Bill Hutson has led a cosmopolitan life in the truest sense of the word. Working as a visual artist, Hutson has traveled to more than twenty-six countries, and lived in New York City, France, Holland, Italy, Senegal and Nigeria. Through his extensive career, Hutson has established himself as an internationally renowned painter, best known for his distinct style of abstraction, and has exhibited in over 20 solo shows and in more than 50 group shows. His work is held in public and private collections in the U.S. and abroad, including The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, The National Museum of Arts in Havana, Cuba, and The George Visat Collection in Paris, France. Hutson has served as an Associate Art Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History at Franklin and Marshall College for over 20 years, and is also the school’s Jennie Brown Cook and Betsy Hess Cook Distinguished Artist in Residence.
However, before his international success and recognition as an artist, curator, and educator, Hutson was born (in 1936) and raised in San Marcos, Texas. Hutson’s homecoming is celebrated in The Art of Bill Hutson, which includes over 60 pieces of his artwork courtesy of The Phillips Museum of Art, across five spaces in San Marcos: the Calaboose African American History Museum, the San Marcos Art Center, Texas State Galleries, and the Walker’s Gallery at the San Marcos Public Library. The artwork on display across all locations spans decades, and offers a glimpse into Hutson’s personal history and artistic practice.
The Art of Bill Hutson: Homestead at the Texas State Galleries is directly linked to Hutson’s upbringing in San Marcos. Featuring works that explore Hutson’s personal memories, which are tied to aspects of the land and use his childhood home as subject, this branch of the citywide exhibition is named for Hutson’s painting Homestead with signs, symbols and numbers (1979-1990), which hangs in the building’s foyer. The key phrase in the painting’s title, “homestead,” references two crucial contextual associations: the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted land to U.S. citizens after settling and “proving up” on their designated acreage, and the multi-generational shotgun-style home that Hutson was raised in at 733 Center Street in the city’s historic African American Dunbar neighborhood. The property itself, however, was not acquired through the Homestead Act, since African Americans were not recognized as citizens at the time.
“I have fond memories of that place despite that it was a nightmare at the same time that it was the American dream of having a family and a home,” Hutson told me over the phone while reflecting on his memories of San Marcos in the 1940s and 50s. “I remember the division. The Native Americans and Mexican Americans lived on the other side of the creek, and I wondered ‘why don’t we see them at school?’” he said. Hutson’s childhood home was across the street from the San Marcos “colored school” where he was a student. Hutson continued, recalling how the Native Americans set up their rugs, pottery, and jewelry at the train station to sell to passengers and how fascinated he was by their goods. “I couldn’t understand why we were separated,” he lamented.
Homestead with signs, symbols and numbers is comprised of semi-abstract symbols relating to the artist’s memories of the Hutson property. In the top-left corner of the large-scale painting, a 4×8-square grid represents the garden plot which provided the Hutson family basic produce for food and trading with neighbors. These trades were part of the barter-and-trade economy that was established within the African American community, a social system which spared Black families a trip to the local Piggly Wiggly at a time when they were not welcome in most public spaces. According to Hutson, the two circles divided into quads in the upper right corner represent the passage of time, and above, a kerosene lamp depicts the family’s light source when they were too poor to afford basic utilities or were denied access to them.
On the opposite wall, three framed, ink on paper studies from 1979 hang side-by-side, serving as preliminary material for Homestead with signs, symbols and numbers. Each study shows outlines of the house accompanied by handwritten notes. In Study #3, above the sketched house diagram, Hutson wrote, “refer to W. Africa model,” and below the sketch, “refer to Southern U.S.A model.” Hutson’s notes allude to the history of the shotgun-style house which originated in West Africa and was then appropriated as a model for slave quarters in the southern United States. Another detail Hutson included to support this architectural lineage is the iron pot’s placement in the back of the house, mirroring its traditional location in some Western African courtyards .
