Authors, Artists and Makers Volume 3: George Hill
Updated: Nov 8, 2021
I can't imagine anything more beautiful than a trout. The spots, the vermiculation, the halos and, of course, the colors. Each its own unique work of art, perfectly suited to its environment.
So beautiful, in fact, that they have become a creature of lore. Native American legend has it that brook trout were solid black until a leader named Manitou caught one in his hands long ago. Looking at it he was struck by its beauty and agile grace and decided to control his hunger and let it live so he dropped it back into the deep pool. The trout went its way, but instantly its sides took on a silvery hue where the fingers of the Great Spirit had held it, and all its kind became marked with the same silvery sheen and many colored spots and haloes, as a token of having been handled by the kindly Manitou.
When I hold a trout, even for the briefest moment, it certainly feels like I am holding something that has been touched by a special kind of magic.
And I'm obviously not alone. Many beautiful words have been penned about trout. Some of my favorite come from Cormac McCarthy: “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
Indeed, for me, every trout hums of magic and mystery. And thus, when I'm not fishing, I choose to surround myself with their beauty. My home, my cabin and my office all hold reminders in various forms of art, from line drawings and illustrations, to watercolors and oils and even a few old paint-by-numbers. Some art I love because of the subject matter, some for the technique and some for both. The work of George Hill is certainly both. George captures both wildlife and wistful landscapes in a way that blends realism and abstraction in a method that allows me to feel the living, textured nature of the subject in an almost tactile sense. It is both arresting and transportive.
Here, in Volume Three of Authors, Artists and Makers, I am honored to tell his story, not only as an artist but as an angler.
Q: George, you've lived an amazing and adventurous life from a childhood in Michigan with a family cabin on Lake Huron, to post-college travels through Argentina chasing trout, then off to Alaska as a commercial fisherman and eventually being drawn to Montana after doing stream habitat work. One element in every phase has held true, a connection with both water and fish - how has that shaped who you are today?
A: "The connection to water was embedded in me from an early age. My father insisted on proximity to water and we happily obliged. Water has informed most of my decisions regarding life and work and where I want to be. Childhood was spent on lakes. A family cabin in norther Lake Huron in the summer. The swampy lake I grew up on in southern Michigan. The time spend in Patagonia, Alaska, all because of water. It has shaped me. From it birthed my passion for fishing and from that came the inspiration for my work."
Q: You obviously have a passion for fishing. How does that influence your work? In previous interviews you’ve described a “primitive simplicity” to both acts – and talk about how both require you to be present or in the moment. Can you explain that a little more?
A: "I think there exists a vast disconnect between where we have developed societally and technologically to where our brains and bodies have developed physiologically. In other words, we are still essentially living in caveman bodies but our world and technology and patterns of living have grown exponentially and far outpaced us. I think that gap is the root of many of our pathologies both physical and mental."
"So, anytime we can find ways to connect to a more simplistic, primitive state ie recreating in nature we find a sense of ease and peace. We are able to be more present. And for fly fishing we must be present as it often requires high levels of concentration in order to be successful. Painting is the same. It forces me to be present."
Q: I know you are still pursuing the “middle earth” water from the Trout Bum Diaries Patagonia film, but without giving away too many secrets, what are a couple of your favorite place to fish? What’s still on the bucket list?
A: "Marble Trout in Slovenia because that water just looks so damn sexy. There are no secrets anymore these days. And if there were I wouldn't say. ;)"
Q. Many of your paintings feature brown trout which are my favorite. What is your favorite species to pursue and why?
A: "I really enjoy pursuing a variety of species however living in Montana brown trout are probably the most consistent quarry. I enjoy the erratic and often unpredictable nature of larger brown trout. They are also a joy to paint. There are so many subtle hues and color notes found in the gill plate of a brown trout. It is not just the yellows, oranges, and golds but the aqua blues, greens, and metallics, whew!"
