The Fall of Alison Hildreth
Alison Hildreth’s exhibition The Feathered Hand at the University of New England Art Gallery in Portland back in 2011 is the best one-artist show I have seen in the 21st century, well conceived and perfectly articulated. Hildreth’s UNE show filled the college gallery with prints, drawings, and suspended puppets of glass and paper in a flight of imagination rarely matched in contemporary art in Maine.
“The installation is based on an interest I have had for a long time in puppets,” Hildreth wrote at the time. “They are not presented as marionettes so much as inanimate objects that I remember investing much imagination in as a child. The time in our lives when the real and the imaginary are so intertwined.”
Even as she approaches ninety in 2024, Alison Hildreth possesses an aesthetic imagination that is at once deeply serious and unabashedly playful. Well-known and well-loved in Maine, Hildreth has shown her work somewhere virtually every year for the past fifty years.
Alison Hildreth: 50 Years
In the fall of 2023, Speedwell Contemporary (formerly Speedwell Projects) organized a multi-venue series of exhibitions and events to honor Hildreth. Speedwell is a non-profit gallery that has made it its mission to correct “the historic institutional bias against the work of women artists, particularly older women artists.”
“This is why Speedwell was founded,” said photographer and Speedwell Contemporary founder Jocelyn Lee of the fall festival of Hildreth shows entitled Alison Hildreth: 50 Years.
The series began with a late summer exhibition of prints and drawings at New Era Gallery (12 August to 20 September) on Vinalhaven where Hildreth has summered for many years. Speedwell showed early drawings and large abstract paintings from the 1980s and 1990s (22 September to 22 December), while Center for Maine Contemporary Art exhibited new paintings and drawings (30 September to 7 January).
And on 13 October, a short documentary about Alison Hildreth by filmmaker Smith Galtney premiered at the Maine Irish Heritage Center (where the event had been moved from the Portland Museum of Art to accommodate the 350 people who wanted to attend) in advance of a panel discussion with Hildreth and four friends.
A Literary Imagination
The roots of Alison Hildreth’s artistic drive were firmly planted in childhood.
“It wasn’t really a dream to be an artist,” says Hildreth. “That was too professional. I would arrange sticks and moss into little communities in the yard. I had a little studio in a closet where I played with molten lead.”
Hildreth credits books with informing her vision as much as art.
“W.D. Sebald has been most influential,” she says. “When I read Rings of Saturn I thought if I could work the way he writes, that’s what I want to do.”
Sebald’s meandering on foot along the English coast as his mind wanders through science and history inspired an art of making connections with the self as the adhesive.
Hildreth lists children’s classics such as Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Pinocchio, and The Swallows and the Amazons among the readings that fostered a love of imagined places. She was particularly drawn to books with maps and drawings of fictional locales such as the Seven Acre Woods.
It is fitting that Hildreth’s The Feathered Hand, a reference to a poem by Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert, was permanently installed at the Portland Public Library in 2013, the same year Hildreth was invited to participate in both the Portland Museum of Art Biennial and the Maine Women Pioneers exhibition series at the University of New England.
Alison Derby Hildreth was born in Massachusetts in 1934 and moved to Maine with her family during World War II. She still lives in the seaside house in Falmouth that once belonged to her grandparents.
She studied art history and landscape design at Vassar College where she earned her BA in 1955 and, after marrying and raising a family of four boys, earned her BFA twenty-one years later at Portland School of Art (now Maine College of Art & Design) in 1976.
Hildreth’s Portland studio is on the second floor of the Bakery Studios on Pleasant St., which once belonged to the art school and is now owned by Hildreth and artist Katarina Weslien. The former commercial bakery building also houses Peregrine Press, Wolfe Editions, Art House Picture Frames, Artemisia Café and the studios of Charlie Hewitt, Alice Spencer, Richard Wilson, and Weslien.
The drawings in the Speedwell show, some dating to art school and before, featured both self-portraits, portraits, and nudes.
