Anyone who declares an intention to pursue a career as an artist in a housing market that wants us all to be engineers (or the CEO of a company of engineers) is a certain kind of badass.
Bay Maker Lila Gemellos is of precisely this ilk.
She is a woman who makes her impact – and her living – by delighting our eyes with vibrant paintings and murals while also managing to honor our local history and deter the blight of graffiti that often plagues city streets.
Her latest creation is located on the north side of the BevMo building located at 1133 Lincoln Avenue in downtown Willow Glen, San Jose. The 50 x 20’ work is a bonanza of inviting colors and iconic images that encapsulate the making of this quaint neighborhood that has been evolving as a community since its first school was founded in 1863. It is now a charming destination of shops and restaurants that encourages people to stroll.
Lila ensures the people have a reason to stop, linger, and reflect.
When I met her at the mural to see her bask in the glow of her creation, I happened upon a conversation between Lila and a couple of longtime Willow Glen residents who had stopped to share stories about the history depicted in her work. It turns out that they were descendants of a family who made canning labels locally for the apricot, grape, prune, and cherry crops that were cultivated here – as part of the Valley of Heart’s Delight – and wanted to share their story with someone who clearly had done her research before taking brush to wall.
“These conversations are so gratifying,” Lila explains. “My work allows me to engage with the public and create art that people care about. I want to add value to every structure I paint on—it means the world to me to be trusted to enhance the beauty of my hometown,” she adds.
To pull this off, Lila has to be equal parts artist and businesswoman. Her pitches are successful because she understands the needs of her clients and only pursues projects she knows she can sell. This means that function is equally as important as the aesthetics in her planning.
“I don’t ever want to be in the position of asking for handouts to be able to do what I am good at. I want people to see the value in what my creations do for the people who walk and drive past them every day,” she explains.
Lila’s murals serve the people who see them in multiple ways. Her first goal is to capture your eye with color and whimsy and, then, prompt you to have something to talk about. Mission accomplished—you simply can’t look at the images without feeling nostalgic or curious.
Her work also serves as a palatable way of teaching history to a society becoming accustomed to getting information visually and succinctly.
But perhaps most importantly, her art serves as acknowledgement of the culture of the people who live there by giving them a public statement of beauty that depicts who they are, where they come from, and reflects their hopes for where they are going.
While working on murals in the Evergreen School District, Lila often encountered youth who were curious about what she was doing. She made a point to educate them about murals as a professional outlet for artistic expression and encourage them to take any frustrations they had over how their community had let them down to help make it a better place for the kids who are coming up after them.
By painting images of themes that were important to the community and including elements of goal setting and the standards being taught at school, she and the school leaders were delighted to discover that her work was respected and not vandalized with tagging.
Because she grew up in this same community, that response means a lot to her. She was a girl who took up oil painting at the age of seven and soon won ribbons for her work three years in a row at the County Fair. From there, she took every art class she could get her hands on in middle school and high school, which culminated locally in AP Art Studio at Silver Creek High School.
Lila went on to study art at UC Riverside, but had to leave before graduating due to medical issues that required her to come home. She then sort of fell into work in commercial real estate once she came back, but felt miserable whenever she stopped painting for too long.
When Lila made her move to focus on her art, she realized how unhappy she had been when doing work that ultimately took away people’s views of sunsets and shined spotlights into their backyards through development. She feels the opposite about the work she is doing now with her murals. “It feels so good to bridge the missing link between a community’s concerns and hopes,” Lila says.
As for what comes next, you can be sure that Lila won’t be sitting around waiting for something to happen—she is making things happen for herself. She is currently putting together plans for a mural along Capitol Expressway that will provide a sense of history and a tighter sense of community for the residents of the Evergreen neighborhood of San Jose.
Lila also recently drew a series of over 30 iconic sites of San Jose with her signature colorful palette that you find in all her murals, including the one at the famous Falafel’s Drive-In. She sold them to History San Jose and they will soon be printed as postcards to promote the City.
In addition to all of this, she has several bids in for pieces of public art, each with a focus on community impact and engagement.
By following her passion to make art that matters, Lila Gemellos makes us proud to call her our Bay Area neighbor and badass artist who inspires youth and strengthens our sense of history and community.