October 2008."Ki-Sagin," from box painted by Zoey Wood-Salomon.
Header image: "Ki-Sagin," from box painted by Zoey Wood-Salomon

Featured Artist: Richard Hill

Richard Hill...

Richard Hill

The featured artist this month is a writer, although that is probably confining him unnecessarily. Like many creative people he wears many hats, but since he has a brand new book out, we’ll concentrate first on the writing. The book is Lake Effect, and it is an autobiographical account of what it’s like to be working on the lake freighters. We all like reading about something that is full of local references—things we can relate to. If the book is also interesting and informative, it becomes even more attractive. How nice to learn things that adhere nicely to what we already know! Rich’s book has all that attraction, plus a sense of drama and adventure—what could be more exciting or dramatic than Lake Superior in November? It is enhanced by outstanding photographs, most of them by Rich’s brother, Fred Hill. It’s a great read—funny and informative—telling of the excitement and danger of the lake in November, the misadventures of sailors ashore, the characters on board, the nature of the work, the Thanksgiving feasts, the beauty and the boredom. It also tells us a lot about Richard Hill. Lake Effect is available at Alberta House, at Up North Books, at Haller’s Hallmark, Book World, The Ship’s Store, the CCHS Gift Shop, and at other gift shops on Portage as well as on the web (www.GaleForcePress.com).

Lake Effect, book by Richard HillWe learn from Lake Effect that Rich is of Finnish stock, born and raised in the Sault, the youngest of five—four boys and a girl. His father was career army and away a lot. (He’s half convinced he is a product of immaculate conception.) He first went on the boats with the idea of earning money for college and this he did. The first ship he was on was the Leon Fraser. He later served on the Ralph Watson, the Eugene Buffington, the Henry Phipps, and the Columbia Star—an interesting assortment, with the Eugene Buffington (1908) and the Henry Phipps (1907) two of the oldest ships running at that time (if memory serves, the Pic River and the Black River—1895 and 1896—were the oldest), and the Columbia Star a thousand-footer. Curiously, it was the service on the Star that helped convince Hill that maybe a maritime career was not for him. The Star was so automated, that the skills of the sailor became unnecessary and the challenge evaporated.

We also learn that he is married to the singer and actress Judy Hill and that he played guitar and drums in several rock bands while in Ann Arbor, where he took a lot of writing courses. And while he learned to work under others, some of them irascible and unreasonable, he prefers to work at his own pace and be his own boss. He and Judy owned a successful crystal business in Traverse City, and until recently, the Whitefish Bay Furniture Company in the Sault.

We first met Rich and Judy when he contacted us about selling chairs (furnished by Whitefish Bay unfinished and painted by local artists) at our annual auction to provide money for the school art programs—a great idea that we embraced. He had the line-up of volunteer artists well started. The artist-painted objects were such a hit that we have adopted the idea for all our subsequent auctions. (One of the chairs, painted by Mike Wirtinen, can be seen in the Alberta House gallery. You can see our assortment of hand painted boxes and trays for this year’s auction on the web.)

Rich’s work on the boats financed his college career, both at the University of Michigan, where it began, and at Northern Michigan University, where it culminated with a degree in Furniture Design, a degree that includes courses in everything from drawing and sculpture to aesthetics and function/form studies. He became interested in designing one-of-a-kind furniture in the mid-70’s when the major was just starting to take off at universities around the country, and traces his interest in the field to A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, by Swedish cabinetmaker James Krenov, and Fine Woodworking Magazine, which debuted at about the same time he discovered the book. The Whitefish Bay Furniture store was a natural offshoot of his studies—a chance to design furniture and to have other local artisans build small production runs. The business, while enjoyable, proved to be all-encompassing, leaving little time to work on the log house that he’s been building for eighteen years on the Upper St. Mary’s, or for his wife, two sons, and two dogs, or for furniture design, or for writing. Now that the book is out, he and Judy have been traveling around Michigan and Wisconsin promoting Lake Effect at bookstores, maritime museums, and gift shops. The book is carried by Partners Book Distributing and Ingram, and distributed at stores all around the Midwest.

Rich is a member of UPPAA (Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association) and the Great Lakes Booksellers Association. He and Judy are looking forward to attending the annual Fall Trade Show in Dearborn early this month. He has more writing in mind—lake stories, of his experiences and those of others who have sailed the lakes—and is also working on magazine articles. Like many artistic people, he doesn’t fit into any category and it’s impossible to predict where his artistry will lead him.

Ships in Lake Effect by Richard Hill
Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.

The Leon Fraser, the first ship Rich Hill sailed on, photographed by Fred Hill

The Lonely Goldfish, sculpture by Otto Bacon

The supply boat, Ojibway, photographed by Fred Hill

Last updated: October 1, 2008

Sault Area Arts Council Home Page 217 Ferris Street, Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783
e-mail: saac@saultarts.org Phone: (906) 635-1312