When Ellie Sharman looked at the list of descriptors included in the title to her story — Musician, educator, quilter extraordinaire — she said, “Add adventurer! I’m an adventurer! I thought to myself, “that is the perfect descriptive word for this woman.” Now you can read the article yourself and discover why Ellie defines herself in such a way. She is a woman who has followed dreams.
Ellie was born in 1960 in Pasadena, CA. In 1972, the family moved to Palo Alto, CA. Ellie graduated from high school in 1978, then went to college at the University of California in Davis.
The roots of Ellie’s life passions and her adventurous spirit began with her childhood experiences. She started playing violin in 1967 at age seven. She learned using the Suzuki Violin Method, a teaching method developed by Dr. Suzuki in Japan. This teaching method was new in the United States at the time. The students learned to play by ear. They listened, then played what they heard.
When she was 11 years old, Ellie went to Japan and took a lesson from Dr. Suzuki. She toured Japan with other American students playing violin. They all participated in a big concert in Tokyo. As Dr. Suzuki’s students all learned from the same books, they knew the same songs and could play together.
Ellie’s love of travel also got a start in her youth. Before and after the trip to Japan, she went to Mexico as an exchange student. One trip was for a couple of weeks, and when she returned from Japan, her second trip to Mexico was for a month. After her return, a Mexican student would arrive to stay with her family in California.
Ellie’s parents met through folk dancing, so Ellie and her brother and sister went to all the dances while growing up. When she was older, she discovered contra dancing. Nowadays, if Ellie is at a contra dance, when she is not playing in the band she is dancing.
Ellie has been quilting for about 20 years. She has made bed quilts, but prefers small art quilts. These can be colorful and creative representations of the artist’s talent. The charming art quilt pictured here was inspired by a photo of big-leaf maples that Ellie took when hiking in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.
At the University of California, Davis, Ellie earned a degree in design. It was a broad major, covering interior design, fabric design, ethnic clothing and furniture design. Students made furniture and wearable art items. In fabric design they learned about the qualities of fabric, why a particular fabric could be used for the job, and world clothing design. Ellie wove these strands into her own designs. (An example: including swatches of Guatemalan fabric in contemporary fashions.) Students designed solar houses. A large community of solar houses in Davis gave them design ideas and inspiration. They made chairs, beds, and interior designs for houses. (Much later, after her son, Rowan, was born, Ellie drew house plans for their own home while staying home to care for the baby.) As Ellie had been sewing since she was quite young, she already had valuable sewing skills that were helpful in her chosen major.
While attending U of CA, Davis, Ellie took three winters off and went to school in the summer. During the winter, she worked at a ski area in Tahoe. She ended up managing a cross-country ski shop, and she taught cross-country skiing to youngsters. Ellie had a car — a little VW “bug” — but while she was in school the car was parked, as everyone rode bikes. The only reason for the car was to get back and forth to the ski area. The Davis campus is the biggest biking campus in the country. The parking lots would be full of bikes. Cars weren’t really needed; everyone just rode bikes everywhere. Ellie got lots of practice, so after riding bikes to school and college, she began doing bike tours around the world.
Her college roommate had a poster of Denali on the wall of their room. Ellie looked at that picture for many years, and decided she would have to go to Alaska. She had no money for a ticket, until the road grader ran into her “bug.” Ellie got it repaired with the help of a friend. The state of California gave her $800.00 for car repairs, which she used to buy a one-way ticket to Anchorage. Upon arrival in Anchorage, she took the train to Denali, found the hiring office, and got a job. That summer she washed buses for the Denali National Park concessions.
She loved that summer in Denali. When the season was over, she hitchhiked from Denali to Whitehorse; took the train from Whitehorse to Skagway; then took the ferry in September down the Inside Passage. When she saw the mountains, trees, and ocean in Southeast Alaska, she said, “This is where I am moving.” Since she had now worked for a national park, she applied to Glacier Bay for the next summer. She returned to U.CA Davis to finish her senior year. She graduated in 1983.
