The landscape painter Anna Althea Hills (1882-1930) was one of the highly talented artists whose presence in the community helped put Laguna Beach on the map as a premier art colony during the first decades of the twentieth century.
Born in Ravenna, Ohio, she studied at Olivet College in Michigan, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Cooper Union Art School in New York City. In New York she also studied under Arthur Wesley Dow, one of the most influential art teachers of the period, who played a prominent role in the American Arts & Crafts Movement. Like many art students during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Hills continued her studies in Europe, attending the Académie Julian in Paris and traveling in Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, and the British Isles. In England she studied with John Noble Barlow in the art colony at St. Ives, Cornwall. Returning to the United States, she moved to Los Angeles in 1912 and the following year established her home and studio in Laguna Beach.
At the time she was working in an impressionistic technique, but her palette was muted, dominated by low-key tones that reflected the northern light and atmosphere of England and Holland. Once in California, like other artists, she responded to the bright light and rich, colorful landscape. She remarked that she had to throw out her old palette and start over with brighter colors. She traveled throughout Southern California and Arizona, and became particularly attracted to the desert landscape. She worked primarily in oil, using both a brush and a palette knife. Her palette knife work is highly distinctive, setting her works apart from those of her contemporaries. She was fond of portraying dramatic cloud effects, often setting a low horizon line in order to give the sky dominance in the composition.
Hills felt that Laguna Beach was the place where she could not only paint but also teach and build an art school. She welcomed many students to her studio. Many were no longer novices but professional art teachers from other parts of the country, who would travel to California each summer for the privilege of studying with her. As a teacher, she felt strongly about the importance of arts education for children. She organized art exhibits that circulated among Orange County schools and sent out fellow artists to give direct instruction to the children. She herself lectured at schools and clubs in Los Angeles and Orange County.
A founding member of the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918, Hills was one of its most dynamic and progressive members, showing remarkable leadership skills. Between 1922 and 1930, she served as the LBAA's president for a total of six years (1922-25 and 1927-30). These were the important, formative years, and also the time during which funds were raised to build the LBAA's permanent, fireproof gallery on Cliff Drive-which survives as the Steele Gallery within the present museum building. Hills was a driving force in the fundraising effort. She was to see the dream of the new gallery realized-in February 1929-but died the following year.
The exhibition showcases over forty of Hills's paintings along with documentary materials relating to her life and work in Laguna Beach. It is curated by Janet Blake, the museum's curator of historical art, and accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.