There are no ships in Diana Gilson’s paintings.
“My friend said, ‘Oh, I just love your painting – I can see ships in there,’ ” Gilson says on a sunny afternoon in her canal-side home in Palm Coast.
Then Gilson, who has been named the Gargiulo Art Foundation’s 2017 Flagler County Artist of the Year, says sotto voce: “There are no ships in there.”
Her voice returns to normal volume as she punctuates each word like a two-finger typist pecking on an old Underwood manual: “I – don’t – paint — pictures of abstract stuff. It’s supposed to be totally abstract” . . . what she calls “ab-ex,” short for “abstract expressionism.”
“If you see something in there, it’s not supposed to be there — if you understand my art,” she says. “And there’s very few people who do.” Then again, An artist’s reality is seldom in sync with what other eyes will see–and must by any art’s definition have the freedom to see, hear, taste: whether an artist says something is or isn’t in a painting isn’t really up to her anymore once the work is released to the imagination of others, however shoal-ridden. Art isn’t an imposition but an invitation, one side of a dialogue with infinite possibilities that don;t end once the brush rests but merely begin. The alternative is never to hang the image for public viewing, a choice Gilson is not, of course, making.
Art fans will get a chance to contemplate and understand Gilson’s art during her solo exhibition at the Flagler County Art League, which will have its opening reception from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 10). The exhibit, which runs through March 6, is part of her honor as Flagler County Artist of the Year.
Her friend can be forgiven, if not vindicated, for thinking she saw ships in Gilson’s paintings. After all, Gilson and her late husband, Bud, sailed around the world numerous times during 30 years of life at sea, before they sold their boat in California and moved to Palm Coast in 2000.
“I have led a rather unorthodox life,” the 77-year-old Gilson says. “Everybody else followed the steps, and I never wanted to follow those steps. I never wanted to have a family. I never wanted to have a house. I was at Berkeley,” she said, referring to the insurgent University of California at Berkeley, where she earned credentials to teach Spanish and French, “and I wanted to go out into the world.
“I would have loved to have married an anthropologist and lived out in the bush interviewing pygmies and doing things like that. But I wasn’t attractive to any anthropologist.” She laughs. “I wanted to go around the world in a sail boat, and I did, which was so incredible.”
Yes, Gilson graduated from UC Berkeley in the heady year of 1967, aka the Summer of Love – a time when, as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan sang, “There was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air” and Ronald Reagan gave the flip side: “I’d like to harness their youthful energy with a strap.”
But Gilson had declared her own personal revolution. Though her sensibilities, now as well as then, seem hippie-esque, she didn’t embrace that culture, partly because she eschewed the drug thing and partly because she did embrace Groucho’s credo that she didn’t want to join any club that would have her as a member.
“I’m not a group person,” Gilson says. “I don’t like to join what everybody else is joining. There were elements of it that I liked. Definitely I liked the liberality of it, but to embrace anything fully, I just don’t.” (She was referring to hippie culture.)
Gilson’s love of outsider status weaved through not only her life but her art.
Growing up in Los Angeles, she would marvel at the portraits painted by her artist mother.
“I can remember so vividly watching her do a little illustration for me and putting her brush into this little cake of orange paint and putting that brush onto paper,” she says. “It was so exciting to me. I was always watching her when she was painting. She was a colorist like I am. She was a portrait painter but she painted very colorful portraits — unconventional. She wasn’t a cubist or anything like that, but she loved to out a twist on things.”
Gilson “always painted in school” and teachers were impressed by her work, but she shunned art classes because she sensed that “if someone had no talent, they stuck them there.”
An a-ha moment came in the 1950s when she saw a work by abstract expressionist Sam Francis in the Pasadena Museum of California Art.
“When I came around the corner, I was blown away!” Gilson says. “That painting is still there. It just takes up the whole wall and these colors just cascade down. Up until that time I really didn’t know that much about abstract art, even though my mother had taken me to a lot of exhibitions
“In most of the exhibitions there was an element of realism and the California plein air type of things with the big sycamores, which I thought were wonderful. But whoa! When I saw the Sam Francis, I realized that I wanted to just have color cascade.”
At UC Berkeley she “never wanted to go through the art program. I didn’t want to paint like everyone else.” Indeed, Gilson has had no formal training beyond a few classes with artist Peter Cerreta after moving to Palm Coast. (Cerreta was the inaugural Artist of the Year in 2000.) But at college she painted expressionist, figurative stuff “on my own.” After answering an advertisement by an antique dealer looking for art works, she sold paintings through his shop and also at the renowned counterculture bookshop, Cody’s Books.
