Valley artist Jeff Hill is a native son

Walla Walla Valley artist Jeffrey Hill details a clay maquette of “The Artist” that will be used in making the mold for a foundry process that yields the final bronze sculpture.

Walla Walla Valley artist Jeffrey Hill details a clay maquette of “The Artist” that will be used in making the mold for a foundry process that yields the final bronze sculpture.

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Jeffrey Hill

The third of a limited edition of 50 bronzes of Jeffrey Hill’s “The Artist” is among a special exhibit of his sculpture and paintings at the Wenaha Gallery in Dayton through May 3.

If you go

Wenaha Gallery artist Jeffrey Hill is the featured Pacific Northwest artist for Art Event, a showcasing of his works that runs through May 3 at Wenaha Gallery, 219 E. Main St., Dayton. Call 509-382-2124 or email art@wenaha.com for details.

DAYTON — Van Gogh and wine — they’re both so delightfully European somehow. What starts in Europe, however, doesn’t necessarily stay in Europe, and the Walla Walla area finds itself with its own version of both.

Artist Jeffrey Hill — whose high color, swirling creations in paint earned him the nickname of “Vineyard Van Gogh” — celebrates the Valley’s ripening winemaking tradition with paintings, murals, and sculpture.

If you’ve walked through the area at all, you have no doubt seen one of Hill’s works, whether it is the emblematic wine grape picker sculpture in the front of Walla Walla Community College’s Center for Enology and Viticulture or a mural at a winery tasting room.

“I got in on the ground floor chronicling the history of this Valley’s growth in grapes and wineries,” Hill, a fourth-generation Walla Wallan, explains. “I found success with my paintings, murals, illustrations, fabrications and sculptures in connection with the burgeoning Walla Walla wine industry.”

Success indeed. Hill’s works bedeck more than 15 wineries in the area.

After winning the Washington Artist of the Year Award at the 2001 Washington Wine Festival, Hill was approached about installing his artwork at WWCC’s wine center in 2003. Two large panel paintings in the foyer and six larger panel paintings in the reception hall tell the vine-to-wine story in the Walla Walla area.

“I was a child prodigy in art beginning in my elementary school days,” Hill says. “At Prospect Point Elementary I was allowed to leave during the middle of the day and walk to Walla Walla High School to study art with Edwin Moser, Wa-Hi’s art teacher.

“It was this experience that first allowed me to try my hands at sculpture and oil painting.”

Subsequent years, and hard work, led to scholarships to study with Dick Rasmussen, then the head of the art department at Whitman College, eventually resulting in Hill’s graduation from Whitman in 1978 with double majors in fine art and art history.

Hill then accepted a position with Sotheby’s, an exclusive auction house in London, where he furthered his fine art studies.

Walla Walla does not give up its homegrown talent easily, however. After a career in Seattle as an appraiser and fine art dealer, Hill found himself back on the family farm, Forgotten Hills, where he and his wife Kathryn planted a three-acre plot of merlot.

“We had no idea if this would be successful,” Hill recalls, and while they waited Hill decided to try his hand at painting the vineyards of the area — their landscapes, their workers, their people.

What he created resonated quickly and powerfully with area merchants and residents, and winemaking took a back seat to capturing the process, in paint and bronze.

Hill’s paintings are bold, both in brush technique and color, and he captures a landscape, or an interior, with a sweeping sense of movement and energy. Pure pigments of color demand the viewer’s attention and draw him into the action. Even when the subject matter is still, there is movement.

After a recent trip to Europe, Hill chronicled the experience in oil and acrylic. Four of these paintings, which have never been shown elsewhere, are on display at Wenaha Gallery in Dayton, where Hill is the featured Art Event artist through May 3. Also featured will be his new sculpture, “The Artist,” in its public debut.

“‘The Artist’ is a culmination of Walla Walla and Whitman themes,” he says. “Here is the consummate painter in the moment of inspiration, depicting a Walla Walla vineyard scene. He paints en plein aire, possibly in the vineyard. He is possibly a Whitman College graduate, possibly a native son.”

A sculpture of a native son, by a native son, radiating a European feeling, in a Pacific Northwest setting. How delightfully Walla Walla.

Freelance writer Carolyn Henderson is the co-owner, with her husband, of Steve Henderson Fine Art and a consultant for Wenaha Gallery of Dayton. She can be reached at Carolyn@SteveHendersonFineArt.com.

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