A Conversation with Edith Hillinger: Courage
by Richard Whittaker, Jan 24, 2006
Courage isn't the first word one might think of for introducing an artist, but on the other hand, it has a natural ring to it. An artist needs courage to follow his or her vision. True enough. And Edith is such an artist. It isn't what made me choose the word courage for introducing her, though. One of the first things that struck me when I began to get to know Edith was how her spirits always seemed to be on the sunny side. In itself, this might not be worth noting, but life has dealt Hillinger some heavy blows and after awhile, I simply began to notice how whenever I visited Edith, I left feeling better. And one day, this struck me as interesting. How to explain that? That's when it became clear to me that she possesses a rare quality, and I wanted to mention this before anything else. Later on, I was talking with Robbin Henderson who had been the director of the Berleley Art Center for many years. I proposed to Robbin that we might start a series of conversations at the center. I thought we could call it "Berkeley Treasures." Why not? Japan honors its cultural treasures. Why not Berkeley, too? Robbin liked the idea. Do you have any people in mind? she asked me. Well, I was thinking of Edith Hillinger - and a few others as well. We went on to have a number of evenings at BAC under this title. Unfortunately, I didn't have my act fully together in the beginning and didn't record the first two conversations—one being with Edith and one with John Toki.
The interview here is meant to make up for that. I know Edith taught for a while at CCA back in the days when it was CCAC. She's a masterful watercolorist. But she's more than that. Her pursuit of artmaking is a path for self knowledge. I think I can say that without hesitation. What better approach to artmaking?
We got together at her Berkeley home and studio many years ago (Jan. 24, 2005) to talk about her journey. - It's only now I've discovered this interview had been lost, as well. Until now, Feb. 2018 - rw
Richard Whittaker: Well, we could start with those large pieces sitting on the table. What would you say about them?
Edith Hillinger: I'm showing you this calligraphic series from the 80s, because I revisited this technology in my recent scrolls on paper. The xerox technology came in the eighties and the artists jumped on it back then, and galleries were showing it all over the country. It didn't require a camera, which I didn't have anyway. You can take photos or fabrics, or anything you want, to your local xerox machine, copy the image on to heat transfer paper and then fix the image to paper with an iron. It's a collage medium. In the calligraphic series, I combined charcoal with heat transfer images.
RW: It looks like the charcoal is on top.
Edith: It looks like that, but it's actually below. I don't really work to illustrate something I already know about. I work to learn something new. I learn about myself, and what the work is about, after the fact. I realized I associated the calligraphy to memories I had as a child growing up in Istanbul. Every weekend the family would take a walk. We lived on the outskirts of Istanbul in a little place called Bebek. My dad was an architect-both parents were interested in the Turkish culture-and we would often walk through very ancient cemeteries. The headstones all had carved Arabic script, and as a child it was very beautiful for me to see the script, even though I couldn't read it.
So I created something with these prints that had the feeling of undecipherable script. The strange part of it is that it created the same feeling in viewers. They often asked me, "Is it Hebrew? Is it Chinese?" And I worked on these for quite a long time.
RW: I think it would be interesting for people to hear a little more about growing up in Istanbul.
Edith: My father was a Hungarian Jew born in 1895. He went to the first world war and he came back to Hungary after the war and wanted to study architecture. But there was an earlier anti-Semitic uprising in Hungary before it hit Germany, and the universities were closed to Jews. So he left Hungary to go to Berlin to study architecture. He rented a room from my grandparents and that's how he met my mother. My mother's family was not Jewish. They were German Protestants. At that time intermarriage was somewhat unusual.
RW: Your mother's family was of a liberal bent?
Edith: I think other things played into it. The fact that my mother was marrying an architect might have had something to do with the acceptance. My mother came from a very poor background. Her family eventually owned a little family farm outside of Berlin, but my grandfather did odd jobs. He would ride his bicycle to small farms to repair Singer sewing machines. Every woman had a Singer sewing machine.
My mother went on to become a grade school teacher and her brother became an engineer. They had been the first one's to get a higher education. That whole side of the family stayed in Germany when we fled. The Jewish side had always been in Hungary. My father was the only one who had left.
