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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New MAC exhibition celebrating Spokane’s Lila Girvin focuses on an artist who always seeks the light

Spokane artist Lila Girvin poses for a photo at her home on Sept. 23, 2022, in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane artist Lila Girvin poses for a photo at her home on Sept. 23, 2022, in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Audrey Overstreet For The Spokesman-Review

Local painter Lila Girvin sat gently in a vintage Bertoia chair in the light-filled midcentury gem of a South Hill house that she and her husband have called home for nearly 65 years. She looked as serene as a Buddha.

The enlightened effect was heightened by her eclectic surroundings, including her precious and well-worn books on philosophy and spirituality packed high in warm wood shelves. There was also her eye-popping collections of woven baskets and handmade objects picked up from travels to Asia.

“I see things are dusty,” Girvin quipped while sorting through a wide bowl full of antique hand-carved gourds from China. “Oh well.”

At age 93, Girvin has read more, seen more, and experienced more than most. But the ego-less painter and mother of four, who has spent more than six decades creating art in Spokane, professed to have no special advice or answers to share.

“I have no secrets, and I struggle like everyone else,” she said. But upon further reflection, Girvin confessed to one guiding principle: “I have to seek the light in my paintings, as well as in myself.”

That gentle philosophy, the search for light, permeates all of Girvin’s ethereal oil paintings, and indeed, her life. Visitors to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture will get the chance to examine the layers of her external art and her personal journey when a new exhibition, “Gift of a Moment: Lila Shaw Girvin,” opens today.

It is a breathtaking retrospective that the MAC’s Executive Director Wes Jessup has been itching to do since the very first day he arrived at the museum five years ago.

“I walked into the office building where we have a wonderful program called Art Source where you can rent or buy art by local artists, and Lila had a show of like eight paintings in that hallway, not in the museum,” Jessup recalled.

Struck by Girvin’s mastery, by her depth, and simply by the gorgeousness of her works, Jessup approached the painter to offer her a full-blown solo exhibition. Girvin was already a well established artist, with works included in the MAC’s permanent collection, at the Jundt at Gonzaga University and in private regional galleries. She also was a purchase award winner for the Washington State Art Exhibition in Wenatchee and the Women Painters of Washington, Seattle Art Museum.

But unsurprising to her many friends, Girvin put off Jessup, claiming not to be worthy. She was just loaning her works to the MAC for their rental program because contributing to the community is what she has always done. Perhaps secure in her own standing among the giants in the abstract expressionist movement of the Pacific Northwest, she did not need or want her own show. It would take years for Jessup to persuade Girvin that it was important to share more of her work with the public.

Appealing to Girvin’s philanthropic side was the right tack to take with the soft-spoken, witty woman with the small frame and big heart. Community advocacy and political activism have been embedded in Girvin’s life since she was a child in Denver in the 1930s and ‘40s. Back then her ad executive father did not approve of his wife working, so Girvin’s mother spent her free time volunteering for the Democratic party, social causes, and local schools.

“My mother was the type of person who would give you the coat off her back,” Girvin said.

That dedication to civic duty rubbed off on Girvin, who has been a staunch supporter of local arts organizations, planning boards, and nonprofits since she first arrived in Spokane with her husband, George, a surgeon, back in 1958. She was an original appointee to the Spokane Arts Commission, a trustee of the former Allied Arts of Spokane, and the first woman to serve on the Boundary Review Board after she complained to the governor about the lack of city planning and possible environmental damage to the greater Spokane community back in the 1970s.

In the 1980s she volunteered for the Spokane Symphony and became chair of the Evergreen State College Board of Directors. The Girvins have been fixtures at local art shows, classical concerts and left-leaning campaign events as Spokane has grown from a sleepy town, pre-Expo ’74, to the creative regional hub it is today.

Growing up, Girvin’s artistic interests were more musical rather than visual. She played classical piano, and recalled the family of one of her high school boyfriends constantly begging her to play every time she walked in the door. “They loved it when I came over so they could all sing along,” Girvin chuckled.

