Marvin Hill toiled artfully through life, with visionary wit, and knowledge of darkness, on a path to the other side

Wendy and Marvin Hill. Courtesy Wendy Carroll Hill

He’s been gone since 2003, but Marvin Hill is hardly forgotten. My home brims with his wondrous and witty linoleum-block prints. And just as his memorial postcard (see below) was graced with his self-description as “a very lucky man,” I feel blessed as well, with his art and for having known him. I don’t know when exactly Marvin made that self-portrait, but I suspect it was near the end of his life. He seemed like the sort who appreciated his time on this planet, and knew that he had left a rich legacy, filled with hundreds of pathways into his imagination, each adventure returned as a sharply-honed visual story of wonder, humor and mystery.

He died on this day, December Second, in 2003, of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, at 51. His widow, Wendy Hill, who did most of the hand-coloring for his prints, sent out the above postcard in June of 2005, to announce a Marvin Hill booth at Art Fair On the Square. As if nothing had changed, except that angelic tribute to Marvin’s life, talent and spirit. .

He was a sweet, but droll man, with a vibrant creative fire. I once visited his rural studio, slightly pungent with the smell of printer’s ink, and it seemed alive with a slightly cock-eyed aura of artistic affirmation. His artwork was popular, yet idiosyncratic and personal, never pandering. He was always one of the most interesting artists at any art fair he exhibited at, and he was duly feted when chosen as The Featured Artist, for the 1999 Art Fair on the Square in Madison. He designed the official T-shirt for that year’s fair, which he autographed for me and I still have it. Hill exhibited widely at fairs and galleries, and won national awards for his work. 1

Though he once lived on the same street in Milwaukee I now live on, he and Wendy ended up in Johnson Creek, halfway between Madison and Milwaukee, and Madison seemed his strongest market.

I wrote an appreciation of him when he died, for The Capital Times in Madison, and I’ll share some of my thoughts from that time:
“Marvin Hill pulled you into his world with art that could be otherworldly, or as comfortable as a pair of old slippers. The pair you slip on after an especially vivid dream, or to sit down with the book that has you under its spell. Books and dreams were Marvin’s milieu.

Or he got you with his warm, twinkling smile, and his passion for art, stories and life –  in a dimension behind the door unlocked with ‘the key of imagination.’ His art was “The Twilight Zone” captured in a frame. Marvin lived the life of the mind, expanded, printed and hand colored.

His art could challenge you but it was hard to resist. He made inexpensive linoleum block prints, one of the most unpretentious of art forms. Yet Marvin took quantum leaps with this medium….

“Marvin’s style blended noir-ish German Expressionism with an utterly American sense of possibility. Space, time and gravity expanded and contracted. He sensed the chaos theory hidden just beneath the dusty surface of ordinary life.”

“‘He was fully formed intellectually when I met him when he was 21’, says Madison artist and cartoonist P.S. Mueller, who says he and Hill ‘starved together’ as street people in Carbondale, Illinois.

.” ‘But he never used drugs, ever. He always said, ‘I don’t use drugs, they interfere with my hallucinations.’ ” 2

That’s how funny and delightfully outre the guy could be.

Now, I will share some images of Marvin Hill art, with commentary.

He only made one print of my personal favorite among those I own (see his edition designation, “1/1” or “one of one” beside the title). This (and three Hill “artist’s proofs” I own — a test print marked “A/P” he sold inexpensively and may or may not have run an edition of) also confirmed to me a closeness in our aesthetic and literary sensibilities.  They were sort of personal favorites that he made for himself, yet still offered to for sale. So they the A/P’s too might be one-of-a-kind Marvin Hills.

My favorite among these is also the smallest single image I ever saw him produce. It is titled  “Fritz Lang walks His Dog” and I post an enlarged version for you to appreciate. Now, shrink it in your mind: The actual image is only 3/4 of an inch by 2 and 2/5th inches!