My parents were married and my brother was born in 1930. I was born in 1933.
RW: What was the year that they left?
Edith: It was 1937. My father began to make quite a good career for himself as an architect. He was associated with Bruno Taut, who was a famous architect of his day in Germany.
Bruno Taut had to flee Germany, not because he was a Jew, but because he was a very well-known Communist. Communists were just as much in danger of being killed as Jews were. What happened is that Taut fled to Russia. Of course, like a lot of communists, he had rather romantic notions of Communism. All that came crashing down when he landed in Russia, because it was never what people had imagined. Then Taut went on to Japan because he deeply admired Japanese architecture. He was welcomed in Kyoto at the university. After Japan, Taut went to Turkey where he was quite welcome. He heard that my father and mother were not able to find a way out of Germany, so immediately he took action to get my family out.
In Turkey, Atatürk was revolutionizing the whole country. There had only been religious schools, and he wanted to form new universities. Women no longer wore veils. He introduced a western alphabet. He was interested in getting German and Austrian Jews to man the universities and teach his people, so eight hundred families came to Turkey. Bruno Taut sent a telegram to my father: "Come immediately!" My father got on the Orient Express in 1937 and went immediately. We followed a few months later, and we were there until 1948. That's the story.
RW: You must speak Turkish.
Edith: I did speak fluent Turkish, but it's not really with me anymore. We went to Turkey a few years ago and my brother spoke much better because he was older when we left, and he's been back quite a few times.
RW: How do you think your childhood in Turkey has affected you.
Edith: Well, I've thought about it. I still get very upset when I view programs about the Nazi era, the killings. My father's brother died in Auschwitz, so it's a very upsetting thing. Yet I'm grateful that I didn't grow up in Germany. The gift of that whole trauma is that I went to a country that for my artistic development was much more interesting. I never see myself wanting to have had the middle class German childhood. Strangely, I much prefer my refugee childhood.
RW: I guess when you say "strange" I can follow that, but because of the horrible things that happened to the Jewish people I would think you wouldn't want to be any part of Germany.
Edith: My brother went back to live in Germany in the sixties! That's where he lives. He's a professor there. It's not that. It's this western, homogenized neat, orderly society.
RW: I see, the German model.
Edith: That model seems gray and uniform, to me. Istanbul is a wild bazaar, a wild chaos of color, languages, food, everything mixing! It was like an early version of New York. It was full of life and full of color. My grandmother, on the outskirts of Berlin, had one or two oriental poppies in her garden, but when we got to Istanbul, there were fields and fields of red poppies as far as the eye could see! It was a whole other kind of thing. That's what I think I was really happy with.
RW: All that life.
Edith: The color, the life, the variety, everything! It's strange to say, but because of the war, I landed in a place that I really loved.
RW: What role does childhood experience play in an artist's work?
Edith: I think my love of botany, and of animals and plants, goes back directly to my German grandmother who was wonderful at growing everything. She took care of the goats and chickens and the vegetable and flower gardens. We went out to her farm constantly, especially towards the end. Even though I was very young, I was very close to my grandmother. She came to visit us in Turkey once before everything shut down for the war. I think that love of nature goes back very early. It may also have been the reaction of a lonely child. To be with plants and animals was easier.
RW: In Turkey did you have that same connection with plants and animals?
Edith: I've had plants and animals: canaries, turtles, cats. And I was always interested in plants. I remember myself as a child sitting under a pomegranate tree just when the fruit would fall and burst open, just studying the way the seeds inside looked.
RW: What was that like, looking at those pomegranates?
Edith: I think it was a non-threatening relationship that took me out of myself. The family relationships, and the relationships with others, were always fraught with various problems. And the war was very difficult on my parents. My mother was very attached to her family, so she felt cut-off. My father, the more gregarious one, was quite nervous about not being able to save his brother, and the loss of his family, too. And having to flee a second time, already. So there was all this unspoken stuff.
I don't know what it would have been like to have had a family life that wasn't overlaid with all these sorrows that the adults had.
RW: Are there any other experiences you would include, and what do you think of these experiences, that they persist and are still present?
