Tampa artist Peter Stilton led a life full of color
Peter Stilton was born to create. Throughout his life, he followed his passions in painting, poetry and music, leaving a prolific legacy.
The Tampa-based artist whose work was exhibited from Florida to Paris and beyond died on Dec. 11 at his home. It was an unexpected death that the family suspects was heart-related.
Born Peter Michael Slusarski in 1944 in Syracuse, Mr. Stilton’s parents were artists who started him in painting lessons at 5. His father was a professor of ceramics at Kent State University in Ohio.
A graduate of Kent State with a bachelor of fine arts, Mr. Stilton earned a masters degree in art history from the University of California, Los Angeles and a masters in film from the University of Southern California, while also teaching in the California public university system before he was 21.
He went on to teach art, art history, film making and humanities at the college level for ten years.
While teaching at Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls, New York in the early 1970s, he met his wife, Jill Levin Stilton. She was one of his students. They married in 1975.
“You treat and love people the way I want to and do,” he told her. She said that was the basis of their marriage.
Jill Stilton would become his lifelong muse, creative consultant and manager in his art career.
The couple legally changed their last name to Stilton and moved to Tampa in 1982, after Jill came here in 1980 to help out in her family’s chocolate business, Maison de Nora.
Mr. Stilton taught art and humanities as an adjunct professor at Hillsborough Community College and other local colleges and universities for the next two decades, also giving private lessons.
Jill Stilton said he loved encouraging students to go into the arts.
“He saw that talent wasn’t something for just a few, it was for everyone, but they had to nurture it,” she said.
Valerie Levin, Jill’s younger sister, said that she wouldn’t be an artist today if not for Mr. Stilton. He started painting with her when she was 12, mentoring her all the way through graduate school at the Pratt Institute. She went on to be a fashion designer and artist for 30 years.
“He really built the framework for my life,” Levin said.
Mr. Stilton’s passion for art history informed his own work. He took inspiration from iconic architecture in his extensive travels, including Europe and Egypt in 1978 on a Fulbright faculty study grant. Never to be pigeonholed into a particular style, he painted colorful abstracts, landscapes and seascapes and worked in pastels and watercolors.
Spirituality was at the core of his works, an element that drew longtime collector and friend Patrice Boyer to them. She admires their ethereal quality and said his works give a “sense of the infinite through color.”
He also created found object assemblage sculptures and incorporated photography and collage elements in his paintings. Jill estimates that he made about 3,000 works in his lifetime.
He was interested in the way light factored into his paintings and endeavored to paint in ways that would highlight different aspects of the painting as light shifted.
The Stiltons’ shared love of architecture and antique American furniture from 1760-1840 were major elements to his work. Their Chippendale chairs and antique bed from 1820 appear in his paintings.
When they moved into their house near Lake Magdalene, he began transforming the suburban backyard into an 18th century garden. His studio overlooks the garden, where he would move furniture out to create vignettes that he would paint.
“It’s always in a state of transition, never done, never finished,” Mr. Stilton told the Times in 2004. “That’s life. Paintings get finished; gardens don’t.”
In the late 1990s, as a full-time artist, Mr. Stilton’s dream of exhibiting in Paris was realized when he was given two solo shows at the Lise Cormery Galerie in Paris and a solo exhibit at La Sorbonne.
His work is in the collections of the Office of the Mayor of Paris, the Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Massachusetts and most recently, in the Yukyung Art Museum in South Korea.
Locally, Mr. Stilton has exhibited at the Tampa Museum of Art, galleries and art centers throughout Tampa and his work is held in numerous private collections.
Mr. Stilton was also a published poet, and his poetry often accompanied his paintings. His love for music was another inspiration.
Jill Stilton said that he didn’t see distinctions between the paintings, poetry and music. He called himself a “visual composer” and would say that writing a poem is painting with words and that composing a song is like making a painting.
In 2001 and 2002, the Stiltons adopted their sons, Matthew and Philip, now 19 and 18. Mr. Stilton would paint and make art with them and liked that they are independent thinkers, Jill said.