An active Girl Scout from second grade through high school, Ellie became a First-Class Girl Scout. The summer after her freshman year in college, she was hired as a Girl Scout camp counselor. Her high school scout leader gave a slide show on kayaking at Glacier Bay. Ellie said, “I’m going there!” So in the summer of 1983, Ellie worked at Glacier Bay Lodge, washing dishes and working as a maid. Then she graduated to working on the tour boats as a hostess.
She was hired as a boat person. For her first and second years with the Marine Department, she worked as a steward on the “Thunder Bay,” a day boat, and on the “Glacier Bay Explorer,” which took overnight trips.
In the fall of 1984, her adventurous spirit led her on a backpacking trip to Europe. She visited her sister in Italy, then went to Morocco. She used a Eurail pass to visit Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France and Spain. The Eurail pass gave her an excellent means to travel through Europe and see a bit of several countries. Ellie did not care much for France because she didn’t speak the language, and the French were not at all interested in speaking English. She tended to gravitate toward mountainous countries in her travels, so it was perhaps natural that she would like Austria and Switzerland. Austria was her favorite. Coincidentally, when she was staying at an Austrian hostel, seated at a long table for a meal, she overheard the comment of a fellow down the table from her. The man said he was from Wisconsin, and Ellie turned to look at him. Much to her astonishment, she saw her first cousin, Howard Metzenberg.
After an enthusiastic reunion, Ellie agreed to take a train to Howard’s destination for the next day, and the two spent the day together. Just this year, Rowan found a copy of their picture with the caption, “Remember when” on Facebook.
Whirling Fiddle Bows
This art quilt is an “intuitive” abstract design. Ellie started sewing it without a plan, making design decisions along the way instead of following a pattern. When she finished sewing, she realized the white radiating shapes looked like fiddle bows.
For her next tour, Ellie and a girlfriend went to New Zealand, hitchhiking with backpacks. She describes the people of New Zealand as very welcoming. She chose New Zealand partly because they spoke English. The two went to both North and South Islands, as Ellie wanted to visit all the national parks. She says she felt safe hitchhiking there, though her parents would have been appalled.
She likes to have either a specific reason to visit a country or a planned destination. On this trip, visiting national parks gave her a reason to go there. As an added benefit, she met other travelers from around the world, as well as Kiwis (New Zealand residents.)
Ellie and her girlfriend worked at a sheep station for a few weeks. They visited the family of a friend from Glacier Bay. Their travels took place during our winter months, which was actually the summer season in New Zealand, so they visited the friends for Christmas. Flowers bloomed, and the temperature was in the 80s.
The pair ended up staying because it was sheep shearing time and all hands were needed for the job. So the two young women took care of the little daughter, giving the family a respite and a chance to complete the shearing job, uninterrupted.
Next, the two girls tried working in an apricot cannery. They had to wear white uniforms and white hats, and they slept in a bunk room in a dorm for workers. They worked in the canning lines. Unfortunately, they had to leave because Ellie’s friend got sick.
They backpacked on this New Zealand trip, hitchhiking to the next park on the list. For one of their park visits, they had to fly to Stewart Island, which is off the southern tip of the South Island. They spent 10 days there, hiking, and viewing many penguins. They also watched for kiwis, the flightless birds of New Zealand, but never saw one.
In the summer of ’85, she was back at Glacier Bay, where she worked as a dispatcher for the National Park Service. She worked at the Visitor’s Center, run by interpretation at that time. The Center had three employees. Ellie was hired because she knew the Bay. She gave out boat permits and supplied camper orientations.
While giving some violin lessons during the summer, she met Kate Boesser, a vibrant Gustavus woman who plays banjo and sings. Kate introduced her to local musicians. Soon music nights followed.
As a seasonal National Park Service interpreter, Ellie went on the cruise ships and gave talks. Her favorite duty was on the smaller boats, that sometimes did overnight trips. The groups were much smaller and the vessels were able to get closer to wildlife. The visitors had a lot of questions about what Ellie did in the winter. They were interested in her life as a Ranger.