After graduating and teaching for a time in Bay Area high schools, she ventured with her boyfriend to live on a river barge in France. She willingly downsized her art as they sailed and adventured around Europe, the Mediterranean and India.
“I had a tiny Prang watercolor set that I would stick in my 50-pound rucksack,” Gilson says. She painted in sketchbooks “that were so small I could stick them under my bunk.”
She met Willard “Bud” Gilson in 1976 on the Greek island of Kos in the Aegean Sea. They married and began three decades of sailing adventures around the world. Her downsized art pursuits continued, to the point where she filled up 50 sketchbooks with glued paper collages and watercolors of the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesh, Nepalese temples, landscapes akin to Gauguin’s Tahitian works, and abstracts. And yes, she still has her sketchbooks.
Flagler Artists of the Year:
Her travels also led to encounters with numerous “teachers” – the awe-inspiring collections of the world’s famous art museums.
“I can see paintings I’ve seen in different museums,” she says. “The Delacroixs, for example, in the Louvre, the Matisses in the Hermitage, and sometimes you just visit them in your mind. Wow – what teachers! What teachers!”
Moving to Palm Coast allowed Gilson, as she says, “to go big” with her painting, and her pursuit of abstract expressionism flowered.
“I’m totally ab-ex,” she says. “For a time with Peter Cerreta I was doing figurative and it was helping me because I was having trouble — the hardest thing with ab-ex is getting a composition that is interesting. How do you make nothing out of nothing?
“So, you have to draw on nature and you have to draw on your ideas of balance and geometry and then you’re putting your colors in. I look for a structure that’s going to hold onto that color because you can’t just dribble color across a canvas. Then I could have fun with the colors.”
Artist J.J. Graham, who owns Salvo Art House, a multiple studio-gallery in Bunnell, has known Gilson for nine years. He often has painted side by side with her at Salvo (where Gilson rents a studio), at workshops and elsewhere.
“I watched her fiery spirit, often manifesting in her piercing bright blue eyes, spill onto canvas again and again — first in the form of the figure, abstracted, but masterfully realized in process, form and awareness,” Graham said. “I watched those figures melt away into forms, shapes, flickering hints, mysterious nooks and crannies, sometimes reappearing only to vanish again along the path of her constant journey.”
Her journey almost took a turn away from painting after her husband died.
“I thought ‘I’m gonna hit the road,’ ” Gilson says. But then she realized “I can’t carry a 50-pound rucksack anymore.”
Instead she took up piano nine years ago at age 68. Along with two hours of practice most days, she also exercises or works out at the gym, studies Chinese language online and continues to paint.
The Gargiulo Art Foundation’s Flagler County Artist of the Year is awarded not just to a talented artist, but also to one “who is committed to the community in some way, whether it be through teaching or assisting organizations,” says Arlene Volpe, director and co-founder of the foundation with Tom Gargiulo.
When the foundation received a grant last year from Palm Coast government to host a series of artist workshops but suddenly lost its venue, Gilson stepped in.
“She very generously opened her home studio, so we did the workshops there,” Gargiulo says. Works created at the workshops became part of an exhibit at the Flagler County Art League, and some of them ended up on display at the Palm Coast campus of Daytona State College, as part of the foundation’s art in public places program.
The workshops “gave some of the artists additional exposure that they would not have had otherwise,” Gargiulo says.
These days Gilson has become, she says, “maniacal about painting, because I do have this kind of thing where if you’re going to do something, you do it. You don’t talk about doing it.”
She paints four days a week at Salvo, where she shares a studio with fellow artist Betty-Jo Sansbury.
“I just make that time,” Gilson says. “I find that when I’m working with other people, I do better. There’s just a different vibe. There’s not that tendency to over-paint, that tendency to work until I’m dead. I know I have to drive home, maybe stop at the market.
“I’m not painting for a bunch of other people. If they like it, it’s fine. If they don’t like it, it’s all right. It’s a crazy thing. You just do it because you feel compelled to do it and do it better and better.”
Diana Gilson’s works will be on exhibit Feb. 10 through March 6 at the Flagler County Art League in the City Marketplace complex, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite 207C, Palm Coast. An opening reception will be 6-8:30 p.m. Saturday Feb. 10. Admission is free and open to the public. Regular gallery hours are noon-4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m.-1p.m. Saturday. Information: Gargiulo Art Foundation at 386-446-0617, or the Flagler County Art League at 386-986-4668 or flaglercountyartleague.org.