The life, work and generosity of Bill Hutson
Chart your own path—a familiar exhortation to graduating seniors, career-changers and searchers—does not begin to capture the journey of essentially self-taught artist Bill Hutson.
Hutson did not so much map out a path for himself as discover one, as he cut away the underbrush of familial and personal expectations to find his way through to a career in art that was unimaginable to him as a child.
His tale is one of rags to riches, but not in the conventional sense. Even at the pinnacle of success, his net worth was low. It is his art and artistry that have grown from nothing into something, from the humblest of beginnings to the grandest of appreciation.
Hutson donated a large part of his collection to Franklin & Marshall in spring 2010. The donation includes pieces of his own work plus artwork by noted African-American contemporary artists and art posters and memorabilia pertinent to the history of African-American abstract art of the 20th and 21st centuries. The entire gift is valued at more than $3 million.
Hutson, who has served for many years as a faculty member in F&M's Department of Art and Art History and was previously the Cook Distinguished Artist-in-Residence, is now the Jennie Brown Cook and Betsy Hess Cook Distinguished Special Curator of the Hutson Collection at F&M.
Mapping an Artistic JourneyHutson's gift to the College represents in many ways the map of his personal artistic journey. "The concept of 'artist' had no commission for me as a child," Hutson says in a soft voice, sitting in the sunny front room of his downtown Lancaster residence.
The room doubles as his studio, but unknowing visitors would never guess from its pristine serenity that an artist lives and works there. No Sturm und Drang muddle of paint flecking walls or drop cloths; no palettes, brushes, rags or other supplies clutter the space. Instead, a tall, neat tower of old round cheese boxes stands in one corner, an easel with an unfinished painting in another and an empty table in between. He has never been one of those artists who work comfortably amid material chaos. His supplies hide in the boxes.
His preference for order in the midst of the tumult of creativity is emblematic of a life suffused with challenge that eventually led to fulfillment and inner peace. He came from a household where the cartoons from the newspapers that doubled as wallpaper were the only pieces of "art" on the walls. No one talked about art in his home. No one there could tell him how to become an artist.
"I was compelled to draw," he says simply of his childhood in the Texas town of San Marcos, where ethnic groups kept to their own quarters and the only true integration occurred when "goods and services had to be delivered up the hill."
His mother was a custodian, and his father, who died when Hutson was 4, was a musician who played in clubs and churches. No one drew. No one painted. No one could even explain art to him, and he was not going to find out about it in the local library, unless he went there to clean it.
"I saw an advertisement in the newspaper one day, a picture that said 'Draw Me,'" he says. He did just that and won entry into an art correspondence course.
But the idea of art—the creative process, the rationale for creating art—eluded him. He would stare at pictures of Christ on church fans and wonder, "How did the artist create that picture when Jesus was no longer around to model for the portrait?" He would see a landscape painting hanging on a dormitory-room wall where his mother was a custodian and wonder, "Why does this student own a picture of a landscape when she can see one outside her window?"
As he pondered those questions, life and the need to provide for himself intruded on his meditation. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, becoming a sergeant working with airborne radar systems. While he served conscientiously, the after-hours life of an airman held little appeal. Instead of carousing in bars, he enrolled in a drawing course at the University of New Mexico, continuing to explore the questions that had sparked his mind when he was younger.
Becoming an ArtistAfter his honorable discharge, Hutson headed to Los Angeles to apply for a job at the company that made the airborne radar systems he now knew so well, figuring he would be a shoo-in since the company was hiring. He might have had the expertise, but not the right skin color. "They didn't hire Negroes," he says, with the smallest thrum of sadness.
He became an elevator operator in L.A., but decided to move this "career" to San Francisco, a choice that pushed him farther through that uncharted undergrowth, into new land.
In San Francisco, he started to become an artist.
His first way station was the San Francisco Academy of Art, where he studied commercial art on the GI Bill. If he thought commercial art was a way to combine vocation with avocation, a teacher shot down that idea. He was warned that he would have a hard time getting a job for the same reason he had not landed the airborne radar company one—wrong skin color.