Edith: What comes to mind is that these experiences are beyond the stories we tell others about ourselves, and therefore, they're more true, in a way. The stories we tell others sort of become set in concrete. They reflect the way we want others to see us. Those early experiences go beyond those more superficial stories.
RW: Do you think that a lot of art is sort of an avenue back to these early experiences?
Edith: Everything has gone hand-in-hand for me without my always realizing it. I've been involved in making art for forty or fifty years, My struggles as a person, feelings of loneliness, personal relationships, my study of Buddhism and meditation, whatever I am going through, in some way it comes out in the work. It finds its way there, and is somehow expressed, but I don't always realize that. I don't say, "Now I'm going to illustrate such and such." I think the work comes from the same place that dreams come from.
RW: That's interesting. Could you say more about that.
Edith: I dreamt last night that for some reason I was with the woman ambassador from Turkey, and we were going to a banquet. At the banquet, I was suddenly on my own, and I couldn't find a place at the table. Hundreds of people were seated, but there was no place for me at the table. That was an interesting dream.
You have to live with your paintings for a long time to learn from them. Like dreams, paintings tell you about yourself.
For a long time I didn't realize it, but I was viewing my own paintings for an inadequate period of time. I would put them away too fast and go on to the next thing without spending time looking and looking and looking. It's just in the last couple of years that I have realized this, that I need to spend more time with my work. I put things up now and sometimes they're up for months.
RW: How did you discover this?
Edith: I actually don't know. I'm sure I saw something, or I began to see more and more, and I realized I was putting things away too soon. I wasn't finished with it. I was finished painting, but it's like a relationship; I wasn't finished learning from it.
RW: You said you do art work in order to learn, so is this an example of what you're talking about?
Edith: Yes. When you visited with me before, you asked, "How can you still be painting after forty years with so little recognition?" I didn't really have an answer to that, but I realized, it's not that difficult! That's not really where the deepest pleasure is. I mean, it's very nice to get a show and all that, but that comes and goes very quickly, you know? That's here and done, but the work, that deepens and deepens; you can keep growing until you die.
RW: I don't doubt for a second what you're saying, but what is it that one is getting?
Edith: Well, when I say it's not so hard, that's a little bit of an oversimplification, because you can have moments that are very hard. You can be envious when somebody is having a great show. You wish you were having that recognition! But then you have wonderful, wonderful moments when you are able to do things you weren't able to do before. You feel yourself growing. That's pretty wonderful.
RW: Can you give us an example?
Edith: I feel an avenue of exploration has opened up with this new work that will be going on for me for a long time.
RW: That panel with the galvanized air duct and the plants, that's a startling juxtaposition.
Edith: I'll tell you what happened. We should probably, for one moment, go back to earlier work because it leads to this work. First of all, after the xerox, I went back to watercolor-my father was a watercolorist-which I'd been doing since I was about fifteen. I did a whole series on the fruit capsules of the magnolia grandiflora, some huge ones! In a way, that goes back to studying the inside of a pomegranate. There's this marvelous capacity in nature where things are alike enough that you recognize what they are, yet no two are ever the same. There's great enjoyment in exploring how each one of those is different.
Then came a break in my work. My mom was ninety, and she had a stroke. I was going through a divorce. I was building this studio, and I had a full-time job. All those things coincided and went on for some years. Six years later the studio was built; my divorce was final, and my mother died. I came back to painting. But it was very hard for me to reconnect. Six years was a long time for me to be away from my work. For almost a year, I struggled to find something I could do. Finally, I painted a single petal and I felt connected again [pointing to a watercolor]. This is a poppy petal that's aging.
I realized later that this painting represented a state of mind, as well. A petal is something that has fallen off. It's unmoored. It's unnoticed. It's vulnerable. It's aging. It's disconnected. It's all those things, and that's how I felt.
Then I went to painting pressed flower petals. [another painting] These are rose petals, and the paintings really became quite abstract. At some point, after four or five years, I felt that I needed to move on. I didn't realize it, but that also reflected a psychological state; in that time, I had moved on to something else.
That led me back to using the heat transfers again, which became the scrolls. The scrolls really dealt more with how everything is connected, how things evolve, how they mutate. But there are always frustrations with heat transfers because of the lack of control of color. That made me want to move on again. I started to study Photoshop and took up digital photography in 1999. That led me to the current work.
