In March 2017 the Chicago Tribune interviewed Gillion Carrara about her trademark all-black clothing. In a few of her responses, Gillion talked about her home. "As Alfonso and I lived together," she said, mentioning her late husband, "everything went to what he wanted, which was glass and wood and marble, midcentury furniture, and that's exactly what's there today." Later Gillion told the reporter, "My meditation teacher said organization ... brings calm. People say that when they come to my home, it's calm."
I met Gillion during the 2016 Chicago Humanities Festival, where she discussed mimialism at Fullerton Hall inside the Art Institute. (Gillion teaches at the School of the Art Institute and also directs the SAIC Fashion Resource Center.) Shortly afterwards I visited her at home. At that point, I only intented to write about the influence of minimalism on her personal work as a metalsmith and jewelry designer.
But then I experienced the calm that her guests so often note.
Gillion lives in a third-floor apartment. She rents out the lower floors and keeps a workshop in the basement. Alfonso was raised in this building and lived his entire life here, except for his World War II deployment and frequent trips abroad with Gillion.
A photograph on the east wall shows Alfonso as a dashing young student at the Illinois Insitute of Technology, where he studied with the Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy. Another photograph shows Alfonso decades later in a decidedly nautical mood. The voluminous collar of a fisherman's sweater frames his snow-white beard, while hair of the same color sticks out below the brim of a knit hat. The successful architect scrutinizes the camera with his lips slightly parted, more curious than skeptical. Standing over his shoulder, Gillion beams.
Several of Alfonso's drawings hang on the walls. My favorite is a graphite exploration of the traditional bicycle form. Alfonso also made pots, to see how his designs translated on ceramic. And of course there are his flat files, a steel island of drawers on the northeast side of the apartment. "That's where he kept all his drawings," Gillion said. "I've kept his drawings in there and some of his art supplies." Gesturing to another part of the room, she said, "Over here I've got his drawings, his photographs, his diaries, his sketchbooks."
The top of the files used to be piled with Alfonso's projects. Now on that same surface, his work sits carefully arranged along with photographs of women modeling Gillion's jewelry, a bronze bartering tree, and rolls of antique fabric that Gillion found in Asia. During Alfonso's life, the edges of the flat files created an invisbile parallel boundary, like the end zone on a football field. "I was not allowed to come in here," Gillion said. "It was all his projects: his drawings, his photography."
That barrier has disappeared. Now that Gillion is alone, she fully shares the space with Alfonso.
"Calm" is a funny word. It connotes relaxation, but excess relaxation prompts sleep. As Gillion's meditation teacher might tell us, true calm engenders clarity. It is the prerequisite state for accessing true creative energy, with all its capacity to rupture and scorch. This type of calm is shared by under-stress premier athletes, stage actors, and snipers―those with the cool heads kept in Kipling's "If."
That's what I felt inside Gillion's home.
As Gillion spoke, sunlight poured through a row of windows facing north. Stereo speakers played classical strings. Objects on the walls (the line drawings and photographs), objects on the living-room table (the worm-eaten bracelets and silver gauge), objects on a counter top (the patchwork angel, a round tuft of island wool that looks like a hurricane shot from space)―all of it seemed to gently vibrate with the energy of an approaching force, like the glass of water in Jurassic Park.
In the mornings when I wake up, there is pressure at the back of my throat that only goes away when I dash off some stream-of-consciousness writing. Now here in the middle of the afternoon, it was back. I felt the urge to sit at the table where Gillion had laid out samples of her work, all the wood and steel, and open my notebook.
I restrained the urge to drop everything and begin to feverishly write, given my desire to not freak out my host. Instead I continued to hold my voice recorder while Gillion described all the art and artifacts of her home, where raw materials feature next to finished pieces, and the departed and living call and respond. There was no appreciable distinction between Gillion's artwork, Alfonso's artwork, and spirited decoration. A forearm gauntlet made from buffalo horn and Alfonso's pencil drawing of a bicycle seemed interchangable, each one a different iteration of the same overriding work of art―the home itself and its leavening calm.