When an artist undergoes a great change, it is inevitable that his work will reveal the past, present and future. Lyon Hill’s portfolio reads like a narrative self-portrait that stems from torment and blossoms into a dark, yet romantic evolution, catalyzed by the relationship with his wife, Jennifer.
Hill plays in many creative arenas, including the Columbia Marionette Theatre, and crafts everything from puppets to comic books, videos, neoprints, paintings and illustrations. “Drawing is one of my favorite things to do,” Hill said. “The drawing is what I’m doing a lot of these days.” While Hill dabbles in a multitude of media, the immediacy of illustration entices him to concentrate on drawing. “I’m all about getting to it as efficiently as possible,” Hill said. “I like mediums that allow me to get rid of some of the back log.”
Hill draws only in pen, and assesses his work with a light box, where he places each illustration over an illuminated surface, often in several layers, to get a feel for the finished product. “I gave up on the pencil…it helped me to be forceful. I always redraw my work on a light box to tighten it up,” Hill said. “I like how crisp it is. I go through scores of drawings before getting to the final one.”
Hill gathered several sheets of paper with simple drawings on them and stacked them over the light box. “Here’s a bunch of stand-alone drawings; they don’t look like anything. You put them on the light box and they become something,” Hill said. “It has its limitations, but it takes the pressure off of trying to get the drawing perfect the first time. I just grooved on the way things looked on the light board. I let that be the finished work instead of just a step in the process. The drawing is the piece. It’s so much quicker to create that way.”
Many of Hill’s works revolve around fairy tales and childhood themes, which he accredits to both his wife (Jennifer Hill) and employer (the Columbia Marionette Theatre). “Jennifer’s aesthetic influenced me, and I began to look more at work that had its dark elements, but could also be playful and was ultimately uplifting. I hope my work has that element, and if so, I have Jennifer to thank.” The CMT presents classic fairy tales like “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Alice in Wonderland”; these and other storybook themes appear in Hill’s work from time to time. “I think that is a result of the marionette theater,” Hill said. “I get those images stuck in my brain and want to reinterpret them. There’s less kid-friendly aspects you can draw out of those themes.”
“Before Jennifer and I began our relationship, I was a brooding, angsty type and my artwork reflected it,” Hill said. “I then became a much happier person, and such a bleak, myopic approach to art felt false.” His own romantic experiences are reflected in several of his pieces, which include grim self-representation and reverent reference to his wife. “I do try to analyze some darker stuff,” Hill said. “There’s this whole interplay of the gnarly old man and the young woman. Sometimes at face value that’s the relationship between a man and a woman.”
Hill’s marionettes have played up characteristics that pronounce his own, arguably distorted, likeness. “I put big ears, big noses, and small chins on a lot of them,” Hill said. “That ubiquitous dark figure is this totally distorted self-image.” The marionette shows are meant to be kid-friendly. But, as one might expect, a room full of hanging marionettes – especially ones created with such a dark vision – is a little eerie.
“There are a few children and adults that just don’t dig on it, and are scared or have a phobia,” Hill said. “We used to do a performance of “Frankenstein” around Halloween that was pretty dark. I’m pursuing the darker stuff elsewhere.”
Many of Hill’s marionettes, like “The Ferryman,” are brooding and skinny, yet accessible characters. “The Ferryman” is made of several materials,” Hill said. “I haven’t played with him in so long.” Although Hill is currently focusing on illustration, puppetry remains a big part of his creative life, keeping him torn between marionettes and drawing.
“Puppets are what I’m paid to do,” Hill said. “It’s like ‘Sophie’s Choice’ for my babies.”
Hill has been with the CMT for eight years, since founder Allie Scollon retired in 2000. He learned puppetry at the CMT and was later sent to Prague by the theatre to study puppet-making for three weeks. Hill and the CMT work closely with Palmetto Pride on a traveling show meant to increase environmental awareness, “Litter Trashes Everyone,” which keeps the puppeteers busy. “You wouldn’t think that puppetry would be so stressful,” Hill said. “The weird thing is since you’re contracted for so many performances, you’d rather squeeze them all in one day.” With hundreds of shows every year, both at the theatre and on the road, children make for a captive audience. “They’re always very excited and very vocal as an audience,” Hill said while laughing. “I do a performance of “Litter Trashes Everyone” and as everyone’s walking out there’s gum wrappers all over the floor.”
Hill is combining his love of puppetry and illustration with lightweight, paper-puppet videos. “The puppet videos are the other thing I’m focusing on,” Hill said. “They’re being seen a lot and the response is very positive. I perform with them and edit it all together. It’s puppetry, but it’s primarily drawing. The immediacy of that is very nice.” Hill’s puppet videos are viewable online and include “Incubus,” which he entered in the first-year Indie Grits, “A Small World,” “Junk Palace,” “Dirt Dauber,” and “Puppet Rampage.” “A lot of my work deals with the twin attractions of love and lust, which can become a conflict within an individual,” Hill said. “I hope that my work explores this conflict without necessarily condemning or condoning it. “Incubus” is getting seen by a lot of people now, but it is an example of one of the simplest interactions of male and female in my work. “The Doll” is a nice counterpoint to it. In one, the male has the power; in the other he is frail and needs caring for.”
