Who she is: Gilhool is owner of the ArtSea Gallery, which features jewelry, sculpture and paintings from local artists. She’s also the founder of the Sea Bright Knitting Club, a social group she created in the aftermath of Sandy as a form of therapy for residents who suffered damage from the storm.
Hometown: She’s originally from Monmouth Beach but lived in Sea Bright off and on for many years. Though she’s now a resident of Long Branch,, she still spends most of her time in Sea Bright.
“I am definitely part of this community,” she said.
How the group started: In the aftermath of Sandy, Gilhool was struggling with insomnia during the prolonged power outage and, without electricity, she couldn’t watch television or read. She decided to take up knitting, since it helped her fall asleep and she found it to be a great stress reliever amid all the post-storm problems.
“All my friends were suffering,” she said. “I figured it helped me so much, and I was able to help them without spending money. If you knit, you always have leftover yarn, so I was able to get everything for free. Everything was donated, so it was kind of a no-brainer to me.”
The repetitive motion of knitting was therapeutic, she said, “kind of like rocking yourself.” Plus, she added, “You can make things for other people, and that’s also another part of the therapy.”
Other benefits: Knitting club meetings provide one of the few opportunities for Sea Bright residents to come together.
“There’s no rec center anymore. There’s no library anymore. That got washed away. So there’s really no meeting place,” Gilhool said.
Participants at a recent gathering agreed that it was of immeasurable importance to storm victims looking to connect in a social setting.
“We were able to focus on something other than destruction, other than our own losses,” said one knitter, Kim Sperandeo. “Your mind was preoccupied, and we all kind of bonded in the group.”
How the group has grown: The knitting club started as a Thursday evening gathering at Sea Bright Borough Hall, but it has since expanded to include a second weekly meeting on Sunday afternoons at the ArtSea Gallery.
Most people showed up without any prior knitting experience, so the group taught classes. Members have ranged in age from 5 years old to one woman who was nearly 100, with several dozen people involved overall. New friendships have formed, with people bringing food and celebrating each other’s birthdays.
Her unique approach to knitting: Some of the more seasoned knitters in her group have made scarves, hats and sweaters, but as someone with an arts background who only recently learned to knit, Gilhool takes a decidedly different approach.
She has experimented with finger-knitting (knitting without needles using only her bare hands) and has tried using plastic bags, ripped cotton T-shirts — and even wire. Currently she’s knitting cut strips of polar fleece using giant needles she made out of curtain rods.
“I don’t consider it a craft. I consider it an art form,” she said.
Beautifying the community: After Sandy, Gilhool said Sea Bright was bleak and ugly. Everything was torn down and covered with sand. So she began exploring ways to bring some color and beauty to the town. In the course of her research, she came across the practice of “yarn bombing,” which involves the creation of outdoor graffiti installations made of yarn.
“I found out about it, and I thought it was intriguing. I like the idea of it. It’s temporary art,” she said.
First the group decorated a fence on a street corner near a popular hotdog stand with knit grass, flowers, bees and butterflies. They also “yarn bombed” the entrance to the borough hall. And now they’re planning a third project.
“It came out way better than I thought,” Gilhool said. “It was beautiful!”
Gilhool’s background: Prior to Sandy, and before she opened her gallery or started the group, Gilhool was a painter who was commissioned to make murals around town, including on the town’s garbage cans, in the library and at Donovan’s, a popular beachfront bar.
Famously, she painted the inside of the town’s concrete bus stop to look like a cozy beach cottage.
But during Sandy, much of this was washed away by powerful storm surges that carried debris across the peninsula, from the ocean to where she said it now sits at the bottom of the Shrewsbury River. “I don’t even want to think about it,” she said. “If you want to see the rest of my artwork, you’ve got to put on a scuba tank!”
Personal life: When she’s not holding knitting club meetings, running her gallery or teaching art classes, Gilhool keeps busy with her own painting projects, working to create a local arts council, and planning Sea Bright’s second annual Mermaid Parade, which is scheduled for the weekend of August 8.