The enlargement allows you to see the image, but remember, enlarging also roughens its craftmanship. Hill wasn’t obsessive about razor-sharp technique, but his chops constantly served his quirky genius in perfect simpatico, perhaps like the great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, at times a bit scraggly, but that enhanced the art’s peculiar, funky beauty.

The squinty size of “Fritz Lang” is a “big” part of the piece’s brilliance. It’s like a secret portal into his imaginative world, and into how his conception and style manifested themselves. The idea of movie director Lang and his dog recalls an Alfred Hitchcock movie cameo, though this is more sly, as we see only only the projected shadows of Lang and his dog. It also carries an ominousness, as Lang’s most seminal film is M with Peter Lorre as a serial killer preying on children in Berlin in London. The 1931 film, part of the German Expressionist art movement, is pretty much the prototype for all film noir. 3.  Hitchcock arguably predates M with his 1926 fog-bound silent film The Lodger, about a London serial killer, both films likely inspired by Jack The Ripper’s legend.

But Peter Lorre’s creepy breakout performance, enhanced by his weird nasal-breathing speaking style and demonic laugh, helped give Lang’s “talkie” greater notoriety, for its shock value and aura of paranoia — and stylistically, with his more incisive cinematographic intersecting of light and shadow. Knowing all that, Marvin Hill uses his noir-ish wit to humanize the German director, while maintaining his mystique.

Another noir-ish Hill piece which was an “artist’s proof” shows how subtle his craft can be. It’s titled “Enter” (below).

“Enter,” Marvin Hill. Hand-colored linoleum block print (artist’s proof)

The figure entering the dark room is engulfed in a sort of ectoplasmic atmosphere, an effect unusual for knife-executed block-cut prints. It’s unclear whether the figure is the vulnerable one, entering the dark enclosure, or the threatening one, entrapping a frightened person hiding within. The psychological ambiguity intensifies its power. I have positioned it as as a sort of “welcome” for guests to my home, or now, to my office.

A brighter, rather comical Hill print nevertheless retains his surrealistic weirdness. Some have characterized it as “a bit goofy,” true enough, but it held a place of honor in my divorcee bachelor-flat kitchen for many years.

Marvin Hill, “Man Attacked by Green Beans,” hand-colored linoleum block print (artist’s proof). 

I love the animation of “Man Attacked by Green Beans,”  everything is flying askew (not unlike

Marvin could also celebrate serenity and domesticity, as in this elegantly framed (but still inexpensive) print, below, simply titled “e.”, as in the name of the sleeping feline in portrait.

Marvin Hill, “e.”, hand-colored linoleum block print.

Next, the Deco-styed print (below) takes us into Hill’s dream realm, and suggests his striving to connect or follow nature, to transcend the limits of gravity-bound humanity. It feels like a late-period Hill, though I think it may be the first of his I purchased, before Wendy began hand-coloring his images. His sense of time was elastic, reaching into the fates of futurity as well as backward, with symbolic ease, and wonder.

Marvin Hill, “Dream Suite # 3,” linoleum block print.

Photo of Kevin Lynch at Marvin Hill art booth at Art Fair on the Square, in Madison, by Beth Bartoszek Lynch. 

This photo (above) was taken in summer of 2005, at the first posthumous booth of Marvin Hill art at Art Fair on the Square, maintained by his widow, Wendy Carroll Hill. It shows some of his small work and some of the more ambitious work he achieved late in his life, like the stunning, large mandala-like three-dimensional print, to the right of your blogger, in this photo. The several evident circular images, to me, suggest Marvin’s expression of a holistic experience of the world, his coming to grips with where his journey beyond might take him, not into nothingness, really, but to part of a circle (reincarnation?) that will be unbroken, bye and bye, one can hope.

Yet another marvelous Hill image, which my ex-wife and I bought together, and which she now possesses, depicts a shaman in a small shack high in the mountains. It might allude to the end of his life, or beyond. His corporeal end, to any outside observer, and to Wendy, was impossibly sad. He he lost the use of his hands and arms — an artist still at the peak of his powers, which at times seemed visionary, in his humble way. There are more sad details I won’t get into here. I will recount some of Wendy’s narrative, from my 2003 Capital Times obit appreciation:

“He couldn’t take care of himself, he couldn’t walk, but he was still so positive. One day, he looked out the window and said, ‘It’s all good.’

