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Stay Whimsical: The Life and Legacy of Arlyn Pillay

It’s shocking to realize it’s been two years since local Irvine-based artist and friend to many, Arlyn Pillay, died by gunshot, on January 31, 2017. The Irvine resident was a beloved artist, art gallery director, mentor and a breath of fresh creativity in a hum-drum art world. Pillay’s gallery, the Arlyn Pillay Art Gallery, was a home for creatives, artists, musicians, comedians, designers, art aficionados and disenchanted youth looking for something better. Pillay offered that something better. He created a space that was a central hub – the only one of its kind in Orange County – for young people to gather, to create, to discuss, to perform and show their talents, and to feel like they belonged. He inspired them to play, to dream and create whatever and however they wanted to – and to work hard at it. Since Pillay’s death, his friends and followers continue to show his work in his loving memory, but nothing has come even close to replacing what Pillay offered this community.

Photo courtesy of Arlyn Pillay

The Arlyn Pillay Art Gallery was a magical and warm place — if you had the opportunity to go there while it was open from 2015-2017, you know this place was special; and, so was its leader. Offering accessible hours for drawing and painting lessons for every level of artist, as well as inspiring exhibitions that were always open to everyone to submit, this place also held events. Weekly drawing workshops with live models, musical performances with local bands, an always rotating shop full of art, apparel and art-related goods – they even sold snacks and beverages (and no alcohol) to all ages at all times of day or night. The events and exhibitions at the Arlyn Pillay Gallery were standing-room only, often curated with a salon-style aesthetic.

Pillay wanted to have this space be a haven for artists and art lovers. He was a talented artist in his own right, attending California State University, Fullerton and then Art Center College of Design on a full scholarship, from which he graduated with an emphasis in illustration. After Art Center, Pillay sold his creations at a variety of shops, stores, fairs, art walks and small galleries. But he saw the art world’s flaws and decided there should be a place (or many places) where aspiring artists could show their work, where people could come and learn about art, buy affordable artworks and commune with like-minded people.

Pillay’s personal art practice was versatile and complex. The walls of his gallery were covered in art or art-related goods. Some sections of the gallery were like mini galleries where artists could rent out a small (very small) area to show their work and products. The main wall in the gallery, however, was dominated by art created by Pillay himself. With such a vast array of styles and concepts, Pillay’s talent was seemingly endless. He painted gorgeous photorealistic portraits and hung them next to his anime style illustrations, which were next to his embellished clothing items for sale and a case full of his favorite art supplies for sale. His eclectic art style mirrored his image and his personality – approachable, unafraid, attractive, varied and just a bit quirky.

Photo courtesy of Arlyn Pillay

Pillay’s gallery on Newport Avenue in Tustin flourished for two years until his untimely death. His mother, Gloria “Lulu” Pillay was also killed at the same time in Pillay’s home in Irvine, where he lived with his brother and father, both of whom survived. Lulu was also an artist, and owned her own gallery and boutique in Palm Springs. Lulu and Pillay helped each other out frequently in their artistic ventures and pursuits, and were solid supporters of one another, and of many other creatives in Southern California. Pillay was not just a talented artist and passionate friend, he was a showman. His image was fluid and always changing while his marketing talents were on-point. Pillay not only created many, if not all, of his own products, but he made flair – stickers, bookmarks, buttons, vests, hats and pins – all with his signature style, logo or signature, and often with his own image imbedded.

When his gallery’s website was still up-and-running, he included a quote on the site from a 2010 interview with Thirteen Minutes magazine that feels more relevant now than it did when he first said it: “My [art] is a little bit of me living on,” Pillay said. “[Being] an artist and creating art is my way to communicate with people in the future about my character … when I’m gone and I’m not here to tell you the fine details of my work. That’s the challenge – to make that apparent, and have people discover that on their own.”

The confidence and strength that can be seen in his paraphernalia, artwork, words and products were never misconstrued as vanity. Pillay was a beacon of hope, talent and inspiration. He was an avid supporter and benefactor to struggling artists who wanted Orange County to be a thriving cultural center full of possibilities, away from the high-brow elitism of L.A. Originally from Durban, South Africa, Pillay immigrated to the United States at nine years old with his family. After his shocking death, his fans, friends and followers kept his gallery afloat for four additional months, but had to close the doors for good in May 2017.

Although Pillay’s death was sudden and heart-breaking, his legacy is stronger than ever. He inspired thousands of people with his art and life, encouraging hundreds to live more fully, to create courageously, and to – as he would say time and time again – stay whimsical.