Crawford Gillis was born in rural Alabama just outside of Selma on June 14, 1914. Though his family was very poor, he was able to take art lessons with Minnie Kent Fowlkes, an instructor in Selma. At the age of twenty-one Gillis left the Deep South and went to New York City to study at the National Academy of Design. He took classes in advanced composition and life drawing with artists Leon Kroll and Charles C. Curran. While in New York, Gillis was introduced to the work of the Mexican Muralists, an artistic movement inspired by socialist ideals. He returned to Alabama and began to create artwork based on the lives of everyday, working people. Gillis showed these canvases in 1938 at Delphic Studios in New York and was rewarded with enthusiastic praise for his work.
The following year, he joined with other like-minded artists and exhibited as a member of the New South School, a Montgomery-based group dedicated to promoting Southern arts and culture. Gillis’ paintings can be described as a part of the American Scene movement, a nationalistic artistic style that was popular during the 1930s. The American Scene painters can be divided into two categories: the Social Realists who often painted city life and the Regionalists who focused more on rural depictions. Gillis and the New South School fall into the Regionalist group and their work reveals social customs and practices unique to the South. Gillis approached this subject in a brutally honest way. His barren landscapes and somber figures reflect the difficulty of living in the Depression-era South, and the use of elongated limbs and exaggerated features are particularly indicative of Southern Regionalism. In addition to holding exhibitions, the New South School also offered classes in arts and crafts taught by Gillis and the other artists, including John Lapsley.
Unfortunately, the New South School disbanded as its members were called to serve in World War II. In 1941, Gillis was drafted into the armed forces and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for "heroic and meritorious" service. Returning home, Gillis worked at an airfield and painted recreationally. He showed his work in private galleries in the Montgomery area and in 1957 one of his paintings won first prize in the city's Festival of the Arts. In the late fifties, he had a one man show at the Little House on Linden Gallery in Birmingham, and in 1990 his work was included in the New South, New Deal and Beyond exhibition sponsored by the Alabama State Council on the Arts. His work is now in several museums throughout Alabama and in private collections throughout the United States.