Artist establishes a holiday tradition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

In late October, Gilluly worked on this year’s Christmas painting at his home in Independence. (photo by Jim Barcus)

John Gilluly’s pointillist Christmastime scenes are a hit with his fellow employees

Self-taught painter John Gilluly creates a new image every year for the Christmas cards and prints that he gives to family and friends, including his coworkers at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

“That way, I don’t have to go out shopping,” says Gilluly, 75, who works in the Nelson’s janitorial department. “I just spend two or three months doing a painting, and they all get a piece of me.”

Since he began working at the museum 10 years ago, Gilluly’s fellow employees have come to anticipate his next Christmastime scene — meticulously executed in what he labels his representational pointillist style — well before each holiday season.

“They ask, ‘Have you started working on the new one yet?’” Gilluly says. “That was kind of one of the reasons that I started doing this. I wanted people to be aware that I was not just a janitor. I was an artist.”

Gilluly’s Christmas painting for 2023 is “Memory Tree,” consisting of six panels containing Christmas ornaments from the artist’s past. One ornament, adorned with his name, was a gift from his first-grade teacher.

“I was always a Christmas kid,” Gilluly says. “It’s very secular, but I like the feel, everything about it. The movies. I even like the church services a little, I guess. I just liked how I felt during that time, like a kid. And I keep getting that feeling now.”

Gilluly discovered his penchant for painting while attending the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. His previous interests included architecture and photography.

“I had roommates that were art majors,” he remembers. “And they had left some supplies in the basement. And it was winter in Wisconsin with nothing else to do. So I thought I’d give it a shot. I grew up in Chicago and I went to the Art Institute a lot. And it just kind of happened. I knew I was creative. I just didn’t know how.”

John Gilluly, who works in the janitorial department at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, produces two or three paintings a year, including (clockwise from top left) “Saint Lucy,” “The Night Visitor” and “Thanks Mom.” The individual pieces can take up to 300 hours to complete. (all images from the artist)

“From then on, there’s always been an easel,” Gilluly says, whether he was working as a carpenter, builder, developer, property manager or at “other jobs I’ve done all along to support that.” Gilluly still produces two or three paintings a year, which individually can take up to 300 hours to complete.

“Pointillism is just very precise, very intense,” Gilluly says of the arduous painting technique that utilizes individual dots of color to form images. “I’d seen ‘Sunday Afternoon (on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ by late 19th-century pointillist pioneer George Seurat) and other impressionist paintings so many times at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“But I ended up doing what I call representational pointillism, because it’s not impressionistic. Pointillism started out as new impressionism. But with my background in drafting and photography, which are both representational, I just kept going with that.”

Gilluly’s art keeps going with portraits and landscapes and Christmases to come because he can’t imagine doing otherwise. And he wants to share it.

“There used to be a program at the museum called ‘The Artist is In,’” Gilluly says. “And for a weekend you would sit and produce your work and people would walk by and you would talk with them. I got very good feedback from kids and parents. I would motion them to come over, and I would let the kids take the brush and put some paint on the canvas. I told parents that I would never paint over that section. What I got was what I got.

“I think I’m putting out something that’s positive . . . and my art is me. Although I’ve never accomplished much, if you look at the resume, I have always felt good. And I want people to see my art and feel good.”

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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