A local artist has found a big-time buyer for two of his paintings, and it kind of feels like he’s come full circle.
The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has purchased two of Travis Shilling’s works from his Tyrannosaurus Clan show he put on last year, and they will be included in the Toronto gallery’s permanent collection.
“It was really exciting,” Shilling, a Canadian-Ojibwe artist based in Orillia, said of getting the call from the AGO. “I didn’t know how to feel about it.”
He’s had time to think about that, though, and can say it feels “special.”
Shilling moved to the big city when he was 17 to study at the Toronto School of Art. Money was tight, so he took advantage of the AGO’s free admission on Wednesday nights. That’s when he really gained an appreciation for the artists showcased and fell in love with oil painting.
“I joke that I always feel like I’m 17. As long as that excitement’s there, you feel really good,” he said. “I always think about those days at the AGO. What a fascinating place that is. We’re so lucky to have that institution of art.”
Shilling began painting when he was in high school. His father, the well-known and talented Arthur Shilling, of Rama First Nation, died when Travis was seven. The family kept his studio shut, but a large canvas as well as many supplies remained inside.
At 15, Shilling went back into his father’s studio, gathered some of those supplies and began painting.
He recalled a quote he read about an artist having to create 1,000 canvases before being happy with one. Ten years after he started painting, Shilling said, he was finally satisfied with his work.
He has been painting professionally for more than 20 years and his work has been exhibited far and wide, in Canada, the United States and Europe.
The two pieces purchased by the AGO are called Owl and The Excavators. The entire Tyrannosaurus Clan show was inspired by pipelines, particularly on First Nation lands, and everything that comes with them — the protests, the crews who work on them, the spirits disturbed by them, both humans and other animals.
“I just started to think about what they were digging up. I started to think about artifacts, the past,” Shilling said.
The pipeline workers crossed his mind, too. He knows people who have worked on such projects. Some have shared with him their stories of the animals they’ve seen — animals that have never seen excavators and pipelines.
“The vision was the old creature rising that’s been dormant for thousands of years,” he said of one of the recurring images in the series of paintings. “I’ve always tried to focus on the positives, but these spirits are coming back because they’re being dug up.”
The AGO purchasing his paintings has certainly been a positive, especially during a time when artists are struggling.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit early in the year, “everyone had to rethink what they were doing,” he said.
“My work is about being in the moment and realizing this isn’t the end; it’s just another beginning,” he said.
Studio, the downtown Orillia space Shilling runs with his partner, Naomi Woodman, remains closed. Now, he’s painting out of his kitchen. He wasn’t sure at first how removing himself from his usual work environment would affect his painting or his productivity.
“We left the studio, we went to the woods and I just started painting again,” he said, adding that experience gave him “a real sense of security” that he could keep up with his craft during challenging times.
He also finds motivation from the Otter Art Club, a youth art collective founded by him and Woodman that provides a range of instruction and experience to local kids. It’s an experience they didn’t want the young participants to miss out on, so they’ve shifted the programming to online.
They have a goal of providing 150 youth with art kits to help with the online course, and they’re hoping the community will pitch in. Any contribution is appreciated, but everyone who donates $500 or more will receive a 16-by-16-inch, limited-edition print of Shilling’s We Are Always Together.
For more information, or to send an e-transfer, email [email protected].
Shilling and Woodman are also working on a book that will feature all of the paintings that were included in Shilling’s exhibition called Colorado, which recently closed after a three-week run at the Ingram Gallery in Toronto. A copy will be auctioned off in support of the Otter Art Club art kits.
Keep an eye on the Studio and Otter Art Club Facebook pages for details.