The Pilgrimage of Surprise

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An Appreciation, by Don Carleton


 Lillian Delevoryas is one of the most varied and eclectic painters of her time. The whole of her lengthy career spanning 60 years has been devoted to a journey towards a moment that she herself describes as one of ‘surprise and delight’.  Her chosen method has been a dedication to absorbing influences from the astounding number of sources which she encountered during her travels both in the world at large as well as in the world of art and of the spirit.

Lillian Delevoryas was born to Greek immigrant parents in Western Massachusetts in 1932.  At the age of 17, she began her studies in New York just at the point when the city was replacing Paris as the world centre of art. People like Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko were showing experimental work just a few miles away from her art colleges (Pratt Institute and Cooper Union). But Lillian and a few fellow students resisted that revolution and set themselves to learning the hard way – by copying the masters – both traditional and modern. By scrutinising the paintings she loved in the museums, and by analysing how they were created, she was able to practice her skills and train her hand to execute what her eyes and mind perceived.

In the 50s, after graduating from art school, the next step in her artistic journey took her to Japan (when her first husband was posted to Korea by the Army). There she studied calligraphy and wood block printing with Toshi Yoshida and Tomi Tokuriki, and acquired a way of a novel ‘non-Western’ way of seeing that was to reveal itself in her later work.

On her return to New York in the ‘60’s, she created her earliest major works - the New York Studio Series -  an exploration of structure and of light – both real and reflected.  These works combined several influences, including Matisse and Picasso, as well as revealing an unexpected element of the Vorticism of the early Duchamp – all of which resulted in an unique personal vision.  Throughout her long life, these early paintings have continually served as a source of inspiration – the same themes surfacing again and again in different mediums and sizes.

One of the biggest lessons Lillian learned in her Japanese sojourn was that the distinction, often made in the West, between ‘art’ and ‘design’ was a false one. As a result of this discovery, in the late Sixties, she turned from painting to textile art. Her work in fabric appliqué brought her to England in 1970 where she was commissioned to design hangings for luxury Mayfair apartments, for aristocrats and costumes for performers like David Bowie. Her garments were featured in the pages of London Vogue, and her self-designed wedding dress is now representing that era in the V & A Museum.

In 1972, when she married writer/philosopher Robin Amis, they left London to find more space for their work and ended up on the borders of Wales in the Forest of Dean. After a long absence from painting, Lillian again took up her brushes, this time inspired by the flowers in her garden.  As with the influences of her Japanese sojourn, the English garden proved to be the next step forward in her journey. The Matisse influence re-emerged, more as a sort of complementary dialogue with him than a mimicking of his light and colour. Hilary Spurling, an expert on Matisse, now hangs a Delevoryas alongside an original Matisse in her home because she reckons that Lillian’s work is one of the few images that can successfully complement him.

By the 1980s, Robin’s interest in the early fathers of the church led him to the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece.  During his visits to the monasteries, Lillian used her time (as a woman she was barred from the Holy Mountain) to study Greek iconography and the art of the ancient Middle East. Working within that tradition over the next several years, she produced beautiful icons, as well as visual meditations based on St Gregory of Nyssa's book, The Life of Moses.

Her Greek journeys produced another unexpected change of direction. While travelling, she found it easier to carry an iPad rather than carrying a lot of painting equipment. Back in her studio in Bristol, work on the iPad opened up a whole new way of working which revived her interest in textiles, her feel for things oriental, and the vivid colour of Matisse, resulting in a synthesis of original images reminiscent of Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.

Another development in her work happened by a fortuitous coincidence. While working on the iPad, she hit a wrong button and everything changed from positive to negative – including the colours. This ‘happy accident’ had the effect of transforming her way of seeing colour, and as a result Lillian revisited a lifetime of images from her artistic past (as well as some new ones) to explore and pursue this startling departure in her work.

Necessary surgery removed the precise control she had always had in her brush hand and so, in her 80s, she turned, like Matisse, to collage. She continued to find the energy to keep working and creating new and exciting pictures. She produced more than fifty images on the Expulsion from Paradise series, which led her to consider other and more recent political expulsions. Then the theme of redemption, implicit in the Expulsion, led her to a consideration of role and significance of Mary Magdalene. While that particular impetus was largely spiritual and intellectual, Lillian, continued to explore techniques, searching for new ways of seeing, as well as the means to express them in collage. She went right on searching, almost to the day of her death, for her ‘moment of surprise’ or revelation. 

As her audience, we have been, and still are, privileged to share her journey of spiritual discovery and join in her visual pilgrimage, searching for the epiphany, the breakthrough to new dimensions, the ‘moment of surprise and delight’.  Even now, after her death in 2018, we can see that the work of Lillian Delevoryas still has the power to lead us to new ways of appreciating, exploring artistic technique, and novel ways of seeing. Through Lillian’s work we can experience delight in our world and receive sudden perceptions not just about beauty but also about what may lie in other dimensions. Lillian Delevoryas, as she always did, goes on taking us from the ‘how’ to the ‘wow’. We are all compelled to join her pilgrimage of delight.

Don Carleton, Bristol, 2018