Tim Van Schmidt
There’s at least one thing that a pandemic can’t stop in its tracks — creativity. In fact, it may even be more necessary than before.
For example, the pandemic did not fundamentally change the work of northern Colorado artist Mary Hills.
Hills makes images of outdoor scenes drawn from her everyday environment, local places she likes to go like Red Fox Meadows and Rolland Moore Park. Her subjects include backyard views and more iconic ones like Horsetooth Rock. Also, natural areas and gardens, trees and flowers, rivers, and pathways.
These are places you could easily visit — often — even during a pandemic.
Hills’ images are full of bright patches of color and broad shapes, a sense of sun and shadow, and a sense of reflective calm. She calls her work “abstracted realism.” It’s about real places but filtered through her as an artist working in mostly pastels.
The results are not predetermined when she approaches a new piece and they are not based on one experience but many, blending together into images that soothe and pop off the page at the same time.
Hills studied at the Art Institute of Boston, the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and the City and Guilds of London Art School in England. In northern Colorado, Hills has been a member of the Northern Colorado Artist Association and the Gilpin County Arts Association and placed work in juried shows.
For the most part, what she does with her art is to produce custom cards. I count myself as one of the lucky people who receive her cards on various occasions — and I have kept every single one of them because they all do the same thing. Hills’ artwork draws me into a pretty place.
Hills counts cards made by her “aunties” as her early inspiration to make cards in particular. They made their own cards, paintings and did calligraphy, and Hills remembers discovering their work in a “treasure box” of pieces the family had kept.
That wasn’t the only artistic streak in her family, though. Hills remembers her parents as singers and figures their music rubbed off more on her sister Anne.
Anne Hills is a respected figure in the contemporary folk music scene — based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania — and she also has kept creative during the pandemic but went in an unexpected direction with her music.
The results are on Hills’ latest 2021 album release, “Accidental August” — the title referring to the idea that we all went on a summer break with this pandemic “with no Labor Day in sight.”
What Hills did with her “accidental August” was to collaborate on a project with writer and “geriatrician” Al Powers to write songs to “build empathy.” The pandemic lengthened and the loss of a friend turned the project personal.
Then Hills went into the studio to record an album full of intimate takes that sound more like jazz than folk. Hills has the voice for it, strong and emotive. She also brought in some excellent players to provide support. Those include drummer Peter Erskine, whose resume includes jazz fusion group Weather Report. A lot of the music here features the interplay between Hills’ voice and the keyboard work of Tyler Wood
Overall, the general tone of “Accidental August” is soothing — it’s very personal and sadness about loss and mortality mixes with the realization that we’re still alive and there are good things about that. My favorite tune on the record is “Hello, My Love, Goodbye” — it’s practically a dance track with its exotic rhythm and cool lyrics.
And for me, that was when Hills’ “Accidental August” got even more interesting — when I dug into the lyrics. Check out the words and you will find some poetry to savor.
In “Love is the Boat,” Hills sings “love is a boundless prairie/hides in the wildest seed/waters the fields and in times of loss/love is the balm we need.”
Lyrics in “In the Gloaming” are equally stirring: “I’ll remember you by the water/sun setting deep in your eyes/your brown hands full of the gifts of the sea/reflecting the fathomless skies.”
I especially like where the words go in the last tune, “Be This”: “live gratefully, change how you see this/be still, quiet, open yourself to what’s there/every breath you are breathing, just notice the air…”
All of the lyrics are readily available on annehills.com and they are worth just reading.
The fresh musical direction Hills takes on the CD is new, but the idea of collaboration is not. Hills has a strong history of collaboration throughout her career, notably with artists like Tom Paxton, Cindy Mangsen, and Michael Smith.
So that’s the pandemic tale of two sisters who have kept true to their artistic natures during a strange time.
Have these two creative sisters ever collaborated? Check out Anne’s 2011 album with David Roth titled “Rhubarb Trees” — the image on the cover that just pops right out of the design is Mary’s art.
Family and creativity. That’s a potent combination.
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Check out his YouTube channel at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”