Acclaimed artist and author Joanne Guilfoil has another hit on her hands, with “Berlin Maryland ABCs,” the latest in an impending series of fun books that pay homage to the Eastern Shore
Joanne Guilfoil overcame her share of hurdles en route to becoming the accomplished artist, writer and educator she is today. As a child growing up in Westchester County, NY, in the 1950s, Guilfoil missed an inordinate amount of school due to illness, which severely impaired her reading-comprehension level and placed her years behind her peers. Her struggle to catch up wasn’t easy, but Guilfoil had the eye. She had an innate gift for visual perception and reproduction, which she channeled into drawing, sketching and eventually painting. She ultimately earned her doctorate and became an art professor and highly skilled painter — she even became a writer. Today, the author of the popular Flying Over Delmarva: Spray Planes, Banner Planes & Bi-Planes has fittingly chosen the Berlin’s 150th anniversary as the release date for her ABCs series follow-up, Berlin Maryland ABCs, a colorful tribute to the history, characters and traditions that make “America’s Coolest Small Town” unlike anywhere else in the world.
Coastal Style recently sat down with Guilfoil, to get a better a better view of what makes this intriguing and multitalented woman tick.
CSM: What made you decide to write an ABC book about Berlin?
JG: Well, I was in Berlin and had gone into Victorian Charm with hardcovers of my book Flying Over Delmarva, and I met the owner, Steve Frene. At one point he asked me: “Well, what about an ABC book on Berlin?” And I replied that I didn’t really know anything about Berlin, so he gave me this book on Berlin published by Arcadia and said, “Now get to work!” [laughs], which I intended to do, but I had put the project on the back burner until I realized that 2018 is the town’s 150th anniversary, at which point the project shot right to the top of the list, so it would be in time for the season. Plus, Steve and Debbie have grandkids, and there was nothing like this that had been published about Berlin, so that became another reason to get the book done, something about Berlin for the kids and grandkids.
You donate time, as a volunteer, to paint and maintain the nose art of a B-25 in Georgetown, Delaware. Do you come from a military family?
My father was a shipbuilder in the Navy during World War II.
Did you move around a lot as a child, as so many military families do?
No. He served his time but then went to school to become an engineer, so for the first 13 years of my life we were residents of Valhalla-White Plains in Westchester County.
I’m told you were sick a lot, growing up. Is that true?
Yes, it was before the era of vaccination became the norm in the United States, and I had all the childhood diseases and missed a lot of school. Then, I was ice-skating and fell and broke my arm, so I couldn’t write. After that, I got hit by a car, so some time in the hospital and more school missed. Oh, well.
When I was in fourth grade, my mother got really bad pneumonia, and I got it, too, so we were basically quarantined, and there was nothing to do all day but lie in bed. It was so boring. Eventually, I think my dad brought me some pastels — which, in retrospect, for a kid with pneumonia, probably wasn’t a very good idea. But anyway, he brought me a book, too, called Misty of Chincoteague. Now, the problem was, I couldn’t read, and nobody knew that. But I could draw, so I made a zillion drawings of Misty of Chincoteague — and all I knew is that it was a pony somewhere, but I didn’t know where. The point is, from first grade through sixth grade, I was able to get by because, back then, you could do group work, so I’d always do the drawings and art, which I was good at, and that’s how I got by.
So your reading deficit went basically undetected.
Yes, for writing assignments, I’d basically just hand in the same work year after year, until sixth grade.
What happened in sixth grade?
I transferred to this new school, the Virginia Road School, in Valhalla, and I had this male teacher with big, brawny arms, named Mr. DeGiorgio, who was on to me. He called up to his desk and said, “You didn’t read this book,” and I said, “So?” Well, he slammed that ham-hock arm of his down on the desk and said, “You take this book home, and you read it to your mother, and I want a note from her when you’re done.”
Do you remember what book it was that he forced you to read?
Oh, yes. I’ll never forget it: It was Pippi Longstocking.
By having to read that book, did you effectively catch up with the rest of your class?
By the end of sixth grade, I was much closer to grade level, and by seventh grade, I was basically caught-up, and life was good.
At that time, were you already aware that you possessed an innate aptitude for art?
Yes, definitely. And that was very important, because it was very traumatic when my family uprooted me from Valhalla and made me move to Montgomery County in Maryland. I remember it being a terrible adjustment but that the art was the thing that got me through. That and sports.
Oh, then, despite your sickly childhood, you were athletic?
Yes, I was a tomboy and jock — and a brat! [Laughs.]
Where did you go to college?
The University of Kentucky.
Did you play any sports there?
Yup! I played guard on the women’s basketball team and did a double major in art and art history. It was tough: Half the day in the gym; the other half was in the art studio, so I dropped basketball after two years.
Still, it’s not all that commonplace for someone with genuine artistic ability to also excel in sports.
I know. I thought I was crazy for a while. I’d roll into art class all sweaty, and the kids would look at me like there was something wrong with me [laughs].
Where’d you get your doctorate?
University of Oregon. It had the program I was looking for, where I could study what I wanted, which was environmental design, and I got to study architecture and landscape design.
Did you eventually teach at the university level?
Yes — studio art and art education at the University of Kentucky and later Eastern Kentucky University.
Where do you live now?
How long did it take you to complete ABCs Berlin Maryland?
Oh gosh. Maybe a couple of months. I didn’t waste any time. I got in and got it done.
What did you learn about Berlin that intrigued you the most?
I guess it was the historical figures that are actually part of Berlin’s history, not Ocean City’s, like Stephen Decatur, War Admiral and Man o’ War, to name just some.
Did you make any new friends there?
Definitely. Patrick Henry, Steve Frene, Anya at the Worcester County Art Center and Olga at World of Toys — the best toy store ever — and the folks at Rayne’s Reef. It’s the people of Berlin who make it as great as it is.
Speaking of Patrick Henry, I notice that, like Patrick’s, your work is highly representational, very precise and eerily lifelike.
Thank you! In fact, I call it “precision painting.”
You’re big on acrylics. Why is that your medium of choice?
I can use water; I can do blending; there’s no smell; it dries quickly; and I can do a lot of layering easily. I’ve worked with oils, but I must admit I prefer acrylic.
Will your art be on display locally anytime soon?
Yes, we’re having a show in the Spotlight Gallery at the Art League of Ocean City in August, which will showcase 20 to 30 of my works.
What’s next on the literary front?
ABCs Bethany Beach is done and will be out by the time this article runs, and next is ABCs Ocean City, Maryland. After that is a coffee-table book about the chickens of Delmarva, from backyard broods to family farms, believe it or not. Love those Delmarva chickens. A chicken was my first and only pet!
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