Carol Ezell-Gilson took the advice of her mentor to heart and has lived by the precept throughout her creative career.
“The late Marshall Glasier, who I studied under at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, was a huge influence on my art,” says the Charleston painter and tour guide. “Marshall would always say, ‘Guard the artist within you. Feed the eagle — your passion — and it will take care of you.’ ”
Glasier also counseled her to return to her native South after four years in Philadelphia, where she also earned a BFA from the University of Pennsylvania.
“Marshall was my figure drawing teacher my first year up there, and quite a character, with an entourage of female students. I was 18 and he was 74, and it was like we knew each other in a past life. He was fascinated with the South, and somehow I reminded Marshall of himself when he was my age.”
The two became good friends and remained so until his death 12 years later, exchanging a series of more than 200 letters, correspondence she treasures. One day, Ezell-Gilson hopes to publish them in book form accompanied by images of his work — not least to remind the art world of just how accomplished an artist Glasier was.
“Before I left the academy, he convinced me that I needed to go back to the South, that it was my mandate to be in the place I loved and to paint it. He was a huge affirmation for me. Even when I read those letters now, they have that same effect.”
Not confined to any one form, Ezell-Gilson says her work moves in and out of at least 10 series, reflecting varied genres and ideas, chiefly in acrylics.
“Some of these series are autobiographical, some are Southern histories. Then there are live oaks, visions through ironwork, a Japanese series and so on.”
She is inspired by beauty but owns a particular affinity for nature.
“I also like to do things from my memory, which is sort of like therapy.”
Ezell-Gilson, who has enjoyed 15 solo exhibitions, has produced a series of 12 paintings for her next show, “Sacred Windows,” a City Invitational Exhibition for the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.
Depicting stained-glass windows from 12 places of worship in the Historic District, “Sacred Windows” will be on view Friday-June 10 at the Dock Street Theatre.
“I take a lot of tour groups into St. Michael’s Church, and when you’re there in the morning and the sun is coming through that graveyard window, it blows you away.
“In 2003, when I was attending the Circular Church and admiring the windows there, I realized how many beautiful windows there were in Charleston and how much I liked painting them. I thought I’d like to do a series.”
Three years later, she began to work on it. One of the first pieces was on display at the studio of photographer Rick Rhodes when Ellen Dressler Moryl, director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, chanced to see it.
“Ellen called me about a year ago with the idea of using one on a Piccolo program and having a show if I could do about a dozen of them. And here we are.”
“Carol is one of the hardest-working artists that I have ever met,” says Moryl, “and I have admired the different styles she has developed over the years. When I saw that beautiful piece of hers in Rick’s work area, I thought it was real stained glass, not a painting. I knew immediately that it would be the perfect image to grace the cover of the Piccolo Spoleto Spotlight Concert Series program guide and souvenir poster.”
Ezell-Gilson was born in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Her father, Dr. Kay Ezell, grew up in Upstate South Carolina and came to Charleston to attend medical school at the Medical College of South Carolina.
He went into cancer research in the mid-’50s, moving the family to Oak Ridge, where he researched radiation treatments. He later died of cancer due to excessive radiation exposure.
Ezell-Gilson was 3, her older sister, Mary Nance, who was born in Charleston, was 5. Their mother, Jane Scarpa-Ezell, moved the family back to Charleston in 1962.
“My father died when I was so young, but even though he was not here, he was a huge, looming presence.”
It was her grandfather, Edward Anderson Scarpa, who in many respects filled the paternal role.
“He was very much of a father figure, and a big influence,” Ezell-Gilson recalls. “He loved Charleston and would tell me all these wonderful stories about it. It was he who got me interested in history.”
In high school, she enrolled in a teenage drawing and painting class at the Gibbes Museum School, where Ezell-Gilson later would teach, studying under Manning Williams, who introduced her to figure drawing and perspective.
“Manning took me outside to paint — plein air — and taught me how to capture the beautiful, still-rural landscape of the Lowcountry.”
After one year (1975) as an art major at Furman University, where she was unhappy, Ezell-Gilson left for Philadelphia, much to the horror of her mother.
“It was quite a culture shock at first. I was scared to death. If Mom had not been so dead set against me going, I probably would not have made it, but I was determined.”
Industriousness is a family trait. Ezell-Gilson’s great-grandfather, Paul Angelo Scarpa and his brother, Giuseppe — ages 14 and 16 — left Venice, Italy, in 1860.
They landed in Charleston and stayed here, already experienced as boat builders.
Ezell-Gilson invests a few hours a day at her art, mainly in the afternoons, but remains as busy as ever conducting tours.
“I work for a living, and I’ve done a million other things besides art,” she says. “When I taught public school, I did not paint at all. That was my most consuming full-time job.”
Only she had vowed never to be a teacher.
“My mom, sister and all my aunts were teachers, and I said I’d never do it. But when I came home from Philadelphia in 1981, I agreed to fill in temporarily at First Baptist Church High School. I was there for six years.”
In 1992, she earned a master’s in arts and teaching degree at the College of Charleston in order to teach in the public schools.
She then promptly moved to Branchville, where she taught language arts for four years, living alone in a sprawling old country farm house.
At 37, during her last year in Branchville, she married Tom Gilson, chief of the reference desk at the College of Charleston Library.
When Ezell-Gilson left public school teaching in 1997, she got a job at City Hall doing tours of the council chambers and acting as curator of the painting collection.
While there, she also served as chairwoman of the Heritage Education Forum and secretary of the city’s Arts and History Commission.
“Working at City Hall was very cool, and we achieved a lot there, but there wasn’t much money in it,” she says. “Then in 2000 I was hired as curator of the Legare-Waring House, Slave Settlement Area and Plantation House at Charles Towne Landing.”
After leaving that post in 2004, Ezell-Gilson concentrated on her art and a series of walking tours for various companies, while also offering her time to volunteer with such organizations as the Historic Charleston Foundation.
Today, her relaxed manner belies a full schedule, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.