BEAUTIFUL AND vibrant things often distracted Chun Yan Hilyard as she went about her daily routine.
It may have been the color of a roof on a home she passed by or the back-bay sunsets that seemed to ignite both sky and water. It may have simply been her children's faces, cast in a light she hadn't seen before.
"She would ride a bicycle and see something she liked and crash. Sometimes she'd be waiting for a bus and completely miss it because something caught her eye," said her longtime friend, Hong Qin. "She had the eye for beauty and it defined her life."
Hilyard always had the talent to transform what her eyes saw into works of art, whether it was sketching the many lines on an old man's face, as a child in her native China, or painting the landscapes of the Jersey Shore decades later.
In all of Hilyard's pieces, even the last painting friends found on her easel, there's no sign that the ugly things in her life ever outweighed the beauty.
"Everything she did was full of light," said Dorrie Papademetriou, of the Noyes Museum of Art in Galloway Township, Atlantic County.
On Nov. 3, Hilyard's husband, John Hilyard, allegedly extinguished Chun Yan's light when he strangled her inside their Egg Harbor Township home during an argument, according to authorities. A jogger found the 45-year-old artist's body in a wooded area near Fenton's Mill Creek the following day.
Authorities said there was a history of domestic violence with the couple, but that was a part of Chun Yan Hilyard's life that few knew about.
"I considered myself her closest friend. She alluded to it, but I still kick myself for not realizing it was much more physical and not just mental," said Diane Brown, of the Ocean City Arts League.
John Hilyard, 48, whom Chun Yan met while working at an Atlantic City casino, is charged with her murder. He's being held on $1 million bail. Her three boys have been temporarily living with Qin and his family elsewhere in Atlantic County, but Chun Yan's friends have planned an exhibition and sale of her work to raise money for them. More than 200 works are now on display at Noyes Museum. On Thursday, the museum will host a celebration and sale of her art.
On a recent weekday morning, Chun Yan Hilyard's work - ranging from early charcoals to pastels bursting with color - was scattered about an exhibition room at the museum. Her friends spent the day trying to break the art into themed groups, while trying to not break down in tears every few minutes when they removed another work from a box.
"I cried the minute I walked in. She's here with us and we all feel it," said Marie Natale, a watercolorist and friend of Hilyard's who helped organize the show. "We're going through a whole process of discovery, of discovering who she was, all over again through her art."
Hilyard made her own self-discovery a few years ago, friends said, when her father, a renowned artist himself, sent her dozens of charcoal and pencil drawings and sketches she had made as a child and teen in China.
"She was really surprised at how good they were," said friend and fellow artist Mary Ann Kline.
The early art ranges from doodles of ballerinas to lifelike portraits of anyone she met on the street, and even a self-portrait as a teen that exudes an undeniable air of self-confidence in such a young face.
"She certainly looks a little defiant in that one," Kline said. "We're going to save that one for her children."
In South Jersey, Hilyard was known for her impressionist landscapes - the ponds, marshes and shorelines she enlivened with an explosion of colors and thousands of deep brush strokes. She had an affinity for big skies and she shrouded them in early morning fog, filled them with midday clouds, and captured the melting oranges and ambers at sunset.
"You feel like you could walk forever in her paintings," Natale said.
Kline, Natale, and Hilyard would often travel around South Jersey together, waking up long before sunrise to prop up their easels. Kline said she witnessed Hilyard's trancelike attention, and often had to protect her from it.
"She would set up her easel in the middle of a road. In this picture, you can't see it, but she was painting as tidewater was flooding the road. She was standing in water and she didn't even realize," Kline said with a laugh, motioning to a photo of Hilyard painting.
Hilyard's works were on display at galleries all along the Jersey Shore, including the Noyes Museum, prior to her death. Natale said her friend's acclaim would have only grown in the coming years.
"I think she was just discovering how good she really was," Natale said. "This talent you see all around you was getting to explode."
Brown believes Hilyard, more than anything, wanted her to make a full-time living as an artist to eventually free her children and herself from an abusive marriage.
Now, if her works sell as planned, Hilyard's art would raise approximately $30,000 for her three young boys.
Qin, who owns a restaurant, had no qualms about doubling the size of his family to help out his longtime friend, but said the money would help Hilyard's boys move to South Africa later this year to live with her relatives.
The boys miss their mother and father, Qin said, but have expressed their losses in different ways. The oldest boy, who is 10, understands "everything," Qin said, but doesn't bring up the tragedy too often.
"He's holding a lot inside. He's working it all out inside," Qin said.
There are small things, Qin said, that each boy does to remind him of their mother.
"When I go out to cut the lawn, they come running out of the house and make me stop so they can pick all the flowers first," he said. "I never notice them, but they do, and we take them to their mother's grave."
"Celebrating the Art of Chun Yan Hilyard" will take place on Thursday, from 6 p.m.
to 8 p.m. at the Noyes Museum of Art
in Galloway Township For more
information call 609-652-8848
or visit www.noyesmuseum.org.
For more about Chun Yan Hilyard