In 1988, Ellie made a solo bike trip to New Zealand and Tasmania. On this trip, she took her fiddle. She visited people she had met on earlier travels and went to folk festivals. There was a lot of Irish music. Ellie made the front page of a paper in Tasmania. It showed a picture of her on her bike, playing fiddle. During this trip, she played at the Longford Folk Festival. She also did some busking, and made enough in tips to pay for her hostel and meals.
From Hobart in Tasmania, she took her bike on a six-week road trip from south to north, travelling from Hobart to the north coast, through the center of Tasmania. She stopped at Cradle Mountain National Park for a week-long backpacking trip into the mountains. She climbed to the summit of Cradle Mountain.
According to Ellie, Tasmania could be called the “Alaska of Australia.” The countryside is rugged and rural. People are friendly and helpful. She says the Tasmanians remind her of Alaskans because of their “small-town attitudes” where residents help each other.
Before that summer in Tasmania, Ellie had started dating Lewis. They had met in Glacier Bay while working for the park. Lewis was doing intertidal research for the university in Fairbanks. His major was marine ecology. After the Tasmania trip, they decided to live together in Fairbanks, so Lewis could continue working on his degree. So Ellie moved to Fairbanks, took a class or two, then got a job at Apocalypse Design, doing pattern drafting for a wilderness sewing company. This was her first design job. She learned more about commercial sewing. Since Ellie has loved to sew since junior high, working on outdoor gear supplied a good niche for her because of her interests.
During the winters of ’89 and ’90, Ellie enrolled in a two-year program to get her elementary teaching certificate. She and Lewis lived in a dry cabin, (no running water) located in Gold Stream Valley, the coldest place in town because it was in a hole and the cold air stayed there. Winters were very cold (40 to 50 below.)
Ellie and Kathy Hocker have recently started collaborating on art quilt designs. Kathy draws a wild animal or bird and Ellie incorporates the drawing into the quilt. Using a light table, Ellie traces the shape onto batiks, to which she has applied a fusable baking. The piece can then be permanently ironed onto the quilt. Ellie then machine quilts the entire creation. Here are two examples of their quilt collaborations.
The summer of 1990, Ellie went to Ireland. Lewis lent her the money for the trip because he had money from working on the oil spill cleanup. Ellie took Irish fiddle lessons at two places. She met up with friends from New Zealand and took classes from the fiddle masters. They traveled around Ireland on bikes and played music together. When she returned home, Lewis proposed. Since they got married, she never had to pay back the loan.
Both Ellie and Lewis really liked the Gustavus area and people, and both really wanted to settle here. As each of them wanted to live in Gustavus, they shared a dream. Ellie went to the Anchorage job fair and filled out many applications. Chatham School District wouldn’t interview her, and she really wanted to work in that district, since that is where Gustavus is located. That June, Ellie and Lewis got married, and a week before the wedding, she got a call informing her she had gotten the job in Gustavus. She didn’t even know she was in the running. Kate Boesser and Ellie both got jobs at the school at the same time. She started working full-time, so Lewis went to Fairbanks and cleaned out the cabin. They moved into one of the school rental houses.
Teaching at the school became her life from 1991 to 2015. For several years, life consisted of teaching, building their house, and raising Rowan, after his birth in 1997. Ellie started teaching second and third grades, but taught many grades, depending on what was needed. One year she taught kindergarten through fourth grade by herself. Sometimes she taught music or sewing for the middle school and high school students.
This block print quilt was done by 12 of Ellie’s second and third graders. Each student carved a linoleum block of an Alaskan animal. These images were printed on cards, prayer flags and fabric squares. Ellie then sewed the fabric squares into the quilt, which was auctioned off on July 4, 2014. Proceeds went to the Gustavus School.
In 1992, they purchased land for their house. First, they built a small, simple house that is now the shop. It was their first home for 10 years, until the new house was finally built.
