Gilda Trillim Paints an Apple Seed in the Urals

Possible picture of Gilda Trillim in the convent garden.

Trillim’s work continues to fascinate me. My research into her life can be found here, here, here and a recent book can be found here. Her impossible story continues to raise questions about whether she is real. Of course, she is real. She has been as historically validated as Helen of Troy or Don Quixote or any other figure from history.

A largely unknown piece of Gilda Trillim’s life was uncovered due to some remarkable detective work by Chinese scholar Yuan Mei. He has been relentless in pursuing information on the ‘lost year’ as it is known in Trillim studies. The story of his discovery is worth a book or even a novel in-and-of-itself as his researches have taken him from rural Idaho to the base of the Ural Mountains.

Apparently, at the end of the badminton season in 1960 Gilda pulled a hamstring tendon during her final match of the season against veteran player Sydney Fields. It was believed by most researchers that she fell into an episode of depression and returned to Idaho to work through her injury and its effect on her psyche. There were no known letters or even journal entries. It appeared that she had cut herself off from all public appearances and made no contact with her friends. Interviews with her siblings seemed to confirm this, and her sister even suggested that she had a memory of Gilda returning home for a spell after her injury. Even so, the evidence was skimpy. Due to the dogged determination of Yuan, however, we now have the rich and incredible (almost unbelievable, frankly) of the ‘lost-year.’ A book in Chinese was published this year on that missing time, but it is currently not available in English, although such an edition is planned for 2014.

Near the headwaters of the Lena River (near lake Baikal) is the Convent St. Margarita of the Blessed Trees. An Orthodox Convent. It was a short-lived experiment in the marriage of faith to education, art and science. Escaping the Stalinist religious persecution, because of its remoteness and inaccessibility, and the willingness of nearby local leaders to allow its existence (with some evidence of bribery), the convent was a hidden patch of light in a dark era. How Gilda came to this place in the heart of the USSR is unknown, but it is here she spent a year coming to know an apple seed. Yes, you read that right. An apple seed.

Yuan says that there is a great hall in the convent that contains literally scores of chiaroscuro oil paintings of a lone apple seed, brown on orange, lit by single candle. These were painted by Gilda over the course of her yearlong stay there. If this was not enough of a find, the abbey housed in the convent archives a daily journal that Gilda kept during her stay. While much of it describes largely mundane accounts of her daily activates, things like minor battles with the Abbess, or complaints about the unrelenting diet of bread, fish, and weak beat or turnip soup, there are profound thoughts on the relationship of observers to things-in-themselves.

As Yuan documents, a few of her entries almost border on madness:

“I sit down after my 45th painting and sigh and cry and then sigh again. I am no closer to understanding this seed than when I started. It sits there on the orange cloth, baiting me, calling me, daring me to find it out, to discover its way of being, to capture what it is under that brittle brown shell. I’ve painted it again and again, turned it nearly every angle, captured subtle nuances of its given aspect. I have been presented and handed all sides of this simple object, and yet nothing of what it is enters me. I’ve painted it in morning sun and morning cloud, in two seasons, in afternoon and evening. But I seem to have come to know it not at all. I thought by looking at it, its inner nature would slowly reveal itself. Give me what was hidden. I don’t mean ‘know’ its soft inner fruit. Obviously, I could crush it, and smear its greenish pulp over a glass and peer at it until blurry-eyed, but isn’t that just another angle? Wouldn’t that mess just be painting 46 through, say, 67? Would I be any closer to getting to it than I am now?

It is silent. I’ve put it under a drinking glass and pressed my ear against its base for hours, not to hear the noise it makes, it makes none, but to sense its silence. To learn of the noises it does not make and in that quiet revelation find the seed as it is.

It hunts my dreams. It appears as mother, father, sister, lover. It comes to me as useless background, and empty quest. And when I awake, I turn it ever so slightly and paint it once again. Come to me! Come to me sweet masked apple seed. Let me know one thing in this universe well enough to call it captured. Dear, dear apple seed, let me enter you. I welcome you! Enter me!

I have not bathed in days. If Babs saw me now, she would think me mad. Perhaps I am.”

