Lunda Hoyle Gill sat in her spare room at a Westwood assisted-living center, the last stop on her remarkable life journey.
The artist once traveled to the remotest parts of the globe, racing to paint indigenous peoples before they disappeared. But that was before cancer ravaged her gut and Parkinson’s disease crippled her fingers. Today, at 72, the artist can no longer paint. She can barely walk or hold a spoon.
In the final months of her life, the Cedars-Sinai Hospice Program has helped Gill to achieve a longtime ambition: a retrospective of her work, to open Sunday at USC Hillel.
Gill’s international travels began in 1974, when she read about Stone Age tribesmen in the Philippines and thought they would make inspiring subjects. Over the next decade, she traveled from Tonga to Tibet, cramming as much food and medicine as she could fit in a duffel bag, often backpacking alone into the bush.
"My vulnerability allowed me to reach the native people more deeply," she explained.
Gill breakfasted with Genghis Kahn’s 23rd descendant in Mongolia, had a gun pulled on her in the Aleutian islands and painted Eskimo whale-hunters while precariously perched on an iceberg. Once, 40 miles from Siberia, she was stranded for a week on a fog-bound island that she called "a spit of gravel in the ocean."
Even more dangerous was painting the tribal executioner of a headhunting clan, whose menacing portrait looms from a corner of Gill’s room. His face is hidden by a mask: "If I had given away his identity, I would have been killed," Gill said.
Gill, whose work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum and who has had three exhibits at the Smithsonian, traveled throughout China to paint the country’s 55 minority cultures in the early to mid-1980s. Several years later, she traveled to Israel to paint ethnic groups of the Jewish state. An Ethiopian Jewish women proved a difficult subject: "She’d gone to the beauty parlor, so I had to study museum photographs to get the traditional hairstyle just right," Gill recalled.
When Gill was in her 60’s, her travels came to an end. In 1997, the artist was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
Last year, she entered the Cedars-Sinai hospice with a final wish for a pictorial life review; hospice official Mary Hersh responded by mailing an urgent letter to some 15 museums and galleries.
USC Hillel program director Matt Davidson was one of those who replied. "It was an unbelievable chance to do a mitzvah for someone, so saying ‘yes’ was a no-brainer," he told The Journal.
In September, the Southwest Museum will also mount an exhibit of Gill’s work, though she is unsure she will live long enough to see it. "I didn’t think having any kind of exhibition was even close to possible while I was still alive," she said.
Sitting in her quiet room last week, Gill hoped she would feel well enough to attend her Hillel opening May 6. "I hope there will not be tears," she said. "But if they come, it’s fine."
For information about the Hillel show, call (213) 747-9135.