When I first started to photograph, I did what I had been doing all along which was to concentrate on a single plant. But then one day I was in the greenhouse shooting, and I began to notice the surroundings of the plants. A greenhouse is like the emergency room in a hospital. There are tubes and fans and heaters and coolers to keep the plants alive-in an environment that's hostile to them, basically. Bits of architecture or the surrounding environment(often out of focus in the background) began to be incorporated into the paintings, like the painting of a volunteer plant next to a galvanized air duct. Here is the sketch for plants against the greenhouse windows.
At first, I wanted to block out these new elements. I didn't recognize that I was in a transition. But then, as I painted, I began to get almost more interested in what was behind in the plant-or just as interested. And then, of course, I began to notice the relationship.
I think that is my state now where I am more aware of my relationship to the world, and how I am situated in it.
RW: It's easy to speculate that this might be a big thing, this shift.
Edith: Yes. Not seeing the plant, or myself in isolation as much.
RW: So where does that leave you?
Edith: Well, I just got a new printer; this big Epson 4000 which I bought with the Vogelstein grant. That is going to change the way I'm working. It already changes it.
RW: Could I just back up? You got a grant?
Edith: In 2004. The application was specifically written to get this big printer. What has increased is my awareness of myself out there photographing. The process is that I recording with the digital camera and, at the same time, I'm memorizing things. So there is a digital recorder and a biological recorder working together.
I come back to my studio and feed the pictures into Photoshop and then print them out in a 4" x 6" format. Then I work over the photograph with oil pastels. I go back to the photographs in Photoshop and make the changes on the digital file that I made by painting on the print. So there is a back and forth between memory and the digital recording.
Then I print it out again, mount it on a birch panel and paint into it again with acrylics. The reason I'm interested in digital, and not darkroom photography, is that the printer prints things out at say 2800 dots per inch. It's mark making. It's pigment, and a painter puts on pigment. In a darkroom the whole thing appears at once; it's a different process.
I'm very interested in increasing my awareness of this dual process working side by side through the whole thing.
RW: Would you mind telling me about this piece here?
Edith: I photographed an agave attenuata, this strange looking plant. I gravitate toward strange looking plants, and often cacti. To me, cacti represent survival because they went through enormous changes over long periods of time. Cacti come from trees. When their environment becomes arid, they drop the leaves which evaporate a lot of water. Over time, they totally restructured themselves so that they could store water inside. They adapted to unfavorable conditions.
When I looked at this photograph, it seemed to me that it was a bandaged spine, in a way, the feeling of a broken spine. There was something about it. I mean there are many differences between ourselves and plants, but there are also many similarities. We have all the vascular systems and the sexual organs. So do plants. They have a vertical orientation, and we do as well. This just grew out of a feeling of a spine that was broken and yet, survived.
RW: You would relate to that yourself, somehow?
Edith: Probably, as I think about it now-although I didn't think about it then-it's also because of my having had polio. So having had a broken body at a very young age, eleven months, and yet I see myself as having survived that.
RW: Well, you have survived that! And that happened very early.
Edith: At eleven months, and my mother described that. There was an epidemic in Berlin. She said at first the symptoms were flu-like, but when she came into the nursery the next morning, she saw that my right leg was limp, and she knew immediately: polio. So that I'm sure is part of that, and yet I don't want to work in a way that illustrates things. I want things to come from a dream-like place.
RW: It is very interesting though, how art might illustrate things from the unconscious.
Edith: I see the work very much as coming from the unconscious. I don't want to control things. One of the things I've had to get over is the fact that, like a dream, I look at these paintings when I first do them, and they often look strange to me. That was very difficult for me for a long time. I felt insecure about my paintings looking strange. I thought people would attack them because they look strange. Really, I was attacking them. I couldn't really accept them, because I hadn't seen anything quite like them before.
RW: Do you still struggle with this?
Edith: Less so. I'm more accepting that this is what it is. It's all I can do. I can't do anything else.
RW: That's interesting that you're able to follow that even though some part of yourself may be a bit uncomfortable with it.
