Lil Pagni didn’t always know she was an artist, but now that she does, this former stay-at-home mom has used her talents to help others in need.
Lillian T. Pagni didn’t always know she was an artist. In fact, she was almost 50 years old when she stepped inside a Lake Geneva YWCA to sign up for her first art class.
Thirty years later, the Hampshire resident is still going strong. Through her artistic talents, Pagni has helped to raise funds for various charitable organizations throughout the region. From animals to celebrity athletes, her works in oil pastel and oil paint always reveal subjects that are close to her heart.
“I do it simply for the joy of art,” she says. “I never aspired to be anything else.”
Pagni and her late husband, Lawrence, were busy raising four children in Hebron when she discovered her passion for art. As a stay-at-home mother, she was just “looking for something to do” when she registered for the oil painting class. “I was always sketching,” she says. “Then I decided to take a class. I loved it.”
In 1987, the Pagnis relocated to Hampshire. Lillian’s passion for art was further fueled when she became a member of the Fine Line Creative Arts Center in St. Charles, an arts haven that offers classes in textiles, ceramics, metals, glass, painting and papermaking.
There, Pagni met George Shipperley, who was teaching oil pastels at the time. “He really got me motivated,” she says. “George taught me to paint what I love. He remains a wonderful mentor and friend.”
The student and teacher hit it off immediately. “Lillian’s the type of person who puts her whole self into something,” Shipperley says. “She didn’t come to my class to be a great artist. It was something she enjoyed doing. She’s self-motivated, she progressed rapidly and she took criticism readily. Some artists do and some don’t. She was always a joy to teach.”
Pagni describes her art as impressionistic, a style in which the artist captures the image of an object as someone would see it if they just caught a glimpse. Her works are bright, vibrant and full of color. Among her favorite subjects are professional athletes such as Michael Jordan, Mike Singletary, Frank Thomas and Tiger Woods. Many of those works have been donated to children’s charities. Pagni also admires the strength and beauty of animals such as lions, tigers and bears. “I like paintings that really pop,” she says. “You can really see my love for animals through my work.”
The process, Pagni says, isn’t overly complicated. She usually starts by thumbing through magazines, looking for ideas that will be adapted to her style and on her terms. “With oil pastels you can just sit down and paint, but it takes many layers,” she says. “I have to walk away and come back to it several times before I can say it’s finished. There’s really no time frame.”
Like any creative process, the work sometimes becomes arduous. “There are times when I just sit there in my studio and nothing happens,” Pagni says. “I just wait and wait, and nothing comes. Other days, however, I get inspired and I don’t know where it comes from. People have asked me to paint them something on commission. But I can’t just paint anything. I have to be passionate about it. When I see an animal or flower, I get really excited. Remember, you have to paint what you love.”
One of her favorite backdrops is Tuscany, Italy, where many of her relatives live. But Tuscany is also a bittersweet locale for Pagni, because it’s where her husband died unexpectedly while on vacation in 1998.
“It took me a long time to recover,” she says. “But my heart and soul have always been in the Tuscany landscape, and there’s a part of me in every one of those paintings where I feature Tuscany. It’s also been part of the healing process. Painting is something I need to do.”
Art has helped Pagni through her own grief, and now she’s helping others deal with their own pain. She serves as curator of Healing Gallery, an art gallery at Presence Saint Joseph Hospital, in Elgin. “I believe that art can promote health and well-being, and can improve a person’s outlook,” says Pagni. Proceeds from sales made at Healing Gallery benefit the hospital.
“For Lillian, art is a therapy that may fill a gap somewhat,” Shipperley says. “She’s able to express herself. She’s an original and she strives to improve in every painting; she’s not complacent. Art has been a great communicator for her, and she expresses herself through her work. She’s met a lot of people through her art, and it’s helped her get through some tough times. She has a heart of gold, and she’s willing to help people however she can.”
Indeed, Pagni is more than happy to share her love for art with others. She has donated many of her works to worthy causes, including a painting of the late Chicago Bears icon Walter Payton to the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation for Children. “The highlight was meeting Walter at a fashion show at Evan’s Furs on Michigan Avenue,” she says. “At one point, Walter’s mother, Dolores, hung the painting in her office.”
Pagni has chaired several fundraising activities at Presence Saint Joseph Hospital, and for her efforts, received the DOVE award in 2005 for demonstrating leadership, outstanding values and excellence. Each year, Pagni reads to children at the hospital’s annual Caroling and Caring holiday event. In 2013, Pagni was named Woman of the Year by the Altrusa International Club of Elgin, an organization that recognizes a local woman annually for her volunteer service to the greater Elgin community.
“I’m very humbled by the awards,” Pagni says. “I always ask ‘why me?’ There are so many other women who are worthy. I don’t do it for any recognition. It just comes from my heart.”
Pastels aren’t her only artistic outlet. Pagni also is the author of two children’s books. One, an ode to the swans on her lake, is called Maggie, and Her Three Swans. A second book, Christmas Tree That Never Was, is available in the Presence Saint Joseph Hospital gift shop. Proceeds go to the hospital’s cancer center in memory of her son, Larry, who died in 2002.
“I have a great imagination that stems from the Great Depression,” she says. “We didn’t have technology, and I was always taking notes. I remember a time from my childhood when my father and I bought our Christmas tree. I felt so bad for the trees that never found a home, so I wrote a story about it.”
When she’s not plugging away on her art, Pagni stays plenty busy with volunteer work, watching sports and spending time with her three children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. “I don’t like to sit around,” she says. “My children tell me to stay home, but I feel cooped up after a couple of days.”
Without question, Pagni’s greatest pleasure comes from pastels. Even when her pastel crayons sit idle, Pagni’s always conjuring up ideas for new projects. Occasionally, she hosts plein-air painting events at her home for local artists. Sharing tales with other creative types really gets her juices flowing. Pagni can’t imagine having it any other way.
“I have a lot of faith in why God gave me this gift,” she says. “That’s why I love to give back through my work.”