Montana State University

Gillia's thesis show exhibits powerful body of work

November 12, 2012 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Francesco Gillia has found artistic and commercial success in Montana. The native of Rome has already sold one of his large paintings and has successfully raised more than $17,000 to fund a coffee table book of his work, even though still a graduate student in the MSU School of Art. Gillia's graduate thesis exhibition, a collection of large canvases of nude torsos, runs through Nov. 30 in the Copeland Gallery in the MSU School of Art. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

Subscribe to MSU Newsletters

Bobcat Bulletin is a weekly e-newsletter designed to bring the most recent and relevant news about Montana State University directly to friends and neighbors via email. Visit Bobcat Bulletin.

MSU Today e-mail brings you news and events on campus thrice weekly during the academic year. Visit the MSU Today calendar.

MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
It is not a coincidence that it took living in the strong Big Sky landscape for Francesco Gillia to develop as a painter of large, powerful paintings.

Gillia, who will graduate in December with a Master of Fine Arts from the Montana State University School of Art, will display those paintings at his graduate thesis exhibition set Nov. 13-30 in the Helen Copeland Gallery in the MSU School of Art. The gallery is located on the second floor of Haynes Hall. A reception honoring Gillia will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16.

While the public is invited, it must be noted that the subject matter of the show is for adults. Gillia will show 15 large oil paintings of nude torsos -- both male and female. The show is as powerful as it is unorthodox. Gillia paints on huge canvases -- most are 4 by 6 feet, and there are a few even larger. Rather than traditional forms, Gillia has only painted portions of the body from the legs to the neck.

Vaughan Judge, director of the MSU School of Art, says that Gillia is one of the most talented students he has ever had in three decades of teaching art in both Europe and the United States.

"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 work is reminiscent of the works of many great masters of painting. That is not surprising because those masters once created their art not far from Gillia's hometown. Born and raised in the Monte Porzio Catone in the province of Rome, Italy, Gillia graduated, summa cum laude, from the from the Accadamia di Belle Arti of Rome, where first studied painting.

Seeking adventure and fortune, he moved to Los Angeles in 1999. At first, he didn't find either. Rather he found a job working as a waiter in an upscale Italian restaurant in Hermosa Beach to makes ends meet. He said the job was great fun, but became strategic when he noticed that an upscale product design firm was located 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. Gillia, who has a dynamic and engaging personality, earned a two-week, non-paid tryout from the owner 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 his own thriving business in an unused ranch building. He drew on his product design days to build furniture. He recruited his brother, Marco, who Gillia says is a genius who can make anything work, from Italy. Together, they developed the company Bottega Montana.

The brothers designed and manufactured high-end furniture, and later hand-crafted long boards, that 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 and they collaborated with British designer Paul Smith in his store on Melrose Avenue, Tretorn and Design Within Reach, among others.

Gillia said the company thrived for seven years. And then, the economy crashed.

About that time his brother moved to New York with his wife, and Gillia's wife decided that it was a good time for her to go back to school get her master's degree. Gillia said "Me, too. So, we moved to Bozeman."

Gillia 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 with his rapid development as an artist.

"Teaching them (his students) gave me everything," he said.

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

Gillia said another reason for the power in his work is that he paints normal people, rather than professional models. He said he put notices in coffee shops throughout Bozeman seeking normal people who wanted to be nude models. Women and men of all ages, shapes and sizes responded. Gillia said he tries to capture the essence of the person's personality in his work.

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

And recently he successfully raised $17,800 on the Kickstarter website to print a coffee table book of his paintings. Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative projects that depends on amateur investments. Gillia said he considered Kickstarter because he knew that a high-end art book would be a good tool to show his work to important galleries, but the pricetag was $15,000, out of reach for an art student with three children.

He offered his online investors drawings and color studies at affordable prices to go with the book, and in the end, and said that facebook also played a key role, with both entities helping him build a fanbase as well as a network of collectors.

"It was difficult," Gillia said of the effort to fund the book, which will ship in the spring. "At one point I thought I would not make the mark. A week from the end a $6,000 pledge for a painting changed the mood, a lot of friends and friends of friends got excited and were sharing my project on facebook over and over, so in my case it was a kickstarter/facebook project. The final amount went $2800 over the mark ... and I'm glad it worked out."

Gillia said he thanks all who made his art book project a reality and that he urges his students -- both undergraduate and graduate -- to think about their own Kickstarter project.

Gillia said he will graduate from MSU in December and teach two classes in drawing and painting at MSU as an adjunct 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. He added that he is now confident that he is heading in the right direction and is grateful for the role MSU had in his journey.

"I came to the United States to be a painter," he said. "It just took me 10 years to go through the process."

Francesco Gillia (406) 925-3565,