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3 Reasons to Check Out Emily McIlroy’s Art Exhibition at First Hawaiian Center

“The Lilies How They Grow” runs through June 14.


The Lilies How They Grow

Photo: James Charisma


Like a cross between scenes from the bottom of the ocean and an imagined ethereal cosmos, the nine 7-by-5-foot abstract paintings of The Lilies How They Grow—created by local artist Emily McIlroy and currently on display in the second floor gallery at First Hawaiian Center in downtown Honolulu—feel both familiar and otherworldly. Organic shapes overlap and seem to draw viewers into each oil and pastel painting, enveloping them.


“The processes of water and the feeling of being submerged had a big influence,” says McIlroy. “Things float and fall, some things take shape and others disintegrate.”


Curious about the exhibit? Here are three reasons you should check out this show before it closes on June 14:


The Lilies How They Grow



It’s a message of healing

The genesis of The Lilies began when McIlroy’s twin brother died suddenly in 2007. She not only had to face the irreconcilable loss of a loved one but also the loss of a sense of identity. McIlroy had always been one-half of a pair. Who was she now? What was her purpose?


Looking to both science and religious texts for answers, McIlroy ultimately found peace in the natural world: the cyclical patterns of life and death and rebirth, how creatures such as birds and jellyfish could be simultaneously delicate and ruthless, and how the spontaneous chaos of Earth’s ecosystems mirrored her own life. “In the beginning, this project was going to feature these monuments; giant cemetery prayers for the dead,” McIlroy says. “That changed later when I realized they were really prayers for life. It wasn’t really about memorialization anymore; they were prayers for my safe passage.”


From her grief, McIlroy created paintings of nature and organic matter—scenes of mud and bone, petals and polyps, and sea and sky—as a way of exploring terrain both physical and emotional. In a way, she created images of wilderness to help her map the wildness within. Over the course of three years, complex scenes emerged as she painted abstract shapes—or eroded others using solvents and sandpaper. Dark motifs gave way to brighter floral elements as, both on canvas and in her life, McIlroy found a way to let the light in.


The Lilies How They Grow

Photo: James Charisma


The series is inspired by world travels and nature

A few years after McIlroy’s brother died, her mother also passed away unexpectedly. McIlroy quit work and took a monthlong spiritual voyage through Glacier National Park in Montana, consumed by feelings of helplessness from recent events. She also traveled through Alaska and the Yukon. “I tried to take in everything—the ice, the ruggedness, the spaciousness,” says McIlroy.


When she returned to Hawai‘i, McIlroy returned to her regular routines of swimming and spending time in the ocean. Outside her art studio in the back of Pālolo, she works underneath a large banyan tree “where the light filters through and the roots gather behind me. A lot of The Lilies was drawn from and influenced by what I saw and felt in Hawai‘i and while traveling,” McIlroy says. “For me, going out in nature helped provide a resonance and understanding, while artwork created a passage for me to help navigate everything.”


The Lilies How They Grow



The artwork asks questions

For McIlroy, loss and grief brought many personal issues to the forefront, beginning with the question: Who was she now? “When someone we love dies and you see their body and it’s vacant—for me, it was a twin, which was an extension of myself—it can be threatening to one’s sense of self. With that person gone, who is left? And who am I; why am I here?” she says. “It’s an existential question that felt important for me to try and find the answer to.”


Everyone grieves in a different way. McIlroy’s way was a spiritual (and literal) journey through the natural world and creating an artistic project that manifested her experiences. “I was in a really dangerous place and I didn’t know the way out. For me, this project gave structure to my path,” she says. “People are connected through the shared pain of grief but how we all process that is different. Whatever your ‘Lilies’ are, find them and hold onto them.”


The Lilies How They Grow continues at First Hawaiian Center (999 Bishop St.) through June 14.


Read more stories by James Charisma



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