Lisa Gilley is entering 2013 with doors in the art world held open for her.
After a year of accolades and accomplishments – including group and solo shows, landing on the cover of Art Access, having work selected for the permanent collection at Bainbridge Island’s Museum of Art and getting noticed by several museum directors — this grounded yet no less dynamic visual artist is taking time to work without a deadline on a new series of Alaskan landscapes.
“The commercial interface is about to make a huge leap for Gilley that she has to negotiate successfully or risk compromising her work,” says art collector and author Brad Matsen. “She’s ready for it because she’s a solid person.”
Gilley’s contemporary realist art is inspired by the early modernists and reflects her Northwest environment as well as an uncommon antique wisdom.
The timelessness of Gilley’s varying Northwest terrains – Palouse farmlands, wetlands and estuaries, a squall swelling steely blues above the Samish River – are mediated through Gilley’s present-day perspective. Soft colors, fluid shapes, a compelling play on light, and visual discoveries that appear and shift in the viewer’s memory bank.
“On the surface, Gilley’s work is recognizable and easy to digest,” says Greg Robinson, executive director of the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, slated to open this summer. “But the more you look at it, the more you’re pulled into it. I think her work is complicated; it’s very beautiful work.”
Residency at home
Gilley’s intellect and personality radiate as she talks and moves amongst her dogs and horses at her home on Marrowstone Island, which she designed and built with her husband, shipwright Chris Chase (who also builds her picture frames). They spent years living without utilities on 5 acres in a one-room cabin and Airstream trailer.
Rather than fearing that there could be a clock-ticking slam of the doors to the art world, Gilley is allowing herself time to “eat, breathe and walk as an artist” without the pressure of a show. She has reduced her hours as a licensed massage therapist for people and horses, and is spending 30-40 hours a week in the studio. A sort of artist residency at home, she says.
“I’m taking time with this new work, instead of ballistically throwing myself at it,” Gilley says. “People think I’m the grounded massage person, and I am, but I also go fast sometimes. Boom.” (Gilley punches the air.)
Gilley’s fierce intelligence and ability to go fast has served her well over the years.
After growing up on a farm in Skagit Valley, she moved out on her own, started community college and became the first person in her family to pursue a higher education. To make ends meet, she waited tables, fished in the summer, was a horse trail guide and worked at nearby Mount Baker Ski Area.
“Whatever I had to do, I did it,” says Gilley.
Despite the early encouragement she received from art instructors, Gilley considered pursuing a degree in aeronautics. She received the necessary nudge toward art when a boyfriend took her to meet Guy Anderson. Anderson was one of four artists dubbed by Life magazine as the “Mystic Painters of the Northwest.”
Duly impressed by her work, Anderson said Gilley should definitely pursue art.
Gilley was just 20 years old.
After being accepted to Cornish College of the Arts, but unable to afford the tuition, Gilley decided to complete a degree in visual communications at Western Washington University. At the time, it was one of the top schools in the country in this new field. “It was so cool. I learned everything. It was a five-year bachelor of science degree because we did so many technologies and had to dabble in everything.”
Gilley moved to Port Townsend briefly with her husband, but got restless not using her degree, so they moved to Seattle in 1991.
Despite the recession, Gilley’s valuable skill set, talent and ability to work hard and go fast led to freelancing as a professional illustrator and graphic designer for big-name companies and advertising firms.
By the mid-’90s, Gilley was an art director for a large company, working 50-60 hours a week, making very good money – and painfully bored.
“I’d escalated myself so high on the ladder that all I did was go to meetings and listen to people do what they do in meetings,” she says. “It wasn’t resonating.”
Life gradually steered Gilley in a new direction. Her husband was ready to return to Port Townsend, so Gilley became one of its first telecommuters.
A car accident in 1998 introduced Gilley to bodywork, which led her to take courses in California to become a licensed massage practitioner for both horses and people, all while commuting and working as an art director.
“I was just loading up my plate,” says Gilley.
A serious head injury in 2000 forced Gilley to finally take a rest.
“A head injury can knock the Virgo out of you,” she says. “Virgos can be overly perfectionistic and compulsive, and you need that as a designer, but I got to go back to being my old self, my old painting self, more laid back.”
Gilley found that space and stayed there.
From that space, Gilley has been able to return to painting seriously over the past 10 years and identify herself as an artist by retraining her perception about what makes one an artist. “I’m an artist when I cook, how I organize, when I think about what I’m going to wear, how I’ll wrap my husband’s gift.”
For Gilley, although her paintings sold well after her first local show and recent sales have allowed her a buffer to take this time, the work is never about the sales; it’s always about the work, and the work is always for her. “The intention was not to make money. I just wanted to paint.”
When asked how she stays grounded while so creatively inspired and in the middle of so much excitement around her work, Gilley doesn’t pause before answering.
“I’ve set my whole life up to be grounded. My horses, my dogs, the fact that I start out my day doing an hour of barn chores.”
“I think being a body worker is huge, because you have to be grounded. Horses know when you’re not grounded right away,” Gilley says with a shrug. “I’ve practiced being grounded. No, it’s not a natural gift. It’s learned.”
Kiera Miller Hodlik has been published in newspapers, magazines and literary journals across North America. She has an M.F.A. and an M.L.I.S. from the University of British Columbia. She grew up in PT.