The painting shows a roiling sea replete with whirlpools and waves crashing against low rocks, while a highly placed horizon remains calm. Brushstrokes are strong and vital, masculine perhaps, standing out among the overall oeuvre of Laguna Beach plein-air painter Anna Althea Hills.
Titled “The Blue Pacific: Laguna Beach,” it has remained in the collection of Olivet College in Michigan, where Hills took her first art classes. It is now a key component of the current retrospective exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum, “Miss Hills of Laguna Beach: Anna Althea Hills.” The accompanying catalogue bears the subtitle “Art, Education, Community.”
As part of the museum’s 2016 Art and Nature conference, the exhibition curated by Janet Blake is comprised of more than 60 paintings accompanied by china decorated by Hills, small artifacts and numerous letters and photographs.
The latter, including a portrait by society photographer George Hurrell, show a dark-haired and dark-eyed woman of short stature. She often stands accompanied by a slightly taller woman, her older sister and near constant companion Nellie Hills.
Born in 1882 in Ravenna, Ohio, Hills possibly suffered from a rare malady all her life, explained Blake in a joint museum lecture with art historian Keith Colestock who researched much of the show’s background. Letters cautioned Nellie to watch out for her sister’s health, Blake said.
As paintings like “After the Storm in Hemet, CA,” 1922, or “Arch Beach, Laguna,” 1920 or “Spring in Laguna,” 1915 attest, Hills was on a par with male peers like Edgar Payne, William Wendt and Granville Redmond, all pillars of the early art colony of Laguna Beach. And yet she’s rarely received equal recognition.
The daughter of two college-educated parents defied the epoch’s stereotype of constricted women. “She was described as having the mind of a man and the heart of a woman,” said Blake. Anna’s father was the Congregational Church pastor and theologian Aaron Merritt Hill, her mother Altha Alamanda Ford.)
For starters, she was well-schooled and traveled. She studied at the Art Institute in Chicago and earned a diploma from the Woman’s School of Art at Cooper Union in New York. In 1908, she went abroad and painted, studying with the renowned John Noble Barlow in Cornwall, England. She also painted in Holland and Belgium and attended the competitive Académie Julian in Paris. Her European period is included in the exhibit with paintings such as “In the Harbor, St. Ives,” 1910 or “Summer in Surrey, England,” 1911.
Nellie had accompanied her on the European sojourn and together they moved to Los Angeles around 1912. It was during painting forays along the Pacific coast that she discovered Laguna Beach, fell in love with what she saw and purchased a plot of land. In 1920, the sisters lived on Myrtle Street. Later they lived and worked at 331 N. Coast Highway, now occupied by the Royal Hawaiian restaurant.
Artists soon realized they needed to show their work outside of their own studios. Led by Edgar Payne, a small group of artists began to use a vacant one-room cottage on the grounds of an early Laguna Beach hotel. Staging art shows for the public there led to formation of the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918. Membership was $1 per year. Nearly 15,000 people had visited the gallery between August 1918 and July 1919, a Register article reported.
With Payne serving as president, Hills became its vice-president and main spokesperson, promoter and fundraiser for a soon to be needed larger gallery.
In 1920, the building fund amounted to a whopping $2,000. In 1925, the association secured the lot at Coast Highway and Cliff Drive from landowner Howard G. Heisler. Ground was broken in 1928 and finished the next year. The structure the associated erected today comprises the Laguna Art Museum’s largest gallery.
Hills also became art chairman of the Laguna Woman’s Club and belonged to the Laguna Beach Garden Club. She also taught art at several schools/art programs in Santa Ana and Laguna Beach.
The Hills sisters inherited their parents’ spirituality. Both taught Sunday school classes in what then were the Ocean Front Cottages, recalled Susan McGill, an elder in the Laguna Presbyterian Church. “Anna was a charter member, a devout Christian with strong character,” said McGill. “She had been involved in fundraising to build a chapel in Laguna Beach, which in 1917 became known as ‘the little brown church,’ on Forest Avenue and Second Street.”
Hills also became superintendent of the Sunday school, founded the Women’s Missionary Society and worked with the Red Cross during World War I, said McGill.
At the same time, in 1926 Hills chaired the Citizens Committee for Incorporation, which succeeded the following year. She also was president of an early planning commission.
Hills reportedly donated three of her paintings as prizes for people who expressed “the best ideas on how to develop Laguna Beach.”
Hills died in 1930 of a presumed heart attack and was eulogized at the Laguna Presbyterian Church. “Every business in town closed for an hour so people could attend the service,” said McGill. “Fellow artists made a blanket of flowers that covered her entire coffin.”
Eight years after her sister’s death, Nellie gave several paintings to the church, including “Radiant Spring,” loaned as part of the museum show. “At the church, we are very proud that Anna was a charter member,” said McGill.
The church celebrates its 100th anniversary next year and its Third Friday fellowship talk Jan. 20 will be dedicated to Hills.