“I said, ‘It’s all good? It sucks! ‘

” He said, ‘No, I want to know what’s going to happen, what’s on the other side.’ ” 4

Fortunately for Wendy, Hill’s work has steadily sold online in recent years, and a goodly but diminishing amount remains available online, including more ambitious works. 5 One uses the above bird-seeking “Dream Suite” image as one of multiple motifs, each dominated by a blackbird in the dazzling 3-D montage titled “Jack’s Message Dream Suite.”

Another, “Lao Tzu and Rene Descartes Engage in a Philosophical Battle,” articulates his self-expressed intellectual hunger and spiritual curiosity (image below).  It’s telling that Hill positions the ancient Chinese philosopher in the dominant dueling position. Descartes, riding a mechanical dragon, uses a book “shield” and wields a giant pointed circumference compass; while Lao, atop a “real” dragon, counters with a traditional saber and a walking stick. Mathematician, metaphysician, and philosopher Descartes is, of course, best known as the Western paragon of rationalist philosophy as a demarcation of reality. Though his historicity as a real person is debated, Lao is credited as the founder of Taoism and reputed author of the philosophical text Tao Te Ching.

By contrast to Western rationalism’s prioritizing the brain’s reasoning powers, Taoism embraces an inquiry into primary sources, the un-apprehended aspects, or vast realms of existence, that may help form our cosmos, our world and affect our lives. Accordingly Tao signifies “the source and ideal of all existence: it is unseen, but not transcendent, immensely powerful yet supremely humble, being the root of all things. People have desires and free will (and thus are able to alter their own nature). Many act ‘unnaturally’ upsetting the natural balance of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching intends to lead students to a ‘return’ to their natural state, in harmony with Tao.] Language and conventional wisdom are critically assessed. Taoism views them as inherently biased and artificial, widely using paradoxes to sharpen the point. ” 6

Marvin Hill, “Lao Tzu and Rene Descartes Engage in a Philosophical Battle.” Linoleum-cut block print. Courtesy www.marvinhill.com

Surveying Hill’s oeuvre, one senses his Taoistic leanings, an intense awareness of forces beyond the empirical. Another ambitious print, is even more surreal than “Man Attacked by Green Beans.” Titled “Nonattachment,” wherein gravity has evidently abandoned a man in his home, and he and his possessions all float freely. Is this evoking a strange scientific phenomenon, or an underlying truth of contingency regarding reason, and even ownership? Were Marvin’s humble and drug-free “hallucinations” also possibly insights? Given his ever-leavening humor, he was a serious reader, and a pan-cultural, pluralistic thinker, clearly interested in the dialectical (and in paradox), and beyond.

I think Marvin Hill’s equilibrium helped focus his insights. He seemed to know how far to go with his dreams. As D.H. Lawrence wrote: “The Holy Ghost (the winged soul within us) bid us never be too deadly in our earnestness, always to laugh in time, at ourselves and everything, Particularly our sublimities. Everything has its hour of ridicule – everything.”  6 Marvin could always laughed in time, like, say, pianist Victor Borge, a musical comedian with exquisite timing. A prime Hill illustration of perfect comic timing is the piece titled “Does Awakening Come All at Once?” The image is of a bespectacled man (le artiste?) getting a blueberry pie splat in the face. Or, there’s the tart irreverence of “Thoreau is Driven from the Garden by Unruly Nature,” the ironic title delivering plenty.

And then, the affliction arose and eroded him. Sorrow welled, though not Marvin’s, until his knife and wit lay still, for the last time, December 2, 2003.