Hutson’s notes in Study #3 express his curiosity about the indigenous peoples to whom the land originally belonged: “Who were the so-called ‘Indians’ in and near San Marcos??” His written entries possess a diaristic timeline, as he later returns to the study with an answer: “In Southwest Ca. 850 A.D. Athpascan…Lispan Apache…Kiowa / Kiowa – Apache…Kikapoo…Potawatomis / 1850…Karankawa?” Hutson’s written acknowledgment of these indigenous tribes serves as a reminder that the “public” land granted to U.S. citizens as a result of the Homestead Act was not public at all, as these tribes had occupied it for thousands of years. “It was a robbery,” Hutson said.
The studies offer viewers a glimpse into Hutson’s thorough artistic process of preparation and documentation that is shown throughout the collective exhibition. According to Lindsay Marino, Museum Director and Collections Manager at the Phillips Museum of Art at Franklin and Marshall College, where a vast collection of Hutson’s art and library was donated in 2010, he kept everything. While looking at a photograph on view at the Calaboose African American History Museum of Hutson’s neatly stacked and organized archive of exhibition reviews, Linda-Kelsey Jones, co-curator of The Art of Bill Hutson commented, “he’s a Virgo, can’t you tell?” Marino told me, “[Bill’s] way of documentation shows his full process and the full scope of his practice. The San Marcos selection includes a lot of process-based work,”
The Art of Bill Hutson: Trees are Never Finished… at the Walker’s Gallery (temporarily on view at the San Marcos Public Library) provides a wide variety of Hutson’s artwork that marks his decades-long developments in style, media, and subject. Preparatory sketches for later series, such as Study for Tactile Series (1998) and First Study for 3 Dim. Paintings (not dated) are included, as are other mixed media works and photographs of Hutson painting. The paintings on view exemplify the range of abstraction in Hutson’s visual language. XIV (From the Broad Street Series) and Untitled Drawing (1977) demonstrate a weaker degree of abstraction, as both depict forms that elicit references to the natural world; the subject in XIV (From the Broad Street Series) can still be identified as groupings of foliage, despite the exaggeration of their physical characteristics created by Hutson’s one-to-one copy in paint. The reductional line work in Untitled Drawing (1977) evokes anatomical associations to the human body, such as chromosomes or the body in motion.
However, Hutson explained to me that his “point of departure is not in the real world.” Rather, he is interested in the constant and dynamic changes that take place within the cosmos. “I’ve always been interested in what can be seen and not seen. As we speak, I see ambient light casting shadows on the wall affected by the rotation of the sun. I’m trying to paint the changes made by the light, the microcosmic instance,” Hutson said.
Water (1971), operating in a stronger degree of abstraction, reflects Hutson’s interest in such microcosmic instances. An undulating field spans the bottom-third of the composition, gradating in color between white, green, red, and black. Single green and black lines emerge from the upper right and left quadrants, forming a triangle with the barrier line between the blue and white background. A cluster of seven symmetrical triangles levitate within the triangular outline, producing the effect of refracted light. The nonrepresentational subject inspires curiosity about the dynamic operations that take place in a transcendental realm, fluctuating between what is perceivable and what is not, and reflects Hutson’s interest in the universe’s happenings. The title of this selection of work, Trees are Never Finished, nods to this interest, and receives its name from a conversation between the artist and curator of The Art of Bill Hutson. According to Kelsey-Jones, when she asked about the incompleteness of the title Tree That is Not Finished…Yet (1977), Hutson simply replied with the observational remark: “trees are never finished.”
When Huston was 15 years old, he submitted one of his earliest artworks, a cartoon, to the San Marcos Record. To his surprise, the newspaper published the cartoon on January 11, 1952, alongside a short paragraph about the young artist with a headline reading, “Fifteen-Year-Old Aspires to be Cartoon Artist.” The cartoon consists of three registers, the first of which depicts a young man whose thought bubble reads, “Boy, I just can’t wait to get out of Texas.” In hindsight, the cartoon reads as a prophecy, foretelling Hutson’s life of travel in the decades following his departure from the state. After graduating high school in 1954, Hutson enlisted in the Air Force where he worked as an airborne radar technician. After he was honorably discharged, Hutson devoted his life to traveling and creating. He briefly took classes at the San Francisco Academy of Art in the early 1960s, but expressed his discontent with that environment, explaining that “visual art is difficult to make because you need skill sets and experiences, engagement, and passion. You can’t get that in a classroom sitting on a stool.” So, Hutson spent the following decades traveling across the United States and abroad.
