A couple years ago, Alison Hildreth was standing on a stepladder in her Portland studio, working on the top portion of an enormous painting, when she miscalculated which step she was on. When she landed, the back of her head smacked against the floor. Now 89, she remembers lying there a while, seeing stars and thinking about the effectiveness of her Apple Watch, which asked her if she was okay but offered no solutions when she replied that she didn’t know. Eventually, she got up and walked to the studio space next door, where her neighbor happened to have a bag of frozen peas. “I put the peas on my head, put on a hat to keep it there,” Hildreth says, “and I got back to work.” Did the incident deter her from using stepladders? She laughs, then tells me it did not.
Hildreth has been making art for as long as she can remember. When she was nine, during the Second World War, her parents moved to Falmouth, and she set up a studio in her bedroom closet, where she made tiny oil paintings and poured molten lead into molds for toy soldiers, building miniature armies. It was a time, she remembers, when she felt surrounded by evidence of the war: nets across Casco Bay to keep out enemy submarines, 16-foot battleship guns on Peaks Island, nighttime drivers blacking out the tops of their headlights so they couldn’t be seen by aircraft. “How do you process all of this?” she asked me this summer. She was sitting, in a rare moment of stillness, on a bench behind a gallery in downtown Vinalhaven, where she’s been coming with her family since the 1960s. “It’s a scary world,” she said, “and we are lucky to be artists, because it’s a way of understanding things.”
This has, more or less, been her trajectory since her toy-soldier days: processing the world around her — in all its beauty and danger, micro and macro — through art. She devours books, magazines, and news of all kinds. She was late picking me up from the ferry because her head was buried in the latest Sally Rooney novel. Her Vinalhaven studio is cluttered with volumes on nature and astronomy, along with books of maps. The drawings pinned to the walls — alongside notes from her granddaughter, addressed to “Wooly,” which is what friends and family call her — are sparse on color and influenced by cartography, elegant patterns of lines and cells that thread the needle between representation and abstraction. They evoke, in Hildreth’s unpretentious telling, the movement of migrants, fortified cities, the destruction of ancient libraries, rivers turning black with ink from the pages of discarded books, bee-communication techniques, and patterns of trails formed by networks of ants.
After a long phase during which she depicted almost nothing but bats — etchings, paintings, and blown-glass sculptures of the creatures that used to fly from her Vinalhaven barn in huge swarms — she more recently turned her attention to the cosmos. Her giant astronomical paintings, inspired by images from NASA’s Webb telescope, are on display this fall at Rockland’s Center for Maine Contemporary Art. It’s one of three contemporaneous solo shows, which also include an exhibition of her drawings at Vinalhaven’s New Era Gallery and a retrospective at Portland’s Speedwell Projects.
It has all felt “overwhelming and terrifying,” she said, like putting your child out into the world to be judged. And it is happening, she cracked, “because I’m so ancient.” But as Hildreth and I careened down bumpy dirt roads in her beat-up Subaru Outback, she seemed anything but. As we passed by one of Vinalhaven’s quarries, she waved at it and said, “My family swims there. Wimps that they are. I’m the only one who still swims in the ocean.”