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Artist profile: Kathryn Milillo

Early on a July morning, painter Kathryn Milillo unloaded the pieces for her upcoming September show, lifting them one by one to be carried into Edgewater Gallery on the Green. After spreading them out and leaning the canvases against the walls, she gravitated towards a painting she has titled “What A Wonderful World.” It is a piece she painted at Lake George, of a green mountain sloping down and to the left, below it a line of treetops marches down to the right, and at their base the smooth, emerald line of the lake.
The title of the piece comes from the song written for Louis Armstrong, but, as Milillo explained, there was another auditory influence on this piece: “I was listening to The Golden Bowl while I was painting this, which is Henry James’ last novel. In it, there’s a woman who is in love with a man, but they’re too poor to get married. So they each marry other people. In the end it’s so wonderful because it’s so much about equanimity and kindness: the woman who married a man who didn’t really love her at first, he ends up loving her more than the other man.”
Milillo continued, “I had to look up if Henry James knew anything about Buddhism, and it turns out that William James, his brother, actually was speaking somewhere and said ‘You know, in 25 years psychology will have to step aside because people will know about Buddhism.’ That was not true, because it’s taken more than a hundred years for us to get anywhere near there, but I think that these really good authors absorb all of it, the consciousness of kindness and compassion. And those are the main focuses of what I’m painting.”
For a long time, Milillo only painted for herself when she could fit it in, between working as a graphic designer and raising her family in Proctor, Vt. In 2010 Edgewater reached out to the Massachusetts native to begin showing her work. Since then, her talent for imbuing oil paint with the light and fleeting colors of the scenery, refining and simplifying to create what she calls a “visual haiku of the moment” has lead her to painting full-time. This unexpected shift was not the first in Milillo’s life: before graphic design, when she was a student at Clark University, her focus was literature.
The new show, which she has called “Kindsight,” serves as a joyful return to this early passion, in union with the Buddhist teachings that she has come to embrace more recently. “I’m not a Buddhist,” Milillo stated, but it is clear that its teachings have been absorbed into her life, and her paintings. She moved on to remark on another of the new pieces. “For this one,” Milillo remarked, “I listened to Jane Eyre of all things, and I can see that in it the painting now.”
“Attachment” features a barn that would be overshadowed by the tree that stands before it but for its brilliant, peach-colored roof. “That’s another beautiful story about Kindness,” Milillo commented. “Jane is an anti-heroine if ever there was one. She’s kind of mousy, frightened, preachy. But she has so much soul. She’s such a kind person, always noticing the good in people. She would not make a sharp judgment, and that’s what I’m trying to do: the truth is I’m naturally a very judgmental person, so I’m trying very hard not to be judgmental.”
Compassion is an answer for judgment, Milillo explained. In a small book which Millo designed for the exhibit, she pairs poetry with her paintings, selecting from a range of favorite writers to include Henry James, Mary Oliver, David Whyte, as well as Buddhist teachings and song lyrics, including the song “Compassion” by Lucinda Williams.
Milillo quoted from the song as she observed a series of three paintings titled “Interbeing,” also of Lake George. “Have compassion for everyone you meet,” Milillo recited, “You do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.”  With each new frame, she has shifted the focus of the piece further from the rippled surface of the water to reveal an entire scene of mountains and still water. The surface appears calm in the third of the series, however, moving closer you see that that is not always the case.
“It’s such a beautiful concept,” She said, “We think we see what’s going on at the surface, but we never know what’s going on below, and to be compassionate about that. What I was thinking about as I was trying to paint these was the idea of interbeing. We really think that we can see things as separate, but they’re actually all merging, if we could really see the world as it is. That’s that whole idea that as you meditate you get stiller, you are more able to reflect. So that painting,” she pointed to the third work, “is getting stiller.”   Kindsight – 30″ x 75″ (triptych) – oil on linen – $9000
The next pieces Milillo revisited were of barns, for which she has a special appreciation. Looking over her painting “The Soft Touch,” which shows the front of an A-frame, the roof caressed by the uneven branches of a tree, she said, “What I love about this is how the tree has been shaped by the barn… and in some ways the barn has been shaped by it.” She quoted lines by David Whyte that fit this symbiotic relationship beautifully: “We shape ourselves to fit this world, And by the world are shaped again.”
 Barns seem to have their own personhood to Milillo. Moving on to the next painting resting against the gallery’s exposed brick wall, she quoted, in its entirety, a poem written by John O’Donohue for his mother:
“On the day
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.
And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.”
The painting, titled “The Ghost of Loss,” shows a gray barn in a soft, yellowed landscape, its doors and hayloft open, the interior empty and dark. “I painted it and then I found the poem, it’s not like the poem inspired it, but it felt exactly how I feel about these barns.” Pointing to the dark space inside she said, “There are times when you’re sad, but even in there you can find joy.”
At last, Milillo turned her attention to the largest work, a 30 x 75 inch triptych portraying the side of a long barn, its tin roof rusted into stripes. “This is the basis for the title of the show, Kindsight,” Milillo said, and she described how she found the barn while tandem biking with her husband around Basin Harbor on their anniversary. “Kindsight is a way of seeing the world with acceptance. I am trying to live in the present, and see the world without anger or fear. The aging barns I see are so beautiful, in their decline.” In her book, she has paired this piece with a poem by Henry James:
“Three things in
Human life
Are important.
The first is to be kind.
The second is to be kind.
And the third is to be kind.”
Kathryn Milillo’s Opening Reception for “Kindsight” will be held at Edgewater on the Green, Saturday, Sept. 17, 4-6 p.m. Light refreshments will be served. The exhibit will be on display throughout September.
Isabel Lower works at Edgewater Gallery.

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