To Sharon Gilmore’s surprise, … nursing and creating art became “symbiotic; they needed each other.”

Sharon Gilmore, a retired palliative nurse who is also a practicing artist, said that her seemingly disparate professions each have one overlapping facet: Both require careful “examinations of soul.”

Ms. Gilmore, who retired from nursing in 2013, has worked with a variety of media, among them paints, sculptures, found objects and textiles. When she was still in nursing, much of her work consisted of sculptures containing
oblique references to the human body and mortality. 

Ms. Gilmore found herself curious and inspired hearing about and following her patients’ experiences, and found that creating art was an effective means for channeling her thoughts to better understand their perspectives.

“It became the source of my work – I worked with crutches, walkers, wheelchairs [as sculptural components],” she said.

She moved into her current home, a converted garage in southwest Evanston previously owned by a music producer, in the mid-’90s.

“Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles all used to hang out in there,” Ms. Gilmore said. That history has inspired her to host jazz performances in her yard, usually once a year.

“Some people come every year,” she said. “For some people it’s the highlight of the summer, just sitting in the garden on a summer afternoon.” 

Ms. Gilmore, a native of Montreal, served in the Canadian Peace Corps. She started drawing during that Peace Corps stint, and, a few years after her return, she began working with a variety of textiles as well. She eventually decided to go to art school.

“I started sculpture there, and had a fabulous teacher there, who encouraged me to do anything I wanted to do,” Ms. Gilmore said. “He pushed me, mostly with fabrics. I nursed part-time and did art the rest of the time. I eventually moved to Chicago to go to grad school.”

She was determined to give attention to her artwork full-time, and gave up nursing for about seven years. 

“I did retail and worked for friends, and I just loved not-nursing,” she admitted. “But I was only making 10 dollars an hour at the time, so it was really hard to have a studio outside my apartment. So I went back to nursing.”

To Ms. Gilmore’s surprise, however, nursing and creating art became “symbiotic; they needed each other.”

She worked for a time at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, a position she assumed would be relatively easy. That was not the case, though.

“I ended up being assigned to the spinal cord unit,” she recalled. “Most of the patients were young men who were risk-takers – men who’d jumped off bridges to see if they could fly, for example, or were injured in motorcycle accidents.”

Ms. Gilmore eventually ended working in a type of nursing that she’d always aspired to do: palliative care.

“That was a continuation of this ‘investigation of soul,’” she said. “All the sculptures I did during that time were about that investigation and recognizing that process.”

Ms. Gilmore observed her patients’ faculties in various states of transition, and was trying to discern some meaning from those observations through her own artwork. She emphasized the process was not religious for her, but recalled several profound experiences. 

“There was one patient, a former teacher, who knew I was in the room,” she explained. “She exclaimed, ‘Sharon! Sharon! Who’s going to open that gate?’ I replied, ‘Maybe when you get closer, it will open.’ 

A bit later, the patient said she saw a man standing by the gate, and concluded that he was “a safe and good person to be with,” Ms. Gilmore added.

Her sculptures were intended to evoke that process, and be a “container” for it. She developed her own material, based on dirt, as the basis of those sculptures.

“I sifted it, so that it became like a fine powder,” she said. “Then I mixed it with glue and created this hard, hard paste. You can bang on it and it becomes rock hard. These sculptures weigh a ton.”

She knew that  after doing the palliative work “there would be nowhere else to go after doing that kind of nursing. I was clear about that, and trying to keep a freshness to the work, so I didn’t become complacent. I challenged myself, and there are pros and cons to doing that.”

 She admitted to looking forward to retiring from nursing. “I kept thinking, ‘This will be great – I can just do my art.’”

 So Ms. Gilmore retired and the artwork “came to a halting stop. I went dry. I went really, really dry.”

 Finally, she had what she called “a burst of energy” by painting. She was inspired by acquaintances’ accounts of immigration experiences and much of her work was centered around themes of exoduses and refugees. 

 She recently moved her studio from Rogers Park to a location not far from her home in Evanston. She lately has been working on a series of collages as well. Looking at several pieces on her studio wall, she began laughing and admitted, “I really don’t know what they’re about.

 “What I love about sculpture and painting and all
of this is you build it up, then you start scratching and erasing,” Ms. Gilmore said. “These all started out as
very prim-and-proper collages. … I don’t know where they’ll go.”