By Anna Grace Moore
Photos by Kelsea Schafer
One’s testimony is often referred to as a spiritual awakening–one that ignites a passion in one’s life to seek a higher calling, to accomplish a life goal or in Lila Graves’ case, to share what the Lord has done in her life.
“My whole life, I always knew I was going to be an artist,” Lila says. “I don’t remember not being an artist.”
Hailing from Alexander City, Alabama, Lila grew up in this small, lake-side town where “everyone knew everyone else,” she says. “My art has always been supported there.”
All of Lila’s family is artistic, so it isn’t surprising that she caught that creative gene, too. Her mother, Bonnie Graves, is an artist. Lila’s sister, Denise, works at Red Hill Art Gallery on Lake Martin. Lila’s brother owns Red Mountain Iron, and her sister-in-law owns Garden Party Designs and specializes in wedding and event florals.
Lila had this insatiable itch to create, so she dared to do the unthinkable: become an artist, nothing else.
Lila attended the University of South Alabama, spent a semester at the Sorbonne Université in Paris, France, and in 1990, received her bachelors of fine art degree from the Atlanta College of Art.
While studying at the Atlanta College of Art, collectors discovered her paintings and would purchase her work, jump starting her now 35 year-long career as an artist.
During her college years around her 19th birthday, Lila says she checked herself into a drug and alcohol rehab center. Today, she is 37 years sober.
“I make art to save myself but also as a painted moral inventory, which is the fourth step of [Alcoholics Anonymous],” Lila says.
Becoming sober, Lila says, was one of the Lord’s miracles in her life that she considers the catalyst of her spiritual awakening.
On a path of self discovery and very newly sober, Lila sailed the Caribbean, looking for inspiration and most importantly, hope that her life would have some newfound meaning. It was during these adventures that renown artist and one of Lila’s dear friends, Sarah Carlisle Towery, invited her to travel to San Miguel, Mexico, for six weeks.
“She helped me find my voice,” Lila says. “She was awesome.”
When asked how she stayed sober, Lila is quick to credit the strength she drew from the Lord and the therapeutic art of painting.
“My paintings, my relationship with God, my [sobriety] is all about my trying to be an authentic person,” Lila says. “My art is an extension of that quest–to figure out who I am and who God wants me to be.”
After having sailed around the Caribbean and South America, Lila was now 25 and juggling a quite morbid quarter-life crisis: skin cancer.
“I had a mole on my jaw, and people would say, ’You need to see about that,’” Lila says. “In 1992, I had gotten back from the Caribbean and planned to move to Mexico. I didn’t go. I had cancer with zero chance of survival and six months to live.”
Lila was diagnosed with melanoma. While melanoma isn’t always life-threatening in early stages, Lila was not diagnosed until she was in stage four–the deadliest stage. She underwent a radical neck dissection, which removed a sizable mass from her neck and jaw and 14 lymph nodes, even though the doctors said the cancer could have spread through her lymph nodes to the rest of her body already.
“I’ll live through this too,” Lila says of learning about her diagnosis. “I spent years getting right with God and making amends and turning my life around. I didn’t think, ‘I’m dying.’”
Lila, by the grace of God, was selected for a immunotherapy drug trial at Duke University. She received one shot a month for six months–the same amount of time she was given to live.
“I could not politely have cancer,” Lila says with a chuckle. “So, I decided I would paint for two weeks in San Miguel. I could not sit there and die politely.”
Trying to escape the weight of her cancer diagnosis, Lila sought reprieve in the city that healed her once before. While there, she had a dream that she would pass away.
Duke University’s oncology team contacted Bonnie that Lila had two-to-six weeks to live, and even after such heart-wrenching news, Bonnie remained a beacon of hope for her daughter.
“This is the most amazing woman in the world,” Lila says of her mother.
Lila continued to paint her way through her diagnosis, coming to terms with reality. Art, she says, is not only her life’s passion, but also a way to communicate what the Lord has done in her life.
Before the days of “Victoria’s Secret’s Angel Wings,” Lila says she was inspired by Our Lady of Guadalupe, who, according to some, represents the virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. She found herself making white, spiky angel wings from palm leaves, which resembled the halo of Guadalupe.
Lila wore her angel wings like a backpack, perusing through San Miguel. People would stop her in the streets, calling her, “Guadalupe!”
Symbolically, Guadalupe represents miracles.
“That’s what started this healing,” Lila says. “I can’t be God. I’m not a doctor. All I can be is me. All I know how to do is paint and talk.”
Lila says during this time she focused on “creating herself well” and living with intention. She says this journey was a great way to spend her time.
Once Lila “let go,” she received the news she’d been praying for: there was no evidence of cancer on her X-Ray.
Twenty five years later, Lila is sharing the gift of life with the two loves of her life, her daughters, Lucy, 23, and Bea, 21. Lila never takes for granted a single, passing moment and takes every chance she gets to share her testimony with a stranger, who after shortly conversing with her, usually becomes a friend.
Lila went on to accomplish her lifetime goal of becoming a full-time artist. She also created an auto-biographical book of paintings called, “White Wings,” commemorating her testimony and time spent in San Miguel.
As Lila has maintained her sobriety, survived stage-four cancer, earned an impressive reputation as an artist and become a best-selling author, she claims her biggest feat was raising Lucy and Bea into young women who she believes are living proof of the goodness of God.
To the people who have supported her journey, Lila says, “Thank you.”
Lila says she owes her success to her family, doctors and those who have admired and supported her art over the years. Without them, she says, she would have missed out on the meaning of her life: creating hope through the talents she’s tenured and like so many to her, being a friend to those in need.
Those interested in viewing Lila’s artwork or purchasing White Wings can visit lilagraves.com.