Olympian’s paintings on display at gymnastics event

John Stillings’ art work is the achievement of a lifetime, though he has been painting for just four years.

“The late start of manipulating paint, that’s one thing,” Stillings said. “But I’ve spent a lifetime learning how to see and feel.”

And what a lifetime it has been.

Stillings, 56, who graduated from Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood, is an Olympic silver medalist, a successful Seattle contractor, the parent of two teenage sons and an accomplished painter.

Eight of Stillings’ paintings are on exhibit at Comcast Arena this weekend as part of the cultural entertainment offered during the 2012 Kellogg’s Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships, where visitors can see future Olympians compete in men’s, women’s and rhythmic gymnastics and trampoline.

The exhibit “Art of the Olympians” will include several of Stillings’ Pacific Northwest scenes. Stillings is expected to be at the exhibit for most of the weekend to greet visitors and answer questions and talk about his art.

He might even talk about his journey to becoming an Olympian.

Stillings won the silver medal in rowing, a sport to which he has dedicated almost 40 years of his life.

The painting, on the other hand, Stillings took up only four years ago, in 2008. Turned out, one of his contracting customers is an artist who teaches workshops. Stillings asked her if he could attend one of her classes, not knowing most of her students were professional artists.

Undaunted, Stillings attended the class and finished his first painting, an acrylic of the Chester River in Maryland where his wife, Betsy, another rower, grew up.

Today, about 100 paintings later, Stillings has shown his pieces in various exhibits, including the Art of the Olympians museum in Fort Myers, Fla., a place dedicated to art done by Olympic athletes.

Part of the museum’s mission is to tie art in with the idea of the Olympic athlete being complete in body, mind and spirit.

“There was a lot of painting going on inside my head that when I did give myself permission to let it out, it wasn’t necessarily something I just started,” Stillings said of his art work. “It was a lifetime.”

Stillings paints almost exclusively in the challenging, fast-drying medium of acrylic because, he joked, of his “short attention span and need for instant gratification.”

He said some might call his work expressionism. He calls it “feelism.”

“I don’t really paint what I’m painting,” Stillings said. “My mental focus is I try and recall and lock on to the feeling, and paint the feeling and not the painting.”

Born in Sedro-Woolley in Skagit County, Stillings moved with his family to Snohomish County where, as a 9-year-old, he already dreamed of winning a gold medal in the sport of archery, though that wasn’t even an Olympic sport at the time.

Stillings described himself as “really little” as a youth, trying various sports through school — cross country track, basketball and wrestling. Through it all, Stillings said he was always quite driven.

“I was the salutatorian. I got one ‘B’ in high school,” Stillings recalled. “Our group in Meadowdale High School was a huge group of overachievers and I wanted to be one of them.”

One day, an alumnus of Meadowdale heard that Stillings was going to attend the University of Washington. The graduate, who was at the UW, told Stillings he should go out for the rowing team, persuading Stillings that he would make an excellent coxswain, the motivational commander of the boat and the one who steers.

Coxswains, as a rule, are also under 120 pounds.

“I guess he thought I’d be perfect because of my Napoleon complex,” Stillings joked.

Stillings did join the UW team. A major win for that team was the 1977 first place at the Henley Royal Regatta Grand Challenge Cup Championship, a feat that shut down the British National Team.

In 1983, Stillings’ eight-oared crew won the gold medal at the Pan American Games. In 1984, his team went on to win the silver medal in the Men’s Four with Coxswain.

Being the driven man he is, Stillings went back to the sport so he could “rewrite the ending” and in 2003, helped win his team the gold medal at the Pan American Games in the Men’s eight-oared crew.

“I really enjoyed the adrenalin, the pressure. I thrived on that,” Stillings said of being a coxswain. “The main thing was being able to execute and express the collective will of the crew. It’s been described as conducting a symphony of motion.”

“Art of the Olympians”

The exhibit is on display this weekend during the 2012 Kellogg’s Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships where gymnasts vie for a spot in this summer’s London Olympics. Competition begins Friday and continues through Saturday at Comcast Arena Everett, 2000 Hewitt Ave., Everett. Tickets start at $25 for one event, or $110 for a day pass, at www.comcastarenaeverett.com or 866-332-8499.

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