FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - (March 17, 2017) The unpublished work of Leo Stillwell, a talented watercolor and oil painter who died at the age of 22, left 500 works of art to San Francisco State University.
Leo Stillwell was born 1926, in the rapidly shifting social tableau that was San Francisco in the 1940's. While post-war San Francisco was transitioning from a wartime port city to a cultural mecca, it was also giving birth to the foundations of a gay community. The city was filled with former navy sailors, aspiring artists, actors, and designers looking to carve out a new role for themselves where their desires and loves were no longer restricted to the suppressed realm of the private and unspeakable. This was a crucial junction for San Francisco as it began to become the queer epicenter it is today. Yet, because of the social and institutional suppression of the time, the art and literature that offered insight into these pivotal moments was still rare, private, and widely censored. As a result, very few records of this rich era in gay society survive today.
Leo was born in Honolulu, but traveled to San Francisco by ship when he was only three. His father was in the U.S. Navy, so Leo spent his early childhood in China and Panama. He started drawing at the age of six and spent a great deal of his early years composing musicals and creating puppets for plays. Leo later became the art editor for his high school newspaper in Mountain View, California, where he enjoyed drawing, painting with oil, and music. Once when asked why he would make a drawing of a broken down shed, he responded, “I saw beauty in it.”
Leo was a handsome, fragile, man. He had long eyelashes and reddish-brown hair and measured 5 feet 8 inches. Together with his boyfriend Russell Hartley, Leo opened Antinous Art Gallery named for an exceptionally beautiful Greek youth who is said to have died under mysterious circumstances in the Nile River. Russell and Leo had a difficult relationship. Russell was a ballet dancer and costume designer with the San Francisco Ballet who would later found the San Francisco Dance Archives. According to the interview with Russell’s mother in 1987, Leo did not return Russell’s deep, intense love for him.
He worked for the Air Force after he closed his art gallery and fell ill with measles when he was 20. He was tested for malignant hypertension or extremely high blood pressure. The doctors operated at the time, but surgery did not prolong Leo’s life. Instead, it made him depressive, and he died just 2 years later, in 1948. His ashes were scattered by his family and friends at the Palace of the Legion of Honor and in SF bay.
After his death, his mother donated approximately 500 of his works of art to San Francisco State University, although he never attended the school. Some of the work has been shown during the annual Stillwell Student Exhibition, which also features SFSU student work.
Leo Stillwell was a very talented, exceptional artist. He didn’t settle for small gestures in his work. His mother encouraged him to seek exposure for his work, but most of it was never seen while he was alive. He was generous even though he did not have much money. When he was younger, his mother would change a $10 bill into dimes, and hand them out to the homeless people on Market Street in San Francisco. According to her, Leo was a sensitive person who worked hard to avoid hurting other peoples’ feelings. He also had a sense of humor, and would often tease his mother until they both start laughing.
Leo’s drawings and paintings offer us a rare and invaluable glimpse into his private world. While other gay artists working at the time, such as Charles Demuth and Paul Cadmus, painted homoerotic portraits of sailors, Leo’s work retained a distinctive style and artistic perspective and went beyond eroticized bodies. Instead he emphasized depicting public warmth and affection, as well as the vulnerability and support amongst the men in his community. The people he drew and painted were personal friends, yet he combined a variety of influences to portray them as heroic icons of communal support, empathetic strength, and proud public identity.
We are pleased to show several of Leo Stillwell’s unpublished figurative works in the current Bay Area Beaux Arts exhibition beside the work of James Weeks and Paul Wonner.
For more information about Leo Stillwell and Art Ventures Gallery, email us at email@example.com
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