Artist Spotlight: Outside the lines

December 11, 2013 in Luminaries, Winter 2013 Issue by Lookout Alabama

Anne Hamilton paints in her studio

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Anne Hamilton charts an unconventional course with her wide-ranging art and intriguing life.

story and photos by OLIVIA GRIDER

“What lives in art and is eternally living, is first of all the painter, and then the painting.” – Vincent van Gogh

Anne Hamilton has never been a rule follower. Not in life, and not in her art.

At age 23 and with two young sons to support, she went to work for The Jackson County News in the early 1960s, soon becoming one of Alabama’s  first female newspaper editors – despite not having a college degree. She held her post for 15 years, but eventually did go to college, in her 40s, mainly to ease the grief she suffered after the death of her second husband. Planning to become a teacher, she was “hooked” after one art class and changed her major, even though she had been discouraged from art in elementary school because she didn’t paint within the lines.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Hamilton’s art, which ranges broadly – from impressionistic, pastel landscapes to stark geometric patterns in bold colors – and employs an array of traditional and nontraditional techniques, was described as “experimental” by one of her mentors, a designation that made her feel more comfortable breaking the mold in the art world.

Still, her moment of epiphany was dramatic. She had been teaching an art class “by the rules” at Northeast Alabama Community College for some time when the restrictions overwhelmed her. Standing in front of the class, she threw a canvas she had been painting onto the floor.

“That is when I realized I had a style and I should stick with that style,” says Hamilton, now 74. “I decided I was just going to be myself and show what I knew.”

While she lost some students – those who wanted to study realism (a form Hamilton says she admires, but doesn’t have patience for herself) – the rest had a great time during the remainder of the course.

An artist’s unique style is what gives art its value, Hamilton says. “Only that person could create that art,” she explains. “No other person could copy it. That’s what true art is.” She notes Vincent van Gogh’s work was not accepted by galleries during his lifetime (their curators didn’t think he knew enough), but he was hailed as a genius shortly after his death.

“Being true to oneself as an artist is important,” Hamilton says. “Each person has to find what that truth is. It’s rare, I think, for an artist to find that truth about themselves and then have the strength to stick with it.” Through applying the rules and comparing themselves to others, they lose the courage to speak their own truth, she says.

Implicit to the ability to embrace one’s artistic style is a certain confidence coupled with a steadfast acceptance of rejection, both qualities Hamilton possesses.

“I know not everyone is going to like my art,” she says. “And that’s OK.”

Hamilton attributes her self-assurance to her parents. She grew up with two brothers and extended family on her grandparents’ 40-acre farm in Jackson County. She was the only girl, and her father taught her she could do anything boys could do as well or better. “I think that’s why I’ve always been comfortable competing with guys,” she says. She also credits this foundation with giving her the courage to go to the county newspaper and ask for a job.

Hamilton’s mother championed all her daughter’s pursuits, but especially encouraged her art. “She was always supportive of me and believed in me,” Hamilton says. “She would say, ‘Anne can do anything when she sets her mind to it.’”

With the variety of art Hamilton creates, it’s difficult to imagine not finding something that appeals to one’s tastes. Hamilton leads me through her home, which houses her studio and doubles as a gallery for her art, explaining the works that line the walls and how she crafted them.

“I’m an impressionist,” she says as we look at richly textured floral paintings fashioned from oils and acrylics.

But she’s an expressionist, too. In her sunny studio, Hamilton shows me geometric designs and abstract works that couldn’t be more different from her impressionistic painting style. (If it’s been awhile since your art appreciation class: Impressionism uses dabs or strokes of color to capture the feeling of a real scene rather than specific details; expressionism seeks to depict the subjective emotions objects or events arouse in the artist.)

Hamilton uses various media to create these colorful glimpses into her mind’s reality, but many involve digital manipulation to some extent. (She has vowed to stay current with technology and is proficient with common graphic-design software.) Hamilton shows me a design and explains it was the beginning of her Tower of Babel piece, which she continues to refine. A skyscraper presides over the scene, and the moon – the only natural object – is juxtaposed against the hard, straight lines of the man-made world. “Man is always trying to build a Tower of Babel,” she says. “Man’s world and man-made things – I’ve kind of withdrawn from that. I see a big difference in man-made things and nature, the world I live in.”

Abstract art is relatively new for Hamilton. She’s been creating it for the past five years and, while she likes traditional art best, she says abstract forms help her understand Picasso and other artists who were still producing work in their 80s. “Once you’ve spent a really long time in art, you begin to see the world differently, in a more abstract way,” she says. “Your thought process opens you up to the abstract world more.”

