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Established clay artist Gloria Elliott has also mastered other art forms, including quilting, which she uses to tell her family’s story. In the foreground, a panel depicts her father, a Norwegian emigré who found a job delivering milk by horse. (Photo by Aviva Luria/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Perhaps those who first meet Gloria Elliott along with her husband, Tom, see her as a rather quiet, retiring person, happy to let Tom take center stage while interjecting a comment or two now and then.
Tom, an architect, is an interesting guy. But Gloria is fascinating in her own right.
A talented artist who’s worked in various media, Gloria is best known for her whimsical, colorful clay creations. She’s made them to illustrate children’s books, classroom posters, and calendars. She’s made clay jewelry, ornaments, and wall hangings. Her work has been included in exhibitions organized and shown at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Wadsworth Atheneum that have traveled to other museums. She taught for 10 years at the Guilford Art Center and for 30 years has taken part in its juried Craft Expo on the Guilford Green.
Inside her sunny studio are shelves crammed with objects she’s crafted from clay: critters of various shapes, colors, sizes, and expressions; ladies in hats, bright-eyed and adorned with flowery necklaces; carousels; vehicles; hotels; and diminutive tea sets.
The studio is on the Elliott property in Westbrook, where the couple has lived for 50 years, in a farmhouse originally built in 1735, with an addition circa 1800, and another in 1984. (The sunroom, or greenhouse, was added two years later.) The house itself is bursting with folk art, some made by Gloria and many other objects obtained on the Elliotts’ world travels.
It’s the home of people who have lived a rich life.
Gloria considers herself retired, but she is still constantly creating. Recently, she’s taken up painting, conjuring on canvas many of the characters and themes she’s crafted in clay. Birdsville, a work in progress, is a fictitious place inspired by the chickens the Elliotts once had. Quilt panels depict her grandsons and grandparents, horses, dogs, cats, and memories. These she works on while watching television, collecting them until she has enough to sew together into a quilt.
Each panel has a story.
“This my grandfather,” she says, pointing to one that depicts a horse-drawn cart and a man in a blue uniform. “He came over from Norway. And he worked for Borden’s when they had horses delivering the milk.
“And then, when he got some money back from Norway, and he bought a truck, Borden’s wasn’t happy that he started delivering milk to his own customers,” she continues. “And he wasn’t supposed to tell anybody that he had his own business. But they seemed to know.”
Her grandfather immigrated to the United States as a teenager or in his early 20s, she explains.
“And so did my grandmother,” she says. “But they didn’t know each other. I don’t know how they finally met, but she [was] Norwegian, too.”
In an echo of sorts of that history, Gloria and Tom come from the same town—Glencoe, Illinois—attended the same high school, belonged to the same church youth group, but didn’t really know one another until they both ended up at the University of Illinois.
Gloria spent two years at Albion College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, and then transferred to Illinois.
“I was an art [student] and the Art Department at Albion College was above the library, so it was not a very big” program, she says.
One day on campus, she saw Tom, who has a twin brother. Not knowing which brother he was, she said, “Hello, Mr. Elliott.” He seemed to take notice.
For a while, she dated his roommate. Tom offered to drive her home, about a mile away.
“I paid him $5 every time he took me home for about five or six times until he finally asked me out,” Gloria says.
“We had a lot of similar interests,” she adds.
A Life Together
Together, they’ve traveled: Europe, Mexico, India, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Bali and Indonesia, Laos and Sri Lanka. They’ve planned a trip to Egypt and Jordan for later this year.
They’ve bred horses and Labrador retrievers. They even tried racing a horse.
“We enjoyed doing that, but the horse that we sent, Mike’s Lady, the first race she was in, the gates opened and she was going backwards, so all the other horses went” ahead, Gloria says.
Mike’s Lady was fast: despite her poor start, she nearly caught up with the others by the end of the race.
“But the second race that she was in, she just stayed with all the girls,” she continues. “She didn’t have to be first. That’s what they call heart. So you’re not going to get a horse like that to win races.
“I think we tried her a couple of other times, with blinders, without blinders, but she didn’t want to be first,” she says.
Gloria still has one horse, Alda Bok, now elderly at 32. Gloria still rides her. Three other horses board on the Elliott property, which consists of 83 acres abutting Weber Woods and Cockaponset State Forest.
“We’ve given an easement to the state so it will never be developed,” she says. “We’ve been very supportive of the [Westbrook] Land Trust.”
Tom is currently president and their daughter, Kristin, has served as president in the past. (Their son, Jeff, is an architect in Hartford.) And they’ve connected trails on their land to those to the north and to the south, allowing riders of horses and bicycles to traverse their property.
Gloria does prefer quiet: When they first bought their house, she liked that it was on a country road, and her least favorite class in college was public speaking. But that quiet is bustling with creativity and memories, like the panels of her quilts.
One of those panels depicts her grandmother, standing behind a counter.
“Over in Norway, she sold butter,” says Gloria. “This is the owner of the store. And he said to her, ‘Why is business so good?’ You know, all these people are standing in line for the butter.
“She whispered, ‘I give them a little extra.’”
The owner responded, “‘Well, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.’”
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