Wahington Review Volume XXV1 No.1 June/July 2000
Hilda Thorpe, in her own words
Interview with Ms. Hilda Thorpe by Barbara Januszkiewicz
July 1997 I interviewed Hilda for a special Creative Vision
I had the unique opportunity to spend some time with Ms. Thorpe , a
well-respected Alexandria, VA artist. Hilda answered some questions about how
she began as an artist, what her work is like, how her work has evolved, and her
contributions to the art world. Hilda was more than a great sculptor, painter and teacher.
She was a friend.
Hilda Thorpe, 1920- April 2000.
Barbara: When did you first show an interest in the arts?
Hilda: I guess I started late in life, being 35 when I began
to study art. At the time, my
children were ages 12, 10 and 7, and all were in school and could take care of themselves,
so I had some amount of free time. At that point, I began to think of school for myself. I'd
always worked part-time jobs, but this was the first thing I did totally for myself. Art is
important in my life, and I began taking classes in drawing and painting at American
University. I went for four years, taking studio courses, though I was not working toward a
degree. I started showing my work immediately after finishing school. It became a way of
life for me.
Barbara: Hilda, you have the most wonderful studio space on King St. in the heart of
Alexandria. Have you always had this space?
Hilda: Even when I was attending school, I always needed a
studio. I first used a
greenhouse, then a stable, then a country house, and finally I found this space in Alexandria.
It's pretty amazing-and I've been here since the 1960's. Since then I've been a dedicated
Barbara: Exactly how did you come to have this wonderful space
on the third floor on King
Hilda: Well, it's a great story. This is a famous old building,
used as a hospital during the
Civil War. I'm not sure about the intervening years, but I know that the Air Force
photographic unit used it at some point.
In the 1960's, Olde Towne Alexandria was a no-man's land. It
didn't become popular as a
tourist haven until around the 1976 Bicentennial. At that time, the Government donated a
great deal of money to fix the bricks on the sidewalks, add artificial gas lights to the streets,
and so forth. In 1976, this famous old building was empty. In fact, most of the buildings in
the 100 block of King St. were empty, having no electricity or heat. They had been
occupied by grain shops, saddle shops, and the like. With the Government's assistance,
many renovations were made and Olde Towne Alexandria started to become very popular.
Before Olde Town became so popular, I was looking for space
as an artist. As a young
artist, I couldn't afford much rent. Someone told me that Taylor Burke, the Bank President
of Burke & Herbert Pharmacists Building, on the corner of King and Lee St. might have
some empty space. So I went to see Mr. Burke. He was quite a character-he collected
old cars and went to his office every day with a parrot on his shoulder! He was my type of
guy. I explained my situation, saying "I understand you own the building on the corner of
King and Lee, and I was wondering if I might have some studio space there? I can't afford
much money, maybe $25 a month." And, very unlike a bank president, he said, "Let's go
down and look at it." So we walked down the street, he opened up all the doors, and we
went through all three floors of the building. Then he said, "I don't see why you can't use
the space, but you know I'm thinking of selling it at some point." I said "That's great!" He
didn't want any payment for the space, so I offered to give him a painting. "Oh, no," he
said, " I'm not interested in that kind of stuff." And that's the remarkable story of how I
obtained this space in 1976.
At that time, I worked on all the floors. Eventually the shop
below-the Why Not?
Shoppe-bought the building. I think they paid about $72,000 for it. Taylor Burke made
maybe $5,000 on it, and he thought he was doing beautifully! [Laughter] Now the building
is worth about a million or more! And that's pretty much the story of how I got this space.
I've been very lucky to be here all this time. I don't own any of it, but it's a private space,
not open to the public. I have about 2,000 square feet of space, good light, and I feel safe.
It's wonderful to be right in Olde Town Alexandria.
Barbara: I think you're pretty lucky with this fabulous space
Hilda! Would you describe
your artistic style for us?
Hilda: I feel that space is very important. I recommend to
my students that they get out of a
cellar or small space and open up because it's reflected in the work--where you are reflects
what you do. Because I have this large space, I feel like I should work big and that I can
expand. I think that spirit pervades all of my work, and I don't believe I could do what I do
in another type of space. I think BIG in terms of where I am and what is possible.
