In 1940, full of love and the innocence of childhood, Kathy Gillis vowed to be an artist. It was a profession her mother, Doris, had once aspired to. Polio robbed Doris of the chance to fulfill that dream, as the virus later spread to Doris’s brain, making her unable to function. Gillis voiced her intention to be an artist to her grandmother, Gillis’s main caregiver. It was the first huge promise she made, and fulfilling that vow continues to motivate her to paint.
In the intriguing virtual exhibition “Pure Heart: Kathy Gillis’s Oil Paintings,” Gillis recounts the experiences throughout her life that have shaped her—and her art.
Gillis tells us how, as a schoolgirl, she enthusiastically copied all the illustrations in Victor Perard’s “How to Draw.” And she recounts how, in the 1960s, when her children were taking their afternoon naps, she would snatch pockets of time to complete a commercial art course to eventually become a commercial artist.
In the 1970s, Gillis put herself through college. She gives an interesting overview of visual arts courses in Canadian universities at the time. “The faculty consist[ed] primarily of abstract expressionist and conceptual artists. I f[ound] it easy to play their game, but [it was] not very enriching,” she writes. She picked up breadcrumbs of practical experience but says essentially her time at college helped her to appreciate how her current students come to her with a lack of art skills.
A New But Ancient Vow
In the exhibition, Gillis then fast forwards to 1998, when she had been creating and teaching art for 20 years. That year she made another huge promise. She happened upon a Falun Dafa practitioner who had setup a stall at the university where Gillis was exhibiting some of her paintings. Falun Dafa is an ancient Chinese spiritual practice based on truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. Practitioners practice a set of five gentle exercises, including a meditation.
Gillis recognized the poignancy of the practice when she was being taught the second exercise. She’d seen one of the poses in several ancient artifacts that she’d drawn. “I knew these poses, had experienced them, and shared them with others. Somehow, I have stumbled upon an ancient practice!” she writes. She vowed to practice Falun Dafa for the rest of her life.
Just a short time later, in 1999, the Chinese Communist Party began their brutal persecution of Falun Dafa practitioners in China. As a practitioner herself, Gillis was compelled to act. “If I did not document this, what kind of artist would I be?” she recalls on the website.
In 2003, Gillis gathered in New York with artists from around the world to create art to tell the truth about the persecution of Falun Dafa practitioners.
“We rented and borrowed spaces wherever possible but there was enormous interference from the Chinese Communist Party, including bomb threats and attempted invasions. Clearly, the Chinese Communist Party is very afraid of our [art]works. Because of this I now realize the power of art.”
‘Pure Heart’ Paintings
Throughout her career, Gillis has highlighted the unseen and the unnoticed phenomena in life, covering themes such as dreams and ancient wisdom. She hopes that her art helps people to pay attention to life and their surroundings; with that in mind, she included five paintings in the online exhibition.
Gillis painted “Guardian” in 2016. The picture is a panoramic of a young girl, a Falun Dafa practitioner, determinedly meditating, while a magnificent golden dragon keeps watch by her side. In the East dragons are often benevolent heavenly law guardians, as opposed to in the West where dragons are different beings and are seen as maleficent forces.
Overall, the exhibition is an inspiring insight into the determined effort needed to become an artist. Although it’s Gillis’s own life experience, many people carving out a creative career may draw parallels to, and perhaps find solace in, staying true to their divine talents and, indeed, their pure-heart promises.
The online exhibition “Pure Heart: Kathy Gillis’s Oil Paintings” runs until Aug. 29; to find out more, visit NTDCharities.com
The mission of the New Tang Dynasty Charities is to let the essence of ancient civilizations shine again through art exhibitions and educational activities, enriching and resonating with the diverse cultures of the Canadian community.