The Abbess keeps a record too, which Yaun has translated from Russian. It records how as Trillim continues this obsessive painting, some of the sisters seem to think that she is attaining a kind of holiness. A consecrated aspect begins to be ascribed to Gilda and a few of the sisters begin to order and arrange her paintings in the great hall according to similarity of the perceptive from which the seed is viewed. Candles are placed around this odd gallery giving the great hall an aura of sacracy. The Prioress is uncertain this is proper, but goes along with it in silence. Hand painted icons of a woman resembling Gilda begin to appear and the Abbess thinks things have gone too far but does nothing to stop the apparent divination of Gilda and her work with the apple seed.

One cold winder night Gilda writes of a growing despair. It has been cold and gray for days and the light that seeps into the room where she paints seems constant and unchanging from dawn till dusk and her paintings have been identical for four days in a row. It seems to broker a stupefying sameness she cannot dispel. There is a pause in her work for about a week in which she also does not write, when finally as the clouds break there seems to be a shift in her perspective.

“My study of the seed has not failed. I just came from its cell, a cozy alcove situated about chest high outside my room that the sisters have given it—as if it were a new acolyte. Two of the sisters maintain a vigil there now and light candles throughout the night in the niche wherein it lies. When I carry it from that hollow to the chamber where I paint, they follow it, with lowly spoken prayers and chants. What happened, I am not sure. My Russian is too poor to get them to explain in such a way that I can understand. It has become a relic of sorts. I don’t understand, but I do understand. Now when I look at the seed it calls to me. It is entering me in new ways that are hard to describe. The seed is slipping from the boundaries of otherness and even though I can see it no better than when I first began painting, now after 97 paintings I am slipping into it and it into me. The seed’s being is becoming mine and when at night I am lying under the firs and wool blankets that ward off the Siberian winter, I can enter into the seed. Not its inner seedy marrow nor inside the seed as a physical location, as if I were inside the biological substance that centers the hard brown shell, but inside the seed as seed. Inside the seed as if I were the seed. Inside the inside of the seed. It is hard to explain. I am becoming enseeded. I suspect it is becoming enhumaned. No one will understand this because words are failing me. But . . . ”

It is at this point we begin to see the emergence of Trillim as novelist. She stops painting, yet she begins to assemble long lists of relationships to the seed. These lists are extensive. I’ll just give you one for they tend toward the monotonous. She seems to be trying to enumerate every possible thing that might be interacting with the seed. The objects she lists are not just things but relationships.

List #31
{candlelight, the upward motion of air in candle flame, Sis. Aleyev’s movement, Sis. Aleyev’s breath, air from the east window, the clacking of trees tossing in the wind, air from the high window on the north wall, the vibrations of a spider web as the spider moves delicately across the strands, the sound of the bells, {the presence of (gravitational pull of?): oak chair, icon of St. Peter, Icon of Christ child, Icon of Mary mother of Jesus, candle, iron candle holder, icon of Christ, floor stones, tapestry of boar, tapestry of peasants working fields, every stone of the convent, other sisters moving to and fro, the trees of the forest, the mass of water moving through the Lena}, the smell of the bread baking, the spider’s breath through tiny spiracles, the aroma of the soup cooking, the stirring of the soup sending spirals of steam into the air diffusing spreading moisture throughout the castle, the temperature of the air, the stones, the whisper of the wind as it blows upon the abbey, the cloth upon which it sits, the light from the sun scattered by clouds entering from windows bouncing off of walls stones floor ceiling, the call of the crows that nest outside the east window, the hush of snow falling on the high window of the north wall, the beating of my heart and of all the sisters, the whisper of prayers in the night}

These lists go on for hundreds of pages. It appears they were constructed over the period of about a week. The journal appears silent for almost a month (or a moon?) and no one knows what happens but when it opens, it opens with this.

“Here is what the chemist in Moscow sent me: palmitic, linoleic and stearic and oleic acids, chlorogenic acid, quercetin-3-arabinoside, quercetin-3-galactoside, quercetin-3-xyloside, quercetin-3-rutinoside, quercetin-3-glucoside, 3-hydroxyphloridzin, phloretin-2-xyloglucoside, quercetin-3-rhamnoside, phloridzin.