So he quit, bought paints and a small easel, and took his first steps into the true life of an artist, creating art for its own sake, not for the bread it could put on his table. Now he stood facing a vast unexplored terrain.
"It was in the early sixties, the time of the beat generation," he says. He would spend hours reading in San Francisco's legendary City Lights Bookstore, until the proprietor told him it was time to close up and leave. He met other artists and writers, and he did what artists from time immemorial had done to learn their craft. He became an apprentice.
Working under Frank Ashley, a realist follower of the Ashcan School of Art that eschewed academic approaches and sought to capture the gritty realism of urban life, Hutson perfected his skill while enriching his mind.
"Frank would have us read out loud from Lives of the Great Artists while he painted," says Hutson, referring to the medieval work by Giorgio Vasari.
Through this education, Hutson started to learn the names, habits and behavior of artists and "how the times impacted their decisions." Like his time in the bookstore, this part of his education ignited a desire to learn more.
He also began to show his work, in the Maxwell Gallery and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's annual drawing, print and sculpture show.
As his artistic journey continued, he took to the real road as well. He went to New York City—and "didn't like it," he says—and London, where he exhibited at the TransAtlantics U.S.I.S. Gallery. From the city of fog, it was on to the City of Light.
"I loved Paris," he says. "The only barrier was the language, and I got over it pretty quickly."
From Paris, he moved to Holland and started to move in a circle of African-American abstract expressionists. "I was interested in abstract expressionism even when I worked with Frank (Ashley), who had no patience with abstracts," he says.
He was drawn to this art form because of its focus on the implicit rather than the explicit. Never an artist who used his art to shout out political messages, he found he could communicate more subtly and powerfully through abstracts where "nature, sky, an indirect memory would be points of departure," he says.
Holland seemed a perfect locale for this part of his journey.
"They—the Dutch, the Germans—are very concerned about the quality of products. The best quality linen for painting comes from Belgium," and in abstract expressionism the material of art becomes the art.
His paintings reflect that homage to texture. One picture in his home captures winter light through the use of filigreed leaf patterns, another uses snakelike cords to create an image of ordered chaos. Although he is an abstract expressionist, his paintings exude a formalist structure that reflects great self-discipline.
While in Europe, he continued reading, even if Ashley were no longer there to listen. He read philosophies and histories. He interacted with other African-American ex-pat artists and began collecting art and other memorabilia from them and their exhibits. He taught himself about the world.
His own art exhibitions began to dot his résumé, in the Netherlands, the Ivory Coast, New York, Nigeria, Yugoslavia, Italy, Japan, Ohio, Kentucky, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and more. His passport was a jumble of visa stamps. He became a guest speaker in many locales and eventually landed teaching jobs at Ohio State University, Johns Hopkins University and finally, Franklin & Marshall, where he came in 1989 for a "one-year appointment" that stretched beyond 12 months.
Cultivating CuriosityWhen did he feel he had arrived, that the course he had charted on his own had reached a successful destination? "I don't feel that way even today," he says. "I don't think it's necessary. Curiosity and challenge equal success."
Curiosity and challenge are two goals he set for students at F&M, one of whom, Frances Donnelly Wolf '96, found Hutson's tutelage to be precisely what she needed. A nontraditional student in her 40s, she came to F&M with a bachelor's degree already, but, like Hutson, had experienced a yearning to draw and paint that would not go away.
At a recent College event to honor Hutson and his gift, Wolf explained to the audience what a teacher like Hutson meant to her and her life's work: "I am here because Bill changed my life. He transformed how I do what I do. As a student who came to Franklin & Marshall in her middle years, to work for a second undergraduate degree, Bill showed me that it wasn't too late to dedicate my working life to art, and that, in true liberal arts fashion, it wasn't too late to learn new things. And that we should keep on learning."
He never imposed his style on his students, Wolf says, but rather tried to elicit their own visions. He challenged and pushed his students. Hutson's support went beyond the classroom, as well. He attended his students' shows and exhibitions and often made encouraging remarks and gave feedback while they were working on projects.
