Shelly Jillson is an Ashland resident and mother of Casey, age 19, and Forrest, age 24. She is a pressed flower artisan who will be showing her art around Ashland for the holidays — at the Lithia Artisans Christmas Faire on Thanksgiving weekend at the Historic Ashland Armory, and then at the Holiday Market at the Briscoe ArtWing, every weekend leading up to Christmas in December. She is a regular at the seasonal weekend market on Calle Guanajuato. Her story is remarkable and inspiring. It was my honor to spend time with her and share a couple cups of coffee.
How long have you been here in Ashland?
Shelly… I moved here with my daughter, Casey, three years ago from Jackson Hole, Wyoming — my home town. The place we lived was a very conservative. I had been seeking an escape for a long time. Being here in the Rogue Valley felt really healing — I came here to heal.
You are making a gesture with your hands (cupping two hands together). Like hands holding water. The coming together of the Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges. That image feels nurturing to me. Do you feel that way too?
Shelly… I needed that, the healing energy you are talking about. I was craving a safe place.
My hometown has a harsh climate that can be stressful and its not my ideal. It is beautiful. Its the Tetons, Yellowstone, the aspens, animals and nature at its best — one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, it was also my family history that I needed to get away from.
We were brought up in an abusive environment. That was hard. Moving here was a time of discovery for me — a fresh start to be who I am — an artist, to live sustainably, to pick fruit off the trees, grow a garden. Those were always aspirations for me as a child. That was difficult for me in my home town and in those less hospitable conditions — both literally and figuratively.
Why don’t you tell us about your art…
Shelly… My art started to develop when I was 16 years old in Jackson Hole at Teton Science School, an amazing place. I went for six weeks one summer for a field biology course with kids from all over the country. There were 30 of us. We would go on long hikes and I would always press flowers in my field books. I would put a rubber band around the book and let them dry. I started making bookmarks and cards for my friends. I am pushing 50 now, so that was about 35 years ago.
About 15 years ago there was a small art show in the Teton Valley. I thought, well, this is some cool stuff, let me share it. There was lots of interest in my work. I starting visualizing other things I could do with the medium. I started laminating the flowers and putting them on journals. Then I discovered glass. Pressing the flowers between glass was a big step and the art evolved from there into a line of jewelry, ornaments, night-lights, and mirrors.
I go out and press flowers any chance I get. Luckily, here in southern Oregon, I can do that 8 or 9 months out of the year. The Lithia Artisans Market, having that sort of a weekly outlet to show my art, is something I never had in Jackson Hole. We had two or three art shows a year, and lots of high end galleries, but nothing like the market.
You are talking about the difference between accessible art and high-end art — the artisan and the artist.
Shelly… Affordable, one of a kind, locally made craft. You can see leaves that fall in Lithia Park artfully displayed in one of my night-lights. I had a woman stop by that wanted something absolutely unique to the Ashland experience and she was totally taken by my ornaments. She took 10 of them with her to Japan! That means so much to me to have that support.
Doing this work has truly been my sanity. When I was 23 years old I lost a baby, a brother, and was diagnosed with cancer all in a 16 month period. Yesterday I got my checkup and I am clear! Every six months I go in for blood work.
The fact is, if I didn’t have my art work I don’t know where I would be, if I would be…
When I make something and put it out there I feel like I am sharing a part of myself and my story, my survival, my passion, my love, my sanity, my religion. It has helped me through the years to heal, to grow, to expand into new areas. I feel like a flower — growing and blooming. I feel so blessed, like it is a rebirth for me. I feel so lucky to have found you guys, the market.
That is awesome. What does the market mean to you (the people who make up the market, and the venue itself)?
Shelly… For me the two go hand in hand. The people are like my extended family. We get together every weekend and build our little tent city. And within that city are people you can confide in, bounce ideas off of, network with. The creative juice just gets flowing. Also, having the venue to sell is so great. Like I said, I didn’t have that in Wyoming. We were just a very few in our group of artists. Here it is just so much more accepted and established. The market is really something I look forward to every weekend. Even if it is a slow day, just being there watching the leaves change, out along the creek, in nature, and having the opportunity to present my work. The possibilities are there, the support is there — you can make it whatever you want to make it.