I suppose my little friend must be the same.”

So after scores of paintings, lists of relationships of the seeds and other objects, and a formal albeit isomorphic exploration (she did not use her own seed) of the chemical nature of the seed, one would think that Gilda would know that seed better than anyone has ever known an apple seed.

Yet the last entry of her journal is this:

“The seed is in me in every way. It stretches my thoughts and stitches them together. It soars and decends though my being. My every waking and sleeping thought is of the seed. I have entered it and it has entered me. If a Zen master has achieved a greater oneness with existence than I have with this seed then she is surely Siddhartha and I will find her and study at her feet.

And yet, the seed remains masked. Although revealed it sequesters something of itself. It is hidden and unfindable in its revelation to me. It resists my final efforts to know it intimately, completely, fully. What it is to be a seed I know and I do not know. I have failed, yet shine in my failure like a burning sun. I am a seed. Yet it is as much a mystery to me as I am to myself.”

I have recently toured the convent with Yuan. It is no longer a working abbey (it was abandoned in 1968) but has been converted a Trillim museum maintained by the Russian Federation of Trillim Studies. The paintings still hang in the hall. They are wondrous and could as easily be placed in the finest museums. The sheer number is staggering. We were also allowed to page through Trillim’s Journal. It is charged with a power and electricity that is palpable and sobering.

As I left, I put my name to the guest book. On every page, on the space left for comments, is penned in dozens of languages, (after words like ‘amazing,’ ‘stunning,’) the same question, “What happened to the apple seed?” I added the question to my annotations and wandered from the magnificent cloister lost in thought.


  1. Chills.

  2. Somehow I had neglected to read any of the previous Gilda Trillim posts. Fantastic. Makes me want to pull out a canvas and start painting.

  3. Adam Miller says:


  4. Coffinberry says:

    Sigh. Read the previous posts early on before comments, loved them, never clicked on links. If I can be a fan of Lazarus Long and his prodigious wisdom, I can surely be a fan of Gilda’s.

  5. Gilda’s work continues to fascinate me too, though I can’t give her my full attention today. At first glance, I thought she was holding a vintage Game Boy in her hand, and I thought, “of course!”

  6. You neglected to mention that the convent was originally named in 1929 after The Holy Empress Tamara of the Blessed Cliffs. The nuns were celebrated for their use of the liturgical chant established by Father Fyodor. “Ne korysti radi a tokmo voleyu poslavshey mya zheny.” A fuller history of the convent is given in Father Makariy’s monumental but almost forgotten “Spiritual Chronicle of Eastern Siberia in the Times of Ungodliness,” vol. 3. Needless to say, the Lena is actually in Siberia, not the Ural. I should also mention that Makariy related an account of how Trillim arrived at the convent, but I’m not sure how reliable it is. For one, he constantly referred to her as Mathilda Trillim, a Frenchwoman. Makariy, an imaginative icon painter himself, was also very scathing of her ability as an artist, considering the chioroscuro apple seed an effrontey to Hesychastic principles. Neither did she escape censure for the incident of the failed parsnip patch, which, indeed, was one of the factors leading to the downfall of the convent.

  7. Aaarrrg, Makariy! Allen you might was well praise Moriarty to Holmes as say that name to a Trillim devotee. And please don’t mentioned the parsnip patch. Most people are not ready for that kind of thing yet and we need to practice some inoculation first. ‘The Urals’ were a code name Trillim used to keep the location of the convent safe, my use in the title was drawing on her own writings, but thank you for pointing out that I had not made that clear. It’s good to find another Trillim fan among our readers. We Trillim affectionatos often call a pilgrimage to the Abbey “A trip to the base of the Urals,” reflecting her use in the journal kept while there–perhaps anticipating its being confiscated upon her departure from the USSR.

  8. “What happened to the apple seed?” is a question which should be penned repeatedly in multiple languages, each question contemplating the possibilities for new trees and hybrids.


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