His influence will now continue as F&M catalogs and gets ready to exhibit formally the collection he amassed over the years and has donated to the College. F&M's Hutson Collection contains more than 500 works of art and includes paintings, sculpture, works on paper, original prints, accompanying manuscripts, personal documents and ephemera.
In addition to Hutson's own works, the collection includes those by Frank Bowling, Nanette Carter, Juan Cash, Edward Clark, Gregory Coates, Ed Colston, Adrienne Hoard, Melvin Edwards, Souleymane Keita, Lawrence Compton-Kolawole, James Little, Alvin Loving, Sam Middleton, Padmini Mongia, Iba N'Diaye, Baba Shongo Obadina, Larry Potter, Bob Shigeo, Shirley Start and William T. Williams. It is a veritable "who's who" in African-American abstract expressionism.
"The collection has the potential to make the College a center for research on African-American art," says Eliza Reilly, director of F&M's Phillips Museum of Art.
While F&M is receiving the lion's share of Hutson's work, the artist has made provisions for his few remaining family members to receive some of his art when he passes. But he did not want the bulk of it to end up "on eBay or in pawn shops."
"When my brother passed away," he explains, "I found a piece of artwork I'd sent him in a closet, still wrapped."
Why give such a large contemporary abstract African-American collection to F&M and not to a traditionally black college? "That would have been honorable," he says, "but redundant."
"Bill is something of a rebel," Reilly explains. "He stuck to his guns as a formalist and wouldn't go to political art. He articulated his African-American heritage in a very different way."
The breadth of the gift, says Stefanie Valar, F&M's director of gift planning, and the years it covers, "really provide a window into how artists evolve over time. When you think about the creation of new knowledge that institutions like ours exists for, here's a huge body of work that hasn't been studied the way it should. And now it will be able to be studied."
Like Hutson's own evolution as an artist, the collection demonstrates that artistic journeys are unique, that artists do not walk lockstep, even those who come from similar struggles.
"I came to understand the black community is not a single identity," says Jessica Jackson '10, an art history and Africana studies double major who spent summer 2009 helping to catalog Franklin & Marshall's Hutson Collection as a Hackman Scholar. Jackson will now help curate it. This project, she says, has really opened her eyes to the full spectrum of African-American art experiences.
Not surprisingly, Hutson's advice to artists and curators alike is to "make your own path. Don't step in my footsteps."
And where have his footsteps finally brought him? How does Hutson really define his success? "I feel well within myself," he says.
Hutson's work will be displayed in the Phillips Museum of Art Sept. 3 to Oct. 15 with an artist's talk on Oct. 1.
An Opportune GrantThe donation of more than $3 million worth of African-American art is one of two pieces of great news F&M's Phillips Museum received this year.
The College also received a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to solidify the museum's connection to the academic program at the College and to increase student and faculty use of the museum's resources. The two donations, in many ways, go hand in hand.
"It's going to bring tremendous academic energy to the museum," museum director Eliza Reilly says of the Mellon grant. "We're going to have four fellows a year now. Students and graduates will be able to continue their work here at a more professional level."
In fact, one of those graduates will be Jessica Jackson '10, who will be on staff to help curate the Hutson collection.
The Mellon grant will specifically fund, over a four-year period, upgrading the current curatorial position from half time to full time; providing for the establishment of interdisciplinary visiting artist/faculty/postdoctoral fellowships that will focus on the intersection of the visual arts with other disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences; and facilitating two museum-focused pre-baccalaureate positions and a similarly focused post-baccalaureate internship annually.
The grant will give students and graduates in unrelated disciplines a chance to use their particular expertise in an art museum.
"The thing that's great about this grant is these students don't have to be art or art history majors. They can be business majors interested in intellectual property, for example, or they can be interested in nonprofit management or fundraising," Reilly says. "Museums are amazingly complex organizations that touch on so many things. It opens up the work of the museum to a wider group of people on campus."
The Mellon grant could hardly have come at a more opportune time, as it will help with the College's efforts to seek accreditation of the museum by the American Association of Museums. In addition, with the Hutson donation, Reilly envisions that the first Mellon post-doctoral fellowship will be an African-American art specialist with the intention of "maximizing the scholarly impact of this gift."