Abby Williams Hill lived during the Victorian era, with its prim dresses and petticoats. But the Tacoma artist preferred the freedom of men’s leggings and snakeskin belts while painting landscapes in the Northwest wilderness.
When Andrea Moody heard the University of Puget Sound was searching for a curator for Hill’s work, she became captivated with the parallels between her life and that of the early 20th-century painter.
“I truly find Abby Hill to be fascinating, in part because many of the social issues that interested her, including racism and early childhood education, are so important to me,” said Moody, who became the curator of the university’s Abby Williams Hill collection last year.
“I relate to many aspects of her life story: as an adoptive mom, a resident of Tacoma and a frequent visitor to Mount Rainier, Hood Canal and the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, where my father was raised.”
After years of obscurity for Hill, Moody helped secure,
and served as co-curator of, an exhibition of her work at the White River Valley Museum in Auburn, which is on display through Sept. 23. Hill’s last solo exhibition was in Wenatchee, 17 years ago.
Hill, whose work makes up the entirety of the early 20th-century Northwest school, moved to Tacoma with her husband, Frank, on the strength of its visual beauty in 1889. The couple had a son and adopted three more children. She was an early and active member of the Congress of Mothers, the forerunner of today’s PTA, and she spoke out on civil and women’s rights.
“As the parent of children of color, the issue of race and the state of race relations in this country is always forefront in my mind,” said Moody, who adopted African American children. “It is encouraging to know that Hill’s was a clear and unafraid voice of reason in a time of overt segregation.
“For example, in her writings she relates how she was on her way to visit Dr. Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee in 1902 when she had a confrontation on the train with some Southern women, in which she inquired as to why one would allow a person of color to raise one’s child and yet refuse to sit next to them in the waiting room of a train station or on the train. She then, as the story goes, ‘proceeded to Tuskegee in the ‘Jim Crow’ car.’”
Hill, who traveled around the world and throughout America, often took her children on camping expeditions, during which she wore the men’s leggings and a snakeskin belt, and throughout the Northwest while she painted landscapes for herself and for railway travel advertisements.
Hill died in 1943.
Her family bequeathed all of her artworks to UPS in the 1950s. But the collection – despite being of the same quality as similar works from the Taos school, which included artists such as Thomas Moran, Henry Farney and Maynard Dixon in the 1890s – has not been widely seen by the public. Hill’s best works hang in the first-floor corridor of Jones Hall.
Last November, UPS hired Moody, who has an extensive background in archival and appraisal work, on a one-year contract to organize the Hill collection.
“Andrea lived in Tacoma, had knowledge in this field and had an interest in history in the arts. I thought she’d be perfect,” said UPS’ Kittredge Gallery director Esther Luttikhuizen, who recommended Moody for the curatorial job.
Moving the collection, which consists of Hill’s paintings, drawings, letters and ephemera, from ad hoc storage in Kittredge Hall to a climate-controlled venue was Moody’s first assignment.
But, “Our top priority is to bring Hill’s work to a wider audience,” said Moody.
To that end, Moody sent out letters to museums in the Northwest and attracted the interest of the White River Valley Museum, which adds one art exhibit a year to its collection of local historical artifacts. Seventeen works from UPS, plus three that hang in the state Supreme Court in Olympia, are in the show.
Patricia Cosgrove, the director, said she loved the work and thought it a good fit for the museum’s local historical interests.
Yet only one painting is from the Jones Hall group. “We’re more in the inventory than exhibit phase right now, so we’re reluctant to loan out signature pieces,” says UPS associate dean Alyce DeMarais. “In the future, we hope that there will be some space on campus permanently dedicated to the Hill collection.”
It seems only fitting – for without Hill’s evocative paintings of the Northwest, many of those who made Tacoma (and UPS) what it is would never had been induced to come here in the first place.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
firstname.lastname@example.org Landscapes seem at home in historical White River Valley Museum
If you visit Auburn’s White River Valley Museum expecting a fusty, small-town assemblage of memorabilia, then you’ll be disappointed.
Tucked behind the Auburn Library, the museum is a compelling collection recounting local history through beautiful, immaculately designed replicas of historical scenes. Through the lens of real local people, it tells the stories of native history, white settlement, immigration and townships.
There’s a real Oregon trail wagon, a Reynaldo Rivera sculpture of a Japanese migrant mother and an entire street scene from 1924 complete with apothecary, milliner and even a railway caboose.
But hidden in a side gallery is the exhibition of oil landscapes by artist Abby Williams Hill.
As with the rest of the museum, director Patricia Cosgrove has focused great care on the details, working with co-curators Andrea Moody, curator for the University of Puget Sound-owned collection, and Michelle Marshman, history professor at Green River Community College. They’ve re-created the reality of Hill’s life, with scenes such as a mock-up canvas tent, just the kind seen in the nearby photo of Hill and her children on a camping and painting trip, along with Hill’s own paintbox and supplies. One wall box collates unfinished drawings, another with photos of Hill with American Indian friends and some artifacts.