Mr. Stilton was most recently composing music on piano and the pipe organ at his church, the First Church of Christ, Scientist. His son Philip helped him film You Tube videos playing the instrument.
He was also preparing his solo exhibition at the ArtCenter Manatee, which happened after his death in January.
Jill plans to have a gathering of people to celebrate Mr. Stilton’s life in his beloved garden.
Born: Nov. 13, 1944 Died: Dec. 11, 2020
Survivors: Wife Jill Levin Stilton. Sons Matthew Andrew Philip Stilton and Philip Edward Alfred Stilton. Siblings Mary Bette Slusarski and Andrew Slusarski, (Jeanne). Nieces Lea and Annie Slusarski.
9 thoughts on “In Loving Memory, Peter Stilton (1944-2020)”
Please forgive the late note. I just opened this site and saw this post remembering Peter and his contributions upon his passing. As a freshman in college at Fresno State, I was enrolled in his art history course there. This was the semester of the Kent State shootings in May 1970; he must have been around 26. I sent Peter a note a few years ago, and he sent a nice response, after I found him through the web, which took a while. I wanted him to know that decades later I still had poignant memories from his teaching, including the day after the tragedy when he stormed into class to pace and lament and beseech us: “Don’t you see what’s happening!?!” I too became a professor, and I wish I were one tenth as spontaneous and energetic. He walked us through the old, aristocratic neighborhoods of Fresno to admire the architecture, especially on days when he didn’t feel like being in a classroom. We drove in our own cars to the Central Coast to eat crab on the dunes of Morro Bay and drive up Highway 1 to inhale the histories of Hearst Castle. Those were influential moments for a 19-year-old local kid who played on the college basketball team and who was growing up quickly as the sixties lurched violently into the seventies. I’m pleased to see that he lived a worthy life. It was splendid to be back in touch with him. Wishing everyone love and many more consoling memories.
It was my great privilege to have known and acquired one of Peter’s creations during those brief summers Downeast. My condolences to his family.
Thank you so much Charles. Your note really would make Peter especially happy. Hope to see you one of these days. His work will be part of a small group “flat file exhibit at Artifact Gallery in NYC for the months of September, October, and November. The six pieces will be displayed on a rotating basis with additional staff to help people look at the work that is stored in their flat file area. And they are handling all the social media and advertising as well. He really enjoyed his visits with you- a fellow car aficionado and Maine enthusiast. You know he really had been painting Maine since he was about 14 years old…and I am so glad that I was hooked on Maine after our first visit many years ago! The farm there really was the answer to prayer for us. And now I think my brother may become involved, and so I do expect to be sharing Peter’s work with one of the most special places in his heart.
I am so saddened by this unexpected news! Peter and I were High School classmates and his knowledge of art even then was infectious and delightful. I shall always treasure the memory of his private tour of the Cleveland Museum of Art and his diagnosis and explanations of the paintings there! (OK, we ditched school to do this but, hey…!)
Heartfelt Hugs and Condolences to you Jill, and the boys for your loss! He will be missed by a LOT of folks!
How can mere words summarize a life such as Peter’s? While this article admirably provides a sketch of his amazing accomplishments and commitment to all the arts, they are after all just a glimpse into the facts of his life. His true legacy will live forever in the hearts and minds of all of us who had the privilege to know him and love him, and anyone who has ever (or will ever) view his work and remember the love that exuded from any interaction with him, no matter how brief. I will never forget the love that he had for everyone – his humor, his talents, his eternal curiosity and optimism, his faith, and the love he showed to his church, his family, and friends. I am proud to be among them.
Thank you for those words of comfort and truth! They are so humbly and gratefully appreciated!!
So sorry to hear about our dear friend Peter. We have paintings from before he changed his name to Stilton. We lived across the street from Peter and Jill and the Great Danes! What great times we had and I even took painting lessons. He will be missed by all who know him .
This is a wonderful documentation of Peter’s life. His individuality and life were as colorful as his art work and he had a great sense of humor. Such a privilege to have known Peter for many years.
Jill..I love this tribute..it is fantastic.