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.

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