It’s nice to have the history, yet Hill’s landscapes speak without it. From the early works of 1885-1902 through her railway commissions to her later California works, the progression is dramatic.
In the early works, tranquil scenes stand with near-photographic clarity. In “Vashon Island,” trees are airlessly still, while “Mt. Rainier from Vashon Island” is hued a crystallized pinky-purple, postcard-perfect. With the railway-commissioned works from 1903-1906, Hill begins to allow her European experiences to filter her Victorian correctness.
In “Lake Chelan” the stand of quaking aspens is a golden impressionistic blur, and the brushstrokes come closer to the surface, crossing in diagonals. Here, too, we catch the only glimpse of Hill’s political progressiveness the show allows: portraits of Hill’s friends White Bull and Charlo, with whom she camped and whose treaty she intended to defend before the U.S. government (prevented at the end by Charlo himself), show the chiefs not inscrutable, as other portraits often were, but soft, relaxed, even melancholy. (Chief Charlo was of the Flathead tribe; White Bull was Sioux.)
Finally, Hill’s California and Southwest works (painted while living and traveling in those areas) show an artist hitting her stride. In the paintings, the mountains are the blunt focus now, not insipid trees, and the detail etched into the dancing, brilliant colors is all the better for its more abstract whole.
If only some of the dark, evergreen works from UPS’ Jones Hall, such as “String Lake” with an ominous dark mass of forest or “Mt. Rainier from Eunice Lake” with its conifers in an opposing V to the mountain’s form, could have been traveled also: The contrast would have been stunning. It’s worth a second trip there to compare.
What: “Abby Williams Hill: Western Pioneer and Landscape Artist”
Where: White River Valley Museum
When: Noon-4 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays through Sept. 23
Where: 918 H St. S.E., Auburn (behind Auburn Library)
Admission: $1-$2; free Wednesdays
Events: Screening for “American Wonders Nation West,” 1 and 2 p.m. June 30. Plein air painting class, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. July 14.
Family Day: The Art in the Wild, noon-4 p.m. Aug. 18. Slide show with Hill expert Ronald Fields, 4-6 p.m. Sept. 15.
Information: 253-288-7433, www.wrvmuseum.org
Also: See the rest of the Abby Williams Hill collection on the first floor of Jones Hall, University of Puget Sound (at North 15th and North Lawrence streets) during business hours Mondays through Fridays.
The life and times of Abby Williams Hill
Abby Williams Hill: Painter, Pioneer, Progressive
1861: Born Abby Rhoda Williams in Grinnell, Iowa. Taught art as a child.
1882: Travels to Chicago to study art with H.F. Spread, founder of Chicago Art Institute.
1884: Engaged to Frank Hill. Studies German.
1884-1886: Teaches art at girls’ school in Quebec. Studies French. Paints the St. Lawrence River and areas of Vermont.
1888: Joins Art Students’ League in New York, studying with Merritt Chase. Marries Hill, who has become a medical doctor.
1889: Moves with husband to Tacoma. Washington becomes the 42nd state. First son born, partially paralyzed.
1895: Makes camping expeditions to Mount Rainier, Hood Canal. Leaves son with relatives and travels with husband to Europe to study art.
1897: Returns to America, living in Tacoma’s Chamber of Commerce building.
1889: Eulalie adopted, age 9.
1899: Ione adopted, age 10. Hill begins camping and painting with her children.
1901: Was a foster parent to Ina, who was later adopted. Hill travels with children to the South and West.
1903-1906: Hill receives commissions from Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railway companies to paint the Northwest for their advertisements.
1906-1911: Hill becomes president of Congress of Mothers (first PTA).
1908: Travels with children to Europe.
1909: Her husband has mental breakdown in Europe; family returns to Tacoma.
1910: Hill takes husband to California to recuperate.
1924: With her husband’s health improved, Hill camps and paints with family through South, West, Canadian Rockies.
1931: Her husband admitted into a mental institution, and Hill moves to San Diego.
1938: Her husband dies. Hill becomes exhausted and bedridden.
1943: Hill dies on May 14 in San Diego at age 81.
Curator of Abby Williams Hill collection at the University of Puget Sound.
Educated: Trinity College, Hartford, Conn. (B.A., art history) and Hunter College, City University of New York (M.A., art history).
Previous work: Donald Young gallery, Seattle; Francine Steders gallery, Seattle; Sid Deutsch gallery, New York (among others;) independent fine art appraiser.
Co-curators Michelle Marshman and Andrea
Moody talk about the Abby Williams Hill exhibition