Local painter Wendy Bilas’s new exhibit at Sozo Gallery is about letting go—and letting in

At age 54, Wendy Bilas says she’s finally doing what she was always meant to do.

“It doesn’t feel like work, but it feels more important than a hobby,” says the Myers Park-based artist and mother of two. “I wish I had given it the effort earlier, but it’s never too late. It’s nice to find it.”

Now a full-time painter, Bilas once put her art on hold to stay at home with her kids. At the time, her husband, Jay Bilas—the popular basketball commentator for ESPN and former star player for Duke University—was chasing his career, one that involved constant traveling.

But now her art is taking the stage, as Sozo Gallery, located on the plaza of the Hearst Tower in uptown Charlotte, hosts Wendy Bilas’s latest show from May 28 to June 22. Her series of work, mostly abstracts, are called “Letting Go.”

From a Distance by Wendy Bilas

Her artist statement talks about shedding the labels of wife and mother and learning to just be.

“Abstract is letting go of any image at all and focusing on color and movement and brush stroke,” says Wendy Bilas. “I find it to be really challenging but also very freeing. This is a time to shift away and try new things. Abstracts are a looseness you have to fight to keep.”

‘Oh no, how much?’

Wendy Bilas says her husband, Jay, gave her the confidence to pursue her art, which was just a hobby until about 15 years ago. “He’s the reason I’m doing it now,” she says. “He’s my biggest cheerleader.”

And yet she was actually the one cheering for him when they first met.

He was the star basketball player at Duke, and she was the cheerleader everyone loved. Jay Bilas spotted her smiling in an ACC handbook, and they’ve been together ever since. Not long after college, they settled in Charlotte and have been married for 25 years.

While Wendy Bilas now has acclaim as an artist—her pieces range in price from $500 to $3,200, depending on size—she didn’t know she was an artist until well into her adulthood.

“I had always dabbled in art, I loved it in high school and took classes in the evenings when I was a young professional but I did not study it in college,” she says.

Instead she got an English degree, followed by an MBA, and didn’t really start painting until after their kids were grown. Jay would be on the road and when he returned, Wendy would surprise him with something new for the house.

Both remember the time Jay came home to find a new landscape painting of a white barn with mountains in the background hung over the mantel. Wendy asked if he liked it.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh no, how much does that cost?’” Jay recalls. “And I said, ‘It’s really good—how much?’

“She said, ‘I did that,’ and I was blown away. I didn’t know she did anything like that.”

Wendy’s art took off soon after. Friends started commissioning her to do paintings for their homes. She was known for her landscapes and florals, but has recently started focusing on more abstracts, which are what you’ll find at her Sozo Gallery show this spring.

A selfless act

Hannah Blanton, the owner of Sozo Gallery, says Wendy Bilas’s work is inspiring—both in its beauty and in the intention of the artist.

“She paints because she feels it, she loves it, and seeing her humbly speak about her work is inspiring,” says Blanton. Plus, all the proceeds Wendy Bilas makes from selling her work go straight to community projects and nonprofits she feels called to assist. The money she makes from the Sozo Gallery show will go to Alexander Youth Network.

“She doesn’t go around broadcasting this to our community. …It’s such a selfless act of using her own gifts to help others,” says Blanton.

Jay Bilas echoes that sentiment.

“She’s so matter of fact and humble about her art,” he says. “If I could do what she does, I’d be on a street corner with a megaphone saying, ‘Look at this.’”

These days, Wendy Bilas paints in her home studio, a space she recently remodeled so she could share it with her daughter, Tori. The 23-year old recent college grad is temporarily back living with mom and dad, and is also a painter.

“I definitely ask her for advice a lot,” says Tori.

As for Wendy, she loves every second of it.

“I look over and see Tori painting and it’s a pretty good feeling,” she says. “I’m really proud of her—she’s much more of a painter than I’ve ever been and it’s really fun. I feel like I have my BFF with me.”

Turns out letting go of some things can mean getting something even more powerful in return.

Photos by Ashley Sellner