Mt. Airy abstract artist Stuart Shils will exhibit his work in “The Codex Project,” which opens Thursday, Jan. 23, at the WP Gallery, 1611 Walnut St. Mezzanine. (Photo by Barbara Sherf).

by Len Lear and Barbara Sherf 

Lifelong area resident and abstract artist Stuart Shils, 65, is one of several area artists taking part in an exhibit called “The Codex Project,” which opens Thursday, Jan. 23, and runs through Feb. 23 at the WP Gallery, 1611 Walnut St. Mezzanine. There will be an opening reception on Friday, Jan. 24, 6:30 to 10 p.m. 

The group show, sponsored by former students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), where Shils is a faculty member, is a “sketch book project.” 

“The organizers provided a hardbound sketchbook maybe ¾ of an inch thick and said to do with it what I please,” explained Shils, who was introduced to light and nature as a toddler by his mother, a longtime Philadelphia schoolteacher, and father, an insurance salesman, who would take him and his sister to the Wissahickon Valley for nature walks. 

“The whole area of Chestnut Hill had a great influence on me, between the light streaming through the trees in the Wissahickon to the George Woodward houses to my early birthday parties in Pastorius Park,” Shils reminisced in an earlier interview.  

“We grew up in an ordinary row house in Mt. Airy near Ivy Hill Road, so living near Chestnut Hill was a visual gift in a way that deeply informed the development of looking at our physical and light-drenched world.” 

Shils’ family moved to Springfield Township when he was 16. The Springfield High School Class of ’72 graduate took his Bar Mitzvah money and spent a summer hitchhiking through England, France and Israel. He opened exhibitions in Israel, Ireland and other European countries before settling back in Mt. Airy more than a decade ago. 

“And there in those countries I was blown away by the presence of antiquity. We had industrial ruins here in Philly, which also had a profound impact on my sense of form while frequently riding the Chestnut Hill Local (train) into town, but we don’t have ruins like one finds in Europe, and this fed my imagination greatly.”   

After dropping out of architecture school, Shils spent a summer working at a factory in North Philadelphia and over the summer started taking courses at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts). From there he went on to PAFA. 

Shils has exhibited his work often at Woodmere and other area locations and in New York City. He is an admitted Skyspace devotee (the James Turrell Skyspace housed in the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting), visiting often and bringing his students. 

His way of looking at art changed in the early ‘90s, when the owners of the Dolan/Maxwell Gallery opened a residency program in Ireland on the Northwest coast of County Mayo, where Shils then spent 13 summers, some of which was seen in a PBS documentary, “Ballycastle.” 

At first, when the stormy weather came in, he would pack up his materials and wait for the rain to clear, but eventually he stood in the rain and would paint rain. “It changed my whole life. In ‘98 and ’99 I was examining the colors of rain, and that took me into an entirely different appreciation of light than I had acquired working in Philly … 

“Typically rain is something many out-of-doors painters might curse because it gets in the way of working, but unexpectedly I found the rain to be both heroic and erotic in its appeal. And that relates to what I think some artists are trying to do, to see the ordinary as not ordinary at all but as just the opposite. We tend not to notice the familiar, as with ordinary and inconvenient things like rain.  

“Many people might see it as something that gets their shoes wet, but if we can look beyond our complaining and take notice of what it really IS visually, then suddenly we might stand back in awe and notice its beauty as an abstract quality that holds us in constant fascination and in the grip of the interrogational gaze. Like, the longer we look, the more fascinating and wonderful it becomes as it opens to our looking and because of our looking.” 

Interestingly, the best advice Shils ever received was from Guido Piccinino, who had a grocery store and butcher shop in West Philly, where Stuart worked when he was a student. “Guido, who called himself Joe, taught me that when I’m setting up the produce in the morning, not to put cucumbers next to green peppers and lettuce because there would be no contrast between the colors to catch the eye of the customer, that it’s better to put cucumbers next to tomatoes and such to enhance contrast and engage the potential customer through her or his eyes … 

“The most important thing to remember is that the game is to grab and hold the eye of the viewer. There is no such thing as good art or bad art, but there is art that holds our attention and art that doesn’t. Perhaps art that doesn’t grab and hold our attention is not successful, and I learned that so it is also with a vegetable display.” 

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