Born in Selma, Alabama, Crawford Gillis' early, local education eventually led him to New York and the National Academy of Design, studying under Leon Kroll and Charles C. Curran. After a period of independent study, he subsequently began classes at another art school, where he met Jean Charlot and Alma Reed, who introduced him to Mexican mural painting and social realism. He moved on to the Delphic Studio, where he had a 1938 solo exhibition, and then became involved with the New South School and Gallery, a multi-disciplinary organization where he taught drawing and painting. The gallery held a solo show of his work in 1939 before it disbanded.
Gillis served for four years in the military during World War II and was awarded the Bronze Star. Following that stint, he returned to Montgomery where he pursued his craft until his death. He claimed various influences on his work, from the Italian Renaissance painters Masaccio and Giotto to the Mexican muralists, whose impact is evident in Bonita Catch.
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