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Gail Soliwoda Cassilly Pens Memoir

Gail Soliwoda Cassilly (click for larger version)
September 12, 2012
Local sculptor Gail Soliwoda Cassilly's memoir "Saltwater" presents her circuitous route from her Polish Catholic upbringing in Erie, Pa., to her co-founding of City Museum, one of St. Louis' most popular cultural institutions.

Cassilly alerts readers that crafting a cohesive narrative from her memories involves a certain amount of subjectivity and reinterpretation. She recognizes that memories take on new meaning as life continues. While granting herself artistic license, she adheres to "the truth as my eyes have come to see it and my mind has come to know it."

Cassilly's story is contained within a broad outline of major life events. She grew up among an extended family in Erie. Her father, nicknamed Salty, was a fireman who died tragically when she was 11. When an order of missionary nuns visited her high school, young Gail was smitten and eventually spent 10 years with the order, first studying art in St. Louis and then teaching art in Malawi.

When Gail left the order, she returned to St. Louis to continue her studies at a newly-formed M.F.A. program at Fontbonne College and began teaching art at John Burroughs High School. She married artist Bob Cassilly, raised two children with him and worked with him until their divorce.

Creating sculpture, Cassilly writes, is a process of addition and subtraction. She draws connections between writing her memoir and carving in which she subtracts material to reveal an underlying form.

"Saltwater" reveals connections between Cassilly's early life and her later experiences in St. Louis. When she was teaching art in Malawi, she participated in the government-mandated Youth Week. All teachers were required to guide students in projects aimed at bettering the land.

Cassilly and her students traveled each day to a neighboring village to paint designs around the doors and windows of all the village dwellings. Taking on the beautification of an entire village is the kind of large-scale, ambitious project Gail and her husband Bob later became known for in St. Louis.

As director of the City Museum, Gail Cassilly spent much of her time fundraising and speaking to promote the mission of the organization. Although this part of the job was not her favorite, she found that she was successful partly because of previous experience. She had traveled with a fellow nun, Sr. Cephas, from parish to parish, speaking to congregations and requesting assistance for their missionary work in Africa.

Contradictions and competing impulses appear repeatedly in Cassilly's story. Shortly before she takes a vow of poverty, she buys a new sports car. Before she married Bob Cassilly, she was simultaneously drawn to and wary of him. She writes of the many times they saw each other "for one last time." When Cassilly studies world religions, she feels an attraction to Hinduism and Buddhism.

Cassilly's writing style is frank. She seems unafraid to reveal moments of selfishness or insensitivity. The result is a highly personal exploration of the life of an interesting local artist.

Gail Soliwoda Cassilly will discuss and sign "Saltwater" at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16 at City Museum, 701 N. 15th St. Call 231-2489 for more information.

She will also read from and sign copies of her book on Thursday, Sept. 13, 7 p.m., at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid in the Central West End.

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