Barbara: You paint, do sculpture work, assemble glass, paper
and mobiles; you've also
done photography. You've done a little bit of everything.
Hilda: Perhaps I do. At the same time, I think there is a unifying
factor in all of my work
that has to do with the way I approach it and that it innately has to do with nature. I'm very
close to nature even though I am in the middle of a city. I live by the river, and I walk by the
river every morning. I have a sailboat and I sail along the Bay and I'm very close to the sky
and water, mist and trees. I think all those experiences are reflected in my work.
Barbara: It sounds as if you gain your inspiration from nature, true?
Hilda: I think so. It's not deliberate, but it seems to come
out in my work which always has
a feeling of emanating from the world around me.
Barbara: Let's talk about some individual pieces--the floating
clouds. [For our readers,
these works are multi-colored pieces of paper of various shapes and sizes suspended from
the ceiling, swirling or floating in air.] Tell me a little about their creation.
Hilda: This piece grew and grew! It started as small pieces
that I made from paper. I make
my own paper from macerated cotton and hemp. I form the sheets on a tabletop into
shapes, then sponge off the water, and let the paper dry. When the paper has maintained its
integrity, I wet it down it again. I use acrylic paint, very much like watercolors, so that my
pigments seep through both sides of the paper. It's always a process of discovery for me.
What happened with the paper was the pigment cut across to the edge of the paper as it
was drying (because it's very wet), and that resulted in a very decisive, interesting edge
that's concentrated with color. That was what I discovered in painting the pieces. When
the paper/paint dried, I coated the piece with a resin with acrylic medium, allowing me to
shape it without breaking the paper and also making the work more durable and
waterproof. At first, they were like wall reliefs on the wall, and some are still like that. Then
they became more three-dimensional and eventually they were suspended in space. That
meant that they could float a little bit, and that you could be very much a part of the space or
it could be very much a part of the space, high above and around you. Depending on how
you hang the piece, it can float around. And that's how the floating clouds came to be. I
think of these pieces as floating paintings because they're not only shapes, but colors.
They're very much like my paintings. They're spontaneous--whatever happens is
Barbara: How do you approach and begin working on your canvases?
Hilda: That's difficult to answer. I might start with something
like a color, a swab of paint, a
gesture that leads to another gesture. It builds up depending on my energy and mood and
whether the paint is behaving. Then it grows, changing hour by hour, day by day. If I look at
it the next day, it speaks to me in terms of what is possible. Sometimes I arrive at a point
where I have to stop because there is nothing more I can do. After some time has elapsed, I
will suddenly know what has to be done. It's an evolving process. It isn't something I
know ahead of time and maybe that's the part that's really intriguing--there's a sense of
discovery in the process. So I can't really answer your question. I might start out with a
warm painting of yellows, oranges, and soft colors, and end up with a pretty raucous one!
The pieces tend to be free and exude a lot of energy. At the same time, I think they're
rather spiritual, and at times, somewhat feminine. I think that the strength of the work comes
from the energy that goes into it.
Barbara: I find this really intriguing, Hilda. Your canvases
range from as small as 2" x 2" to
about 10' by 10'. How do your manage?
Hilda: The largest painting I did was 20', a commission for
IBM. I had two stretchers made
because I was sure that the first wouldn't work. But it did! I have worked large-for
example, 22 x 13' for the Marriott Hotel. Right now, my paintings are 5 or 6 feet, and I
have a triptych that measures 18 feet across. I tend to work big because I feel freer
working big. But I think there are times when a tiny piece will have the same impact that a
large piece has. Working at sizes in between doesn't appeal to me.
Barbara: When you had a show at the Corcoran, you laid out
homemade paper that
stretched about 100 feet. Is that true?
Hilda: Let me explain. There was a group sculpture show at
the Corcoran, and I had 4
hanging pieces in the installation over the atrium space. They measured 40' in length, and
there were 4 such panels, 36' across and 40' the other way.
Barbara: And Hilda, exactly how tall are you?!
Hilda: I'm 5'2, maybe 3" or so. I couldn't hold the panels
up! I worked on my studio floor
with a couple of assistants helping me, and that's how it came about. The panels are still
rolled up, of course.