Artwork on display in The Art of Bill Hutson: 3D Works at the Price Center and in The Art of Bill Hutson: The Opening at the Calaboose African American History Museum are representative of his stylistic experimentation and of how his travels influenced his practice. The Price Center displays two of Hutson’s sculptural works mounted on a wall alongside two studies for each, creating a six-piece installation. Tactile Series #9 and its two preliminary works reveal Hutson’s preparatory process. Hutson began with Tactile Series, Study # 9 January 25, 1998 (1998), an ink drawing on paper, then progressed to a painting on canvas titled Study for Tactile Series #9 (1998), before arriving at the final 3D form, Tactile Series #9 which Hutson created by using painted strips of canvas to cover pieces of wood he’d cut into various shapes. Installed on the wall, the pieces fit together like a puzzle. The second installation, Oba II (The Oba’s Room) follows a similar progression, but its genesis is derived from Hutson’s experience meeting the Oba (or ruler), Adesoji Aderemi, when he was living and working in Nigeria.
“I fell into [Nigeria] like a groove. I just burst into tears at the airport…the way it smelled, the way it looked. I just remember thinking ‘why couldn’t my parents have been born here? Why San Marcos?’” Hutson recalled of his first visit to Nigeria. In the mid-1970s, Hutson spent a year living and working in Nigeria as the Graphic Arts Director in an Audio and Research Department at the National Museum, which entailed traveling around West Africa to film and document various events, such as rare traditional ceremonies. One trip took Hutson and his film crew to the Seat of the Oba Kingdom, during which Hutson was personally invited into the Oba’s chamber. Hutson tells me that the Oba welcomed him and expressed apology and sympathy for the plight endured by African Americans as a result of the Atlantic Slave trade. “I walked out of there staggering,” Hutson said.
In Oba II (The Oba’s Room), Hutson rendered geometric elements inspired by the architecture and decor of the Oba’s chamber. The zig-zag relief in the left corner is inspired by the short stairs Hutson walked down leading to the chamber, the cylindrical elements are inspired by the sofas and cushions that he saw inside, and the triangular prism and pointed arches represent the room’s peaked ceiling. The Art of Bill Hutson: 3D Works at the Price Center represent Hutson’s collapsing distinctions between painting and sculpture, and his incorporation of cultures he’s visited into his stylistic schema.
At the Calaboose African American History Museum, Kelsey-Jones explained to me that the artwork featured in The Art of Bill Hutson: The Opening is centered around Hutson’s time living in Senegal on the Island of Gorée. According to Kelsey-Jones, Hutson lived near the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), which Hutson describes as a location, “where tens of thousands of captured Africans were ‘warehoused’ as they awaited their fate to be shipped across the Atlantic to be sold as slaves.” Hutson often spent time observing cloud formations over the Atlantic Ocean from the highest part of Gorée Island near the Maison des Esclaves, which inspired his Welkin Series. “The sky above the island would have been the last thing [the slaves] saw when departing from Africa,” Hutson said of his inspiration for the series. Welkin Series #9 (1977) and Welkin Series #17 (1978) are on display at the Calaboose African American History Museum accompanying The Opening (1977), which Hutson painted upon his return to the United States.
The Opening is stylistically derived from his Welkin Series – in both, Hutson cut the top two corners of the paper to create curved edges. In The Opening, a thick curvilinear blue line divides the black background as it snakes down the length of the composition. Hugging the inside of the blue line, a thinner red line mirrors a pink one as they tent out from one another, creating the form of a pointed arch. Through the arched frame, a bright yellow semicircle contrasts against bright blue. As a viewer, I can’t help but recognize the similarities between Hutson’s compositional elements and the architecture leading to the Door of No Return at the Maison des Esclaves.
