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Meet Samuel J. Gillis of Gillis Contemporary in Camarillo

Today we’d like to introduce you to Samuel J. Gillis.

Samuel was born with a crayon in his hand and has been making art ever since. His early exposure included cartooning which developed into an avid interest in developing a formal education in fine art. In his 20s Sam did a stint at Columbia College Chicago where he met noted fine art painter Eddwin Meyers who offered him the opportunity to be classically trained in an environment with greater creative freedom at The Atelier Alternative. Always one to follow his own path, Sam left the traditional setting of a university for the Atelier where he honed his style and craft over the course of a twelve year residency.

During this time, he also managed an astute gallery in Chicago and established himself as a serious artist in the Chicago art scene. Gillis developed into a prolific artist whose work has been featured in museums and exhibitions including the National Museum of Mexican Art, John G. Shedd Aquarium and River East Art Center. As well, Sam’s paintings are part of international collections in Spain, Italy, New York, Guatemala, Russia and San Francisco. He has also been featured in television, movies and publications nationwide.

Sam is a passionate private collector and supporter of global initiatives to create more art and a better world. As such, he is a frequent donor to organizations including Y-Me Breast Cancer Awareness, Thresholds, Tree House Foundation, Chicago Food Pantry, East Lakeview Neighbors, Children’s Memorial Hospital and the Make A Wish Foundation. Gillis founded Gallery Swarm in Chicago, Illinois and made it a staple of the Chicago art community. When he moved to Los Angeles, he rebooted the gallery as Wrinkle Art with his wife Glendy X. Mattalia. He now lives and paints by the seaside in Ventura County.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Not at all! In many ways, I feel like I’ve been behind the eight ball for most of my life. My younger years, growing up with a mother who was mentally ill, were incredibly difficult. Eventually, the stress took its toll on me and led me to get in with a bad crowd where I experimented with drugs and alcohol.

During this rough period, I was abusing drugs and alcohol on a daily basis. Not a day went by, that I did not find a way to get high or find someone to buy me alcohol. My only refuge during that time was art. I was lucky enough to have one of my high school teachers (who I thank for doing so) open her heart and her door and help me start to slowly find the path that I still follow today, healing through art.

At 14, I found solace in sketching and ditching out of other classes to go do art. The art classroom was my only sanctuary, a place to vent all the pain I had inside. So obvious was it that I needed this, that my French teacher used to send me to go to art class instead of keeping me in his class.

Though I was not formally trained at the time, I used my imagination to create ways to cope. I mainly drew and copied from many different action games like Dungeons and Dragons, Robotech, Voltron and other various cartoon characters. It became my escape and salvation in many ways, helping me to heal.

But it was too little intervention too late. In my early college years, my mother had a nervous breakdown again, and this time she could not recover from it. She wound up moving into a nursing home in Evanston, Illinois where she was highly over-medicated and was never fully cognizant again until the time of her death. Seeing her like this threw me over the edge. I didn’t sleep for days at a time for stretches of time two weeks or more. Eventually, I suffered a drug-induced psychotic break.

This is where my life as I knew it came to a halt. A sort of some interrupted moment. Suddenly, I couldn’t see a future for myself. I was hospitalized for a short time and when I got out ,I was in the deepest pit of despair I could ever imagine.

Two years went by and I felt I was past the point of no return. Crying almost on a daily basis I gained two hundred pounds and used food instead of drugs and alcohol to numb myself.

One day, I was in one of my food stupors when I heard what sounded like a female voice in my head say “do art do art.” That very day, I found an art store in Chicago and took the biggest chance of my life. I plopped down all the money I had left in the world, several thousand dollars and bought art supplies. I started watching Bob Ross on TV do his thirty-minute paintings and I copied them. I didn’t know where the path would lead and I certainly never imagined the kind of successes I’ve had along the way. But I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I came out of the abyss and healed my mind, body and soul through art.

Even today, my art is very connected to my mind, body and inner spirit.

Months after picking up the brush I attempted to return to school, but a chance meeting with an old professor presented another opportunity. Eddwin Meyers offered me a spot in residency at his The Atelier Alternative to explore and develop my talent. In his private studio, with a handful of others, I learned classical techniques and theory and all the rules a classical artist needs to know. Then Eddwin taught us that to be a professional artist you also had to venture on your own artistic path and break those same rules if it served your art.

Those twelve years at The Atelier changed my life for the better and set my path as an artist. I value all the lessons I learned there and am eternally grateful for them. Eddwin and I are still friends to this day.

I have painted over 22,000 paintings in my life. My goal is to beat Picasso who it’s said created over 38,000 works. I think in my lifetime this is an attainable goal,

Today, together with my wife Glendy, I paint and nurture an artist’s collective online that knows no bounds. Artists from all the corners of the world, including countries like Russia and Cuba, all come together to create something greater than all of us – a place where is art is valued and all levels of artists are encouraged to explore the place art can hold in their lives.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Gillis Contemporary story. Tell us more about the business.
Gillis Contemporary used to be Gillis Fine Art, which is a collection of some of my best works of art. I specialize in contemporary fine art, in a wide variety of different styles, mediums and techniques from realism, impressionism expressionism and everything in between.

I tend to work in series, exploring familiar themes and styles over and over. A sort of encoded message from my subconscious that makes its way into existence through my brush.

I’ve developed many series over the years including my Sideheads and Selfie series where instead of using a camera to take a selfie I paint the inner portrait of my mind.

I believe in exploring art for art’s sake and am fearless when it comes to exploring the work of other artists. I am known for nurturing artists from their first tenuous brush strokes to their first sale. It makes me happy to see other artists succeed. So, I help them any way I can, whether that’s giving them art supplies, a place to exhibit or feeding them. I have a reputation for being an “Italian grandma” because of how I cook (taught by my Italian grandma) and how I love to feed everyone.

I like to encourage any participation in art, whether you’re an artist, client or collector. My favorite thing to do is host events where I can bring all these people into a social setting where they are all equals and can explore art without any walls of pretense between them.

Art for everyone, that’s my motto. And the artists, clients and collectors in my world are friends and family to me and my wife. Most of them have been to our house for a night of games, art and a mean lasagna. I think it’s this truly communal vibe that sets us apart from many other galleries. How we create, what we continue to create and what we want to create in the future for the good of all is what makes us truly different. This and our ability to never give up no matter the obstacles is the thing I am most proud of.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
Most of my life I used to think bad luck followed me everywhere I went. But now that I reflect on it, even though the past couple of years have been some of the worst of my life I now realize I really am so blessed. Friends and supporters of my art, like my great friend from Chicago, Joe Sommerville, my wife and so many others have helped me understand that as an artist the path is not always pretty, but I can’t give up. My wife likes to quote Winston Churchill when she says, “never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.”


  • We make art available to everyone. keeping price points from as low as $25 to as high as $20k

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Image Credit:

Samuel J. Gillis

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

1 Comment

  1. Zina

    April 11, 2018 at 02:47

    Sam is a great artist and a dear friend! I consider myself lucky to have met him and his wife Glendy years back…

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