Barbara: I understand that you also have a teaching/painting
group that you work with every
Wednesday, and that some of your students have been with you for 20 or 30 years! Please
Hilda: Well, not quite that long. Teaching was a surprise part
of my life because I really
wasn't geared for teaching or trained for it. When I finished taking classes at American
University, I was asked to teach at Mt. Vernon -Seminary Junior College. I taught there for
quite a few years, and then American University asked me to teach, and I taught sculpture
for 10 years at AU.
When I stopped teaching, I found there were a lot of graduate
students who were at loose
ends. They were artists who were not showing their work, who were not certain about their
work, and they needed input. So a group organized itself really. Coming to my studio once
a month, we discussed their work, what was happening in town, where they might go with
their work, what value it had, whether to show their work, and what importance they should
put on outside critiques. That was very valuable for the group because most of the artists
were isolated and uncertain about their art careers. They also had spouses supporting them
who were not particularly sympathetic to their spending money and not making money. So
all those issues were talked about in the group of men and women that met at my studio. It
started rather informally.
I've had several groups like that. When the group matured to a certain point, I would say
that they needed to show their work and feel good about their work, and that they were
ready to work on their own. Then the group would dissolve. Now I'm teaching drawing,
which is a result of the trips that I do with my colleague Francoise Yohalen. We take a
group of people who are interested in learning how to do a sketchbook journal on various
trips. We've been to France, Egypt, Guatemala, Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. Using that
group as a nucleus, we started a drawing class at night. Everyone meets from 7-9pm on
Wednesdays. A group of people come and draw. Sometimes we have a model or we go
to the jazz club across the street or the bookstore down the way. We'd go all over
Alexandria. We've been to a local restaurant when we needed air conditioning (my studio
isn't air-conditioned), and spent two hours there drawing various people serving food or
eating food. That's been a very rewarding experience, not only for my students, but also for
Barbara: Do you feel that you've grown as an artist by also being a teacher?
Hilda: Yes, I always learn from everything I do. I draw inspiration
from others. We have a
group of local artists ranging from beginning students to established artists, and everyone
learns from each other.
Barbara: Tell me about your oil paintings and your acrylic paintings. How do they differ?
Hilda: For years I worked in oil, but I felt that the use of
turpentine might be a bit
hazardous. When acrylics came on the market in the 1970's (I started painting seriously in
the early 1960's), I started working with acrylics. Recently I've found that I was tearing in
the eyes, and I was wondering whether I was becoming sensitive to acrylics. So I decided
to return to oil because now the turpentine no longer smelled (though I'm sure we're still
inhaling the fumes). Actually the oil is a little bit more fluid than acrylic, but I think if you look
at my paintings, you would be hard-pressed to tell if I used acrylics or oils because of the
way I paint. I paint in a very painterly fashion.
Barbara: And how do you go about painting? Do you paint while
the canvas is stapled up
on the wall?
Hilda: I staple my canvas on the wall. I have worked on unsized
canvas with acrylics, but
you can't do that with oil. Now I gesso the canvas with two or three coatings, and when
that is done, I start to paint. I apply very large areas of paint and just let it happen. That's
actually the underpainting, though I don't think of it as an underpainting, rather it's just a
phase of painting. Then it keeps building, sometimes getting more intense, sometimes finding
things, sometimes losing things. That's really the way I paint, until the painting says, "That's
it. Don't touch me!"
Barbara: Tell me about some of the places you exhibit your
artwork or have your artwork
Hilda: Well, I've had a lot of shows, maybe 30 or 40 individual
shows and group shows.
My large show, and most meaningful show, was at the Phillips Collection in 1975. It was a
time when the Phillips was very generous with their space. I think it's harder to do that
now. I had almost the whole second floor--the large exhibition room, the passageway
leading from the old building to the new one, and the new room plus a stairwell going
downstairs. It was most exciting because they took down Picassos from the hallway and
put my little 3-dimensional pieces there! In the large exhibition room, we took down a
Kandinsky exhibit. I exhibited mostly painted canvas sculpture, plus some oil pastels, large
40 x 60" drawings, and small 3-dimensional works. In those days, everybody helped,
including the so-called guards and me, since it was less formal than it is now. Today if you
approach a painting, it screeches, "yeoooowl!" Back then we didn't have all the security
I've also shown my work in a number of galleries around town
over the years--Franz Bader,
Addison Ripley, Barbara Feedler. I started with the first serious gallery in Washington, DC
called Jefferson Place Gallery. At that time (the 1960's), it was the only gallery in town,
except for Franz Bader which was then part of a bookstore. Now, of course, there are
hundreds of galleries. But that wasn't so long ago. I use my studio primarily as a working
place, but I've also had various soirees and exhibits here. However, the serious exhibiting
has been in Washington, and right now I'm exhibiting at Gallery K. That's the gallery that
Barbara: You've been painting and sculpting for about 40 years.
