February 15, 2012
(Reprinted with permission)
by: Jon Wells
The Hamilton Spectator
Thursday, November 10, 2011
“I’ve had a good life, a good journey. How could I be upset? It’s liberating to know that it is what it is.” Shirley Elford spoke those words about a year ago, knowing that time was not on her side. Diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in January 2008, the renowned glass artist never stopped reminding her family and legion of friends that she did not fear death. The life expectancy for that form of cancer is three to five years.
Shirley prepared for it, hired a funeral planner, joked that sometimes it felt odd to organize a party for which she would not be present. And yet, befitting an east end girl who used to work on her dad’s construction sites, she fought death every step of the way, calling upon her reserves of physical and spiritual courage, and receiving experimental cancer treatments for which she paid out of her own pocket.
The battle ended, shortly before noon Thursday. Family gathered at Shirley’s sid e at Juravinski Cancer Centre when she died. She had turned 68 in August.
Shirley Elford lived many lives. The daughter of Margrit and Bill Sinclair — Bill was a prominent Hamilton builder — she married Gerry Elford in 1963, when she was 19. They had two daughters, Ann and Arlene.
At 23, Shirley went back to school, to the Dundas Valley School of Art, where she took every course they offered over 13 years. Then she studied glassmaking at the Ontario College of Art and Sheridan College.
She fell in love with the physical and creative demands of glassmaking; the hum and heat of the oven, shaping the glass in any direction her imagination took it. Nearing middle age, her career took off. She opened a studio in Hamilton, and eventually was picked to redesign the Juno Award. She personally made 1,000 Junos over the years. Her other works ended up in collections around the world, and were presented by the city to visiting luminaries including Bill Clinton, Elton John, Bono, Prince Edward and Christopher Reeve. But her greatest artistic legacy was her angels. In 1990, inspired by her mother’s passing, and the tragic death of a toddler in a house fire, Shirley created a glass angel design that was elegant and uplifting. By the end of her life, she had made about 9,000 of the angels. She believed that every one of them possessed a piece of her mother, and the toddler, and that each angel found its way to the right owner, to inspire and comfort.
In addition to her artistic career, Shirley served myriad community causes, promoting awareness for mental health and ovarian cancer, volunteering for charities and Theatre Aquarius. She sat on the board of directors of the Ticats and was presented with an honorary degree from McMaster.
Her personality was always much younger than her years. Into her 50s she easily mingled socially and creatively with up and coming young glass artists. One of these protégés was Paull Rodrigue, who runs Rodrigue Glass studio in Dundas. Shirley asked him to make the glass urn where her ashes would rest. Paull spoke with her last weekend. She sounded better than she had in awhile, but also quite tired. “She put up a long fight — it’s just hard when you lose people like that,” he said Thursday, his voice weak. “She always gave back to her community. My greatest memory of her is her laugh, and her jokes.” And then, speaking of Shirley’s angels, he added: “She was clearly a mirror image of her work.”
In recent years, Shirley lived by herself in a cosy condo in the east end. Husband Gerry suffers from Alzheimer’s and lives in a home in Owen Sound, near one of their daughters. He is no longer able to recognize family, but could on occasion recognize Shirley.
Living in Hamilton allowed Shirley to receive regular treatment at Juravinski Cancer Centre — she spoke glowingly of her care there — and to keep up her schedule, which included a yoga class downtown three to four times a week that she loved attending.
Her yoga classmates, she said last year, “come by and hang with me, help me laugh, help me get better. You have to laugh every day. Laughter is good.”
She experienced some close calls during her cancer fight before finally succumbing. She nearly died around Christmas 2009, but a new treatment, and her will, pulled her through.
Hot Topic: Shirley Elford
Last year, Shirley was asked: Did she fear anything?
“The loss of my grandchildren would absolutely terrify me. But the rest, no. I’m not afraid to die. I have a deep spiritual belief that there’s a force that takes care of me. Cancer has taught me a lot about life. I feel that every day is a gift.”
Through the ups and downs of the battle, her outlook never changed. Friends said she maintained a “no crying” rule in her presence. Her quirky sense of humour and manic energy for her art and the community never seemed to abate.
She went on a Las Vegas vacation not too long ago and even wondered about giving skydiving a shot.
And Shirley returned to her friend Paul’s glass studio to make more angels. She seemed to bask in the heat of the oven, as though it was a kind of life force.
“If they send me to hell, I’m used to the heat,” she said, laughing. “But I don’t think I’m going there, though.”
It took her many years before she had pursued her artistic calling. She felt it had always been there, inside her, but she just needed to find it.
Discovering glassmaking had been her “Ah!” moment, she said.
Shirley agreed that many people go through life never experiencing that moment.
“That’s right — and I’m not finished yet. There might be another ‘ah!’ moment for me. Maybe death is the final one. But I still think I have a few more before I get there.”
Shirley leaves her husband, Gerry, daughters Anne Elford and Arlene Sokalski, brother Bud Sinclair, sister Elaine Lymburner and grandchildren Michelle, Jayson, Matthew and Evan.
This article was written by Jon Wells and made available by The Hamilton Spectator to GAAC for distribution to our members. GAAC would like to thank them for sharing their moving tribute to a great Canadian artist. To view the original article visit http://www.thespec.com/news/local/article/623271–an-angel-spreads-her-wings. You can also see Jon Wells’ award-winning profile of Shirley Elford from December 2010. Readers were invited to talk about the Elford angels in their lives. Read their stories, here.