Q: Do you have a favorite method of trout fishing – dries, streamers, indi, etc? Why? Do you have a “go-to” fly in your box?
A: "Anytime fish are willing to eat on top that‘a going to be the preferred method but we all know nymphing catches you the most fish. I just hate dealing with all the rigging. I like simplicity. Leader to fly. That's it. Or in the case of streamer fishing, sink tip to leader to fly. I LOVE streamer fishing. Not necessarily banging the banks all day from a boat with a 30ft sink tip but streamer fishing by foot on small water. I cover tons of water streamer fishing on foot. Rarely making more than one cast to any given spot. I hit all water. It's amazing where you’ll move fish. The least suspecting water sometimes. It's a thrill and it allows me to really explore a new body of water. I think sometimes I take more pleasure in seeing what awaits around the next bend than turning a fish. I lose grasp of time and space and am always amazed how far I've travelled when I finally have to walk back downstream to my car. The dogs love this way of fishing too. My go to streamer flies are small, dark and natural. Maybe I'm old school but I love a black or olive bugger or bunny leach."
Q: Your painting style combines realism with impressionistic elements and lands somewhere in the middle. I am fortunate enough to own one of your prints, “Moonlight” which leans a little heavier toward the realism side and one of your originals “Veneration” that is a little more impressionistic. How would YOU describe your work?
A: "Very interesting question and one that fascinates me. The art that I love the most is such that a strong sense of likeness or truth is conveyed in the most abstract way possible. This obviously presents a seemingly blatant paradox but when you break down the elements of seeing and painting what makes realism is not fine details and small brushwork covering the entire canvas. It is accurately describing shapes of value and color. If you have the right shapes and they are the correct value (lightness or darkness) you can actually get away with pretty loose, impressionistic, or abstract brushwork and still have the work read incredibly realistic. It is beautiful and poetic. It is infinitely more challenging than a literal interpretation where every scale or every hair is painstakingly painted with a tiny brush. That is not poetic. That is literal in the way that an essay is literal and pedantic. That is my qualm with photorealism. I have to catch myself when I start trying to paint every little scale on a fish. In the latter stages of a painting I often paint with my eyes blurred to avoid going into to fine detail and to help me maintain and preserve my overall value and color relationships. You can easily get lost in the details and your work will suffer because of this. You'll begin to erode your established value structure and color harmony."
Q: In Flylords you say: “With my art, hopefully I’m able to remove a (viewer) from where they’re standing in a gallery and transport them to a salt flat or a ridge in the Rockies. In my opinion, for that to happen, people need to experience art in person.” Can you talk about that a little more – both the transportive affect art can have on people and also how experiencing art in person is a very different experience?
A: "I think the power of art has always been its ability to remove the viewer from their current reality albeit briefly. Art should connect emotionally with the viewer. It should make you feel something. Each person will react or be moved by varying degrees, if at all, depending on the art. Depending on the artist’s approach, application of paint, composition, color theme, subject etc. The connection is probably made when elements of the subconscious, formed by particular life experiences, shift towards alignment between artist and viewer. In the case of my fish, I think it's pretty straightforward. I am attempting put on canvas the sensation I feel when holding a beautiful wild fish. It's a fleeting moment. As anglers were are familiar with this moment. It is so brief. It can't be taken home with us. A photo does not reproduce the feeling. I don't know if my paintings do, but that is what I strive for. They have more of a human element to them because the process is not interrupted by machine, ie camera. It is a direct extension from my experience onto canvas. Thus, human expression is left more intact. So, I hope that having one of my fish on your wall will tap into that feeling we all experience on the water gently releasing a trout back into the river, every time you look at it."
Q: A couple of ideas from your previous interviews really stood out to me. The first from Big Sky Journal reads: "I want it (my work) to be humanitarian, and what I mean by that is I want it to help humans understand our natural cohabitation of this planet. I hope that we feel we need to manage and preserve these creatures and environments. And to take action.” In an interview with Flylords you go on to say: “I want people to appreciate fish as species and give them reverence and respect with the idea that the respect will create this consciousness of conservation and preservation of our natural world and our natural stocks.” Can you talk a little bit more about your viewpoints on conservation and how your artwork can be a medium for that?
