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ARTIST SEEKS TO SELL SHIPS BEFORE SHOVING OFF

They're tired. They're in failing health. They're almost broke. All they want to do is go home to their kids in California.

But one large detail remains unsettled in the lives of James and Pat Gillis: the eight model ships that James Gillis carved and sanded with his own hands, in a labor of love for his adopted hometown of Buffalo.

Gillis, the former artist-in-residence at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park, has waged a six-year legal battle with the park after he was laid off in 1993. The civil case went to trial, but a Dec. 10 settlement gave Gillis possession of his eight Buffalo-related models plus $12,000, he said.

Now he wants to find a local home for the eight Buffalo model ships -- ranging from the 2-foot-long fireboat Edward M. Cotter to the 15-foot USS John Paul Jones -- at a reasonable price that will help the Gillises move their 39 other model ships back to California.

"We thought this was going to be the final resting place for our fleet, but evidently it was not to be," Pat Gills said in their West Side basement apartment. "Now it's up to the City of Buffalo to see if they want it."

To the Gillises, the eight model ships represent Buffalo's past, with its proud maritime tradition, dating to the days of the Erie Canal, World War II and the city's prominence as a bustling port.

"We'd like to leave Buffalo history here, if possible," Pat Gillis said. "(The model ships) represent Buffalo. You have to know where you came from before you can go forward in life. We need to show our children what Buffalo has done and what their heritage is."

The eight Buffalo models are worth somewhere between $60,000 and $85,000, but the Gillises say they're willing to negotiate.

"We want to go on with our life," Pat Gillis said. "We want to go back home and be with our children. It was a good time in Buffalo for five years, but it's time to move on."

Pat Lucci, a local businessman, retired naval officer and one of the founders of the naval park, believes the Gillises have been shafted.

"Jim Gillis and his collection positioned Buffalo with the greats in maritime history," Lucci said. "The Gillises can lie hard aground waiting for the tide to come in so their ships can sail again."

Patrick J. Cunningham, executive director of the naval park, emphasized that neither side in the legal battle admitted any guilt in the final settlement.

"They were a valuable addition to the park in the years they were here," Cunningham said of the Gillises. "Now we're moving in another direction with our exhibits."

The story of James and Pat Gillis' life in Buffalo has been a bittersweet one, filled with medical setbacks and legal battles over James Gillis' job.

In 1987, while he was recovering from the first of seven strokes, Gillis and his wife packed their belongings -- including his 39 model ships -- and left Porterville, Calif., for Buffalo.

Gillis had accepted a five-year contract as the artist-in-residence at the naval park, to show off his model collection, build new models with a Buffalo flavor and teach visitors about 200 years of U.S. naval history.

For five years, things went smoothly for both sides.

The $25,000-a-year contract was renewed in 1992, but financial problems forced the park to lay him off the next year. Gillis and the park then became embroiled in a complicated contract dispute over whether the park was obligated to buy the whole model-ship collection for $150,000.

Meanwhile, the Gillises have had health problems. Besides the seven strokes, James Gillis, 65, has had heart failure, suffers from tunnel vision and relies on a portable oxygen tube. Pat Gillis, 62, has survived open-heart surgery and two heart attacks.

Through it all, through the contract dispute and his own failing health, Gillis kept carving and sanding out his own legacy -- in the form of his beloved model ships.

"They're why I'm still here," he said. "They helped me come back from my strokes. They're the biggest thing I have ever done. They're my life, my hope, my faith."

A sign painter by trade, Gillis created his first model, a Spanish galleon, over a 1973 bet. With carving knives, a band saw, a lathe and a sander, he makes his models out of wood, fiberglass, plastic and some less conventional materials -- clothes hangers, shish-kebab sticks and even soda cans.

"We make something out of nothing," his wife said. "They are not perfect models, but people can relate to them."

That's why the Gillises will carry many positive memories from their Western New York days. They'll never forget the kids who sat at Gillis' knee to marvel at his models and learn more about U.S. and Buffalo-related naval history.

His many strokes have slowed down Gillis, who's far from chatty about his plight.

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