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SPRINGVILLE — Whether learning or teaching, Jethro Gillespie is pushing the boundaries of what it means to be an art student.
As a high school student at Timpview High School in Provo, his art teacher helped him start on his way to Brigham Young University, which he says he got into despite his grades. Earning a BFA and certification to teach K–12, he began teaching at Springville Junior High School, then joined the staff of the then-new Maple Mountain High School in 2009. After earning a master’s degree from BYU while teaching, he started his doctoral work at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, spending a year there before returning to Maple Mountain High School.
“(My masters) was great experience as well, to be able to delve into the theories of art education while simultaneously dealing with the practical challenges that come with teaching,” Gillespie said. His doctoral research focuses on “rethinking and remaking a high school art foundation's curriculum using primarily contemporary artists as creative role models.”
Gillespie seems like the kind of art teacher you always wanted: warm, encouraging, and experimental. His students participate in projects like the portable art gallery he created for his master’s degree thesis, collaborative works using new-to-them materials like wood and nails, or the TASK party he hosted with artist Oliver Herring—a loosely structured event where participants work together to give direction, interpret tasks, and create works of art based on those interpretations, using materials on-hand.
But Gillespie also spends significant time in the studio. In his career, he has played with medium and scale in interesting ways; looking over his portfolio, it’s easy to see his evolution as an artist take place. One theme he played with for some time was painting large-scale portraits of Rocky Mountain Elk.
“The Rocky Mountain Elk is the Utah State Animal, and I figured, ‘I'm kind of an animal from Utah,’” he said. “These works kind of speak to the idea of being a Mormon in Utah, especially the notion of how Mormons view the ‘natural man’ as the opposite of a holy person. In many of these paintings, I show the elk sort of bound up in, or tangled in, these cords that just kind of go off the edges of the paintings. For me, the cords have to do with covenants or promises that I've made, and when I'm seeing the world as a natural man, I think that those promises don't really make sense and they kind of seem like a confusing burden.”
Gillespie’s most recent project also centers around Mormonism and the covenants devout members of the church make. “Tally Mark Quilt” is made up of approximately 70,000 embroidered white tally marks on a 6-by-6-foot, white quilt.
“Conceptually, I think these tally marks also have to do with my own personal interpretation of being a Mormon. More specifically, the idea of eternity, or counting to eternity,” Gillespie said. “I see it as sort of a paradox between seeing the promises I have made as a reference to Abraham and his promises from the Lord to have ‘countless’ blessings. At the same time, the large collections of tally marks also hearken to the idea of a prison-like or confined experience, which I sometimes feel because of the promises that I've made. ...To do this collection as a quilt is meant to show my own experience wrestling with these ideas about my own personal experience of being Mormon, but ultimately to create something that is an object of comfort.”
The quilt was accepted into the Zion Art Society’s Zion Art Exhibition, in which it won third place. He recently gave a presentation about his work and the quilt, saying, “I find myself stuck in middle of this paradox. As a Mormon, I felt like this was being honest to my own experience, which I think is important as an artist, to explain how I feel.”
View more of Jethro’s work in the studio and classroom on his blog.