Joan Hill: Muscogee/Cherokee Painter

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Joan Hill

Joan Hill poses in front of one of her paintings, a portrait of 19th-century Muscogee leader in oil.

Joan Hill, one of the most celebrated Native women painters of the 20th century, walked over to the other side on June 16, 2020. In celebration of her memory, we are sharing her artist profile from FAAM Issue No. 9, Winter 2015/16 online.

By Daniel McCoy Jr. (Muscogee/Potawatomi)

As a child, I went on trips with my grandparents and my aunt to various museums throughout Northeastern Oklahoma. Among those we frequented were the Gilcrease Museum and Philbrook Museum of Art, both located in Tulsa, and the Five Civilized Tribes Museum of Muskogee. I enjoyed these trips so much; they were a treat. I was taught to be respectful of the establishment and to be quiet and patient while my family viewed the different exhibits. After a while, I began gravitating toward the paintings hanging on the walls. I can only imagine the roster of artists that exhibited in those days. I began to study them to try to comprehend just what exactly I was looking at.

Among the works by master artists, I distinctly remember viewing Wars and Rumors of Wars (1971) by Joan Hill. This painting was different from the rest. It wasn’t a cowboy painting full of gunfire and dust, nor did it look like the traditional Indian artwork resembling hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt. This painting conjured up a whole environment for the viewer; it transported me to the campfire under the moonlight painted by Hill. This was the beginning of recording images with my eyes and storing them mentally for later use.

Several years later while I was in high school, I found a black-and-white image of that same painting in the book The Indians of Oklahoma by Rennard Strickland. Even though I felt the image did not do the painting justice, my memory of Hill’s painting rang with clarity. It was my first experience with the sustaining influence of Native American artwork. It was an important epiphany—I finally understood what my grandparents were trying to instill in me. Joan Hill was from Oklahoma and a member of the same tribe as me. This was very important to a young man trying to find his own place as he approached adulthood and attempted to hone his drawing skills at the same time. I made a specific point to remember Joan Hill’s name.

Joan Hill

“War and Rumors of Wars,” 1973, acrylic on canvas, of the J. W. Wiggins Contemporary Native American Art Collection, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. All images of artwork courtesy of Dr. J. W. Wiggins.

Over the years, I would occasionally come across some of Hill’s paintings. I uncovered these gems while visiting or working in galleries. One year I found a Muscogee king painted on top of a bright, chrome yellow background. The next year, a watercolor of a Baptism scene, and a few years later, a jazz quartet playing instruments in a cathedral. Every painting was an absolute treasure to view. Joan Hill grew as mysterious to me as her artwork.

After several phone conversations with Hill and eventually meeting with her for this interview, I found there was no mystery behind her work after all. Hill is speaking the truth with her artwork, more so than most. Her paintings are a dedication to the teachings of her beloved parents, her historical ties to Muscogee Creek and Cherokee ancestry, and her homestead. I was able to see firsthand the thread that connected all of Hill’s paintings that I made such a point to memorize. Her artwork is a conduit through which her story is told and reflects the artist’s unbreakable ties to her home and family. To interview Joan Hill for FAAM has been an absolute joy and honor.

Joan Hill is Muscogee Creek and of Cherokee heritage. Her Indigenous name is Chea-se-quah, a name that she took from her brother, William Cheasequah Hill. It means “red bird” in English. Hill lives northeast of Muskogee on her family’s allotment—land steeped in deep, historical roots dating back to the Civil War and Indian Territory days. The property is high above the Three Forks area of the Arkansas River. The Confederate Army used it during the Civil War as the site of Fort Davis. Just as fascinating is the pre-Columbian mound located on Hill’s property, which shows the importance of this area to Indigenous peoples centuries before colonization. This Muscogee Creek territory in its natural state must have been a beautiful sight to behold. To understand the importance of Hill’s rich family history and the significance this area had to the Creek and Cherokee Nations is to understand the paintings created by Joan Hill. These entities are closely related.