Edith: Going into unfamiliar territory is always uncomfortable for me. The part that is uncomfortable is a part of me that is more conformist, would like to do things that are more like what other people are doing, have work that looks like other people's, but I'm not able to.
RW: There must a deep sense in yourself that doesn't allow imitation or doesn't allow you to fake it, to put it bluntly.
Edith: [nodding] You know, I can fake things in conversations, but I haven't been able to fake it in the actual act of painting, willfully.
It's a search. If I can't be authentic anywhere else, I need to be authentic in my studio. Hopefully, I can be authentic other places as well, but at least, alone in my studio, I must be authentic.
RW: In the period of time I've known you, it seems to me your work is really evolving.
Edith: I'm very excited about it.
RW: The long scrolls, that format, how does that work for you?
Edith: I did horizontal scrolls on fabric back in the seventies. When Bruno Taut died, we inherited some of his Japanese things, including a traditional scroll depicting a bamboo shoot with birds. I remember very much liking it as a child. I loved playing with all the Japanese toys and I still have some, those two figures and the little horse are my Japanese toys from childhood.
I am very much interested in the scroll. It's a strange format, but it's almost easier for me to compose on this narrow sliver than on the traditional rectangle. It has a vertical energy. Even something like that[pointing to a panel]-a long rambling cactus which rooted and would go along and root again. You would think that would be very difficult to compose on a narrow panel. In reality, of course, I couldn't have a shot like this, because it doesn't exist like this! I used different views and bits and pieces to construct it, and yet I think it works.
RW: It works, wonderfully!
Edith: I know! [laughs] It amazes me!
RW: How do you go about it working on one of these panels?
Edith: I select photographs I want to use, then shuffle them around until I finally decide on the arrangement and then glue them down on a panel. This is intuitive. This one [plant in galvanized air duct] went from long shots at the bottom to close-ups and the texture of the galvanized metal on top. It just evolved that way. The long cactus one went a different way. I have a sketch for it over there on the door. Originally it had a big rock in the middle, and that didn't work. It took a lot of work, dealing with the shadows and the pebbles.
RW: It's interesting to see the transition and how you've worked things out in that piece. Those two pieces on the left, the shorter ones, are interesting.
Edith: Those are drawings on paper with heat transferred photographs. They have to do with the fact that I often see in the photographs of plant close-ups various things that look to me to be very anatomical, like with this spine piece.
RW: I must say, that particular piece, more than any other piece of yours that I've seen, looks closer to a self portrait, in a way, a figure. You're nodding your head again. Do you agree with that?
Edith: I think it is an expression of living with a broken body that has somehow survived this loss.
RW: I think the dream you described that you had last night is fascinating. You were on your way to a banquet with the ambassador from Turkey…
Edith: I couldn't find a place to sit at that banquet. There was no place at the table for me, but I don't know. It's too recent. The dreaming and the painting are very closely connected.
RW: Do you ponder your dreams?
Edith: I do. But only once have I painted a scene from a dream. Some stay with me for a very long time, or I write them down.
RW: Are you a student of Freud or Jung?
Edith: A long time ago. When I was in college. Now I read poetry and Buddhist texts, and the lives of artists.
RW: Do you have a Buddhist practice?
Edith: I do. I belong to a group that meets Monday nights. I see my Buddhist teacher, Darlene Cohen, once a month at the San Francisco Zen Center. And I try to meditate daily. Sometimes I miss.
RW: I would be tempted to characterize your work as a practice that's closely allied somehow.
Edith: I see the parallels in the two practices. Both require devotion and constancy of practice-and the elimination of extraneous, unnecessary things, a quiet mind.
You know, at the meeting at my studio, you'd talked about Agnes Martin's writing, and I said I couldn't stand her severity. I had tried to read her writings when I came back from Spain, full of the Spanish paintings and new things, and I couldn't do it. Then I went back and tried again, and I realized that she's speaking to many of the things I'm struggling with. I'm struggling with being alone in the studio. It's always been very difficult for me, yet I need a whole lot of time to be alone in the studio.
I understand when she's talking about how you feel one thing, and if you follow that, it is a road to happiness. And the other direction is the road to unhappiness. I understand that perfectly. Those two things are always struggling within me. ∆