All images courtesy of the artist
Jilly Dyson has “sailed” the world on her marine paintings, whose swirling impasto evokes both Winslow Homer and J.M.W. Turner. I caught up with her on a beautiful fall day aboard SeaFair, the mega-yacht venue for exhibits and dining, when it was docked in Greenwich. At the time, I was as struck by her presence – a gentle, friendly manner; white-blond hair and Botticelli bone structure – as I was by her Turner-esque seascapes on display.
Jilly divides her time between Sydney – she’s actually a native Kiwi – and this country. At the time we met, she was just about to fly off to the Southern Hemisphere and summer (lucky stiff). But she and her work stayed in my mind and a few days later, I requested an email interview. Herein is our conversation:
Jilly, why did you decide to become a painter?
“(It) began more as a feeling, a yearning that my mother recognized and encouraged. She brought me my first box of oil paints when I was 6. I remember those paints flummoxed me quite a bit, but I loved their tantalizing smell. That was the beginning. It was that smell, I think. My kids say it probably explains why I’m loopy.”
Why the choice of marine painting over, say, portraits?
“I grew up on a coastal farm near the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. Riding horses with my young sister, I’d have to say even more than the luscious smells of oil paint, the splendor of sea and sky started the creative juices running. That huge, vast expanse of shimmering seas and sky everywhere you looked.
“A love of the sea has always been in the family. My great-grandfather was Capt. William Boyd, who brought settlers to New Zealand in the 1870s. My brother wrote books on sailing.
“The Bay of Islands is one of the most glorious places on earth to grow up in. It was a wonderful childhood filled with a zest for adventure. On days pouring with rain, my parents usually decided it would be a great day for a picnic. We’d climb in the Land Rover and set out for a wild, remote stretch of rocky beach, light a fire and steam pippies (New Zealand clams) in the teeming rain.”
But you didn’t stay “down on the farm.”
“I left the farm as a young woman to live in Italy where I spent several years studying in the great museums. Fortunately, I was always able to sell enough work to survive and buy materials. Even from Liberty of London (gallery) at a very early stage in my career. I’ve been lucky that way. It was the beginning of my lifelong journey as a painter, first in Europe and then to Sydney where I live now.”
That journey has often brought you to WAG country.
“I have been selling and exhibiting in Connecticut (and New York) for about 15 years, particularly Katonah. Year in year out, we had exhibitions and I developed a wonderful clientele. It was so great to go back and visit magnificent Connecticut homes and see my works framed, spot-lit and hung over fireplaces. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. The feeling of pride was enormous.
“Then came the World Trade Center tragedy. It was like turning off a tap. I holed up in my home in Sydney, but just kept painting. I painted every day. I still do. I never go to sleep at night not feeling exhilarated about the work I plan to tackle next day. There’s no doubt the more experienced, the better the painter. And I believe the older I become, the wiser. It reflects in my work.
“Over the years since 9/11, I never stopped visiting Connecticut, often twice a year. Last January I ventured to Old Greenwich and spent a day hiking around Tod’s Point. The silver skies and the complete and utter glory were indescribable.
I went for three weeks and ended up staying for eight months. I lived in a little garden flat at the Harbor House Inn. Rather exposed to the elements, but I’d have to say it was possibly the greatest experience in my life. When the sun shone, I lay the paintings out on the grass to dry. I worked on several at a time with Old Holland paints and oils – layers and layers to build up a thick crusty texture, in chilly winds or burning sun. Often I used my hands instead of brushes. I walked around the island every day and painted outside whenever possible.
“If it wasn’t for my children and a new visa, I’d still be there. Something about the searing, silvery light and the change of seasons. It’s what a painter lives for. The expo aboard the SeaFair was a culmination of these works.”
Who inspires them and you?
“Since I can remember, I loved Picasso’s Rose Period. Such feeling and emotion. I find it difficult to understand art without a rush of some kind of emotion – sad, happy, peaceful, angry, anything but blank. I went through the great Impressionists, loving and learning from their work. Joseph Mallord William Turner: How ahead of his time he was, to capture the feeling of sea and sky rather than an actual picture. Every brush stroke fraught with emotion and a lifetime of skill. ‘To touch on beauty is to touch on the sublime.’ I’ve forgotten who said that but it’s pure Turner.”
“I am back in Sydney now spending time with my two grownup kids. It is magnificent, but as usual either relentlessly blue or gray and dull. I hope to go to Nantucket in the spring. That expanse of sea and sky makes me tingle to get my hands on a paintbrush. I may even live there, who knows? How lucky am I?”
Contact Jilly Dyson at email@example.com.