Emory Report
March 26, 2007
Volume 59, Number 24

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March 26, 2007
Memory holder

by kim urquhart

Catherine Shiel was living in the Bay Area in 1991 when a fire broke out in her Oakland Hills neighborhood, consuming nearly 3,000 homes. Shiel lost her house, her cat, and some of her friends lost their lives.

“It was very emotional,” recalls Shiel, a research analyst with Development and University Relations. But along with the sense of grief and loss was another sensation: she was no longer holding her breath. “There was always this sense, this psychology that I grew up with as a Catholic, that something bad was going to happen, that life was supposed to be self-sacrificing,” she says. After the fire, “I felt like okay, the bad thing happened. I can do what I want now.”

So she took a leave of absence from her job as a jail librarian for Alameda county and set out to explore her growing interest in art. She journeyed south, learning how to make fine wood furniture at the Appalachian Center for Arts and Crafts. She began a love affair with a woman she had met at a writer’s workshop in Georgia. About the same time, Alameda County went into a recession and returning to her library job no longer seemed viable. She decided to move to Atlanta, finding work as a librarian at the Atlanta College of Art. Thus began a new chapter in her life.

At Emory, Shiel is currently researching grants to support the new Global Health Institute. She is active in campus organizations, including the Transforming Community Project and Emory Friends of the Forest, and has previously served on the board of the Center for Women and on the President’s Commission on LGBT Concerns. Her 10-year career at Emory began at the Woodruff Library, where she managed the circulation and reserve department.

Switching from a management to a part-time position has allowed Shiel to devote more time to her art, which she vowed to make part of her day-to-day life. “I’m really grateful to be employed by Emory,” Shiel says. “I like my job, I like the balance. And I need a certain amount of security and stability to be able to create.”

Shiel’s artwork has been featured in Emory art shows and around the community. “Memorial to the One-Breasted Woman” was the first piece she created at Emory’s Visual Arts Gallery studio and also her first foray into sculpting with clay instead of wood. The sculpture was recently on display at the February performances of “My Left Breast” at 7 Stages Theater. The life-sized clay memorial to cancer survivors seemed to beckon to theater patrons, with one arm extended and the missing breast exposed. “She’s a breathing and beckoning woman, reaching out to the world from a place of personal power,” Shiel says.

“I created a ritual,” she continues, explaining that she placed a basket of stones at the foot of the sculpture in the theater. Because stones have symbolism in Native American culture — “as historians, they hold the energy and they remember what has happened on the earth,” she says — theater-goers were invited to write or breathe the name of a loved one onto a stone, which then became part of the installation. Shiel promised to then “put all the stones back to the earth.”

“Memorial to the One-Breasted Woman” now beckons to neighbors from the garden of East Lake Commons, a cohousing community in which Shiel was among the early residents. Built on 20 wooded acres, the family-friendly neighborhood of 67 homes centers around a five-acre organic garden, a community house, pedestrian walkways and wildlife corridors. Designed to fulfill ideals of social diversity and environmental sustainability, the “ecovillage” is part of a larger urban renewal effort to revitalize the historic East Lake district of Atlanta.

The community shares meals every Sunday. Last week it was Shiel’s turn to cook. With the help of a kitchen crew of community members, she made barbecued tofu, coleslaw, homemade corn bread, lemon-banana-strawberry pudding — all without using meat, dairy or wheat — for 50 people. When she ran out of an ingredient, she simply asked a neighbor. And her neighbors continue to talk about her delicious coleslaw.

“The whole idea of the community is that we know all of our neighbors,” she says. “There is lots of informal and formal sharing: we own tools in common, and there are lots of carpools. One of the major goals of the community is sustainability,” she continues, and produce grown in the organic garden is marketed to the local community through a Community Supported Agriculture program. In exchange for a basket of the garden’s harvest each week, Shiel distributes produce to CSA’s 55 members.

Emory alumni are among the community’s diverse residents. “There are a lot of interesting people in my community who have done amazing things to change the world,” Shiel says, including a woman who is leading an international effort to make all homes “visit-able” for mobility-impaired individuals, a feature oasted by each home’s “zero step” entrance in East Lake Commons.

When a community member facing a terminal illness chose to live out her days at home, “we were all very involved in a very heart way with her leaving,” Shiel says. Shiel was making a cremation urn for her friend, “visual biographies” being a particular focus of Shiel’s art.

The entire community took part in the urn’s creation. “It was so beautiful, because while I was doing it all the kids would come by and ask what I was doing. I’d invite them in and hand them some clay,” she recalls. “Besides being very emotional, it was very appropriate that everybody was involved in some way.”

Though Shiel creates a variety of art, she feels particularly drawn to urns and memorials. “That [final] part of life touches me, and that’s what comes out of me when I touch clay.”

Shiel first learned of cremation urns in a high school art history class. “I felt like this giant click went off in my being, and I thought ‘that’s who I am,’” she recalls. “But I didn’t manifest that click for a long time,” choosing instead to study anthropology at Los Angeles City College, bilingual studies at Institito de Michoacan in Mexico and women’s studies at the University of California-Berkeley. But even in her many years as a librarian — which she at first considered a “stuffy occupation” until she discovered her flare for research — Shiel’s creativity surfaced in puppet shows and children’s storytelling festivals.

Shiel nurtures her inner child through her art. She is currently designing a series of urns that memorialize animal species in Georgia on the brink of extinction. “I’ve been researching what’s happening with the ecology in Georgia, and designing an urn that is a symbol of those animals and in some way helps educate people.”

She applies a similar approach when creating cremation urns for clients, friends and neighbors. “I meet with someone who is going to die and they tell me about themselves,” Shiel says. “I design an urn that will characterize what they’re telling me, a visual biography of their life.” She adds: “I honor, I create, I let go.”

Sitting with someone as they die is a role Shiel feels honored to play. “Death is not something that scares me,” she confides. “It is such a gift to be in that place; I feel called to be there,” she says. “Being in that place with people helps me honor the sacredness of life, and every step I take I want to take with that appreciation.”