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Irrepressible urge to create steers artist toward Van Gogh style

  • 3 min to read

Ever hear of the “Vineyard Van Gogh?”

If you’ve spent time in Walla Walla, you’ve seen the art of Jeffrey Hill — the Vineyard Van Gogh in question.

Hill’s paintings bedeck more than 30 wineries, tasting rooms, homes and restaurants around the Walla Walla Valley.

His sculptures dot blocks downtown and one stands outside Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology & Viticulture building.

Hill has used paint and bronze to record his town’s wine-industry explosion over the past two decades. A Walla Wallan through and through, he’s as much a product of the Valley as the wine in the bottle label he paints.

Growing up here, Hill was a child art prodigy at Prospect Point Elementary School.

“My life as an average normal kid changed in the second grade,” Hill said.

“Once the kids found out I could draw, they were on me like flies: ‘Oh can you draw this for me Jeff?’ ‘Can you draw a soldier for me Jeff?’”

Hill remembers how his father, an artist himself, helped his own artistic development.

“(My father) sat me down one day with watercolor and paper and said ‘here’s a picture of the president, paint JFK from the photograph,’” Hill recalls.

His father was less impressed by the mouth than the eyes.

“So he took my painting, brought it over to the counter and ripped off the bottom part below the nose. ‘Now that’s John F. Kennedy!’”

By fifth grade, Hill had accepted an invitation to learn art once a week at Walla Walla High School with teacher Edwin Mosser. Even then, he didn’t know he’d become an artist, but knew he “couldn’t stop himself” from making art.

Later, Hill attended Whitman College through a scholarship with then art department head, the late Richard “Dick” Rasmussen.

“I think the city gets a lot of credit for all the impact it’s had on me,” Hill said. “Walla Walla has always tried to encourage talent. This town has always taken care of me. There’s a great energy in this town, always has been.”

While double-majoring in art history and fine art in 1976, Hill got involved with efforts to preserve the architectural character of the city.

Hill remembers joining the local group Historical Architectural Development, which fought design proposals from the incoming Fidelity Mutual Savings bank in 1976. The bank, now at Land Title Plaza, after tearing down the old structure at First and Main, proposed a mostly-glass, trapezoidal building. HAD members lobbied for the incorporation of brick and the continuation of the colonnade of Italianate windows.

“(The bank) went along with our suggestions,” Hill said, starting to laugh. “Quite frankly, I think they thought we were part of a larger influence in the town.”

The irony, Hill quipped, is that his sculpture “Harvest Memories” now sits in the shadow of the building for which he helped shape the architecture.

After graduating from Whitman in 1978, Hill furthered his fine art studies with a position at Sotheby’s, an exclusive auction house in London.

He built a family with wife Cathryn and two artistic daughters, and spent the next chunk of his life as a fine arts dealer and appraiser in Seattle.

In the mid-90s, he felt it was time for a homecoming.

“I wanted to plant a vineyard,” Hill said, adding his desire to be closer to his aging family.

Jeffrey and Cathryn planted Forgotten Hills Vineyard with their bare hands in 1996 and sold it in 2007 after a “successful run,” Hill said.

At first, things didn’t go as planned — probably for the best.

“I thought I’d make money making wine grapes,” Hill said, laughing. “The problem is you have to wait two or three years to produce a crop. So I thought, ‘well I’ll pick up my art, and I’ll start painting to get an income.’”

After he sold the first few vineyard paintings to an enthusiastic Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No 41 Winery, demand for his artwork started to soar.

In the 2000s, Hill shouldered commissions flowing from every corner of the country.

“It’s been an amazing run so far,” he said at the time. “I sell everything I can paint or sculpt.”

The fourth-generation Walla Wallan said he’s created about 1,000 paintings and 11 sculptures.

He reckons about half of the paintings are local and half around the country.

A vine-grower himself, Hill had an artistic edge.

“A vineyard is a very complicated little system,” he said, detailing the intricacies of vineyard installation and irrigation. “You have to understand how it’s built, how it grows. And it’s still not an easy thing to paint.”

It should come as no surprise this Vineyard Van Gogh is a lover of the 19th-century post-impressionist painter.

Hill said he “adored” Van Gogh’s artwork he saw in museums across Europe.

“(Van Gogh’s style) completely took over my mind and what I try to create in painting,” Hill said. “I love the color, the heavy impasto brush strokes, the contrasting colors.”

Hill believes the Dutch painter influenced more than just his painting.

“There’s a looseness, and a rhythmic pattern that I do on sculptures, that I think is coming from my exposure to his artwork,” Hill said.

Currently, Hill has no art shows on the docket. His human sculptures and paintings — like the mural he finished last week on First Avenue near Starbucks — are commonplace around town.

To get a strong dose of Hill’s art, he recommends a trip to Pepper Bridge Winery, 1704 J B George Road, where one of his all-time favorite paintings — depicting workers in a vineyard — resides in the barrel room.

Or stop by The Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center, 6 W. Rose St., where murals cover walls in the lobby and The Vineyard Lounge.

Sean Gannon can be reached at seangannon@wwub.com.