Driftless Terroir: Choosing to Make Images of Place in All Its Glory

Esther Hill

by Esther Hill

This past spring I showed some paintings in a local art show. It was a vibrant event at the dawn of a new season and the paintings were glowing with brown and rust hues derived from our own soils. A local chocolatier was handing out samples of handmade chocolate and freshly brewed herbal teas. As I was leaving for the night, a group of moms who were out on the town burst into a spontaneous dance party. I was surrounded by friends and family who know me well and I was bursting with feelings of community, support and celebration that stayed with me long after the event.

My instinct is to take that image of beloved local things I see and to distill it down to harmonious line, color, and shape. Recently I realized this distillation obstructs some of the meaning for the viewer.

After some time had passed, I went back to the memories of the event and realized that unless I was there to explain the concept of where these colors came from and why, it leaves a viewer alienated and missing a key part of the story. I get it finally … my tendency as an artist to inwardly navel gaze about making my own paint from backyard soil is a bit obscure and may be difficult to relate to if you haven’t heard me yack about it for the past two years.

So I’ve doubled down. As my palette contains local soil paints, why not make the images from local sources as well? My best work comes from painting what I see. Not just what crosses my path for a few minutes, but things that I have an evolving, living relationship with. For example, I created a painting of a particular field that I’ve admired from the highway dozens of times driving to and from Madison. The field’s swirling cover crops envelop a solitary aging hay shed. The posts of the shed are rotting and will soon give way completely, but at least I have an image of when it stood in all its glory. Progress cut a road into the field a while ago, a necessary evil, but my painting will stay the same as time inevitably moves the land on.

My instinct is to take that image of a beloved field and to distill it down to harmonious line, color and shape. Recently I realized this distillation obstructs some of the meaning for the viewer. This time around, I kept the details of the field, sky and shed intact and it’s more accessible. Viewers can possibly remark, “Hey, I know that field!” and it can be a catalyst for a shared experience, not just my own internal aesthetic preferences. I like that.

I interact with the Driftless land by seeing it out my window and hiking in the state parks, but in my opinion, the terroir includes the people around me, too. Because of this, people are popping up in my paintings. A recent vignette captured the ritual of being a passenger on car rides. My husband driving, never changing, but the background moving from river to pasture to urban architecture over and over as we tour land and cityscapes. People make terroir just as soil, weather and animals do.
Art serves many purposes for me, but one of its uses is a convenient soap box so here it goes: Support and invest in your local terroir. Support local food suppliers, local farmers, local doctors, lawyers and hospitals. Remember there is strength in talking and acting with your neighbors. Support Main Street businesses, and make your voice heard at a local city council meeting. Keep our land, our animals, our people all thriving. Be a part of it. Take care of it. Honor it through thoughtful choices.

Esther Hill lives in Dodgeville with her husband and their two cats. She works for Uplands Cheese and in her spare time enjoys eating, hiking/canoeing, painting, and putzing around the house and garden. Contact her at estherhill12@gmail.com.

Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To read past columns, see voiceoftherivervalley.com. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.