As a teenager she landed a job entertaining visitors at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim lodge one summer. Despite her proficiency and practice, after secretly learning to play her father’s favorite song – the patriotic Irish piece “The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls” – Girvin never mustered the courage to actually perform it for him.

“I was too terrified of his criticism,” she said.

Girvin’s father was the one who provided her with books on philosophy and a love of learning, but he was difficult. Her family had to witness him drink himself to an early grave. The memories of rushing him to the hospital. The hemorrhaging. The blood.

Rather than dwell on the darkness, Girvin characteristically seeks the light, even among her most painful recollections. She noted that her demanding dad would have been proud to know that shortly after his death, she was elected to join Phi Beta Kappa her senior year in college at the University of Denver.

After graduating with an art degree in 1951, Lila married a fellow light-seeker, George, who then was in medical school. “He was charmingly playful, and I really liked that,” she said.

The couple moved to Seattle where her husband trained as a surgeon for the U.S. Army, and Girvin began raising the first of the four boys they would eventually have. During those busy years in Seattle, Girvin found her footing as a painter. She studied and worked with famed Pacific Northwest painters Kenneth Callahan (1905-1986) and Mark Tobey (1890-1976).

“When George was in the Army, our place was so small, I used to paint on top of the dryer,” Girvin said, chuckling at the memory.

After five years in Seattle and forming key relationships at the Frye Museum, the couple moved to Spokane so George Girvin could start his medical practice. They stumbled upon a community of neighbors on the South Hill who were steeped in architecture and art, including the families of progressive midcentury architect Tom Adkison and artist Harold Balazs.

Ever curious and always searching, Lila created a studio in her backyard where she could explore her art. She liked working on the floor where she could move thin layers of paint around without fighting gravity. The works she produced were exciting and ever-changing, reminiscent of the paths of her peers in the abstract expressionist movement of the middle of the last century, such as Helen Frankenthaler.

For Anne-Claire Mitchell, who curated Girvin’s upcoming MAC show, there is a whole other conversation to be had about Lila’s proximity to important American artists who helped found the so-called Northwest School of Modern Art.

“But I wanted to showcase Lila’s work as almost meditation objects, where visitors can come in and just have an experience with the paintings themselves, rather than bring comparisons into focus,” she said. “For Lila, she is her art, and her art is her.”

Girvin always starts a painting wondering what the canvas will reveal to her about her world, her own mind, and her own emotions. Among other inner journeys over the years, she publicly protested the Vietnam war, joined a women’s consciousness raising group, and eventually sought spiritual guidance at the Unitarian Church.

Along the way she and George raised their sons, each boys’ accomplishments as startling as their parents–Timothy the design and advertising wiz, Robert the doctor, Jonathan the musical theater producer, and Matthew the program officer for UNICEF.

But even with all the light, came darkness. In 2001, Matthew was killed in a helicopter crash while working to aid starving children in Mongolia. For Girvin, it’s a loss as fresh today as wet paint on a white canvas. “I think I just don’t know how to look at the darkness…” she said, trailing off.

Her husband deals with some of the family’s boundless grief, in part, by taking daily visits to the cabin he and Matthew renovated with their own hands, the year before his son took the job abroad. On the porch of the cabin father and son spent months together building, he rings the chime the family retrieved from Matthew’s home in Mongolia after his death.

“I have a garden there (at the farm), so first I play with that,” George Givrin said. “And then I go into the cabin and meditate with Matthew.”

Despite the impossible blow, Girvin’s art never wavered. She continued to create, and to focus on helping others, as her son would have done. What happens on the canvas is almost out of her control. Which is just how she likes it.

“One of the things my mother, who had a lot of traumas in her life, said when I was growing up was: ‘Take care of the living,’ ” she said. “And I sometimes try to focus on that when I get lost thinking about Matt.”

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