The ten large oils, some on canvas, most on linen, were raw, thick, impastoed abstractions, ranging in dates from 1988 to 2001. Hildreth’s somber, earthy palette was enlivened with passages of bright color erupting from below the surface. They reminded me of the murky, mysterious paintings of Anselm Keifer and John Walker.
The signature painting of the Speedwell show was surely Beekeepers, a 2001 composition of hives, hands, and pictures of people suspended like ornaments from strings.
“Beekeepers is a singular painting unlike what I had done before,” Hildreth explains. “It started the whole idea of puppets. I have my grandparent’s portraits embedded in it though I never knew them. It was inspired by a Breughel etching of beekeepers at the Met.”
Though she draws incessantly, Hildreth says she does not do so as preparation for paintings.
“I never draw. I just start,” she says of her approach to painting. “I can’t imagine I ever had a preconceived idea. It just develops. Areas resolve themselves as I’m working. I never have any idea what it’s about.”
Center for Maine Contemporary Art
Entitled Alison Hildreth / Darkness Visible, the CMCA exhibition featured ten terrestrial drawings and thirteen cosmic paintings created between 2018 and 2023. All vertical in format, the earthy mixed media drawings on Kitikata paper read like parchment maps of imaginary landscapes. The oil on linen paintings, similarly vertical, provided dark celestial visions of planets and galaxies, some suggesting views out through a rent in the universe to a reality beyond.
“In the earlier paintings I used the paint to describe the geography of the painting,” Hildreth says, referring to the paintings at Speedwell. “The work at CMCA is more about ideas, the idea of the sky, the idea of the universe, the mystery of it all. How did it begin? How does it all end? More recently I’ve been interested in the connectivity of things.”
Maine Irish Heritage Center
The 13 October celebration event at the Maine Irish Heritage Center had an air of reverence as a representative who’s who of the Maine art world gathered at the former St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic Church to watch Smith Galtney’s video portrait of Hildreth and to attend a discussion during which Hildreth responded to questions by artists Katarina Weslien and Sean Foley, gallerist Grant Wahlquist, and Portland Museum of Art director Mark Bessire.
Galtney’s documentary depicted the artist busy in her studio and, in the end, contentedly feeding her geese. Galtney managed to capture both Hildreth’s high-mindedness and her humility.
Hildreth was asked both by her colleague Weslien and by a member of the audience about the prevailing darkness in her paintings.
“The darkness for me is the unknown,” she told the audience member. And to Weslien’s query about her descent into darkness, she said, “I think of descent as going into an area to seek wisdom.”
Art dealer Wahlquist wanted to know if she considered her potential audience when she painted.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about the viewer,” Hildreth said to appreciative laughter. “The work is the focus. There is no room for anyone else there.”
Those who know Alison Hildreth understand that she is not making paintings to sell, she is making paintings to know.
Museum director Mark Bessire asked about what he perceived as a tension between Hildreth’s kindness as a person and her fierceness as an artist.
“I don’t know about the fierceness,” she replied. “It’s a kind of dedication. It’s a gift. To be in a world of your own making is a gift.”
Hildreth asked permission to read a pair of quotations that spoke to her of the artist’s calling.
From T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets she read:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And from Albert Camus’ essay Between Yes and No she read:
A person’s life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art or love or passionate work, those one or two images in the presence of which his heart first opened.
The unasked question at the 13 October evening with Alison Hildreth might have been, “Why wasn’t this Hildreth retrospective being held at one of Maine’s major art museums?”
While Speedwell Contemporary’s Jocelyn Lee believes Alison Hildreth has been overlooked by museums, Hildreth, not surprisingly, is more forgiving.
“I feel there are so many good artists in Maine,” she says, “that there is no way everybody is going to have tons of attention. When you do have a show, you feel grateful for that.”
It is this generosity of spirit coupled with an endless curiosity about existence that endears Hildreth to all those who understand art as a search for meaning, whether it is made by a nine-year-old in a closet or a ninety-year-old in a studio.
Alison Derby Hildreth does, indeed, make darkness visible.
Image at top: Alison Hildreth. The Feathered Hand, multimedia installation at the University of New England, 2011.