Harry Hilson: Master Artist
Harry Hilson: Master Artist
Sheafer + King Modern recently acquired an extensive collection by late American artist Harry Hilson (1935-2004). Though Hilson has seemingly slipped through the cracks of art history, research has proven that his career was
undoubtedly successful during his lifetime with showings at the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, among others. Hilson displayed his work at Purdue University during the 1960s and later kept a residence local to Indianapolis for a short period of his life around the year 2000.
Harry Lewis Hilson III was born in Davenport, Iowa, during a time in American history that was weighed down by hardship. With the crash of the stock market, the 1930s began with American families struggling through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II with a glimmer of hope coming in the form of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
To little surprise, Hilson did not initially follow art as a career path. Instead, he attended Pillsbury Military Academy in Owatonna, Minnesota beginning in 1945 at the young age of 10. Going on to serve in the United States Air Force under Major Charles Yeager, Hilson grew an interest in engineering and flying airplanes. This passion for intricate design and science would later translate into his art through his Circuitry Series in the 1950s. Hilson’s knowledge of planes would also come to benefit his art, as he used a Cessna 172 and an Aero Commander 200-A flying throughout the United States, visiting his studios scattered throughout the nation and exhibiting and selling his works to various galleries, universities, and private collectors along the way.
Shortly into his military career, Hilson was ready for a career change. He began working for Collier’s and Look magazines in New York City when he became interested in Abstract Expressionism, specifically the works of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Starting in 1958, Hilson began working as a full-time, independent artist.
Upon deciding to make art a career, Hilson moved to Sarasota, Florida, which would become a homebase for him throughout his life. Here he studied under fellow artist Syd Soloman and met his future partner, Bonnie Bell. Bell would only remain Hilson’s wife for 10 years, divorcing in 1968, but would continue to influence his work as an involved friend following their split.
The ‘50s and ‘60s would be a foundational time for Hilson, traveling back and forth between studios in Sarasota, FL, and Houston, TX. Along the way he would befriend numerous other artists, such as Jim Love, Jack Boynton, Rich Stout, and Dick Wray. Love’s influence was apparent to us at Sheafer + King Modern when acquiring part of Hilson’s personal collection, which included a signed 1970 found object metal hammer sculpture by Love. This group of Texans would become substantial in the modern art movement in the South. While there, Hilson would create his first series of landscape paintings, titled New Texas, in oil, casein, and mixed media on canvas and board. However, these large-scale landscape oil paintings would not stop in the 50s with variations of American landscapes being a recurring theme in Hilson’s oeuvre.
Beginning in 1960, Hilson began working on a new technique that he would come to call “Wax-Painting,” or “Wa’Pa” for short. This technique resulted in one-of-a-kind artworks, usually on canvas or fabric. Today, some of Hilson’s Wa’Pas would be considered batiks. We have a collection of these pieces available at Sheafer + King, including several from Hilson’s City Series works, based on the sketch shown. In addition to his City Series, Hilson created numerous other series of WaPas: the Abstract Landscapes Series, the Contemporary Mythology I & 2 Series, and the Neo-Figurative Series, a continuation of Hilson’s fascination with mythology.
Most of Hilson’s monetary success came from his Wax-Paintings. Hundreds of private collectors purchased his work, commissioning one-of-a-kind oversized pieces. Notably, the First National City Banks of Puerto Rico and The Dominican Republic purchased a 27-foot Wa’Pa painting. The City of Baltimore commissioned Hilson to create an 8-foot x 18-foot illuminated, laminated Wa’Pa titled Unim Universe, as well as acquiring public sculptures by the artist.
One collection of Hilson’s Wax-Paintings, his Bela Bartok Series, was started in 1960 and showcases the early days of Hilson perfecting his technique. Inspired by the musical genius of Bartok, Hilson created dozens of large-scale paintings, including Virgin’s Last Spring, which we have acquired here at Sheafer + King. Interestingly, Virgin’s Last Spring is one of the few works from the Bartok Series that is named, but it was never exhibited during Hilson’s career. Our Harry Hilson Exhibition, opening on September 15, will be the first time that Virgin’s Last Spring has ever been exhibited to the public.
Seeing financial success in other series, Hilson stopped creating the unique circuitry of the Bela Bartok Series and rolled up the oil paintings to be put into storage. Hilson started his personal website in the late–1990s, marking the first time he would show the Bartok Series in decades. Nevertheless, few works were published online. His work inspired by Bela Bartok would lead to the creation of Hilson’s Structure series.
In 1968, Hilson began making tapestries. Working on it from 1968-1982, he created over 2,000 one-of-a-kind handspun tapestries. The process of Hilson creating a tapestry was lengthy from beginning to finish. After becoming a Registered Importer with the U.S. Customs, Hilson imported thousands of pounds of 100% virgin wool from New Zealand. The wool would be transported to Dalton, Georgia, where his assistants would spin, dye, and moth-proof it. Drivers would move the wool from Georgia to Sarasota, Florida, where each tapestry would be handspun into jute.
The first four years of Hilson creating tapestries was spent creating and perfecting the machine used to spin the works. He created a Structure Series and Circle Series, inspired by his previously made Wax-Paintings. Achievements at this time included designing a 4-foot by 16-foot tapestry for Dr. Eugene Winograd and selling a collection of 750 tapestries to the Crown Center Redevelopment Corporation in Kansas City. During this time, in 1976, Hilson met Jane Isgur who would later become his lifelong agent and wife.
In the 1980s, Hilson got into a dispute with the mayor of Sarasota resulting in him closing his studio and making the decision to live aboard his beloved boat, KIVA. During this time, he lived in the Bahamas, creating the Bahama Series, Urban Stress Series, and the Earth Series with acrylic on paper.
By the ‘90s, Hilson began to be interested in the shift to the Digital Age. He began by making his own website, which included thousands of pages of Hilson’s own creation. He also began his company Fine Art Inc., Harry and Jane Hilson’s framing business. Framing for the National Gallery, Fine Art Inc. found success. Hilson soon expanded the website, later splitting it into www.fineartinc.com and www.hilson.org. His website included images of his artwork, which was collected under The Hilson Museum of Art. He created his own magazine, New World Arts, which became a book published under the same name.
Hilson’s extensive work done to his website is reflective of the rest of his career. Between 1992-1994, he reproduced his paintings in the form of lithographs, making 28 signed editions with 1,000 each. He focused on progressing technology and released fifty framed giclée prints. Beyond that, he performed a color study for Hewlett-Packard Corporation and made improvements to the printing process of the time.
Harry Hilson was well regarded during his time. His extensive body of work spans across painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture, installation, textile art, writing, poetry, photography, video art, and more. Hilson received awards for his art through numerous organizations, including The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, The Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation, The CHANGE Foundation, and The Georgia Business for the Arts.
Hilson, Harry. “Hilson Chronology.” Hilson.org, 2000, http://www.hilson.org/writings/chron.htm.