"You take your heart in your hands and try."
Lillian Elliott, quoted in American Craft, June/July 1994
When recently asked by a young woman if I would be willing to be her mentor, I found myself wondering if I could live up to the responsibilities. The bar for mentorship is set high in my mind, as one of the most influential people in my life was my mentor, the artist, Lillian Elliott.
Shortly after I arrived in Berkeley at the age of 19, I met Lillian when she taught a class at the UC Berkeley Extension. This class meant the world to me, as I had no money to pay for it and had convinced the kind souls at UC Extension to give me a scholarship so I could take this one class. I was attempting to find myself, having already dropped out of college and moved across the country on my own, away from everything I knew, and this class was one of the steps toward starting over again. Little did I know that with this class not only would I begin my explorations as a textile artist, but even more importantly expand my world view through the eyes and mind of Lillian.
Lillian was a mensch – a strong, impossible, gentle but demanding mensch who took me under her wing, introducing me to everything from Uzbekhistan textiles to the art of making sourdough bread. I was dazzled by the chaotic creative mess that was her home and studio, and challenged by her to think independently and as an individual. Ultimately, I was impressed to my very soul by her utmost belief in listening to your own heart and voice. “You take your heart in your hands and you try”, was Lillian’s explanation of the creative process – as simple as that. While she was always learning and teaching new techniques, technique was not what mattered to her at all. Soul was what mattered. Listening to your voice was what mattered. Seeing what came from your hands as a result of listening to your heart was the essence of the creative process. OK, and to be fair, there was always her exuberant love of materials!
I don’t practice art these days, and have even imposed a moratorium on my practice as a serial knitter, so mentorship for me is in the realm of business. Nonetheless, I find Lillian’s words running through my head in many situations, both personal and professional. The soul and driving force to create is as necessary to greatness in the workplace as it is in the studio. I’ll never know if Lillian was consciously passing on her worldview, but I took it in. And I hope I can pass on my beliefs to this young woman who is seeking guidance as well as to those with whom I work on a daily basis. It's about how you treat people in business, how you stand up for what you believe, and how you deliver your best self in your work. How? You take your heart in your hands and you try. Thank you, Lillian.