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Local painter exhibits powerful work, long journey back to painting



By Carol Schmidt MSU News Service

It’s no coincidence it took living in the Big Sky landscape for Francesco Gillia to develop as a painter of large, powerful paintings.

Gillia, who will graduate in December from the Montana State University School of Art with a Master of Fine Arts degree, displayed his graduate thesis exhibition from Nov. 13-30 in the MSU Helen Copeland Gallery.

The show was as powerful as it was unorthodox.

The painter showed 15 large oil paintings of nude torsos – both male and female. Gillia paints on huge canvases – most are 4 feet by 6 feet, and a few are larger. Rather than traditional forms, he painted portions of the body from the legs to the neck.

Vaughan Judge, director of the MSU School of Art, says Gillia is one of the most talented students he’s had in three decades of teaching art in both Europe and the U.S.

“Francesco Gillia is a radical writing with the paintbrush of tradition,” Judge said. “He rejects his cultural nurturing and asks us to look again through his paintings at our own cultural learnings.”

Gillia’s paintings are reminiscent of those by many great masters. That’s not surprising, because those masters once created their art near Gillia’s hometown.

Born and raised in the Monte Porzio Catone in the province of Rome, Italy, Gillia graduated, summa cum laude, from the Accadamia di Belle Arti of Rome, where he first studied painting.

Seeking adventure and fortune, he moved to Los Angeles in 1999. At first, he found only a job working as a waiter in an upscale Italian restaurant in Hermosa Beach. The job, which was great fun, became strategic when he noticed an upscale product design firm upstairs in the same building.

“I told the owner (of the design firm) that I was a painter from Rome, Italy, I loved to design footwear, and to let me try,” Gillia recalls. He earned a two-week, non-paid tryout that led to a full-time job as a product designer.

“I worked there for three years, and I learned so much,” Gillia said. The owner of the company also taught at the Pasadena Art Center and was a great mentor. “It was fun, edgy, and up-and-coming. It was life changing.”

Gillia met his wife, Tasha Sylvester, in Los Angeles. She introduced him to Montana while visiting her parents at their ranch near Lima.

“Montana was like nothing I had ever seen before,” Gillia said. “I saw cows. To me, seeing cows was like seeing the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. I wanted to move to Montana… My friends were concerned. What would I do in Montana?”

Gillia developed a business in an unused ranch building, drawing on his product design skills to build furniture. He recruited his brother Marco from Italy, and together, they developed the company Bottega Montana.

The brothers designed and manufactured high-end furniture, and later hand-crafted longboards, which quickly became favorites with designers, celebrities and the wealthy. Their work was featured several times in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

The company thrived for seven years, until the economy crashed. About that time, Gillia’s brother moved to New York with his wife, and Gillia’s wife decided it was a good time to get her master’s degree. Gillia said, “Me, too. So, we moved to Bozeman.”

He enrolled in MSU to get back to his first love, painting. Inspired by his mentor, the California artist Steve Huston, Gillia also credits the students he taught at MSU as a graduate student, as well as his family for his rapid development as an artist.

Gillia’s three children also provided a perspective that was a breakthrough in his current work. The revelation that children see bodies as something large and non-sexual made him try to recreate that objectivity and scale.

Today, he paints normal people, rather than professional models. For his thesis, he put notices in coffee shops throughout Bozeman seeking nude models. Women and men of all ages, shapes and sizes responded.

Nearly immediately, his work was a success – he has already sold one of his pieces out of Livingston’s Danforth Galley for $12,000.

Recently, Gillia raised $17,800 on the Kickstarter website, a funding platform for creative projects that depends on amateur investments, to print a coffee table book of his paintings, called “Pronaos.” He knew a high-end art book would be a good way to show his work to important galleries, but the $15,000 price tag too much for an art student with three children.

He offered online investors drawings and color studies at affordable prices, and said Facebook also played a key role, with both entities helping him build a fan base and a network of collectors.

Gillia will graduate from MSU in December and teach two classes in drawing and painting as an adjunct in the spring semester. He is also applying for teaching jobs on the East Coast. No matter where he is, he will continue painting.

“I still have so much to learn,” Gillia said. “I came to the United States to be a painter. It just took me 10 years to go through the process.”

To contact Francesco Gillia about his art or his book, “Pronaos,” call (406) 925-3565, or visit

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