Designing and building the big house was quite a project. They started by making a list of everything they wanted to include in their dwelling This list included south-facing windows, a large pantry, and a sewing room. They went around to neighbors’ houses and measured rooms to determine the size of rooms they liked. The list was ongoing for four years.
Ellie drew up plans while Rowan was a baby, and they made a scale model out of cardboard. They then sent the plans to an engineer. Ellie and Lewis acted as general contractors. They ordered everything and hired workers for each job. The building job took a couple of years. Their builder was Gary Martel, who died, unfortunately, before all the finish work was done.
However, in September of 2004, they moved into
the new house. Ellie says they moved into an empty space, and gradually moved in their possessions as they needed them. After living in cramped quarters for 10 years, it was nice to just spread out and enjoy the room. When Rowan was in second grade, Ellie’s parents came to visit and helped them move.
In 2009, Ellie was one of four finalists for the Alaska Teacher of the Year. She was selected as the alternate. She remarks that she’s glad she didn’t win the award, as the person selected had to travel and speak at various events for a full year.
Ellie says she has certain passions for teaching. They include teaching drama, art, and music to kids. With elementary students, she likes to tie music in with math. She says drama and language arts can be used to get young people interested in learning. She enjoyed teaching cross-country skiing and other outdoor activities with the youngsters, as she felt that being outdoors with them gives them experiences that they can write about.
Ellie met Kathy Hocker (see blog article) through the Artists in Schools program. Ellie wrote a grant for that program, and over a six-year period brought guest artists /teachers to Gustavus. Kathy was the first one brought in. Five years later, she came back for a second time. Kathy would get the students to look and write, teaching them to be better observers. She tied writing, science, and art into one good package. Ellie tried to continue Kathy’s techniques in her own classes.
As the artists would stay with Ellie, she got to know them well. Other artists included Sarah Conaro, Yvonne Zerbetz, and Diana Berry.
In July of 2013, three women, Ellie Sharman, Sara McDaniel, and Laura Ekins hiked 33 miles up the Chilkoot Trail — a hike with an upward gain of 3,500 feet. Known by other hikers they met as “the quilters,” the 3 women worked on quilts commemorating their hike. Mornings before breaking camp, after lunch, and after setting up camp in the evening they sewed on their art quilts.
The fabric forming the background of their quilts shows a jagged line diagonally across the material. This line represents the people hiking up the snowy Chilkoot Pass in 1898 during the gold rush. The trio of women, all over 50 years of age, hiked the same route, known as the “Golden Stairs,” which entailed a four-mile, 45-degree uphill hike to the summit.
To learn more about the hike, go to chilkootquiltersretreat.blogspot.com. Read Sara McDaniel’s story and see her many pictures. Now, these are dedicated quilters!
Ellie retired from teaching in 2015. She says she’d been too long without travel and needed to go somewhere. Rowan had a gap year before starting college, so he and Ellie went bicycle touring in Patagonia. They traveled for two and a half months.
Ellie wanted to take Rowan someplace he’d never been, as he was tired of travelling on the same Gustavus roads every day. Rowan wanted to go to South America because he spoke a little Spanish. Ellie wanted Rowan to have the chance to meet people from around the world, and this trip gave him that opportunity.
She says her greatest fear while trekking on the bike included falling off or getting robbed. Neither of these disasters occurred, but they added horseflies (called tábanos in Spanish) to their list of dreads. The creatures would put Alaskan mosquitos to shame!
The travelers flew into Puerto Montt in Chile. There is a region of the Andes along the Chilean-Argentine border that both countries call Patagonia. A road now stretches from Puerto Montt south for almost 800 miles. It is called the Carretera Austral. Though mostly dirt, parts of it are now paved. This road connects the tiny towns in Chile that used to be much less accessible. The coast is dotted with small islands, much like Southeast Alaska.