Finally, another Hill “artist’s proof” (below) would become a posthumous gift from him to me (actually sent to me by Wendy, in gratitude for my patronage and coverage of Marvin) – a portrait of the great American poet Walt Whitman, clearly in the autumn of his life. Marvin knew just how to visually honor the mighty, innovative, and quintessentially American poet, also known for his massive capacity for compassion, as a dedicated Civil War nurse. Hill depicts Whitman’s head, well, as if upon a hill. Whitman here seems like granite, or one more great face, to be carved into Mount Rushmore, alongside other American giants, including his contemporary Abraham Lincoln, whom Whitman honored in magnificent verse, better than any other poet.

I didn’t consciously intend this, but “Walt Whitman” sits in my office, atop a bookshelf, the highest location of any artwork I own.

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1 Art Fair on the Square, held each Independence Day Weekend, is sponsored by The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and is one of the state’s most rigorously-juried outdoor art fairs, along with Milwaukee’s Lakefront Festival of the Arts.

2. Even given Mueller’s story about he and Hill as classic “starving artists,” Hill had earned an MFA in printmaking from Drake University.

3. Among other many great Fritz Lang (primarily) films noirs: include: “Metropolis (silent),” “You Only Live Once,” “Ministry of Fear,” “Scarlet Street,” “Clash By Night,” “The Big Heat,” “and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.”

4. Here’s a scan of my 2003 newspaper appreciation of Marvin Hill. You might save or download it to a picture file to magnify and read it better.

5. The Marvin Hill website: http://www.marvinhill.com

6.. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laozi

7. D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, Penguin, 1923,1977, 79

 

Wisconsin’s great cranes announce spring’s prelude and summon an extraordinary memory

Wisconsin sandhill cranes and one white whooping crane arise recently. Photo by Mark Hoffman, courtesy The Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel.

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Paul A. Smith’s excellent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story is on springtime when young (and aging) men’s fancy can turn to…cranes!

Yes, the natural romance is the mystique and magnificence of Wisconsin’s cranes – the sandhill and, now the reviving whooping crane. It’s well worth a read, here:

Cranes as Spring Harbinger

I was immediately struck by the photographer Mark Hoffman’s lead image (above) of ten sandhill cranes and one white whooping crane taking flight – and Smith’s story, because they swept me back to one of the most dramatically intimate experiences of my life.

They were hard times for me. I was recovering from a rather stunning divorce, initiated by my ex-spouse right when I felt I, and we, were finally emerging into the manageable light from the long, rather surreal darkness of my bilateral neuropathy, Continue reading

Let’s commission or buy more historic statues of Civil War or civil rights heroes. Good ones! Great ones!

One of the more complex and fraught cultural issues arising these days is the removal of (largely) Confederate statues. Some are being toppled and at least partly destroyed. I’m all for the long-overdue change in culture, in response to our urgent times. This need is no better addressed than in this recent Op-Ed by poet and author Caroline Randall Williams in The New York Times, powerfully underscored in a dark symbolism, dwelling in the statues’ heroic posturings. Here (via Daily Kos) is a link: NYT Op-Ed on Confederate statues

The Times headline defiantly declared “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument.”

Williams continued with the startling lead:

 I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.

She went on to explain:

I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists…

Poet and author Caroline Randall Williams wrote a scathing commentary recently on the dark underbelly of Confederate statues for The New York Times. Courtesy Nashville Scene.

Amen to that. However, I’m also in the camp of those who think Confederate statues should be moved to museums, and submitted to proper historical contextualization and commentary. And partly given my undergrad degree was in art, with a concentration on sculpture, I have a bias towards preserving public art of historical significance, the good, bad and sometimes even the ugly..

The issue reached a razor’s edge that bled into the absurd recently in Madison, Wisconsin, where I lived and worked for nearly 20 years, as an arts reporter for The Capital Times. So I was greatly saddened see that Wisconsin’s “foreword” statue, long situated on the Capitol Square, was knocked over, and thrown in Lake Mendota. And that the statue of renowned abolitionist and union soldier Hans Christian Heg – a Norwegian immigrant who knew the meaning of being an other, and who died fighting to end slavery – was knocked down and dragged down the street. These were acts of little more than self-righteous ignorance, or worse, perhaps racist subversion.

