OCEANVILLE, N.J. - It is the contrast that draws the eye into Chun Yan Hilyard's landscapes. Dark and light. Real and surreal. Paint turned into glints of sunlight and the fuzzy haze of dew rising out of a salt marsh.
And now, seven months after her death - allegedly at the hands of her husband - a Hilyard-like contrast has emerged in an art show and sale that pays tribute to her and at the same time raises money to support her three young sons.
Hilyard's friends say they have organized "Celebrating the Art of Chun Yan" at the Noyes Museum of Art on Thursday to showcase her talent, apparently honed at an early age in her native China. Some of the 200 pieces for sale - like the dozens of portraits done in charcoal - were created when the 45-year-old woman was just a girl.
Hilyard was born into an artistic family - her father is a well-known watercolorist in China - and was classically trained, obtaining a degree in fine art. She won a slew of regional art awards, including best of show at the Riverfront Renaissance Center in Millville and first-place prizes in the Ocean City Arts Center and Ocean City Fine Arts League shows. She was on the verge of setting up classes to teach oil painting.
"I kept hearing about this artist winning all these awards, and I wondered who she was," recalled Noyes show organizer Mary Ann Kline of Egg Harbor Township. "I was lucky enough to get to know her, and she was just one of those people you wanted to be around. She had a certain light about her, and she transferred that light and that energy into her work."
Hilyard's impressionistic Shore landscapes - showing the area's rustic beauty in sunrises and sunsets over the wetlands and boats docked in hidden harbors - made her a favorite of gallery owners up and down the coast.
"She really captures a sense of place in her work. Her pieces have such depth," said Michael Cagno, executive director of the Noyes, who agreed to donate the space and other resources for the show. "Her death really hit the artistic community hard, I think because of who she was as a person."
Hours before her husband reported Hilyard missing in November, a jogger had discovered the body near Fenton's Mill Creek about three miles from her Egg Harbor Township home. The same day, John M. Hilyard, 48, a longtime casino dealer, was arrested and charged with murder. Investigators said his wife had been strangled with a ligature.
John Hilyard pleaded not guilty and has been in the Atlantic County jail since his arrest.
The couple apparently had a contentious relationship dating back years. In 2000, both were arrested while living in Brigantine in a domestic-violence case; assault charges in municipal court eventually were dropped. On more recent occasions, police were called to their home, according to police reports.
"They were a couple who probably should have just gotten a divorce," said John Hilyard's lawyer, Michael Schreiber, adding that his client had been as "cooperative as possible."
John Hilyard has sold his home and liquidated other assets to pay legal costs and care for the couple's sons, who are living with relatives in the area and will soon move to South Africa to live with their mother's relatives.
The artist friends who organized the show, Kline and Marie Natale, also of Egg Harbor Township, have declined to focus on the circumstances surrounding Hilyard's death, saying they just want to raise as much money as they can to help her 7-year-old twins and 10-year-old son.
Kline and Natale often joined Hilyard on outdoor "paint outs" to capture the Jersey Shore and other places on canvas.
"Her children will be here Thursday evening, and we want this to be a celebration of her and her artwork. She would be so proud to be exhibiting in this museum," Natale said.
Natale and Kline scoured galleries up and down the coast to collect Hilyard's pieces for the show. They found other works - some completed, others unfinished - by rummaging through her home studio. Her father also sent dozens of pieces, mostly in charcoal, that the artist had done in China before coming to the United States.
Within several months, the friends plan to organize a "paint out" at the Noyes that will focus on domestic violence, a "dirty little secret that needs light shed on it," Natale said.
If You Go
"Celebrating the Art of Chun Yan" is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Noyes Museum of Art, 733 Lily Lake Rd., Oceanville, N.J. A $10 donation is requested. More than 200 of Chun Yan Hilyard's works will sell from $25 to $2,500. For more information, call 609-652-8848.