“Artists need life experiences and memories to inspire their creations; Donia Lilly is no exception. But she is exceptional.” –Ben Arnold, editor: Perigee Publication for the Arts.
In a review of one of Donia Lilly’s solo exhibitions in the Monterey County Herald, Lisa Crawford Watson states, “Donia’s paintings are like the dreamscape on which we might enact our deepest thoughts, fantasies or truth. They are color set to music, as if we had syncopated the pigment. They are swimming, eyes open, under water. They are rolling all the way down the hill. They are dancing with our eyes shut. …She is a dancer, a painter, a colorist, whose use of pigment is highly intuitive but comes from someplace equally informed and tried.”
Donia Lilly was born near Woodstock, New York, nine years after the famous festival. Raised by her father primarily in Phoenix, Arizona after being kidnapped* by him from Princeton, New Jersey (and later being kidnapped* back to NJ by her mother for several months before returning to Phoenix), she grew up in a home that, in retrospect, was shockingly devoid of art and even music – two things that have always been vital to her from a very young age. “I’ve always loved dance, music, drawing, writing – any kind of creative expression. Growing up in such a conflict-ridden atmosphere, they were my unconscious escape and link to sanity. They still are, although much more consciously now,” she states, laughing.
“I love the quote by Henry Ward Beecher: ‘Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.’ I feel that is definitely true, at least for myself. My internal world is absolutely vital to my creative process,” Donia reveals.
As a child she was always adding some element of art to her schoolwork and daily activities, but nevertheless was unaware that being an “artist” was even an answer that could be given when asked: and what do you want to be when you grow up?
“I didn’t even know that was a vocation. I never had any real training in art until high school, but as soon as I realized how much art I was scheduling for myself and how much I loved doing it – how much I needed to do it… well, that was the beginning of the end, so to speak, of taking the ‘practical road.’ I made efforts to compromise and struggled against my better judgment regarding my father’s typical parental wishes, but I’ve always been a very independent thinker… and before my second year was up at university, I had dropped my double major and was solely an Art major.”
Studying Studio Art at Principia College in Illinois, Donia took advantage of the long holiday breaks and traveled every opportunity she could, despite her less-than shoestring budget. She worked as an au pair one summer in the Netherlands and studied in Ireland at the Burren College of Art another. She also worked as a picture framer several years in Manhattan Beach and later the Monterey Bay of California, giving her excellent training in what would prove a very useful skill for her future business as an artist.
After graduating from university, she threw herself headlong into building her career as a self-employed artist. She also taught art part time several years for VSA Arts – a non-profit organization that provides art classes for special needs populations – be they veterans, rehab patients, or children with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities.
Whether possessing a nomadic tendency implanted in her youth, or simply the innate understanding that life in the United States was not for her, Donia lived, painted, and exhibited her work in five more States all over the US before packing up and moving to Europe at the age of twenty-seven.
“It was a practical compromise, actually – moving to the island of Samos in Greece… I had always dreamt of living on a tropical island – I’m ‘tropical’ through and through – but I thought I would have to be rich to afford living in the middle of the ocean and still run my art business. So I moved to a Mediterranean island still within easy ‘striking distance’ of the European art world. But after four years of living undocumented in Europe (I also spent one winter in Florence and two years in southern Spain – the birth country of my grandfather – trying to find a way through the endless bureaucracy that would enable me to apply for citizenship) I decided that enough was enough and I was going to do what I wanted to do all along… and the Mediterranean is by no stretch of the imagination tropical!” she laughs.
So after six countries, a dizzying number of towns, and extensive travels many places in between, Donia Lilly moved to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands where she worked part time for the Ministry of Education. As in Europe – not wanting to get married simply for papers, but not having a way to stay permanently – she had to leave before her work permit expired after a couple of years. Tired of continuously moving around due to immigration law, yet not wanting to move back to the busy and cold mainland United States, Donia decided to move to Kauai where she currently lives and creates. As an artist whose response to her environment and experiences profoundly informs her artistic process, it is indeed her paradise.
In 2015 Donia became disabled with a painful and little-researched condition that affects her mobility and memory. She has been unable to paint since then and has taken up doing fiber arts in bed when she’s able, as she cannot remain upright for more than a few minutes at a time without painful consequences. You can read more about this development here.
Donia’s artwork hangs in dozens of collections across North and South America, Europe, and Oceania. She has won awards and honors from various arts organizations and arts publications, such as The Pastel Journal, and Pastel Artists of Hawaii, and is included in the archives of the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington D.C.
While Donia creates with many media – including acrylics, charcoal, and watercolor – pastels are her true love. Referencing another passion of hers – partner dancing – she states: “Using pastels is to draw and paint in the same instant; they are a ‘refined’ sort of finger painting – although they are much more than messy children’s play. The activity of drawing, witnessing the textures and forms emerge from beneath my fingers in spontaneous choreography – is much like dancing. With practice, the hands and the medium communicate silently with each other, responding, resonating, and enhancing the dance – the drawing. Watching it happen is never quite as satisfying as participating, creating.”
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