Joan Hill

“The Rain Maker,” 2007, distemper on paper, collection of the J. W. Wiggins Contemporary Native American Art Collection, University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Hill studied at Bacone College in Muskogee under the direction of Dick West (Southern Cheyenne, 1912–1996). West encouraged Hill to push her paintings toward the realm of fine art. Joan Hill transferred to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where she received a bachelor’s degree in education. After college, Hill taught art classes in Tulsa for the public school system. After four years of teaching many different grades and ages of students, Hill decided to leave teaching behind. She wanted to focus on being a full-time artist.

Joan Hill is one of the first female Native American painter from Oklahoma to attract serious attention from art collectors and museums not only in Oklahoma but also across America and abroad. Her outstanding abilities have taken her overseas to produce work in 36 countries. She was Lloyd Kiva New’s first choice for painting instructor at the Institute of American Indian Arts when it was founded.

Through her dedication and hard work, Hill has received more than 250 awards, including a commemorative medal from Great Britain; the 1985 Oscar D’ Italia from Academia Italia, Cremona, Italy; and the Waite Phillips Special Artists Trophy from the Philbrook Museum of Art for lifetime achievement.

Many of Hill’s paintings are in public collections. These include some of the most prestigious collections in the United States: the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Arts and Crafts Board in Washington, DC; National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center, Smithsonian Institution, New York, New York; Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona; Cherokee Heritage Center, Park Hill, Oklahoma; and the Philbrook Museum of Art.

Upon first sight, Hill’s paintings vibrate with brilliant hues. The second look is for content and subject matter. Joan Hill has produced artwork in a wide variety of styles such as tight, fine-line pieces with a Flatstyle quality. She also excels in oil painting with a horizontal dry-brush technique. To create such a range of artwork is a tribute to Hill’s curiosity, experimentation, and love of painting. Her mastery of many techniques is a feat not many artists within the genre can achieve. This visual record is proof of why Joan Hill is a master artist and an important figure for Oklahoman Native American art.

Joan Hill

“Spirit of the Suli Obanga (Buzzard Dance),” 2007, watercolor on paper, collection of the J. W. Wiggins Contemporary Native American Art Collection, University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Let’s start with your beginnings. Where you were born? Have you been in Oklahoma for the majority of your life?

Right here in Muskogee at the Baptist Hospital. They brought me home, and I have lived here my entire life. Someone said to me, “Do you know how remarkable that is?” and I replied that I had never thought much about it. I never got out of my tracks. [Laughs.]

So, you have seen the town of Muskogee, Oklahoma, really change over the years.

I told my brother one time several years ago … We were talking one day, and I said, “You should leave everything [on the property]just the way it is, so if Mother and Daddy came back—of course, that’s impossible—it would be just like they left it.” They wouldn’t know the place; nobody would know the place. The town has changed so, but that’s one of those things—if you can’t accept change, you’re doomed [laughs] … especially in today’s society.
What were your influences on your artwork? Who or what inspired you to pick up the paintbrush?
I started in grade school. I started drawing on the walls. Daddy would buy paint and paper so I wouldn’t draw on the walls. Daddy would also draw figures on the windows when frost would form on them in the wintertime. He would have made a wonderful artist if they had art classes in those days. They sent him to St. Joseph’s School [an Indian boarding school]when he was seven years old, but he drew a lot. He would draw things in the dirt with a stick while we were waiting for something or someone.

Joan Hill

Joan Hill in her studio.

My mother was an accomplished piano player. Mother majored in voice and piano while she was at Oklahoma College for Women. We had little bits of pottery that I liked. My daddy’s sisters also gave me reproductions from the Metropolitan Museum of Art—all kinds of paintings and subject matter. Almost everything you can think of. I guess I was always exposed to art. We didn’t go to a lot of museums when we were little, but we did in later years. We went to the Philbrook and went to the symphony in Oklahoma City once or twice.

I noticed after years of researching your work that you have various styles, from a Flatstyle technique to a dry-brush, horizontal technique with oils, among others. Do you have a preferred style?

