Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Emma Belle Freeman: Early Photographer of Native Ameicans

Emma Belle Richart Freeman
ca. 1913
Eureka, California
Living in northern California in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, Emma B. Freeman existed under a dual handicap - she was both a strong woman and an artist. Her success and recognition were even more significant when we consider the prevalence of male-domination over women in society during that time, and the general attitude that women belonged strictly in the home. Artists working in the remote area miles north of San Francisco, even artwork created by men, were largely ignored by the outside world. These factors may account for Emma's relative obscurity to this day.

Born in Nebraska,  Emma lived on a farm with her parents until she moved to Denver as a young adult, where she found work as a ribbon clerk. There, she met and married Edwin Freeman in 1902, and couple relocated to San Francisco where they opened a stationery and art supplies store in the heart of the city. During their time in San Francisco, Freeman studied painting with renowned Northern California artist Giuseppe Cadenasso. Unfortunately, like so many others, the store was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, and the Freemans chose to relocate to Eureka, a remote region 275 miles north of San Francisco.The couple opened the Freeman Art Company which specialized in art supplies and a variety of other items. By 1910, they were also involved in commercial photography.

Freeman was a free spirit with an independent voice and vibrant character. Between 1910 and 1920 she produced her Northern California series of Indian portraits. Freeman often intermixed native costume - such as Yurok dance regalia and Navajo blankets - to create romantically conceived ideals of the "Noble" Indian. She frequently hand-colored her photographs and added allegorical details to enhance her compositions. Though sometimes shunned for her Bohemian lifestyle, Freeman did much to improve public sympathy for the Native American in Northern California. In 1915, for example, her principal model, Bertha Thompson (Princess Ah-Tra-Ah-Saun), was selected to head the parade at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, which was held in San Francisco. Her romanticized photographs and the influence of Pictorialism, idealized the Native Americans and thrust them into heroic roles. Ultimately her art and her strength lay in the manner in which she combined the best elements of both. Without wealth and the status it provided, Freeman had to negotiate a way to make art and a living. She, along with other forward thinking women of her time, created a path where none existed for those of future generations.
Emma Belle Richart Freeman
ca. 1900-1910
Northern California Series
As a whole, Freeman's observations of Native Americans were romantic dreams...a spiritual concept of nature as the common source of perfection. Mankind, especially the Native American, appeared in this idyllic paradise in roles of heroic splendor. By 1913, the popular idea of "nature" had begun to assume a new meaning to whole generations of young people who had never participated in the early settlers' struggle to colonize the West. Her "Northern California Series" intended to picture Native Americans with dignity and to grant them a place of honor, albeit through an idyllic lens.
Emma Belle Richart Freeman
ca. 1900-1910
Northern California Series
Freeman pursued an art form that combined drawing, painting and photography, one in which the artist's own hand was evident throughout. Her popular Indian portraits were exhibited at the Panama Pacific Exposition, and were chronicled in various industry journals like Camera Craft and popular magazines such as the Illustrated Review. One of her photographs was presented to President Warren G. Harding and hung prominently in the White House.

In 1915, a romantic encounter between Emma and a visiting dignitary led to scandal and ultimately to the divorce of the Freemans. She continued work, however, and to shoot beyond portraiture. During World War I, Freeman photographed a United States submarine that had run aground on a beach near Eureka. The cruiser Milwaukee, dispatched to the scene to aid in the rescue was lost to the heavy surf as well. Freeman was there to capture every detail of the disaster and rushed her photos to San Francisco where they appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, which noted: "Every day since the Milwaukee went ashore, Mrs. Freeman has been  on the job with her camera. She has taken more than 200 photographs of the scene, most of them under trying conditions of fog and wind and weather."  Freeman waded through water and rats in the hold of the vessel as she boarded the water-logged cruiser in search of great photographs. In recognition for her documentary work, she was appointed the "official government photographer" for all matters relating to the disaster and salvage operations.