At the end of the road, they reached Villa O’Higgins (founded in 1966, the village name came from Bernardo O’Higgins, a Chilean independence hero.) The windy, curvy road led them through mountainous areas and in and out of fjords, and included three ferry crossings. On an average day they traveled about 40 miles; sometimes a shorter distance, depending on the road conditions. They would find a good place to camp for the night. There was no charge for “wild” camping or for some of the ferries.
They visited the Cerro Castillo, mountains with knife-like spires reaching high into the sky. The region had many lakes. They wanted to visit the little town of Tortel, but the roads were really bad, so they hid their bikes in some trees, took just what they needed for the night, and hitchhiked there. They also wished to see the coast. Tortel is a coastal boardwalk town, reminding them of the small town of Pelican, here in Southeast. Two other times, when the wind was so strong it tried to blow them off the road, they hitchhiked with the bikes, getting rides in small trucks. Ellie said with a sly smile, “I taught Rowan to hitchhike.”
They also visited Los Glaciares National Park, an area reminiscent of our Glacier Bay home. This park includes mountains, large lakes, and woods. The name refers to glaciers that are formed as part of the largest continental ice extension after Antarctica. In this area are 47 large glaciers and over 200 smaller ones.
Fortunately for the travelers, Rowan could fix broken bikes, and had brought the necessary tools with him. The rack on his bike broke three times. Ellie wasn’t too surprised, since he was carrying more than his share of the load. Towns in the area were rare, so they were fortunate that Rowan was equipped to do repairs. He also made many friends by repairing bikes for travelers they met along the way.
After they had traveled 800 miles, they met Lewis in Puerto Natales. Ellie and Rowan sold their bikes and the family spent two weeks backpacking together, at Torres del Paine.
One of the best things about travelling for Ellie is meeting people with common interests from all over the world. She says, “I like learning from people about their country, and end up learning more about my own.” She is not into cities, but prefers small towns. She says it is easier to get around and easier to meet people in the country. It is also less expensive if one doesn’t stay in the city. Ellie doesn’t care to stay at a hotel, because you don’t meet people there. She enjoys staying in hostels, because there is a common area to share with other guests. Whenever possible, she would stay in someone’s home. A low budget trip insures that you will get more from the experience.
Ellie has always loved to sew. She likes the challenge of problem-solving. She loves colors and fabrics, especially batiks. She shops for fabrics whenever she is out of Gustavus, and occasionally orders online. She started quilting about 20 years ago. She went through a phase of making fabric bowls, calling her business “Bowled Over.” She found these bowls to be a good teaching device because each bowl had two to four fabrics. She could experiment with color. She spends a lot of time picking out fabrics. She believes that these choices are very important. She feels you have to love the fabric that goes into the project.
At one time Gustavus was the home of the Salmon River Smokehouse Gallery of Fine Arts and Crafts, a local co-op. Several local artists showed their work there. For a couple of years, Ellie made hundreds of bowls. She also makes bags and pouches. She always donates something to local auctions, as she says it puts her name out there and is good for business.
Ellie’s current project is making map quilts, Glacier Bay inspired. She also collaborates with Kathy Hocker, who now lives in Gustavus. Kathy draws designs of local wildlife that Ellie then incorporates into the art quilt.
If you have ever taken the tour boat cruise up bay, you have undoubtedly received one of their color brochures, which includes a map of Glacier Bay. This intricate map quilt by Ellie is her tribute to the bay, and is a re-creation in fabric of the map shown in the brochure.
Ellie’s music has been a big part of her life since childhood. She has now played fiddle for 50 years. She also plays five-string banjo, as well as other instruments that she won’t admit to, because she says she does not play them that well. However, her involvement with music is ongoing. She went to her first Alaska Folk Festival in 1990 and has not missed one since. At her first one, she played in a contra dance band. Over her 30 years of attendance, she has usually participated with a stage group, though sometimes she just goes for the dancing or to jam, often playing music most of the night.
Gustavus is fortunate to have so many talented people living here, and Ellie Sharman is one of our blessings.