Travis Shilling: Ojibway Artist Far From Being a One-Trick Talent

By Clint Buehler

Travis Shilling. Photo by Clint Buehler

Visual artist; film and video producer, director and writer; theatre playwright, producer and director . . . where do you start in writing about the successfully multi-talented Travis Shilling?

We can start with his latest achievement, the nine-minute short film, Bear Tung, which was recently showcased at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival in New York City.

We could write about the plays he has written, produced and directed for the theatre company he created—the Moonshine Theatre Company—which performs at the venerable Orillia Opera House, and also features the work of other local playwrights.

We could focus on his paintings and the path of discovery he has travelled in pursuing his evolving vision.

Or we could explore the continuing influence of his father, the renowned and revered Ojibway artist Arthur Shilling, who died 25 years ago when Travis was only six.

The decision, of course, must be to include all of those elements in order to truly reflect the complexity of the journey he has taken to arrive at this point in his creative and personal life.

His latest short film, Bear Hung, actually began as a painting in his new series about animals and people, but his initial sketch led him to the realization that he not only wanted to see it, but to hear it.

After writing three drafts to create the script, he recruited his friend, veteran Ojibway actor Gary Farmer, and Toronto painter and stage actor John Coburn for the on-camera roles, and a number of friends to provide off-camera voices.

The production has Farmer, as the hunter, emerging from the forest for a press conference, mediated by Coburn as the landowner, where the questioners (off camera) are the animals the hunter hunts. The entire production was shot in one continuous one-camera shot as Shilling wanted “to capture the intimacy and vulnerability of the moment,” and it only took the actors two takes.

Appropriately for him, among the small group Travis took to the New York debut of his film was his mother, Millie.

His family and his roots on the Rama Reserve where his father built the home and studio where his mother still lives continue to inspire him. Immediately after this interview, he went back to Rama to ensure that renovations underway there preserved the integrity of the building.

That wasn’t just about contractors doing their job. It was most of all about preserving the inspiration of a place that continues to be a major inspiration for him.

Travis talks about his childhood memories of his father moving from room to room as the light changed, to capture those changes on canvas. He also remembers the beds in each of those rooms, although at the time he didn’t realize that those beds were there so that his father could rest when he grew tired because of the heart condition—beginning with a childhood bout with rheumatic fever—that eventually led to his death at 44.

In his studio in Toronto, Travis’s palette is virtually monochromatic—grey backgrounds with dark detail and very little bright color, if any. At Rama, the color emerges. He says that comes from his father, as does the completion of a painting in a single session.

Arthur Shilling, particularly in his portraiture, would complete a painting in a single one-hour sitting, To do that, he would have the full range of colors immediately at hand. The color in his work was about the light, and the reflection off that light off the rich woods in the many rooms of his studio. Travis, too, applies that approach to his work, striving to complete each painting in a single session.

As a child, Travis wanted to be an actor, but by 14 he had already begun to move toward the visual arts. At 16, he was not only making his own art, but involving other young people at the Rama Reserve in making art. At first they couldn’t handle the focus and discipline required to reflect his father’s completion of a portrait in a single one-hour sitting.

His first public exhibition at 18, at the Beckett Gallery in Toronto that had represented his father, featured paintings made with house paint and ink on board, because those were the materials he could afford, and featured floating portraits of faces. Now he works almost exclusively in oils.

Travis’s current work focuses on animals, people, boats and water.

“When I’m not painting, I shift through images. It’s like criminally breaking in, rifling through drawers. It’s a relief to put them on canvas, but not enough. I need to go back for more.

“You start to get drained . . . can’t find what you’re looking for . . . like the trail has gone cold.”

He credits his mother for schooling him on the right approach to self-portraits, an extension of his father’s approach to self-portraits and portraits of others.

In creating self portraits, he says, you have to be very self-aware . . . not painting from a photograph but from a mirror image. “Mom always said, go do a (self) portrait when troubled, challenged.”

Travis says making art is a hard thing. “You never get to enjoy being an artist. What seems balanced is never quite so with art. There’s anxiety, stress, concern about the people around you.”

Travis has a unique take on survival as an artist. He says that while others may hoard food and water in anticipation of a disaster, he’d be hoarding art supplies in a basement so that he could continue to make art.

He says “I hope I will always have time and space to paint. Eventually I’d like to build my own space. My only consistency right now is to stand in front of that canvas.”