Abby Williams Hill: unfettered in life and art
Seattle Times art critic
"Abby Williams Hill: Western Pioneer and Landscape Artist," noon-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, through Sept. 23, White River Valley Museum, 918 H St. S.E., Auburn; $1-$2 (253-288-7433 or www.wrvmuseum.org).
Check your preconceptions about Victorian women at the door when you visit "Abby Williams Hill: Western Pioneer and Landscape Artist," on view at the White River Valley Museum in Auburn.
Hill was no shrinking violet, prone to swooning and hysteria. She spent months at a stretch camped on Vashon Island with her four children, where she painted the landscape and observed the lives of nearby Indians. And she was the first woman to work on contract for the Great Northern Railway, painting enticing views in scenic locations such as Lake Chelan and Glacier Peak. The pictures were hung at expositions to promote tourism in the West.
Hill also painted and sketched portraits of Sioux chief White Bull, whom she knew as Ta-Tan-La-Ska, and of Flathead Chief Charlo. While camped on the Flathead reservation in 1905, Hill traded English lessons to tribal members in exchange for dance lessons.
A tour through "Abby Williams Hill" makes an enjoyable summer outing, a mind-opening introduction to an early Washington painter. The show, with paintings dating from 1886-1930, was co-curated by Andrea Moody and Michelle Marshman, and is on loan from the University of Puget Sound, where Hill's paintings and papers are held.
The exhibition is complemented by its surroundings in this small but well-considered museum of local history and culture. It includes a display, with the kind of makeshift tent and period camping gear Hill would have used, to help visitors appreciate the rugged life she and her children led on their travels. Kids will love it.
So, just how different was Hill from the typical Victorian lady? When her husband, Dr. Frank Hill, told her he wanted her to wear a corset and bustle, like other genteel housewives of the period, she made him a deal. If he would wear the uncomfortable apparatus for a day to see how it felt and then still wanted her to do it, she would agree to cinch herself back up. A reasonable man, Dr. Hill tried it — and never again asked his wife to squeeze herself into an hourglass shape for the sake of fashion.
Hill was born Abby Williams in Grinnell, Iowa, in 1861, and got her early art training from her aunt, a botanical watercolorist. She later attended the Art Students' League in New York, where she studied with renowned painter William Merritt Chase, who reputedly admired her talent and dedication.
After marrying in 1888, the Hills moved west and settled in Tacoma in 1889, just as Washington Territory became the 42nd state. Their son, Romayne Bradford, was born partially paralyzed later that year. For the next six years, Hill devoted herself to his care. Eventually his condition improved enough so he could accompany her and the three girls she and her husband had subsequently adopted on their prolonged camping trips and travels around the country. Dr. Hill usually remained in Tacoma.
Hill wasn't a great painter, but given her circumstances, she was a remarkable one. While raising a disabled son and three spirited girls, she maintained a groundbreaking career as an artist, perhaps the only woman artist to be hired by the railroad companies to promote travel along their routes.
Her courage and independent spirit are dazzling: She often headed into the wilderness to paint in remote places, usually accompanied by at least two of her children — which made traveling even more difficult. At her campsites, she kept a journal, describing encounters with snakes, landslides, Indians on horseback, rain, wind and, at one point, such intense heat that she couldn't pick up her metal paint tubes without burning her fingers. In 1904, she completed 22 canvases between May and mid-September.
Half the excitement of the show is reading about Hill's extraordinary life and wishing more information was available to fill in between the lines. Ronald Fields' book "Abby Williams Hill and the Lure of the West," sold at the museum shop, is a page-turner. In 1909, Dr. Hill suffered a mental breakdown that left him catatonic for weeks at a time. For years, Hill struggled to care for him and gave up much of her painting and independence to help him recover. From 1921 to 1924, he was hospitalized.
When he was released, Hill bought an automobile and she, Dr. Hill, Romayne and their adopted daughter Ina began their "gypsy" phase. They wintered in Tucson, Ariz., and camped in various parks from spring through fall. The later paintings in the show are from this period, showing landscapes in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Hill was resolved to paint in each of the Western national parks — and, of course, she did.
Sheila Farr: firstname.lastname@example.org
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