Arthur Shilling was born April 19, 1941, on the Rama Reserve near Orillia, Ontario, into a family of 13 children. He moved to Toronto in his late teens, and although he received a scholarship to attend art school, he went to few classes, preferring to find his own way. That way meant rejecting traditional Native Indian art forms, the illustration of legends and the use of animal symbolism, while at the same time exploring the Native experience in the life around him, particularly in the faces of his people. He developed a distinctive expressionist style using bold strokes of colour to set off the quiet questioning or proud defiance in the faces of his subjects.
The first solo exhibition of his paintings took place in Ottawa in 1967 when he was only 26 years old. Since then numerous galleries across Canada have shown his work and exhibitions have also taken place in New York City and as far away as Brazil. His paintings are in the permanent collections of The McMichael Canadian Collection, The National Museum of Civilization, The Royal Ontario Museum and The Canadian Embassy collection in Washington, D.C. He was the subject of the National Film Board’s prize-winning documentary called The Beauty of My People: The Life, Work and Times of Arthur Shilling.
Fiercely independent and impatient of attempts to classify him, he remained always “his own man”. In the 1970’s when the aftereffects of rheumatic fever suffered in childhood caught up with him, he came out of heart surgery and looked upon the world around him with new eyes. He returned to Rama to build an art gallery beside his home where he lived with his wife, Millie, and sons, Bewabon and Travis. He was also interested in landscapes and in the summer of 1980 he went west with his family to paint the prairies and mountains, going as far as the Gulf Islands off Vancouver Island.
In 1984 he was obliged to undergo further heart surgery. During the spring of 1985, ignoring medical warnings, he traveled to the Peace River district of northern Alberta and spent several weeks there teaching on native reserves. Although failing energy made painting very difficult, he continued to work until his death on March 4, 1986.
“Thomas L. Beckett Sr., of Beckett Gallery, enjoyed a long friendship with Arthur and Millie Shilling. They shared many successful art exhibitions through the years. October 1988 marked the first Arthur Shilling estate exhibition with Beckett, celebrating the artist’s life and work. We are fortunate to have been involved with the Shillings and are honoured to carry on the tradition and dedication to this great Canadian artist’s work.” Thomas G. Beckett, Beckett Fine Art, Toronto, October 2003