The market sort of acts like an idea factory, doesn’t it? No matter what might be on your mind, there is no shortage of opinion on Calle Guanajuato.
Shelly… Yeah, it is bubbling with creativity. People like to be around that kind of energy. People need that. Folks tell me all the time, “thank you for doing what you do.” I am sure you hear that too with your stone beads.
Mother Nature is the best artist! I bow down to her. When we are able to present what nature gives us in our art, that is truly a gift.
You mentioned battling cancer at age 23. What kind of cancer was that, and how has that experience shaped who you are today?
Shelly… I had thyroid cancer, it was a fluke. I was going in for a routine physical for work and the doctor felt some lumps in my neck. They found 11 tumors and eight of them were malignant. It had already spread to my lymph nodes. Then ten years ago I was re-diagnosed with the cancer. It is common for a pack of cells to remain dormant and then just flair up.
All of that happened and I got the chance to drink radioactive iodine, twice. It’s called radioactive iodine ablation treatment. You drink a vile of this stuff and it goes to the thyroid and nukes it. I was in isolation for three days and my job was to constantly drink water and clear my system of this radiation.
That year was tough but it gave me such a unique perspective on life. I now live for every second, every moment that makes up a day. That helps me understand that there is so much we can do to help ourselves, to help the world. Even when it seems overwhelming on the big scale there are things we can do on the ground, right now, to help. Even if it is just sharing leftovers, or picking up garbage, it all matters.
I try to be open to different types of people because that is what makes up the world. I learned as a child that judgment didn’t feel right to me. Judgment is so hurtful and hateful. I think I just have more empathy than that. That homeless person could be me someday, or my brother, or a friend.
Everyone has their unique story, you know? I get chills just thinking about that.
Shelly… The history. What is their history? Nobody gets through this life unscathed. Even with all that I have been through, I think of myself as lucky. So many people have it so much worse. I have been fortunate.
This is why I will go home this afternoon and make some night-lights. I will work through my stuff by working my art. I have to do this, it keeps me sane. It helps me survive.
I love your night lights, they are so comforting. The things we make are little pieces of us. Does that sound right?
Shelly… They are treasures that are pieces of our soul. People need a little light in their life — it gets you through those dark moments. We all have ‘em, right? Anything we can do to lighten up and keep connected with Mother Nature helps keep our souls healthy. I hope to God that I will always be creative, sharing, and giving, because that is the ultimate purpose of why we do what we do.
Take me through the steps of your creations?
Shelly… For the first time I now have my own flower garden. On a perfect day I will take my brown paper bag and start collecting. I pinch the flowers off. That is where it starts. I do this two or three days a week.
I dump the fresh flowers out of the bag — the colors are just outrageous! I put them into traditional flower presses. It is like building a big flower sandwich. I might spend five or six hours on that task.
In the afternoon or evening I will get out my glass, open a press and take out the layers of flowers. It takes about 2 weeks for them to dry. When I take them out I have to be really careful, they are fragile. It is very Zen. When I start putting a night-light together it is like a mini quilt, a little flower mosaic — colors and balance and contrast. I do all this without over thinking it. When I see them light up it is such a rush, it’s magical!
We talked earlier about how gray the world would be without art. I think many of the jobs that are leaving our economy are gray jobs. What do you think the future economy will look like?
Shelly… I think it will be more colorful and based on self-employment and artists doing their thing in places like the Lithia Artisans Market. The factory jobs aren’t there. Our artwork is filling a niche. If I have a special gift to buy for somebody I go to the artisans market and buy something made with the hands and soul of a local artisan. That shows that I cared enough to seek out something unique, one of a kind, a piece of living history. When I create I am sharing a part of me and leaving a mark on the world that inspires someone else.
You can find out more about Shelly and her creations at her website www.nativedesigns.info/ or at her new website, pressedflowercrafts.com. You can find her work at “The Crown Jewel” in Ashland and Jacksonville as well as “The Tudor Guild Gift Shop” at the Shakespearean Festival.
More information on the Lithia Artisans at www.lithiaartisansmarket.com.