Metal artist, Trudi Gilliam’s life path from her childhood along the shores of the Manasquan River in New Jersey to moving south to live on the island of St. Croix in the Caribbean follows the migratory route of her favorite bird, the American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus). While she has lived outside of Ennis, Montana for 20 years, she spent 25 years exploring historic St. Croix’s Frederiksted harbor, collecting pastel colored sea glass, shipwreck china plates, and discarded champagne bottle bottoms dating to the 1700’s.
Forty-six years of wielding a gas-fired torch to shape recycled copper and brass into wall and freestanding sculptures has been the focus of Gilliam’s work since she began as an art student at James Madison University in Virginia. Throughout her career, her work echoes an intimate relationship with natural surroundings, underwater worlds as well as Montana’s vast textural landscapes.
Strolling with Trudi along garden paths around her remote hillside home southwest of Ennis, I was greeted at every turn by her sense of quirky whimsy. A driftwood tusk, called Balancing Act, pointed the way around a tall juniper, its tip playfully punctuated by a large rusted iron ball. The Frederiksted Choir from her deck framed a far-view down the Madison Valley.
Basking in afternoon sun, Trudi’s Falun red-trimmed rustic studio welcomes curious visitors. Filled with recent work hanging on the walls, her workbench is an organized clutter of tools used for cutting, bending, and brazing, cans of brushes, paint bottles lined up like school kids, and collections of found treasures, all surrounding a stained firebrick work surface. Buckets and bins on the floor are filled with copper scrap, driftwood, egg-shaped rocks, and vintage buttons, each with stories of discovery. Trudi is best friends with the guys at Pacific Recycling in Bozeman who set aside all shapes and sizes of metal scrap. The staff has come to know what she treasures.
Trudi’s recent work juxtaposes malleable copper strips bejeweled with pastel endangered sea glass and vintage button embellishment woven into striking assemblages. She has been creating what she terms ‘choirs’ for many years. The choirs are upright totems that personify joy and sometimes interpret rococo bric-a-brac ornamentation from the Caribbean islands’ colorful houses. Her metallic painted driftwood pieces set against woven copper are reminiscent of hands and feet.
Long popular in Caribbean islands galleries and shops, Gilliam’s work can be found locally at Art Fusion in Big Fork, Kindred Spirits in Sheridan, and Copper Door in Ennis—as well as nationally at galleries in Pennsylvania, Maine, California, and North Carolina.
Firmly planted in southwest Montana’s windy landscape, Trudi Gilliam finds peace and understanding in her deep connection to the flora and fauna surrounding her home, as well as from the Madison elk herd—her quiet, distant companions. Trudi’s artwork is a metaphoric window into her heart, her roots in north/south locations, and her search for a lively course through the positive and negative inherent in life’s terrain.