Around Christmas of last year Gloria Bilotta’s daughter called to tell her she had found her mom listed as “deceased” on the Internet roster of members of the national Women Artists of the West.
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It was a mistake, obviously and when Gloria traveled to San Diego for the group’s annual show in May the other members learned that not only was she alive and kicking but that Bilotta was the recipient of three special awards. In fact, May 2 was officially declared “Gloria Bilotta Day” in the city of San Diego.
Not bad, coming from the grave to glory.
“I joke that they gave me the proclamations to make up for the fact that they listed me as deceased,” said Gloria, who with husband Joe showed the Mountain Democrat through their comfortable home in Cool, a house filled with western art and memorabilia with a complement of wildlife drawn to a pond out their front window.
It might have been a blooper, listing the group’s actual founder as being deceased, but the mishap drew attention to Gloria Bilotta that ended up with the special honor in May.
“Gloria Bilotta is a wonderful person, a courageous person,” said Gloria Chadwick, the WAOW’s corporate secretary. “Gloria started an art organization for women in the ’70s, at a time when women were not encouraged to sign their first names to their art because the galleries weren’t showing them — women artists were thought to be inferior.
“She began the organization for the love of western art and to give women the opportunity, a non-profit that gave out scholarships to young women artists.”
Chadwick said it was her pleasure to finally meet Gloria and Joe during the recent show at the Women’s Museum of California that saw Gloria bestowed with not only “Gloria Bilotta Day” in the city of San Diego, but also receiving a special commendation from WAOW President Todd Gloria (yes, men are now members, too).
She also was thrilled to be handed a Certificate of Recognition from the California State Assembly and a letter of recognition from Congresswoman Susan A. Davis in honor of Bilotta being the founder and first president of the Women Artists of the West.
Gloria served as president of the organization for its first five years, at a time when the members numbered 30 nationwide. Today there are some 260 members in the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s Gloria’s ability to begin an organization that has stayed strong and has survived for 44 years that’s remarkable,” continued Chadwick. “The Women’s Museum is delighted to honor women pioneers, one of whom is Gloria Bilotta.”
Sadly enough, Gloria hasn’t painted for 20 years, despite the fact that her high school sweetheart, Joe, built her a studio on the couple’s rural property off Georgetown Road. Gloria’s artist’s eye had seen the possibilities of the Cool area when they made many trips to the area to indulge their two sons’ hobby of mining gold claims, and when the Bilottas had to head back to Norco in Southern California, “each time I would cry,” said Gloria.
Joe and Gloria made the move to Cool 15 years ago.
Since deteriorating health prevented her from pursuing her art, Gloria switched to becoming an antique dealer, an enterprise to which she took like the bass to the water in the front-yard pond.
“We’re trying to downsize, because it really takes over the home,” said Joe, smiling as his wife scanned the couple’s belongings that make each corner of their home worth a second glance.
Including the oil painting of John Wayne, one of Gloria’s accomplishments, that captures perfectly the tough yet winsome expression of “the Duke” in the height of his western cowboy days.
The retired artist is understandably proud of that piece, as well as one she calls “The Homecoming,” which features a likeness of son Joel with the family’s horse, Roulette, near a building reminiscent of the ghost town Bodie.
Another, a portrait of a horse the Bilottas owned named Hunter’s Joy, served as the prototype to show potential customers interested in having Gloria paint their own favorite animals.
“The best of my work has been sold,” she offered.
Gloria remembers selling her first painting, which brought a whopping $125 in the early 1970s, “big money in those days.”
No doubt it helped the family of five, even though Joe was busy with an engineering career with Aerojet that would find him working seven years on Apollo 11, with the Bilottas all traveling to “the Cape” to watch the spacecraft lift off.
Gloria doesn’t hesitate to mention that she also mucked horse stalls and mended fence, as the family owned horses for 45 years.
Married 57 years, Gloria is quick to note that her first love — art — could not have been such a big part of her life without the support of her husband, who helped her begin the Women Artists of the West with a ready and willing hand.
“Without him, I couldn’t have done it,” said Gloria simply. “Joe helped me put on horse shows to finance the Women Artists of the West and after the second show we saw a profit of $800. That allowed me to buy an electric typewriter and place ads in national magazines and other media, reaching out to women. We got about a dozen responses and from there we began a newsletter and soon there were WAOW groups opening up in other parts of the country.”
By 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, the Women Artists of the West was ready to join in the celebration, and was invited to show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Science and Industry.
“That was a really big deal,” said Joe.
“Chuck Ryan, who was a regular actor in B-westerns at the time, and his chuck wagon showed up, along with several celebrities with western artifacts from movie sets,” Gloria added. “We had great TV coverage, interviews.”
She and Joe particularly recall the chore of hauling Ryan’s 1870s German chuck wagon, which weighed some 8,000 pounds, up the freeway to various events promoting the art organization.
Gloria has several snapshots from those glory days, including one where she is wearing a pair of red Wrangler britches standing with Chuck Ryan. Her collection also contains a black-and-white photo of 2-year-old Gloria perched on the back of a pretty pony outside her parents’ home in Chicago.
Move to California
The family moved to California when she was 11, but perhaps surprisingly Gloria has never lived on a ranch. However, she always has been drawn to the romantic lure of the Old West and began sketching horses when she was just a child.
“I’m an old cowgirl,” said Gloria. “Back when cowboy artists of America were going great guns (so to speak) they took over the western art world in that decade, the ’70s. But because of the times, no women need apply.”
Shrugging, she added, “That was then and this is now.”
One of the reasons that “now” is so much brighter for women artists is because of the efforts of people like Gloria, the WAOW leaders agree.
When the invitation came for the opening reception of the May art show in San Diego, Gloria had no idea she was to be the center of attention there.
“My mouth was hanging open,” she said, recalling the moment her name was announced for the awards. “No one leaked that the awards were coming to me. All I was told by the organizers was that ‘it would be wonderful if you could come to the show.’”
And wonderful it was, with the woman who taught art for 25 years finding herself surrounded by newer members of the group who wanted to hear about how she founded the Women Artists of the West.
“It was so fun because the current members were so interested in hearing about how it started,” said Gloria. “Everybody was thrilled to hear the old stories — we laughed and laughed.”
Joe added that the couple was treated like royalty, complete with champagne served in their hotel room, courtesy of the WAOW.
“We didn’t want to leave,” he chuckled.
Now that they’re back home in Cool, however, it is clear that the couple’s lifestyle is every bit as heady as a glass of sparkling wine. As they bade farewell to their two visitors, Joe opened the black cast-iron gate featuring a bucking bronco as rusty-red dragonflies drifted lazily in a light afternoon breeze.
“It has been a pleasure, being able to do what I love and get paid for it for so many years,” said Gloria. “It was such a thrill being honored by the organization. They have the same spirit and commitment of the members during the beginning. The same spirit, just different faces.”
For more information about the Women Artists of the West visit waow.org.