Life in Our Foothills – December 2023 – Pieces of Lives in Art – Metalsmith Ashley Gilreath

Published 12:28 pm Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Most of us have them in our homes; pieces of our past that serve as an archive of our personal history, like photographs of people we’ve lost and objects they left behind. Artist Ashley Gilreath sees them as reference points for how we maintain and understand our relationships with each other and as a bridge between past and future generations. You can see her own family history reflected in her art.

“I want people to feel that same connection with their own histories when they look at my work,” says Gilreath. “I want them to reflect on their own families and their own joys and their own losses. I want them to see that you can do something with your hands to memorialize those moments.”

Gilreath was born in Monroe, Louisiana, but her parents moved the family to Mt. Airy, North Carolina soon after.

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“I told my parents in preschool I wanted to be an artist,” says Gilreath. “I was always making jewelry and making crafts growing up and my parents always supported that for me. They never tried to dissuade me from being an artist. They never tried to tell me you’ll never be able to make a living. It was always do what you love and the money will come later. Always do what you love and what brings you joy.”

After high school, Gilreath says she wanted to attend college in state to keep the cost down for her parents. She applied to UNC-Asheville, Appalachian State University in Boone and East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. She was accepted at all three but chose ECU.

“It was the farthest from my parents and I wanted more independence,” she says with a chuckle.

Gilreath had planned to go into graphic design, but the plan soon changed.

“When I was in school, I just happened to see a masters show in metalsmithing and I was like oh, this is amazing,” she says. “You’re telling me I can study this and I can do this and so that started everything.”

Gilreath pursued a degree in Metal Design at ECU. It was there she developed the concept of representing her family experiences and the concepts of loss, memory and inheritance associated with objects loved ones leave behind in her work to help her deal with the death of her grandfather who was a watchmaker and jeweler.

“You can sit in your grandmother’s kitchen and remember my uncle used to sit here and my aunt used to sit here and now it’s just you and everything’s just empty,” Gilreath says. “I kind of process grief and memory loss through my work.”

After graduating from ECU in 2011 Gilreath entered an artist-in-residence program at the Lillstreet Arts Center in Chicago not knowing that the position would require her to teach.

“I was in charge of proposing some workshops and I had to create my curriculum and I had to create my scheduling and I had to figure out how to demonstrate these techniques to a wide range of people, some who have a lot of skills and some who have zero skills, in the same classroom,” says Gilreath. “That residency was a huge stepping stone in my career as an educator. I happened to fall into a place that was perfect for me at the time and what I needed.”

In 2012 Gilreath left Chicago to do another stint as an artist in residence at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. There she had 24/7 access to a studio, could audit other classes, and said living and working with other artists there created a great collaborative experience.

“I learned a lot about myself and what I wanted and what I did not want in my career during that residency,” she says.

In 2019 she reunited with a friend from Arrowmont and did a joint artist-in-residence program at the Pocosin Arts School of Fine Craft in Columbia, North Carolina. 

Two years before, she and her artist husband Michael Webster moved from Philadelphia to Spartanburg, South Carolina so he could take a position teaching art at Wofford College. Gilreath says she also wanted to continue teaching and pitched the idea of doing some workshops to the Tryon Arts and Crafts School.

“I really love teaching,” says Gilreath. “I want anyone and everyone to come into a metalsmithing studio and get excited and that’s what I really enjoy and that’s why I do so much teaching. I have so many workshops both nationally and locally because it really is the joy of my life to continue sharing this craft with everyone.”

Gilreath teaches workshops in metalsmithing and enameling at TACS every winter and spring with classes for both teens and adults at the beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. She’s also teaching an ornament-making workshop for teens at TACS this month. 

“Ashley is one of a small but mighty group of advanced craftsmen who are going to carry the contemporary craft scene forward,” says TACS executive director Will Barclift. “These artists have a strong network through the craft school instructional circuit, artist residency programs, craft fairs, etc. They are young, energetic, and brilliant.”

In summer and fall, Gilreath teaches workshops at arts and crafts schools all over the country. She sells her artwork at some of them and at the TACS gallery. She also sells her sculpture pieces and jewelry on her website ashleygilreath.com

“I call them my abbreviations because it’s like you’re taking a little bitty piece of me whenever you purchase an item and I try to incorporate all of my familial memory concepts into my pieces,” says Gilreath.