The puppet videos appear brilliantly crude but are laced with complex imagery and subject matter. Hill’s hands control the hands of the puppets, which take on the same mannerisms, like a bleak self-portrait in miniature. “Puppet Rampage” was meant to be really low-tech,” Hill said. “I try to make everything out of paper.” The puppet videos allow Hill to experiment with puppets and new media at the same time. “Puppet videos are fun because I can just kind of wing it,” he said. “I like this idea of how I can build things that are delicate and don’t work perfectly and all you need is one good take. If it works one time out of five for the video it’s ok. I’m not a physicist; I can’t anticipate what a string will do.” The simplicity of the videos’ imagery should not be mistaken for lack of effort or talent. It is this elemental aspect of the work that lends it so well to illustration, puppetry, and video. “It does work for me intuitively, I understand it. In the photograph, the texture of the paper shows up which I like,” he said.
Hill’s peculiar, dark-yet-tender style is reminiscent of the films for which Tim Burton has become so well-known. “I think that Tim Burton is one of the most popular associations to conjure,” Hill said. “I take the comparison happily.” Hill’s work is often monochromatic and includes looming figures, skeletal, emaciated characters, and themes of death and decay, including the repeated image of the octopus. “I think the octopus is related to the freaky man,” he said. “It’s difficult to have a happy vocabulary with your artwork.”
Many of Hill’s pieces center around the legendary incubus demon, associated with rape and decay. Others display twisted silhouettes and skeletons, and most are painted in ominous blues and bloody reds. “Red’s probably the color I’m most comfortable with,” Hill said. “Red, black, and white; it pings so I gravitate toward it.” Hill’s portfolio is extensively related to decadence, until “Jen in the Water” appeared in 2005.
This painting, of his wife and inspiration, is much more subdued, uses a much softer palette, and is reminiscent of early works by Dali of his own spouse and Picasso before him. Usually these softer images are present in the early stages of an artist’s career, before cynicism hits and/or sanity is lost forever. Hill’s career took a different path.
“When I got happy, I couldn’t make the angst-ridden stuff I had been doing,” Hill said. “It wasn’t accurate anymore.”
He and Jennifer married in 2004 at the CMT. “We met at the theater,” Hill said. “We were both puppeteers.” Hill crafted handmade pop-up wedding invitations and turned the theatre into a romantic wonderland for the big day.
“We transformed it,” he said. “It needed to feel special since I’m here everyday.”
Hill uses his wife as a model and keeps photos of her in his files for reference. Jennifer appears in several of Hill’s works, distinguishable by her dark hair. “When the stock characters come up, it’s modeled inevitably after Jennifer,” he said.
The couple lives in Columbia in what would be any child’s fantasy home. There are so many toys, books, dolls, and generally crazy things to look at that the two are adding an entire wing onto the house. “We’ve filled every nook and cranny,” Hill said. The added space will give Hill and his wife more room to work and hopefully space for a new addition to the family, eventually. “That’s the goal,” Hill said. “We’re sharing the second bedroom as an art studio. I still want us to stay close. I don’t want the house being bigger to split us up.”
The multi-colored walls of the original house are covered in artwork, murals, a display of Hill’s inhaler collection, and the shelves are full of Barbie parts, children’s books, a display of Hill’s prized fetus collection, and Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake and Hello Kitty memorabilia. Hill is currently working on a piece entitled “The Hoarders,” in which he claims the characters “amass so much stuff they suffocate in it.” “Jennifer will save me from that fate,” he said. “I want to do a big painting just to celebrate having the space.”
Interspersed among the visual feast that is Hill’s home are lions in the forms of a door-knocker, a painting, and even a mask, which he modeled proudly. Aside from the obvious connection between the animal and Hill’s first name, he identifies with the beast in a more poignant sense. Hill identifies with the Mermecolion, a mythical creature which has the head of a lion and the body of ant. Because the lion craves to eat meat and the ant cannot digest it, the creature lives a short life of starvation. “A lion made small and tragic,” Hill said, “I’ve kind of adopted it as a symbol.” His comic “The Life and Death of the Mermecolion” is included in this issue and tells the story of uncertainty and its consequences. Hill dreamed of having his comics published for the mass market and pursued that for a short time. “I shot for my favorite, Top Shelf Comics,” he said. “They were very polite and declined. I haven’t pursued it since then.”
With Hill’s current focus on illustration and puppet videos, the themes of his work have lightened a bit, but the darker undertones are still present. “I use the imagery as dark, but I hope my message isn’t dismal,” he said. “I don’t like stuff that’s dark for dark’s sake. There’s always an uplifting message.” Hill’s newest designs also eliminate the post-partum problems many artists have when selling their work. “That gets problematic with painting,” Hill said. “I get that separation anxiety. That’s probably a factor of why I’m more into these reproducible mediums.”
As Lyon Hill’s repertoire has grown from the work of a troubled loner to the manifestations of his blissful union and content maturity, the progression of style, theme, palette, and subject matter has retained his inner spirit and gained the romanticism and zest for life Hill found in love. “At the end of the day, I’m trying to make work that is accessible and gratifying to the viewer and yet as personal and meaningful to me as possible,” he said. “Although much of it is dark in terms of subject matter, I hope my art is ultimately hopeful, non-cynical, and displays an awe and appreciation for life.”