Emma Belle Richart Freeman
Stranding of USS Milwaukee
ca. January 13,  1917
Photograph-Department of the Navy -- Naval Historical Center
Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.

In 1919, Freeman relocated her arts and novelty supply company to san Francisco and she set up in a newly remodeled three-story building. Freeman did art and advertising work there, along with selling art and Indian goods until 1923, when competition and an unscrupulous business partner led her into bankruptcy. Freeman moved to a smaller store and continued to work until her retirement in 1925. On Christmas Eve, 1927, Freeman had a debilitating stroke and finally passed away three months later, at age 48, in March of 1928.

The late photographic historian, Peter E. Palmquist, wrote of Mrs. Freeman, "Emma brought a unique vision to subject matter, for her approach to composition was heroic, her subject treatment allegorical, and her style painterly. Her surviving photographs clearly illustrate her training in the fine arts. Her groundbreaking efforts were made almost entirely on her own; in fact, her contemporaries in the region were purely traditional photographers. She alone enjoyed the reputation of 'artist with the camera'."   

Emma Belle Richart Freeman
Bartered Bride
ca. 1900-1910
Northern California Series

Emma Belle Freeeman, Photographer,, retrieved April 22, 2014.
Women Artists of the American West, Women Photographers and the American Indian,
Peter E. Palmquist, retrieved April 22, 2014.
Women Artists of the American West, Susan Ressler, ed. McFarland & Company, Inc. North Carolina, 2003, p. 214-215.
Ask Art, Emma Belle Freeman,, retrieved April 23, 2014.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Abby Williams Hill: Tacoma Painter and a Woman before her Time

Abby Williams Hill
ca. 1870s
I am so inspired by the story of Abby Rhoda Williams Hill (1861–1943) and I hope you are as well. Abby was a painter and an activist with a love of travel and learning. Her artwork provides a lasting vision of many of the iconic sights of the American West, and her papers paint a rich picture of American life between the Civil War and World War II. Hill was an intrepid explorer who loved to be in the wilderness, unhampered by societal codes of dress and behavior, She was a Progressive and firm advocate to the Congress of Mothers (today’s National Parent Teacher Association) and lobbied on behalf of disadvantaged children, African Americans, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups.

Abby Hill grew up in Grinnell, Iowa, with much encouragement in her art by her parents and received early art training from her aunt, a botanical watercolorist. She studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1883, and then, at the Art Students League in New York under the tutelage of William Merritt Chase. After her marriage to Dr. Frank R. Hill in December of 1888 in Brooklyn, New York, the couple moved to Tacoma, Washington, just as Washington Territory became the 42nd state. They remained there and at nearby Vashon Island until 1910. While a resident there, Hill continued her art training in Munich (1895-97) with Herman Haase, and at the Corcoran Gallery School, Washington, D.C. in 1905 when she made the decision to pursue painting as a career.

Abby and Frank Hill
ca. N.D.
Hill was far from the typical Victorian woman. When her husband, Frank, demanded she wear a corset and bustle like other genteel housewives of the period, she negotiated. If he would agree to wear the uncomfortable undergarments for a day, and if, after that experience, he still expected her  to do so, she would acquiesce. A reasonable man, Dr. Hill agreed to the experiment and never again asked his wife to squeeze herself into an hourglass shape in the name of fashion.

During their time in Washington, Hill reared a family of four children. Her first child, son, Romayne Bradford, was born partially paralyzed, but with her love of the outdoors and belief that fresh air and exercise would be the tonic needed to help her son, she dedicated the next six years to his health. Over the ensuing years, the Hills adopted three more children (all girls) all of whom would accompany her on local camping trips and travels, typically without Frank.

Hills' independent spirit is difficult to appreciate during our time in which women have so much freedom and so many opportunities. The Victorian era dictated strict rules of behavior for women that Hill largely disregarded. 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 of a challenge. At her campsites, she kept a journal, describing her 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.

