August 31, 2007

Local artist feeds her faith through art

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

Although Paula Casillas was born in Pala during the poverty-stricken Depression-era, she was able to nurture her love for artistic expression through painting and drawing.


In recent years, Chula Vista artist Paula Casillas has found inspiration on Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Also, while her family struggled to make ends meet, Paula, who’s now 83, said she was always surrounded by art at home, even if in a more subtle way.

“My mother used to cut copies of artwork by the old masters and other colorful pictures from magazines and paste them on our walls as decorations,” Paula said. “I would look at those pictures and imagine what I would do to improve upon them from my perspective.”

She had an uncle who was a priest, José María Silva, who once carved a Virgin Mary on wood. That wooden figure had a tremendous influence on young Paula.

“I used to love staring at that Virgin Mary for hours,” she said.

In a way, Paula used her artistic skills to escape from the poverty her family was living at the time. She would draw and travel to other worlds through it.

“For me it was a comforting activity, my quiet time, time for myself,” she said. “Art was a natural thing for me.”

At elementary school, she would daydream about art, something that affected her grades in other subjects, Paula said.

“I was interested in art to the point of distraction,” she said.

But even though she loved art, she had to keep it as a hobby, while helping her family survive.

After she married Nicolaz Casillas and settled down in Chula Vista, where she still lives, Paula put raising her three daughters before her artistic aspirations, although she used to paint and draw while the girls were in school.

In fact, she used her oldest daughter Gloria Casillas as her model to paint a life-sized canvas of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Paula was able to raise three successful daughters: Gloria Casillas is a retired-teacher who taught elementary school at National City for many years; Alicia Casillas works for the City of Chula Vista; and Mary Salas is now a state assemblywoman.

After her husband’s death in 1987, Paula once again found solace in her artwork and began a long-term relationship with painting and drawing La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Her work began to focus more and more on her Catholic faith.

Today, Paula has developed a great collection of religious images in paint, canvass and wood, using inks, pastels, acrylics, and color pencils.

Her three daughters have organized an exhibition and reception of Paula’s art on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the home of her daughter Gloria Casillas in Chula Vista.

There, she will have about 35 beautiful original icons and images for sale, as well as prints.

“She doesn’t even realize how good she is as an artist,” said her daughter State Assemblywoman Mary Salas.

It’s true. Paula is very humble about her art. Mary said that when her sister Gloria organized the first exhibition about four years ago, her mother didn’t believe she was going to sell anything. She ended up selling more than $3,000 that night.

“She doesn’t see herself as a professional, but she really is,” said her daughter Gloria. “Her work is of the highest caliber.”

Paula said that she feels the best about her art when she’s able to give an artwork to a family member or a friend.

All of her children and grandchildren have pieces of her work. She has donated several pieces of art to her church.

Mary said she has about 10 pieces of her mother’s work at home.

“It’s something that I really cherish. I’m always encouraging her,” Mary said.

At 83, Paula Casillas is more active in her art than ever. Her daughter Gloria hopes to put up an exhibition at a local gallery in December, where she will display several of Paula’s Virgen de Guadalupe images.

But Paula doesn’t really care about galleries. She cares more about creating art.

“I feel very restful. I get lost in my work.”

Join Paula Casillas for a show of her religious artwork dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2007, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Chula Vista.

For more information, call (619) 421-9320.

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