Minneapolis artist Florence Hill has hosted a life drawing co-op for nearly four decades

  • Article by: KEVYN BURGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 3, 2013 - 3:35 PM

A drawing co-op, started by a local artist to keep her skills sharp, has fostered an enduring creative community.

 

Every Sunday for the past 38 years, Florence Hill has opened her studio to “the artful pack.”

Every. Single. Sunday.

Watergate was winding down and the Captain & Tennille were cranking out hits when Hill first started celebrating Sunday by tuning in a classical station, brewing a pot of coffee and slicing a loaf of home-baked sweet bread to welcome artists to the Florence Hill Drawing Co-op.

Since then, the rules haven’t changed. “No pre-registration, no instruction, no critique,” said Hill.

Nor has the day.

If Christmas, New Year’s or July 4th falls on a Sunday, the co-op meets just the same. “They don’t have to call to make sure we’re on,” she said. “If they want to work, they show up.”

And show up they do. While a few artists try the co-op once or twice, a surprising number have returned weekly for years — even decades. “This is art church,” said commercial artist Greg Lipelt of Minneapolis, a co-op regular. “Art is our religion and this is where we have our fellowship. This is our whetstone, where we sharpen our tools.”

 

Hill, who, at 83 continues to sell, show and exhibit, said she started the co-op for a simple reason: “I paint better Monday when I draw on Sunday,” she said. “It keeps the hand and eye trained.”

But for artist members, the co-op — located in the California Building in northeast Minneapolis — has become an integral part of their creative process, and sometimes their personal lives.

Three couples who met here have married. Scores of others have connected to find romance, jobs and roommates. There are even middle-aged regulars who first participated as blushing teenagers, accompanying their parents.

Blushing, because in Hill’s life drawing co-op, like most others, the artists share expenses (currently $7 per person a week) to offset the cost of a live model, who poses in the nude.

Hill is quick to point out that an artist’s interest in the human body is clinical, not prurient. When they look at a naked model, they see shape, form, light, shadow.

“Sometimes men who want to pose tell me they’re buff,” said Hill, who hires the models. “We don’t care about buff!

“I had an exotic dancer once who tried to be sexy. We didn’t have her back. Another model said, kind of disgusted, ‘They look at me like I’m a still life.’ I didn’t have the heart to tell her, ‘Well, that’s what you are to us.’ ”

Captured by the landscape

Born just as the Depression began, Hill grew up on land her grandparents homesteaded on the flat prairie along the Canadian border.

“That landscape got inside me. I’m still painting it — the light, the black dirt,” she said. “Nature doesn’t make bad color combinations.”

Hill said she found ways to be creative while she did her chores. She whittled shoes out of wood, replicated mud nests that barn swallows pasted under the eaves and sketched on available surfaces.

“We grew everything but coffee and Shredded Wheat,” she remembered. “There were cardboard dividers separating the Shredded Wheat biscuits. Those were mine, for drawing. I was the middle child, so I went after what was available.”

Hill said her middle-of-the-pack position among the seven siblings probably set her up to form the co-op.

“I work alone, but I love a pack,” she said.

Welcome all

On a recent Sunday, 26 artists shuffle into Hill’s studio and park themselves at drafting tables, in front of easels or in one of the armchairs that ring the platform where the model of the day, Lisa Pfeiffer, reclines. During the next three hours, they would draw Pfeiffer as she shifted from pose to pose.

As they work in watercolor, pencil or charcoal, several of the artists show the facility that comes with countless hours devoted to life drawing. A few bring more determination than skill.

The session is popular with professionals — art directors, teachers, illustrators — including portrait artist Barbara Porwit of St. Paul.

“When I work one-on-one with a subject, I have to direct them,” said Porwit. “I don’t have that responsibility here. I can lose myself. I get into that trance where I’m creatively productive and look up and three hours have passed.”

But family physicians, home remodelers and administrative assistants feel welcome, as well.

Dan Altmann of Minneapolis took up drawing when his multiple sclerosis forced him to give up his dental practice. The former marathon runner, who now uses a walker, said drawing has helped keep his hands agile and his mind active.

“If you get together with dentists, you talk about teeth,” he said. “Artists talk about politics, religion, their work. I learn so much by listening and watching.”

Hill isn’t likely to admit it, but co-op members maintain that she — rather than the music, the coffee or the bread — is the main attraction.

“Florence offers us encouragement and enthusiasm,” said John Fleming, a retired salesman from Richfield. “She reminds us that art is the process of doing, regardless of the results.”

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based broadcaster, podcaster and freelance writer.

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