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‘Wanderlust’ offers a glimpse into the life of a remarkable woman
Imagine an educated woman of the 1890s who favored camping, hiking and sitting on the precipice of mountains over domesticity, fashion and fitting in. Picture a woman who tossed aside corsets and bustles for men’s clothing, who was commissioned by the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads to create plein air art.
Islanders will be able to view some of the seldom seen drawings she produced during her years of wanderlust. In cooperation with the University of Puget Sound, Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum’s newest exhibit, “Abby Williams Hill: Wanderlust, Works on Paper, 1895-1927,” opens Friday.
Abby Williams Hill, her husband Dr. Frank Hill and their young son left Grinnell, Iowa, to move out West — all the way west to Tacoma — in 1889. Through her many day books and dairies, she painted a picture in which she shunned the life of a doctor’s wife, finding it far more interesting to sail to Vashon, befriend the locals and fish for her supper.
Hill also loved children and, unable to have more of her own, adopted three daughters. She spent her summer months camping on Vashon where she home-schooled (or tent-schooled) her four children. The summer ritual of camping on the Island lasted long enough for Hill to buy property and set up an art studio in Burton. There, she sketched several local sights along the beaches, including native canoes and homes.
After receiving her first in a line of four commissions, she began in earnest to create landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. Her works were used to entice tourists to hop on trains and explore the virgin territory, much as she had done. Hill’s work includes more than 100 canvasses of landscapes and portraits, including one of Sioux chief White Bull.
Many of those commissioned paintings were shown at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909. And some recently made it to Vashon, where they were shown at the museum two years ago
But her sketches — sometimes spare, other times fully realized — are not nearly as well known. Nor were they always mentioned in her day books. Hill, however, dated them and identified their locations, so it is possible to place them into the chronology of her work.
Hill traveled extensively through the United States — from the North Cascades to the Great Plains. She painted the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and a very rustic Laguna Beach. She cycled for a year through the countrysides of Belgium, France, Switzer-land and Germany.
From her journals we know she was happier away from the constraints of societal expectations. One dairy entry noted, “I’ve been rambling on in my diary without date or day.” And another, while on a train, said, “Our eyes ached with constant watching, yet we were unwilling to miss a particle of grand panorama we were passing.”
A tour through the heritage museum’s Wanderlust exhibit may even inspire some of us to take off on an expedition of our own, “without date or day.” At the very least we can suspend our concerns and travel back in time to imagine the world once inhabited by Abby Williams Hill.
— Verna Everitt is on the board of the Vashon heritage museum.