Hope Hilton spends her days apron-clad and elbow deep in finger paint or vegetable dye or paper scraps, the materials of the art projects that she leads at Treehouse Kid & Craft. She’s sure to be immersed in the work and surrounded by a group of children. She says she’s always been a teacher of some sort. It’s in her blood: there have been teachers in her family for generations.
In her own studio, Hope’s artwork is much darker. She bases her work on her family history, which includes a period spent as slave owners before the Civil War. She also explores the identity of the South, a place she has complicated feelings about.
Flagpole: What do you do here at Treehouse?
Hope Hilton: I am the education coordinator and part-time manager, so I spend a lot of time coordinating classes for mamas, papas and babies, for two-to-five-year-olds, and then, we do some adult classes and classes on Wednesdays for older kids. I spend a lot of time coordinating those on the calendar and coming up with them, looking at lots of blogs for inspiration. And, I also do a lot of styling on the website and keep the website maintained, and on Saturday I mostly do customer service and make sure everything’s tidy.
FP: What kinds of projects do you plan?
HH: Today we made our own finger paint, and then, we gave them the recipe to take home so they can make it at home. So, we do a lot of stuff where it’s something inspiring but you can also do it at home. But here, we clean up the mess, so I think that’s an advantage. We do everything from mask-making to—we’ve had a class on thank-you cards… We provide them sort of the outline of what to do, and then everybody does something different. We’re not trying to keep them in the lines, so to speak.
FP: Have you always been an art teacher?
HH: Yeah. I’m the oldest of four kids, and we’re from creative parents, and I also have a master’s degree in art, and I spent a lot of time at Boys and Girls Clubs and working with kids. I just spent two weeks this summer doing art classes with kids in the Dominican Republic. And I was, like, the world’s best baby sitter in high school because I always did creative projects. I would show up with a box of art materials, and we’d cover the table in paper, and we’d just go. I think I spent a good part of my 20s avoiding teaching because my mom’s a teacher and my grandma’s a teacher and my great-grandma’s a teacher. It’s just… a long line of teachers, and I resisted it for a long time because that’s what was expected of me in a way. And then, I guess when I was about 27, I realized: I’m a teacher.
FP: Does working with kids so much have an effect on what you do as an artist?
HH: It influences me to loosen up. In fact, that’s really hard for me to do, loosen up. I work very graphically and very flat, or I do a lot of projects that involve writing and history, and [teaching kids] has sort of added a playful element to my life. My artwork is very serious, and [teaching] has really helped me look on the brighter side of things. Kids are so amazing. They’re really intimidating, and when you get used to it—it helped me in terms of confidence.
FP: Kids see right through you.
HH: Yeah, yeah. And they can tell. Like, if I’m having a bad day, and I’m faking it, we have a regular named Amelie, and she’ll just be like, “Are you OK?” She’s four. And nobody else has any idea.
FP: Maybe you just grow out of that sensitivity at some point.
HH: Yeah, I like to think that working with kids helps me keep that sensitivity.
FP: You must be very patient.
HH: I guess I am. You know, I don’t ever get angry. I don’t easily get angry or upset, and I think I’m pretty easygoing. So, that’s patience, right?… I think it’s very natural for me to practice patience because I don’t realize I’m patient until somebody says it… My art projects—I work on projects that take, like, 10 years to finish.
FP: Will you tell me a little more about those?
HH: Well, mainly I do a lot of work about exploring the history of my family owning slaves, and whiteness—like, being white in that context. So, it’s like a life’s work in a way. Right now, I’m trying to write a book about it, but you can’t write a book without an accumulation of experience, so I can only do so much until I do more out in the field or more research and come back to it… See how different it is from working with kids?
FP: How did you figure out that this project was what you wanted to do?
HH: In my art career? When I was in graduate school in New York, I was given a book of my family history that my granny made, and I had never considered that my family had had wealth or had had land or slaves. And [the book] was full of documents about slaves as property, and it really, really just stuck with me, and I had to do something about it.
FP: This book was a gift?
HH: It was a Christmas present.
FP: What a Christmas present.
HH: Well, I called her, and I said, “Granny, this book is full of slaves.” And she said, “No, it’s not!” It was almost like she just didn’t read—I mean, she read it. She put it together. But she didn’t pay attention to those parts, so I felt responsible to… recognize that and pay attention to those parts… But, I can get really depressed about it, and I balance that out by working with kids. And it’s really good because it’s a joy.
FP: So, you must be from the South, originally.
HH: Mm-hmm, I was born in Atlanta.
FP: Would you say you have a strong connection to the South?
HH: I was always ashamed of being Southern [growing up], and when I was in high school, I was like, “But, I am Southern. Why should I be ashamed of this?” And then, it all sort of hit me when I moved to New York City to go to graduate school, and I realized how much of my work had to do with the land here and the climate here and the stories here. So then, I accepted that I was Southern and realized that I needed to move back here for my work… I know that when I moved back here, I just took a deep breath, and I felt like I was home.
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