Art Collection - John Cosby (b. 1955),
John Cosby (b. 1955), "Walking Avalon," 2020, oil on canvas panel, 12 x 16 in.

An Art Collection Profile >

Celeste and Graham Gilles were both raised in California by parents who owned, in her words, “beautiful contemporary plein air art, so for us to start collecting and appreciating it together was easy.” Celeste particularly recalls admiring a tonalist nocturne painted by the California master Granville Redmond (1871–1935), which depicts Lover’s Cove on Catalina Island. Her maternal great-grandparents had purchased it directly from Redmond to “help out their artist friend,” as they were all part of the deaf community in Los Angeles.

Celeste and Graham Gilles
Celeste and Graham Gilles

Today most of Celeste and Graham’s artworks depict Catalina Island, where her family has a long history, or Laguna Beach; a few are related to another scenic area nearby, Santa Barbara. All, Celeste says, are “locations we love and appreciate.” Represented in their collection today are such talents as Carl Bretzke, John Budicin, Hiu Lai Chong, John Cosby, Kathleen Dunphy, Aimee Erickson, Andy Evansen, Jeremy Harper, Willis Heaton, Debra Huse, Ryan Jensen, Paul Kratter, Peggi Kroll-Roberts, Daniel Marshall, Terry Miura, Dan Mondloch, Michael Obermeyer, Colin Page, Joe Paquet, Jesse Powell, Ray Roberts, Frank Serrano, Jeff Sewell, Matt Smith, J. Ken Spencer, Bryan Mark Taylor, Wendy Wirth, and Jeff Yeomans.

Celeste has been the driving force behind the couple’s art collection. “There is,” she explains, “not a single piece on our walls that I don’t have some personal connection to, or a story about. My first clear memory of purchasing plein air art was at what is now called The Wildside Show, which benefits the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy. John Cosby’s ‘Last Light’ reminded me so much of how Avalon’s Crescent Avenue looks before the crowded day boats arrive. It’s a perfect representation of how light should be painted.”

Cosby is connected to yet another superlative, the only painting Celeste and Graham have purchased online, sight unseen. That moment came in 2020, when The Wildside Show went virtual due to the pandemic. Celeste recalls, “I was already so familiar with John’s work that I knew I would love his ‘Walking Avalon,’ which depicts the direct path I take home; in fact, our family home is vaguely represented in his painting.” She wisely bought an early-access ticket to the show specifically so she would not miss the opportunity to buy “Walking Avalon,” and when she later picked it up at Cosby’s studio, she was not disappointed. Then Celeste felt “even more lucky to have it when John mentioned that another collector had wanted it but had not purchased the early-access ticket!”

For the last several years, all of the Gilles’ acquisitions have been through The Wildside Show or exhibitions mounted by the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association (LPAPA), where Celeste started volunteering in 2013, first on its Invitational planning committee, and then on its board of directors, where she currently serves as vice president. LPAPA, she notes, “has given me the opportunity to know all of our artists well — relationships I treasure.” The couple have even hosted some artists at the Catalina family home while they paint for The Wildside Show, among them Aimee Erickson, Willis Heaton, Debra Huse, Michael Obermeyer, Colin Page, and Lisa Skelley.

Jesse Powell (b. 1977), "Last Light in Avalon," 2013, oil on canvas, 16 x 24 in.
Jesse Powell (b. 1977), “Last Light in Avalon,” 2013, oil on canvas, 16 x 24 in.

One of Celeste and Graham’s favorite works is Jesse Powell’s “Last Light in Avalon,” which she calls “a magical painting of Catalina.” It was purchased at LPAPA’s Invitational in 2014, when Celeste “was not particularly familiar with his work.” She says, “It was early in our collecting, and the painting was way over what we had budgeted, but I just couldn’t let it go. I have never thought once again about how much we paid; in fact, I don’t even remember. Now it hangs prominently above the fireplace in our living room, and whenever our fellow art lovers come over in the evening, I will dim the lights over the painting and show them how its colors change. It’s stunning!” She was deeply touched when Powell later “gave us the small  study he made for ‘Last Light in Avalon’, which we also display near the fireplace.”

Celeste says her friendship with Aimee Erickson has grown during the artist’s several visits to Catalina: “I particularly love the way she viewed the island upon seeing it for the first time. She is still in awe of its beauty, a feeling I share every time I am there, too.” Not surprisingly, one of the Gilles’ favorite Laguna paintings is Erickson’s “Before Sunrise,” which won Best in Show at LPAPA’s 2017 Invitational.

Speaking of LPAPA, Celeste and Graham deeply admire the collections of their friends Toni and Steve Kellenberg and Mary Linda and Jay Strotkamp; both couples are also LPAPA supporters who have been profiled in Fine Art Connoisseur. Celeste laughs, “Graham does not think we have any more wall space, but after his first visit to the Strotkamps’ house, he now understands why I argue this point. Every few years I rehang everything, and every time I find new appreciation. But hanging a new purchase is always challenging. In 2021 we bought a Carl Bretzke painting that just sat on the floor until about a month ago. I could not figure out where to hang it, but then it occurred to me that the frame was all wrong. So I had it reframed and then knew right where it should go!”

Looking toward the future, Celeste says she has commissioned a couple of paintings. “Though I love them now, my initial reaction was never what I was expecting, so it would have to be under unique circumstances for us to commission again.” Interestingly, the Gilles own no works by historical artists, but “we aspire to get there,” Celeste confides. “And I hope that someday I don’t have to arm-wrestle my siblings for the Redmond.” That would indeed be an ideal acquisition, bringing together artists of very different eras who revere the astounding natural beauty of Southern California.

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