Several of my friends suspect this was the handiwork of a Neo-Nazis or White Supremacists infiltrating the Madison George Floyd civil rights protests. As one friend shrewdly observed, the guilty party scrawled the phrase “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL” at the top of the deposed Heg sculpture’s base (see below). Here’s the thing. That phrase hasn’t been used by most African-Americans since the 1960s. It suggests this was a bogus and culturally lame attempt to place the blame on Black Lives Matter.

Base of the statue of abolitionist Hans Christian Heg in Madison, after the statue was torn down recently. Photo by Allison Garfield. Courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

On a related issue, I cannot agree with student activists who call for the removal of the beloved statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln, at the top of Bascom Hill on the UW-Madison campus. The bronze sculpture mirrors the grand marble sculpture of our 16th president seated in The Lincoln Memorial.

The controversy has to do with what we now call white supremacist comments that Lincoln made before the Civil War during the famous debates with Stephen Douglas. Yes, they are troubling, but history shows that Lincoln redeemed himself through his actions many times over, and indeed was a martyr for the cause of ending slavery. He  inspired Juneteenth Day with his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves.

Such a leader should be judged by his actions, and such formal proclamations that carry great political weight, rather than by his worst comments, which reveal his racial biases (which we all have, to some degree). Remember too, it was the 1850s, upon which we can misapply our social standards begat by time. We know Lincoln realized that even he struggled at times to stay aligned with the better angels of his nature. And that he always considered slavery immoral and worth destroying with all the Union’s might.

As for what to do about politically historical statues in general, I prefer to think more constructively. If we replace Confederate statues, what should we commission or construct in their stead?

The issue of how to replace them was addressed creatively by six artists in a 2018 New York Times article, when the controversy over a Robert E. Lee statue arose in connection to the infamous Charlottesville clash of civil rights and white supremacists: The New York Times, Aug. 10, 2018, “Monuments for a New Era.”

 

But Madison and other cities could follow the example of Milwaukee, which last December purchased a bronze sculpture by the acclaimed black sculptor Radcliffe Bailey depicting W.E.B. DuBois, the great black writer, thinker, sociologist and civil rights activist. 1 The sculpture, titled “Pensive,” depicts DuBois seated in the same posture as Auguste Rodin’s celebrated “The Thinker,” and even mimics the early modernist Rodin’s rough-hewn modeling. The work was purchased as a gift to the city by Sue and Mark Irgens, and mounted this spring in its new location outside of the new BMO Tower, 790 N. Water St.

Radcliffe Bailey, Pensive, 2013, part of Sculpture Milwaukee 2019. © Radcliffe Bailey, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki for Sculpture Milwaukee

Milwaukee first experienced the quiet but indeed pensive power of the bronze figure in the 2019 MKE Sculpture exhibit mounted along Wisconsin Avenue. For me, it was the outstanding work in the exhibit, artistically and culturally, and I spotlit it in a blog posting, here:

Bronze sculpture of W.E.B. DuBois is highlight of Sculpture Milwaukee

The work’s conceptual lineage is deep, as Rodin’s original “The Thinker” depicted poet Dante Aligieri’s figure, drawing from the poet’s The Divine Comedy, and conceived as a figure contemplating Rodin’s massive tableaux sculpture, The Gates of Hell commissioned in 1880. The symbolic significance of the tableaux is not lost on our times, nor on DuBois’s, when he boldly stirred American consciousness on matters of race in the early 20th century, directly defying Jim Crow.

But the first of Rodin’s familiar monumental bronze castings of “The Thinker,” as a stand-alone sculpture, did not appear until 1904.

Works such as Bailey’s, completely in 2013, ought to be the standard we strive for in public art, especially on fraught matters as race relations or the Civil War. I would love to see Madison commission or purchase a monument to, say, the epic ex-slave biographer and leader Frederick Douglass, or the heroic Underground Railroad operator Harriet Tubman, or modern civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Or even a work commemorating the death of Emmett Till, which sparked the modern civil rights movement, sensitive as such a rendering might be.