How many pieces do you
think you've actually done in your lifetime?
Hilda: I don't know, hundreds. Actually, I studied in the 1950's,
and started seriously
working in the early 1960's.
Barbara: I've been in your back room and seen your library of research and slides of your
inventories. There are about 30 books. You've kept wonderful records. What type of
advice would you give an artist who is just beginning a career?
Hilda: I think it's very important to keep records. Though
I look well organized, I'm not!
It's very hard to do everything that you have to do. I think that if you're a serious artist you
really need a secretary, an archivist, and an assistant to keep everything going. You also
need a photographer. And to do that by yourself is mind-boggling. I've tried pretty much to
handle it all by myself. Every now and then I have an intern from the Madeira School, and I
have a photographer friend who helps with that. But still, it's very hard to keep good
records. I would say to start out with good habits. When you do something you like,
photograph it and document it. If you sell it, make sure you put down in your collector's list
who bought it, exactly what it is, when you sold it, and how much they paid for it. Then
you'll be set, when ten years later you're called on to reevaluate the painting or bring it up to
date. So those are all things to do and remember to start off with good intentions.
Barbara: Do you ever sell a painting that's very precious to you and wish you'd kept it?
Hilda: Unfortunately, yes. It's hard to sell paintings. Sometimes
you think that you really
should keep the painting. On the other hand, you have so many and you do need to pay the
rent. Selling is a necessary evil. Some of my best paintings I no longer have, but I know
they exist in somebody else's space.
Barbara: Please tell me about your travel sketches and how they relate to your work.
Hilda: As you've seen, I have a lot of sketchbooks, maybe a
hundred or more. When I
travel with a group, I'm in the role of teacher. But I also like to keep a sketchbook, which is
a good sample for the students to follow. Some of theirs are actually better and more
inventive than mine. That experience feeds me in the studio, not literally, but certainly
spiritually and artistically or aesthetically. Keeping a sketchbook is a jumping off place.
I've done some small works that definitely emanate from the sketchbook or from memory
triggered by the sketchbook or even from photographs. I am continuing with large abstract
paintings. I think the color and spirit of the abstract paintings reflect where I am. I have a
recent body of work that comes from the sketching and memory-the Morocco work. My
travels and sketchbook of Morocco resulted in some watercolor works combined or
collaged with handmade paper. I donated these works to the little Moroccan city of Acila
which was the catalyst for the Ambassador from Morocco sending me to Acila. I was a
guest for a couple of weeks there and did a lot of sketching. I was totally by myself except
for participating somewhat in a symposium that dealt with how Americans see Arabs and
how Arabs view Americans. That was very interesting. So the travel does fill my life
aesthetically as well as emotionally.
Barbara: I found in the Morocco group that you had some watercolors
of figures as well as
of doorways and windows. Tell me a little more about that group.
Hilda: Actually, I stayed near a little village, an ancient,
walled-in village, all white and
beautiful. Every morning peasants or people from the village traipsed down the hillside dirt
road, either on foot or on donkeys, to go to the village to work. They wore the most
colorful clothes, and I sat on the ground as they passed by me doing quick sketches with
watercolors and ink. Those resulted in a number of works that you have seen here in
Barbara: Hilda, where do you see yourself going with your art?
Hilda: Well, that's difficult to answer. But I find that it's
an interesting time of my life.
Contrary to what you might think, as you get older you do not become slower or repetitive
or even stop working. I think, as an artist that you get stronger and more daring in your
work. As you get older, I also think you feel like you can do it! There's nothing to lose.
And so I find myself freer, and more able to try something new. I feel my paintings are
loosening up, and are developing in a different way, with less control and relying more on
experiential things. So I think that I'm in a better place that I was earlier in my career. I
would say that age is in your favor as an artist. But I can't tell you where I'm going-that,
like my painting, will evolve by itself.
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