Gayle Tustin’s Wilmington studio excites wonder. Paintings and renderings plaster the walls; clay sculptures tower over tables. Works-in-progress and found objects are purposefully organized, bin after bin, on every shelf and under every table.
A Wilmington resident since 1988, Tustin was the first student to graduate with honors in studio art from UNCW, following previous studies at academic institutions, including Pennsylvania State University and Alfred University in New York. Captivated by the beauty of the North Carolina coast—which is reflected in much of her work—Tustin has made a home for herself in Wilmington and a name for herself internationally.
Working in several mediums—oil and acrylic paint, clay, mixed media and ink—Tustin often incorporates objects, such as lace, scraps of sheet music and antique maps, collected in flea markets from around the world. Her works come on a variety of platforms: canvas, paper and cardboard.
“I began collecting objects of interest when I moved to Wilmington,” she tells. “I was enthralled by organic beach finds, especially broken shells. I was not interested in finding the perfect shell. I’m more interested in the texture and history and the colors. I love the lines and balance, richness, harmony and rhythm of each piece.”
It’s no surprise that clay was her first passion. Tustin’s in-studio kiln reaches temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees as it fires sculptures and tiles of red earthenware, adorned with abstract forms and figures in relief. Her process—using terra sigillata (earth seal) and oxide patinas—gives the work a coarse, multi-dimensional appeal—what Tustin describes as “instant ancient.”
“When I started to work with terra sigillata, I recognized it could resemble the texture and colors of tumbled shells,” she explains. “The yellow ochres, titanium whites and iron chromates found in nature heavily influence the palette of so much of my work. I was motivated to find and document every oxide available, and the reaction it would have with every patina I could formulate. I developed an extensive test tile library.”
Tustin’s labors of love reach far beyond the canvas. For 17 years now, she also co-founded and has co-directed No Boundaries International Art Colony, a nonprofit organization that invites local and international artists to spend two weeks on Bald Head Island every year to create.
“No Boundaries opened so many doors for international travel and connections, allowing me to experience different parts of the world,” she muses.“There is something conjuring about being with like-minds from across the globe for two weeks in an isolated environment.”
Tustin has traveled extensively: She sailed international waters off the coast of Turkey, climbed the Andes in Peru, and worked with children in the hopeful plains of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. She has participated in artist colonies in the sweeping landscapes of Macedonia, Spain, Germany, Brazil, and South Africa.
Despite her national and international renown, perhaps one of her most meaningful art projects is right here in Wilmington. Tustin began work on the Celebration of Life murals at Lower Cape Fear Hospice and LifeCareCenter’s Dr. Robert M. Fales Hospice Pavilion in 1996. She was inspired by French painter Henri Matisse’s cut-out techniques and use of colors.
“It is validated that primary and secondary colors are balancing and can promote emotional healing for those who are grieving,” Tustin explains. “At the time, there was no way I could have known what that tile wall and the care center would later mean to those with a loved one’s name inscribed.”
In March 2007 Tustin’s husband, Vince Griffin, was diagnosed with bile-duct cancer. After recovering and healing from her own diagnosis of breast cancer, she felt the roles reversed. Griffin passed away at the Fales Hospice Pavilion in November 2007, only two years after Tustin completed the design for Celebration of Life II, an expansion of the original tile donor wall.
“At that point, the project became even more personal,” she says. “I carefully think about how each tile responds to how the name fits with the intersecting lines and colors.”
In April 2008 Tustin dedicated a tile of her own in memory of her husband. “There are so many people that I come across who tell me how much it means to them to visit the care center and see their loved one’s name on the tile wall,” Tustin notes. “I feel that way, too. We released Vince’s ashes three miles out at sea. It’s helpful to go and have this place where I can visit and see his name engraved in stone, so to speak. I know the murals at hospice are beyond doubt important closure for a lot of people.”
Located across the entrance lobby of the Fales Hospice Pavilion, the Celebration of Life murals currently feature 1,704 donor tiles honoring and memorializing patients and loved ones whose families and friends have made contributions of $1,000 or more to the organization. Celebration of Life III, the latest installment of the project, in conjunction with the recent expansion and renovation of the Fales Hospice Pavilion, will feature an additional 468 tiles upon completion.
“Hospice was there for me during a really difficult time,” Tustin says. “It’s truly an honor that my work will continue to provide healing and comfort to those that enter the care center.”
Celebration of Life Murals
Work by Gayle Tustin
Lower Cape Fear Hospice and LifeCare Center
1406 Physicians Drive
Tustin’s public art projects in NC also include the Safe Passages donor tiles in the Heritage Garden on Lower Cape Fear Hospice & LifeCareCenter’s Wilmington campus. The organization commissioned her to create six Bountiful Life tile murals at the Angel House Hospice Care Center in Whiteville. In addition, the artist’s ceramic wall relief murals are permanently installed at the Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem. Her recent commission of clay relief murals can be seen at the N.C. State Bar Foundation in Raleigh, which depict the diverse people of NC. The Randall Library at UNCW has established an archive of her working papers and manuscripts, all of which document her prolific career.