Hand-painted butterflies take center stage in the latest mixed media collages by Jeri Hillis, with snippets of poetry, vintage stamps and mysterious correspondence from long ago.
The award-winning artist preserves a bit of the past as she gathers elements for her collages that would have ordinarily gone into a wastepile. Anonymous letters that would have been discarded, old pieces of paper with words jotted on them, even hundred-year old wallpaper from a house being torn down find their way into her work.
“It’s remembering and responding to beauty, to loss, just like the Majestic Hotel, by doing this work with the letters and gathering the pieces that would have been discarded – remembering and responding,” Hillis said.
“Letters are a line of communication between individuals and the stamps traverse the distance between people, cultures and communities. We are crossing thresholds every day, even when we wake up, we cross a threshold. As the butterfly is transformed and crossing his multiple thresholds or her multiple thresholds, we do with our words and our art and gestures, disturb the dust, as T.S. Eliot would say.”
Hillis also adds an emotional touch to each collage.
“I put my mark on the work of art. I am a printmaker and I was an abstract brush stroke and gesture artist doing lithography; that is why you will see the brush strokes in the artwork as well as incorporating my own mark making with these pieces through the pencil line.”
Her work is subtle and draws the viewer in for a closer look.
The old pieces of paper, beautiful handwriting and language in the letters, and the artist’s choice of poetry correspond to the imagery of the collage and the butterflies are all painted with watercolor and a tiny brush by hand.
“People are very engaged in these and the butterfly, of course, an element of transformation, kind of like the spark of memory flying off the page, some people take it very personally,” Hillis said.
The Italian stamps she uses in her work are hand canceled from the 1700s and 1800s.
“I use any bits and pieces of ephemera, postcards, jottings, writing of any kind I happen to come across. People write on all kinds of scraps of paper. I have always been collecting, you go to tag sales, you go to estate sales, people give you things. It’s wonderful. You pick through them. It’s art history.”
Hillis, of Hot Springs, was a longtime resident of St. Croix before she moved to Connecticut and then relocated here eight years ago.
“I have always done collage and mixed media work and after I moved out from St. Croix Virgin Islands back to Connecticut, I started painting butterflies. The butterfly is perhaps a symbol of my transformation from leaving one place to another.”
Among the countless awards Hillis has received, her work was selected for the 2010-2011 53rd Annual Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock and garnered the Best of Show Award in 2011 at the Regional Juried Art Competition at the Fine Arts Center of Hot Springs.
A board member and secretary of Emergent Arts, Hillis teaches the nonprofit organization’s 5 to 10 year-olds, work that is “very challenging, very wonderful,” she said.
An artist member of the Fine Arts Center of Hot Springs, she curates the center’s shows and creates its window installations.
“If you look at the gallery and see the window on the right-hand side, and it has something really interesting and bizarre and different going on, that’s me,” she said.
Donna Dunnahoe, executive director, of the arts center, described the artist’s latest work as “contemporary but also reflective of the old world with a nostalgic look. The artist has a sensitivity to these old things that she is using but yet shows them in a contemporary way that speaks to people today.”