Abby Williams Hill
Horseshoe Basin
ca. 1903
Oil on canvas
University of Puget Sound
In 1909, Dr. Hill suffered a mental breakdown that left him catatonic for weeks at a time. Forced to leave Tacoma due to her husband's recurring illness, diagnosed as Psychotic Depression, Hill moved the family to Laguna Beach, California, then a remote, burgeoning artist colony. Abby became a founding member of the Laguna Beach Art Association.

Dr. Hill became a patient at various hospitals and for years, Hill cared for him and surrendered much of her time dedicated to painting to help him recover. When he was released in 1924, she bought an automobile to allow the family to winter in Tucson Arizona, travel to the Deep South, and explore a number of locations in the West. Unfortunately, in 1931, Dr. Hill's illness forced him to return to the hospital in Southern California, so Abby settled in nearby San Diego to be available when her husband needed her.
Abby Williams Hill
Balsatic Rocks
ca. 1904
Oil on canvas
44 x 34 inches
The Athenaum
Abby Williams Hill
Grotto Playing
ca. 1906
Oil on canvas
17 x 22 inches
The Athenaum
Hill became a painter of the West in the 1890s. Her most widely displayed artwork was created during the first decade of the twentieth century when she was commissioned by both the Northern Pacific and Great Northern Railroads to produce a series of landscapes of the scenes along their routes. Abby was to create 22 oil on canvas pieces in 18 weeks while traveling on trains, handcars, stages, steamboats, and horses. In exchange for the use of her work, she was given four tickets, each worth one thousand miles. Hill would travel to the most remote locations to record the beauty of the west, and at the end of her journey, surrender her canvases and her rights to them to the railroads. In addition, as a woman traveling without male companionship, she was vulnerable to unwanted attention from men who made certain assumptions about her character. Hill braved the discomfort of heat and cold, trudged across snowfields, organized baggage and cared for her children, often brought along on her expeditions. Her assignments took her to such rugged locations as remote terrain in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and other areas west of the Cascades.

Abby Hill camping with her four children
Probably before 1910
During this period, Hill met and painted a number of Native Americans including the Flathead of Montana, the Nez Perce of Spalding, Idaho, the People of north-central Montana at Harlem, and the Yakima of Washington. She considered the Native Americans her friends and portrayed them with dignity and respect. She bartered with the Flathead to exchange English lessons for dancing lessons, and, with a list of grievances, wrote to Washington, D.C. on their behalf.
ca. n.d.
Oil on canvas
Missoula Art Museum
Chief White BullTa-tan-ka-sha
Minniconjou Sioux, Flathead Reservation, Montana
ca. 1905
Dakota-Lakota-Nakota Human Rights Advocacy Coalition
Following the death of her husband in 1938, Abby Hill became bedridden. She died in Laguna Beach  in 1943 five years later.

Hill's exhibitions included those of the Western Washington Industrial Exposition, Tacoma; World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago; Lewis and Clark Exposition, Portland, Oregon, Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Jamestown Centennial, Hampton Roads, Virginia; Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (two gold medals), Seattle; and Laguna Beach Art Association. The University of Puget Sound held an exhibition of her works in 1964.

Abby Williams Hill is represented in the collections of Ames College, Iowa, Grinnell College, Iowa, and a permanent collection of her works and papers is held by the University of Puget Sound.
University of Puget Sound, Abby Williams Hill Collection,, retrieved April 7, 2014.
Abby Williams Hill: Unfettered in Life and Art, Shelia Farr, Seattle Times Art Critic,, retrieved, April 7, 2014.
Chattermarks from North Cascade Institute,, retrieved April 8, 2014.
An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West, Phil Kovnick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovnick, University of Texas Press, 1998.
Dakota-Lakota-Nakota Human Rights Advocacy Coalition,, retrieved April 10, 2014.
National Parks and the Woman's Voice: A History, Polly Welts Kaufman, New Mexico Press, 2006.