SELMA – Larry Hill thinks he’s one of the lucky ones. As an abstract expressionist painter and writer, the Fresno native says artists need not be seen as outsiders leading a life of misery.
“We all think of the artists as being the one that’s a little bit different and off to the side. We think they have to have some rough times and be beat down. You have to look at it the other way. We’re the lucky ones,” Hill said of conversations with his grandson, Evan Hill.
Larry Hill’s comments came during an opening reception and talk back at the Selma Arts Center Oct. 12. Hill’s abstract paintings will be on display at the Center until Nov. 10.
Selma Arts Council board member Juan Luis Guzman interviewed Hill to get his perspective on how the artist makes time for both talents and how he was able to get back to his writing after long hiatuses during his life journey.
Hill said that even as a child he had artistic ambitions and that his earliest artistic influences were comic books. He recalls asking for a drawing table as a birthday present so he could emulate professional artists who worked in their offices.
“I decided I was going to try to draw my own comics when I was 7 or 8 years old. I would come up with story lines and dialogue. My mom tried to make things available to me and my sister bought me my first pastel set. So I had the idea of writing and I was an avid reader. I spent a lot of time in the library and got a hold of anything to read.”
Hill said he draws on his childhood experiences of growing up in inner city Fresno and playing basketball with Armenian kids for his stories.
“I was in my neighborhood and I was 8 years old. Everything was idyllic and I thought I owned the world. As a little kid, I was so happy. Then all of a sudden I felt doomed. I thought, ‘am I growing older and this is what the world is?’”
Hill said it was about that time he saw a tall man walking around dressed in an Uncle Sam outfit.
“I thought, what in the world is this? Something hit me and I wrote that down. Later when I went in the service, I thought I’d write the Uncle Sam story. When I decided to write, I finally finished the story and it was about that character.”
Hill said he didn’t actually do much writing for years and even struggled to get back to it after serving in the U.S. Army for three years during the Korean War and then focusing on becoming a teacher in college.
“When I went to college, I got interested in other things and of course studying and getting my teaching career going. But that didn’t last long because I went into commercial art and graphic art to make my living.”
Hill said he later decided to make a more earnest effort at writing but was stymied in his efforts until he looked over his writing from his youth.
“Every once in awhile something happens to me, like everybody else. You try to find what you can do to get back on track.”
Hill said he got back on track by simply creating scenes with story lines and developing dialogue, even though it took time and was hit and miss.
“But I was putting words on paper and that finally did something for me. I thought, finally I’ve got a sentence and a paragraph. But I was reading at the same time. I read everybody I could to find out who do I like and who’s the best of the best.”
Hill has since published “Saroyan’s Bookie,” “Streak Hitter” and “The Rose Capital of the World.” His grandson Evan Hill read excerpts from “Saroyan’s Bookie” that evening after Hill took questions from the audience as well.
When asked about his experience as an artist, Hill said it was while he was in Massachusetts in the Army that he’d take trips to New York and saw early abstract painters at work.
“[They] were doing work far different than artists anywhere. That was the abstract expressionist school and I never forgot that. It started out being called non-objective painting, but that’s a bad term. It sounds like you have no objective, when you really do. You’re not trying to paint an object and paint it as a definite object,” he said of the style. He’s realized over time that you don’t have to paint in a specific way to be considered an artist.
“You don’t have to know everything. It’s something in you that’s burning in you. You get to a point where you have no choice. I’ve tried to do other things but it’s what you’ve got to do.”
Now as he balances both talents, Hill said he looks at a blank canvas and a blank page in a way similar.
“I found out it’s almost the same thing. Maybe I’ll do two hours of one and three of the other. I try to do five hours of work a day, maybe six. The rest of the time, you’re always preparing or thinking about it because what goes into it might be a week’s scrambling over in your brain.”
Hill regularly exhibits around the country and at one point showed his work at the Sydney Janis Gallery in New York City alongside pieces by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. Recently he showed at Fresno’s 1821 Gallery & Studios and had a solo exhibit at the Fresno Art Museum.
After the question-and-answer session that evening, Guzman said he’s grateful Hill was willing to spend the evening chatting with him and audience members.
“I think Larry’s a treasure in the community. It’s not often that you meet an artist that’s as prolific as Larry. He also happens to be a writer who is published and is a great writer. That’s rare. It’s hard to do it all well.”
Guzman said the showing was also part of their larger effort to promote all the arts.
“We thought the marriage between Larry’s work and what we’re doing at the Selma Arts Center was a good one.”