No, I don’t have a preferred style. Traditional [Flatstyle] work sells well. People really like it because it’s fading. Something is just very satisfying about very precise work. Then I love these really wild abstracts, too. They just evolve. Sometimes I start one type of painting and it will turn into another type. Sometimes I start a painting, and I don’t quite know what to do with it. So I don’t bother with it. Two or three months later, I look at it, and then I know what to do. I dream paintings. But when I try to paint what I dream, it doesn’t reach [what I’ve dreamed]. Sometimes it turns out to be a good painting, but it’s hard to reach that.

As a female Native American artist that made major steps in a male-dominated genre, did you face any challenges during those days that were solely yours?

Somebody asked me that one time, was it handicapping being a woman artist? I think it worked in my favor, because I was the only one here. Solomon McCombs was a good friend, so were Fred Beaver and Dick West. There were several.

I can remember when they organized a group in Washington. Solomon says, “You know, we need to have a woman there. Joan, why don’t you join us?” So, they included me in their American Indian circle in Washington, DC. I was asked for an exhibition, and I did it, and I liked it [laughs].

With such a great lineup of talented artists, was there any creative competition among
your group?

Joan Hill

“Butterfly Medicine Weed,” 1972, oil on canvas, collection of the J. W. Wiggins Contemporary Native American Art Collection, University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

I never felt that I had to be competitive with them. I don’t know why I didn’t. I guess I looked at them more as teachers more than anything else. That was my experience with different artists; they all tried to help me. I have always felt that way. I want to help other artists, too. I don’t feel competitive, not even with women. I always did what I wanted to do, and that was it.

Can you explain the painting War and Rumors of Wars for me? I have seen variations of this painting over the years. It seems it was a successful painting for you.

Like I said, the works just evolve. I think there was a movie on penguins that had a lot to do with that painting. [The Mr. Forbrush and the Penguins (1971) dealt with penguins’ struggle for survival. The title of the painting comes from the Bible verse Matthew 24:6. Widely believed to be a statement on the war in Vietnam, the painting also deals with pre-removal Creeks concerned about warfare and loss of their lands.]

My mother and daddy came home and asked me, “What are you going to do with that painting?” I said I was thinking of painting a yellow sky, because it was still white and black. Mother said, “No, don’t,” and Daddy said, “Leave it like it is. Leave it white.” So I did … And I could have gone ahead and put that yellow sky in, and it wouldn’t have worked. A yellow sky just does not belong in that painting.

So, your parents had a lot of insight into your work?

Oh, they had a lot of influence on what I did. In the evenings after working in the orchard and such, we would go and sit on the porch, and Daddy would tell us all these stories about the Indian Territory days. I think you absorb things without really thinking about it. If you like something really well, you absorb it, and it becomes part of you.
What is your process when it comes to creativity?
It just comes out of you. It’s like breathing, I guess. You just do it. You are not conscious of it. At least I’m not. Say if I walk into the studio and think to myself, “Well, let’s go in today and paint a medicine man or something.” I never do that.

Of which awards and achievements are you most proud?

The Waite Phillips Trophy is the one I am proud of the most. I’m not competitive; only with myself. I have read that Michelangelo had this divine discontent. He was never satisfied with anything he did. He thought he could do it better. I guess I do that, too.

Joan Hill

“Blessing the Harvest (Gathering Corn),” 2008, watercolor and distemper on paper, collection of the J. W. Wiggins Contemporary Native American Art Collection, University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Artist Statement

All of my work  … owes a debt to my Creek-Cherokee heritage, for the teachings of my beloved parents and grandparents give a base or sustenance to my artwork. I was also blessed to have a deep, spiritual faith in God, a love and respect for the land, the elements, and the powers of creation, with a feeling for the eternal and the monumental. Consequently, I am inexorably drawn to the beauty, illusion, and mystery of Native American legends and history, which serve as inspiration for the images I use to create a world, not as it is “seen,” but as it is “felt.”

—Joan Hill (1930–2020)
Muscogee, Oklahoma

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