A: "Trout, and the environments they live in, or more broadly speaking, the environment is often secondary in our economic model. We measure progress quantitatively by goods and services that exchange hands in a given year (GDP). These numbers actually give us little indication of the quality of people’s lives and the preservation of our natural stocks. Economists advise policy makers based on these numbers and often laws and legislation are enacted that give little consideration to our environment. It's easy to overlook our little streams and rivers and the creatures that reside within their watery depths. I want my paintings to give those creatures a voice. I want them to make the viewer stop and reflect on their importance. That their presence and abundance are indicative of healthy ecosystems. That we are doing a good job of managing and balancing industry and preservation. That progress is non independent of preservation. I paint them in portraiture style as I believe it gives them a stronger sense of reverence."
Q: I obviously love your trout series of artwork, but also really gravitate to some of your landscapes as well – which are fairly different from each other. What are some of your favorite works and why?
A: "My favorite works are the ones where I am able to let go of fear and inhibition. They are the ones that flow most freely from brain, to my hand, to my brush. Subject matter has little to do with it. It is more a state of mind. That being said the works that are the biggest uphill battles are often where I learn the most so I can’t understate their importance. It is after countless struggles with these works that something beautiful and effortless is able to take place every so often."
Q. Favorite artists. I’m always curious to know who inspires those that inspire me. So, who are some of your favorite artists (painters, musicians, writers, etc) and why? Who inspires you?
A: "Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla are over-cited to the point of cliche for the realists but their significance and influence cannot be denied. I knew of Sargent long before the other two only because we had a few books of his paintings around the house when I was young. I remember being struck by El Jaleo at a young age. I did a copy of it in high school art class. Only recently did I learn that it was a 12 ft painting he did when he was only 26! Just incredible genius right there. The way Sargent captured truthfulness with an economy of loose brush marks is the envy and admiration of realist painters the world over. I see some of that and admire it in the works of living artists, Quang Ho, C.W. Mundy, and Derek Penix, though they lean more towards impressionism than did Sargent."
"As for writing, I have always enjoyed the genre of magical realism and try to draw correlations to that in my work. I want my paintings to feel reel but still have some element of magic, or something left to the imagination. It shouldn’t all be fed to you literally the way an essay might. Art should be a bit more like poetry in that sense. 100 Years of Solitude is the greatest story ever told, so Gabriel Garcia Marquez."
"And, I have alway been a Hemingway fan and never traveled without packing him along. Particularly on fishing trips. Being a Michigan boy now living in MT, and a fisherman, I enjoy Harrison but find him a bit crass at times and I have really enjoyed the recent works of long-time friend and Missoula local, Chris Dombrowski."
"As for music, I usually just let the youtube algorithm do its thing when I paint ;) you'd be amazed how difficult it is to come up with new music and playlists for 6-8 hours a day almost every day of the week. That’s one thing I can thank the bots for."
Q: Your website is georgehillart.com, is this the best place to inquire about your work?
A: "Yup. Or just drop me a line at email@example.com or find me on the gram."
Q: What’s next? Anything on the horizon you can share with us?
A: "I'll just be burying myself in my studio for the next few months. As summer approaches, the busy season for galleries has begun and bodies of work need to be produced. Expect larger scale works. I am currently in the process of moving into a new studio and it is quite large. I'll be able to mount multiple large paintings on the wall at one time and be working on them simultaneously. Which is something I have always wanted, so I can more easily create harmony between pieces. And stand way back and look at them (not get caught up in the details). Maybe I'll start painting with a 6ft long brush like Matisse. I think the larger space will loosen up my approach and technique as well. Should be fun. My old studio was lovely and cozy but the confinement of space translated onto the canvas in more confined brushwork and smaller paintings."