We are in a time of extraordinary social upheaval and transformation, which may feel to too transitory for doubters of social progress. Still, I can think of few better ways we can celebrate such progress and permanently inspire its furtherance, than with bronze public sculptures that embody our history’s embattled nobility and, we pray, our future redemption in freedom and equality for all.

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1 News of the sculpture’s purchase, gifting and re-installation, as reported by Bobby Tanzilo of OnMilwaukee.com: https://onmilwaukee.com/ent/articles/irgens-pensive.html

Rapper Rob Dz learns, rekindles a dream, and pays it forward, as Madison wins a national award

Rob Michelle

Hip-Hop artist and historian Rob Dz accepts a 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service from first lady Michelle Obama on June 1 on behalf of the Madison Public Library, for his own career advancement and educational work in a library outreach program in music production and promotion.

“The library is so much more than just books, baby!”

That’s the take away of Rob Franklin, a.k. a. Rob Dz, a Madison-based hip-hop artist and historian, and one of my favorite Wisconsin artists.

How much more is the library? The Madison Public Library has transformed this talented man’s financially-strapped career.

“All my dreams of sharing my gifts to the world were fading.” he recalls. Rob was at crossroads, maybe the kind where the devil lurked, grinning right in his face, as the “Crossroads” myth went for bluesman Robert Johnson.

Rob no longer had the finances to make any recordings of his art. But he didn’t have to sell his soul to the devil to get what his dreams requested.

The Madison Library was attuned to his talents and his value to the community. They stepped into the path of uncertainty and darkness and set him up in the library’s Bubbler program and Media Lab services. This provided him access to and instruction in their full production facilities, for visual and graphic design, sound engineering, photoshop and other production services.

The upshot was that Rob dug in and learned how to use these tools, and brought his career back to life. His production work for himself and other financially and socially disenfranchised young people led to a great honor. On June 1, Rob Dz accepted a 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. First lady Michelle Obama, a strong proponent of youth literacy, presented the award to Rob, on the library’s behalf.

What a trip! And for sure it was a journey to learn, create and teach in the light of creative life. Rob explains his trip in a video in the story I have linked here.

Bering among this year’s award recipients was a thrill for Rob, and here is First Lady Michelle Obama’s awards speech and presentations.

The Library’s Bubbler program has replenished Rob Dz and, he hopes, will help transform his career. And once he learned this and got back up to speed in terms of DIY technical creativity and career advancement, he realized it was time to “pay it forward” with his knowledge. “I was able to teach not only production, but personal branding and development classes as well,” he explains

I take personal pleasure in this for several reasons. I was aware of Rob’s talents and knowledge when I covered the arts for The Capital Times in Madison for nearly 20 years. I also had a sense of how is talents translated into education. So I hired him as a guest lecturer for the cultural journalism class that I taught at Edgewood College in Madison in 2007-8.
He presented a concise, but incisive and lively history of hip-hop to my aspiring journalists, and it was one of the most rewarding classes I’ve ever presented.

Next he popped up as a member of the Chicago Yestet, a vibrant and socially and politically conscious jazz band led by trombonist and composer Joel Adams, a former Madison musician now based in Chicago. A highlight of their debut album was the brilliantly droll Rob Dz commentary on George W. Bush titled “The Decider.” Then came several thought-provoking and empowering songs on the band’s latest album Just Say Yes, including Rob’s lyrics ingeniously updating Lennon and McCartney’s “The  Long and Winding Road.” Here’s the adaptation, performed at Chicago’s Green Mill jazz club.

The greatest part of Rob’s library project was the chance he had to teach kids at risk at the city’s juvenile detention center.

“These are kids who have had some pretty harsh lives,” he explains. “To be able to give joy to some of those kids’ lives has probably given me more satisfaction than any recording I’ve done for my self. To be able to pay it forward and let other people express themselves is awe-inspiring. The library is so much more than books, baby!”

Rob’s long and winding road led to the library door. Kudos and high fives to Rob Dz and the Madison Library!