Artist brings Italy to Pomfret

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Pomfret - posted Tue., Jul. 5, 2011
Gilly Gordon stands by her painting at the Vanilla Bean Cafe. Photos by Denise Coffey.
Gilly Gordon stands by her painting at the Vanilla Bean Cafe. Photos by Denise Coffey.

For the month of June, the walls of the Vanilla Bean Cafe in Pomfret took on the look and feel of Orvieto, Italy. The cafe's monthly art show featured 21 works by Gilly Gordon, most of them painted from photographs she took when she spent six weeks in Italy in 2005.
In one painting, a staircase is illuminated with light from two different windows. In another, a master potter works at his wheel. The paintings show open piazzas, shadows cast along narrow streets, women talking together on a bench outside a small shop. Gordon has captured the shapes and colors of the stone buildings that date back to 800, B.C. The paintings brought the Etruscan city right to the quiet intersection of Routes 44 and 169.

Gordon went to Orvieto as a guest artist with Gordon College's Gordon-IN-Orvieto program. The college is a multi-denominational Christian college, and its programs are an extension of its Christian mission. To listen to the artist talk about the experience, the trip was as much spiritual journey as artistic retreat.

She tried to immerse herself in the sights and sounds of a culture different from one she had known before. She listened to the people and paid attention to her surroundings as best she could. She tried to do all this from a foundation of faith that she says is central to her work.

The pieces that Gordon had on display in Pomfret are not religious paintings. She paints alleyways with light and shadow, a dog curled up in a guitar case, a bike leaning against a tea shop. But she has tried to paint in a way that allows the viewer to get the feel of a place. It is both gift and prayer.

All this comes from a woman who almost had to be persuaded to paint in the first place.

She moved from England, where she grew up, to the United States with her husband, a military man. It was in Indianapolis where she took her first drawing class. When she took another at Cameron University in Oklahoma, her professor told her, “Don't quit now.”

It wasn't until Gordon and her family had moved to Connecticut that she enrolled at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic for a bachelor's degree in fine arts. She took a class at the University of Connecticut, where a professor told her that she drew in a painterly way.

But she struggled mightily in her first painting class. By the midpoint of the semester, she felt lost. During winter break, she took a few sauce pans from her cupboards, along with a few dish towels, and she painted them.

“It was winter,” Gordon said. “I didn't want to go out. I took what I had and painted.” She painted the reflections in the pans and the creases of the towels. Those paintings were a breakthrough for her.

“I understood the paint. I understood what you could do with the paint,” Gordon said.

The reflections she painted from those pots and pans reappear in a series of massive paintings she is currently working on. One takes its title from the Book of First Corinthians (“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face”). Painting is the artist's call to worship. It is her responsibility, she said, to paint and to paint well, and to do it to the glory of God.

Gordon completed her BA in 1993. In 2003, she completed an MFA from Maine College of Art.

That first summer she worked and wrote and read and attended lectures day and night, she said. Students were required to read widely in philosophy, psychology, human sexuality and religion. The program put her into the elite of the art world, according to Gordon. She met visiting artists. By her second year, Gordon no longer felt overwhelmed. She had learned the language that went along with the calling.

“I always thought I would teach,” Gordon said. It hadn't occurred to her that her artwork would have value in itself. She has completed 30 of the 16” by 24” paintings while teaching private art classes to adults. The first was completed in 2007. “I work on them while the adults are in my studio for oil painting classes, primarily so that they can see how I work, but also so I have something to do during the three hours that they're working,” Gordon said. “My students need time without me hovering over them.”


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