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 Crawford Gillis  (1914 - 2000)

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Lived/Active: Alabama/New York      Known for: genre, figure, realism, expressionism

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Ad Code: 4
Crawford Gillis
The Strawboss
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
Biography from Foothills Southern Art:

The following biography was written by the artist in 1990, not long before he died.

"I was born in Dallas County near Selma, Alabama on June 14, 1914 and attended public schools.  At an early age I became interested in art and studied under Mrs. Minnie Kent Fowlkes in Selma. In 1935 I went to New York and enrolled at the National Academy of Design in advanced composition and life classes under Leon Kroll and Charles C. Curran. During this time in New York, I attracted the attention of Alma Reed, the then doyenne of the modern Mexican muralist movement, who encouraged me to return home and create a body of work with a view to exhibiting in her galleries, Delphic Studios on Fifth Avenue.  In January 1938, this scheduled showing opened to considerable acclaim being reviewed favorably by the critics of the New York Times and of the New York Post.  Jerome Klein, the art critic of the Post even purchased a painting.  Such interest was aroused that the whole exhibit, with some additional pieces, was removed and later mounted at the New School for Social Research.

I returned to Selma and began working toward a prospective third New York exhibition.  In the summer of 1919 I joined the group New South.  I taught classes in composition and had an exhibition of my paintings in November 1939.  In late 1941 I was drafted into the Armed Forces and served throughout the period 1941-1945 within the state in Coast Artillery (Anti-aircraft) and overseas in England, France and Germany in the Combat Engineers. I was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.

On the cessation of hostilities, I returned home and was employed in Civil Service, working at a local air field.  I painted in my spare time and exhibited at some private galleries in Montgomery, Alabama that were operated by Emily Dearman and Paul Sanderson.  I was awarded first prize in Montgomery's Festival of the Arts in 1957.  The prize winning painting wa purchases by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (it was subsequently lost).  In the late 1950s I had a one-man show at Gene Smith's Little House on Linden in Birmingham in the fall of 1989.  I participated in the New South, New Deal and Beyond exhibition sponsored by the Alabama State Council on the Arts.  I have paintings in the permanent collections of the Fine Arts Museum of the South in Mobile, the Montgomery Museum of the South in Mobile, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, and in numerous private collections in New York, San Francisco, and  Washington, D.C.

I have had a lifelong love affair with the violin and its literature and that of the string quartet, German lieder, the piano and all chamber music.  I am and have been an avid tennis player and a perpetual student of the game until inroads of approaching old age put an end to all athletic aspirations.  I read omnivorously."

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:

Born in Selma, Alabama, Crawford Gillis' early, local education eventually led him to New York and the National Academy of Design, studying under Leon Kroll and Charles C. Curran.  After a period of independent study, he subsequently began classes at another art school, where he met Jean Charlot and Alma Reed, who introduced him to Mexican mural painting and social realism. He moved on to the Delphic Studio, where he had a 1938 solo exhibition, and then became involved with the New South School and Gallery, a multi-disciplinary organization where he taught drawing and painting. The gallery held a solo show of his work in 1939 before it disbanded.

Gillis served for four years in the military during World War II and was awarded the Bronze Star. Following that stint, he returned to Montgomery where he pursued his craft until his death. He claimed various influences on his work, from the Italian Renaissance painters Masaccio and Giotto to the Mexican muralists, whose impact is evident in Bonita Catch.

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
Crawford Gillis was born in rural Alabama just outside of Selma on June 14, 1914. Though his family was very poor, he was able to take art lessons with Minnie Kent Fowlkes, an instructor in Selma. At the age of twenty-one Gillis left the Deep South and went to New York City to study at the National Academy of Design. He took classes in advanced composition and life drawing with artists Leon Kroll and Charles C. Curran. While in New York, Gillis was introduced to the work of the Mexican Muralists, an artistic movement inspired by socialist ideals. He returned to Alabama and began to create artwork based on the lives of everyday, working people. Gillis showed these canvases in 1938 at Delphic Studios in New York and was rewarded with enthusiastic praise for his work.

The following year, he joined with other like-minded artists and exhibited as a member of the New South School, a Montgomery-based group dedicated to promoting Southern arts and culture. Gillis’ paintings can be described as a part of the American Scene movement, a nationalistic artistic style that was popular during the 1930s. The American Scene painters can be divided into two categories: the Social Realists who often painted city life and the Regionalists who focused more on rural depictions. Gillis and the New South School fall into the Regionalist group and their work reveals social customs and practices unique to the South. Gillis approached this subject in a brutally honest way. His barren landscapes and somber figures reflect the difficulty of living in the Depression-era South, and the use of elongated limbs and exaggerated features are particularly indicative of Southern Regionalism. In addition to holding exhibitions, the New South School also offered classes in arts and crafts taught by Gillis and the other artists, including John Lapsley.

Unfortunately, the New South School disbanded as its members were called to serve in World War II. In 1941, Gillis was drafted into the Armed Forces and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for "heroic and meritorious" service. Returning home, Gillis worked at an airfield and painted recreationally. He showed his work in private galleries in the Montgomery area and in 1957 one of his paintings won first prize in the city's Festival of the Arts. In the late fifties, he had a one man show at the Little House on Linden Gallery in Birmingham, and in 1990 his work was included in the New South, New Deal and Beyond exhibition sponsored by the Alabama State Council on the Arts. His work is now in several museums throughout Alabama and in private collections throughout the United States.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

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