “Meritorious” willow oak, in a small house full of too much stuff.
My favorite artists are: Oh, I can’t! There are too many. So many artists I get to work with every day. And the Chatham potters like Rusty Sieck, Mark Hewitt, Doug Dotson. The painter Shannon Bueker. Oh, and textile artists! People doing beautiful things with their hands in a mass-produced world. All the folks I get to meet up at Penland. The truth is my favorite artist, and the one with the greatest impact on me is probably my mom, Kerstin McDaniel, a fashion designer and fabric artist. She is such a rock, such a doer. She and my father found each other in the Little Theatre in Asheville. She was costumes and he was the star of the show.
Childhood memory: We travelled a lot. I have powerful memories of the Metropolitan Opera. I didn’t grow up in a child’s world. I remember meeting the Witch in Hansel and Gretel backstage at the Met and thinking, “Is that a man or a woman?” Because I needed to know whether I should say “Sir” or “Ma’am.” The comfort of riding in the backseat of the car with my mom and dad with classical music playing, knowing we were going somewhere interesting and I was safe.
Some jobs I’ve had are: Serving ice cream in an exclusive ladies wear store in Biltmore Village, when I was fourteen. Waiting tables at Crooks Corner. Hauling hoses in the gardens at Fearrington. Working at the fabulous McIntyre’s Bookstore when it was brand new.
The craziest thing I ever did was: Well, one that I can tell you about? Once, when returning here from NYC, I walked home in a blinding snow storm. The plane never hit the ground at RDU, we landed in Greensboro, no luggage, no keys. I rented a car, last one out. Kept on driving, staying behind a big truck that was kind of keeping me on the road. Car finally died on Highway 64. I got out and walked from somewhere on 64 and climbed in a window to sleep in my own bed. Remember the no keys part? Yes. Well. I wasn’t going to spend days in an airport hotel in Greensboro.
On my bedside table you’ll find: Books! That pile of books I always want to get to. Possibly my cat. And the New York Times. Yes, in paper.
Most people don’t know I: Most people don’t know much about me. I mean, they know I love orange. But that’s because, the truth is, I’m really shy.
My favorite places to go in Chatham County are: Other than home and work? The Small Café. I love to be in downtown Pittsboro but mostly I love home and work.
Some Chatham County artists I admire are: Tommy Edwards—as fine a human being as he is a musician; Cathy Holt—a gifted jeweler and, in her yoga practice, a foundation of stability for so many of us; and of course, Clyde Jones. He has given so much to this community and its young’uns over the years while remaining completely himself and doing his art his way. His honesty, sincerity, kindness, and unique Clyde-ness are legendary.