At age 47, Liz Guilkey is setting and achieving goals that four semesters ago seemed impossible. The Lorain artist is graduating from Lorain County Community College with an associate of arts degree with honors. This fall, she’ll attend the Cleveland Institute of Art, the only dedicated college of art and design to sit among The Princeton Review’s collection of high-quality colleges and universities in the Midwest.
“I’m super excited; I worked really hard to get here,” Liz says. “The admissions advisor told me that my portfolio was one of the most professional he has ever seen.”
Liz has already secured two funding scholarships toward earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at CIA. She received a merit scholarship because of that impressive portfolio, and a George Gund Family Scholarship. Liz is also a finalist for the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation College Scholarship Program, which can total more than $55,000.
It seems Liz is at an academic high. But this wave of scholarship success follows one of the most terrifying times in her life. During her final semester at LCCC, Liz’s husband, George, wound up in the hospital with sudden heart failure.
“His heart was working at about 13 percent,” she says. “There were no underlying issues, no obvious causes or any blockage. It just started to fail.”
The stress was almost too much. Liz spent days at a time in the hospital with George—time that she’d normally spend in class, studying, or creating. But, just as a team of doctors worked to increase her husband’s heart function, a community of LCCC students, instructors and advisors rallied around Liz in a show of support.
“I realized that I was not alone, when I had very much felt alone in this,” Liz says. “I have no family in Lorain, but I learned that we can be like family at LCCC.”
Doing something different
Both Liz’s parents were artists, and she grew up in a household steeped in creativity.
“I love everything about art,” she says. “I love art history, I love creating it, I love studying it.”
Until LCCC, Liz was completely self-taught. She was also well disciplined, spending hours studying, researching, and practicing her craft. Her art was earning an income. Most of it has come through commissioned portraits. People mail photographs and she paints or sketches the subject.
“I paint a lot of pet portraits,” she says.
As the years passed Liz says she and George began taking inventory of their lives. And something wasn’t adding up.
“I had always just thought I’d be raising a family and that never happened,” she says. “We talked about how our life isn’t going anywhere, so we need do something different.”
Liz thought maybe her “something different” was going back to school. Neither of her parents had attended college, making it feel like unchartered territory. George insisted she enroll, even though she was “scared to death.”
“I always grew up believing I wasn’t very smart,” she says. “And he said, ‘No, you’re a smart person and you’ve got lots of talent. Go back to school and do something with it.’”
Discovering a community
At home, George, who also enrolled in math and science courses at LCCC with the goal of becoming a physicist, made many sacrifices to help, including working overtime. On campus, Liz applied for every scholarship program she was eligible for. The greatest opportunity came from The Michael J. Brown Discovery Scholarship & Learning Community.
Through its financial scholarship and learning community environment, accepted students, called scholars, receive a rich guided cultural, career, leadership, and community service experience. The approach is meant to support degree completion, while also helping scholars discover who they are and what they’re capable of.
The learning community’s leadership course is taught by Denise Douglas, Ph.D., Dean of Social Sciences and Human Services. She has extensive experience coaching emerging leaders, and she was also a first-generation, non-traditional student. Douglas says the program is highly selective and seeks individuals who are interested in developing their leadership competencies.
“When Liz first started the program, I am not sure she considered herself a leader,” Douglas says. “Now it is clear to me that her confidence has grown and that she does consider herself a leader. I couldn’t be prouder of Liz and all that she will continue to accomplish in her life.”
Liz says through her involvement, she found her voice. She also began to feel a sense of belonging within the broader LCCC community. But it wasn’t until that final trying semester that Liz realized the strength of her campus bond, which began to form during the couple’s first semester. She says students nicknamed them “campus mom and dad” because they helped students study, offered rides to campus, and even taught a few how to cook.
“When some of the students found out George was in the hospital, they showed love and support,” Liz says. “They asked if they could visit ‘campus dad’ while he was in the hospital. It felt good to feel the love of the campus community.”
During that time, Liz said her instructors, whom she says are some of the most talented artists she’s met, showed how much they care for their students. Hers offered deadline extensions and online options. They also helped Liz prepare her portfolio for the Cleveland Institute of Art application. The support seemed to pour in from everywhere and from everyone.
“I knew I had to finish the semester, being so close to graduating,” she says. “If I didn’t, I would be failing George because he really wanted this for me.”
Finding her inspiration
For Liz, failure isn’t an option. Neither is mediocrity. She’s graduating with a 4.0 GPA and last spring, while taking a portfolio course, she was one of four featured artists in the Beth K. Stocker Art Gallery. Twelve of her pieces were on display, including “My Boot,” a duct tape replica of her boot that fits and can be worn, and “Mad Mab’s Throne,” a vine and fairy-entangled chair Liz built herself in honor of the queen of the fairies.
Some were classroom projects, others were pieces she had done at home. Regardless of where she had created them, the inspiration for each piece came from within. Funneling herself into her pieces is an artistic process she’s strengthened during her time at LCCC.
“The instructors teach you how to tap into that,” she says. “How to bring out the emotions through your artwork and how to interpret things in your own way.”
In four semesters, Liz has had a range of emotions to pull from – fear, frustration, uncertainty, exultation. The piece she’s most tethered to is one she made for her husband. It’s a soapstone carving called “Lost Lore.” Separate, the two halves of a tree trunk, entwined in vines and razor-sharp thorns, function as bookends. Together, the pieces fit flawlessly, side-by-side to create the tree as whole. The carving was inspired by the couple’s favorite song, “Three Ravens,” which tells the story of a knight who dies, and his lover is so heartbroken she dies too, next to him. The ravens in the song watch as this happens.
“I think the passion they had for each other in that song is what spoke to me,” Guilkey says. “To lose the love of your life, and it hurt so much that you feel like you die also. It’s what true love is.”
Liz says her true love is “insanely proud” of her. She’s proud of herself, too, seeing now how far her instructors have pushed her.
“You can only learn so much on your own, no matter how good you are,” she says. “I learned to take in my instructors’ experience and put it together with what I know. And my education is something I take with me for the rest of my life.”
A life full of art, with George by her side.