Several large geometric pieces lean against the windows on one side of the studio, and smaller ones are scattered on a table. They’re woodcuts on composite board with the designs’ lines carved into them. Hamilton says these are part of a new venture with fellow artist Ken Johnson. She holds up a pencil-drawn sketch and says the woodcuts start out this way. She scans them into a computer and continues working on them digitally. Then Johnson creates the woodcuts and she paints them.

Some of Hamilton’s art is completely digital, including an abstract blue and white piece printed on plastic sheeting and hanging in the kitchen. In the living room, Hamilton points out her Hallelujah Angels, three prints on canvas that were her first totally digital works. She says she never wanted to draw traditional angels and didn’t intend to create an angel image with the first one. She’s since painted several abstract angels in various media.

We continue through the house, which was built in the 1890s and boasts many of its original attributes, pausing by the staircase to contemplate a couple of landscape paintings.

Many of Hamilton’s landscapes are watercolors (her favorite medium), and all arise from her imagination; never from any physical model she looks at or holds consciously in her mind. Still, she believes her experiences as a child living on rural, post-depression Sand Mountain supply many of the images she uses in her paintings. A path she walked to catch the school bus is particularly memorable, and a path appears in almost all her landscapes.

Hamilton says her family was poor, but the children didn’t know it, and she is pleased with her roots. “We weren’t any more poor than anyone else living on that mountain, except maybe a few people,” she says. “I have fond memories of that time.” She and her brothers looked to nature for creating toys, building playhouses and devising games. They built tunnels out of haystacks and held animal funerals in a corn crib.

“We had to use our imaginations,” she says. “It was kind of innocent. We really had a good life.”Hamilton says her landscape paintings go beyond impressionism and expressionism. They contain both, but together add up to something else. She struggles to find the right word, settling finally on “ephemeralism.”

The process Hamilton uses when creating landscapes and most other works is comprised of two distinct steps. The first is simply getting paint on the canvas – whether physical or digital. Hamilton lets her creativity roam free during this phase, imposing no limitations. She says she becomes so involved she isn’t aware of anything else.

“It’s a spiritual experience,” she says. “I think creating something new is as close to God as you can get. I think that’s why I like to paint so much from my imagination.”

While there are rules in the art world Hamilton refuses to follow – she thinks establishing a light source is “ridiculous,” for instance – and her techniques are sometimes eccentric (she reuses canvases, which gives her paintings lots of thick texture but can be frustrating when she decides an earlier work was better than the current one), she does apply some rudimentary rules, and the second step in her process is where those come into play. They are rules of balance and harmony and methods like pulling subjects forward with cool colors and backward with warm colors. She learned almost all of them in her basic design class at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Hamilton stands back from each piece after the first step and looks at it critically, analyzing what doesn’t work and then making corrections.

Hamilton moved to Fort Payne, Ala., in the late ’90s, choosing the town because of its art community and the deep family roots her mother, Mattie Lou Wilson Peek, had there. For a couple of years, she lived across from the Big Mill Artisan & Antique Mall (see story here), renting two apartments and using two bedrooms as studios where she taught art classes to children and adults.

In keeping with her unconventional theme, even the house Hamilton’s life now centers around was acquired under unusual circumstances. The magnificent green Victorian she named “The Grand O’l Lady” is perched on a hill in Fort Payne and was built during the town’s coal and iron-ore “boom days.” Hamilton and a friend purchased it in 2001. “We both fell in love with the house and decided to get married because of it,” she says. They reconsidered the marriage plans, but remain good friends. “I even found him a wife,” Hamilton says, laughing. “And they are so happy.” Arrangements were made for Hamilton to keep the house.

She’s taught group and private art lessons and held artists’ workshops and retreats there. While she scaled back her teaching schedule three years ago, she still holds short workshops occasionally and teaches some one-on-one lessons.

People often visit the house multiple times to view Hamilton’s gallery of work. She says she’s witnessed the same odd thing happen over and over. “There will be a piece of art they will fall in love with,” she says. “In time, they begin to take ownership of that painting. Then they will ask if they can buy it.

“To have an original piece of art is a rare thing.” Even very wealthy people often have reproductions hanging on their walls, she notes.

As a child, Hamilton would imagine being kidnapped and waking up in a grand house similar to the one she lives in now. “I have never felt at home like I feel at home in this house,” she says. “The environment gives me a sense of peace and serenity that I hope I share with other people so they feel that when they’re here.”

Preserving the house for others to enjoy has become a sort of self-appointed mission for her – and one that involves her art. “I’m really proud of this house,” she says. “I’m proud of what I’ve done with it. I have art on the walls so people can enjoy the beauty of the art, the beauty of the house and visit the studio. At this age, being able to do this is a culmination of all the things I’ve done in my life.”

To visit Hamilton’s gallery or studio, make an appointment by calling 256-295-4423. Her work also can be viewed at fineartamerica.com/profiles/ann-hamilton.html.[/s2If]