The Opening names the Calaboose’s branch of the citywide exhibition. In writing about the selection, Dr. Skyller Walkes, president of the Calaboose African American History Museum, says, “Hutson’s anchoring of place and space, as inspired by Gorée Island in Senegal, harkens to the duality of the African American experience. One that is categorized by a nation state but is also simultaneously uprooted from another. This re-presencing of identity through paralleling borderlands highlights the power of the relationship between belonging and geography in art. At the same time, it insists that we acknowledge the tension of grappling with the Afro Diasporic displacement that many African Americans in the United States consciously or unconsciously experience.” Walkes’ passage highlights how Hutson’s interest in that which is and is not perceivable persists in his exploration of race and identity in relation to land.
Other artworks featured at the Calaboose include exhibition posters, photographs, and mixed media pieces that depict various components of Hutson’s practice, community, and personal history. One poster commemorates a group show in which Hutson exhibited alongside his contemporaries and friends, Edward Clark and Sam Middleton. Among the two, Hutson was associated with Alvin Loving, Frank Bowling, Melvin Edwards, Joan Mitchell, and Roberto Matta-Echaurren, to name a few. Consequently, Hutson is often mislabeled as an Abstract Expressionist, which he clarifies does not align with the objectives of his artistic practice. “I just never felt any particular affinity with [Abstract Expressionism],” Hutson said.
In discussing his practice, Hutson expressed that he’s uncomfortable referring to his art as ‘work.’ “It’s not work, it’s more like prayer – not in a religious sense, but in a meditative sense. It’s about the exploration that rises out of that meditation.” As a visual artist, Hutson strives to evoke an emotional response in viewers regardless of the personal context that may inform the subject. “We look with our spirit; our eyes are just vehicles. I want to move people even if they don’t understand the experience to which the art gave rise,” Hutson explained. The confluence of representation and abstraction in Hutson’s work allows space for understanding beyond the individualized context it may be rooted in. “Bill’s works are so pregnant with symbolism because their themes aren’t mappable or describable,” said Margo Handwerker, Gallery Director at Texas State Galleries and co-curator of The Art of Bill Hutson.
While at the Calaboose, Kelsey-Jones pointed out Loto (1998) to me as one of her favorites. A Black hand, presumably Hutson’s, holds a French lottery ticket. The compositional relationship established between the hand and the lottery ticket creates a visual metaphor which conveys that living in a Black body and playing the lottery pose the same risk. “My upbringing was a dream and a nightmare. I didn’t want to be anything when I grew up, I just wanted to be alive,” Hutson said. Regarding the citywide exhibition, Hutson expressed that he is “deeply honored by the San Marcos community to do this.”
The Art of Bill Hutson celebrates the artist by giving visibility to his life and art, which has gone unrecognized in San Marcos despite his illustrious career and global recognition. The citywide exhibition would not have been possible without the collaborative effort and support of the five participating venues, the San Marcos Arts Commission, Cardinal Frame and Art, and the City of San Marcos. Co-curators Kelsey-Jones and Handwerker strategically created motifs with Hutson’s work, linking each venue’s selection to various aspects of the artist’s life and practice. 733 Center St. (1974), on display at the Calaboose, connects back to the Homestead selection at Texas State Galleries. Paintings from Hutson’s Welkin Series can be found at both the Calaboose and in the Walker’s Gallery selection at the San Marcos Public Library, and studies from Hutson’s Tactile Series, on display at the Price Center, are also exhibited at the San Marcos Public Library.
Traveling across San Marcos to experience the exhibition prompts thoughts about how the artist experienced the town. “Bill Hutson grew up during segregation. In many ways, this collaborative exhibit represents a triumphant return to the town that didn’t treat him very well. It’s a remarkable and quiet redemption,” said Clay DeStefano, Executive Director at the Price Center. “This collaboration is such an important milestone in making sure that the un- and underrepresented people in our community are present and heard,” he added. “I can’t wait to see where these new partnerships take us all in the future.”
For more information about The Art of Bill Hutson, go here.