Guest artist: Kristine McCallister on Hilaire Hiler

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As a color consultant, I was recently asked if I would choose some colors for a fish store/fish counter in Chicago. I received four photographs and was asked to “do something.” I noticed that the photographs all had these huge taxidermic fish on the walls. My first thought was to get rid of them. I promptly learned that the owner loved his fish and, no, a kinetic Calder-like mobile was not acceptable. I figured the best way to hide the fish would be to place them in an ocean of color. To get inspired, I headed out the door to study one of the most exquisite murals I have ever seen: Hilaire Hiler’s depiction of the undersea world of Atlantis and Mu at the Aquatic Park Bath House in San Francisco.

Hiler is a little-known artist who was commissioned by the WPA in the 1930s to paint this 5,000-square-foot mural. During this time he also developed a color theory, which is displayed as a color wheel on the ceiling of an adjacent room.

I first stumbled across Hiler’s work one day when I was making one of my many trips to the Hyde Street Pier in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco where I live; I often go there to paint such proud vessels as the 1886 Scottish square rig Balclutha and the schooner CA Thayer. On one such sojourn I decided to wander over to the Aquatic Park Bath House to get away from the wind and the tourists. From the moment I walked into the room with Hiler’s underwater mural of Atlantis, my breath was taken away. The mural is the largest I have ever seen, and the colors are so vivid, so pure and wet looking, that you feel as though you are experiencing them in another dimension, you feel as though you are scuba diving, you feel as though the outside world is distant and you are swimming in the watery depths of a brilliant artist’s mind.

Unquestionably Hiler’s masterpiece, this mural embodies a refinement of intelligent detail and one of the most thoroughly studied color systems now at the command of an artist. He has evolved his own color chart, with 24 hues based not on the spectrum, obtained by the mechanical refraction of white light, but on pigments found in nature and the observed human reactions to them. He is far prouder of the Aquatic Park’s “color chart room”—in which these hues and their tints, shades and tones are painted on a 60-foot ceiling—than of the undersea murals.  ~ Time Magazine, February 6, 1939

I quickly discovered there is little information and there are no books available about this mural or its creator. I did find an intriguing biographical note on the website of Edan Milton Hughes (an expert in early California painting), informing me that Hiler was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 16, 1898, that he had studied at various universities in the United States and Canada, and that he had sailed to France in 1919 to continue his studies at the University of Paris while playing saxophone in a jazz band. In the 1920s, Hiler ran a Left Bank artists’ hangout called the Jockey Club, where “he often played jazz piano with a live monkey on his back.” He moved to San Francisco in the 1930s; later lived in Hollywood (where he ran a short-lived club on the Sunset Strip), Santa Fe and New York; and in the 1960s returned to Paris, where he died on January 19, 1966.

I had to scout around, ask questions and return on numerous occasions to document the information that I needed. Hiler spent two years creating the Atlantis mural. He did most of it himself, as well as developing a vision for the entire bathhouse. His colors are resplendent; rays of light shimmer from the sun above and down into the sunken myths of Atlantis. The floor above (which is under repair) depicts the shoals of the bay and the ships on the water. The lobby is dedicated to an aquatic underworld that makes you want to grow gills so you could swim in these rainbows of color for the rest of your life.

Kristine McCallister is an artist who lives and works in San Francisco. She volunteers at Creativity Explored, a visual art center that supports people with developmental disabilities in becoming working artists, and art is part of her everyday life. Her paintings are represented by the Brett Wesley Gallery
All photos © Kristine McCallister and may not be used without permission of the artist. To contact her email kristinemccallister [AT] gmail [DOT] com.

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2 Responses to Guest artist: Kristine McCallister on Hilaire Hiler

  1. hannahport says:

    I love the post – everything about it. The photos are exquisite and I relish Kristine’s poetic writing: “rays of light shimmer from the sun, down into the myths of Atlantis.” That’s one of those lines that bends reality like water bends light.

  2. Margaret says:

    Thank you again. Inspiration!

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