We are sad to report that Molly Cliff Hilts passed away peacefully on January 21, 2021. She had been diagnosed with cancer in late summer 2019. She lived her life purposefully and was a positive spirit who will not be forgotten.
As soon as we decided to open a new space in Astoria, I began planning my program, and talking to Molly Cliff Hilts about a show. Molly’s work fuses painting, photography, and printing using wax, lithographic ink, oil, and charcoal to create vast atmospheric landscapes and enigmatic portraits of people she admired, and birds she felt embodied the sense of the people she knew. We have shown Molly’s work for a number of years now, and love both the work and the artist. Once we had secured the venue and came to fix dates things had changed for Molly. Molly had been presented by the devastating diagnosis of cancer and was about to begin her first course of treatments. Molly was in a fighting mood, confident that she would be back in the studio in no time, and we set a date, on the understanding that it could be moved, delayed or cancelled.
When I write about an artist I generally focus on the work – I am a curator, not a biographer. But, in this case it’s hard for me to separate what Molly was going through this past year and her work. And in truth, she was an artist whose work should be seen in context of her family, friends and community. After art school she became an interior designer shifting to studio practice in order to stay home with her children. She began to exhibit these works as a contribution to her community, by way of offerings to fund raising auctions supporting causes she cared about. Her works became sought after by collectors and the organic shift to becoming a professional artist was inevitable. She is also known for hosting artist gatherings in her home and was delighted to discover that these salons are a family tradition dating back to her great-grandmother, Mary Porter Sesnon.
How does the details of a life being lived relate to the work? We are always influenced by our own circumstances, history, loves and preoccupations. There is a design element in Molly’s work that might be attributed to her first occupation. The landscapes she chose to paint were those in which she has shared experience with her family. The titles often relate directly to the narrative of her family life. Her large bird portraits are called by the names of her family and friends. She painted a series of portraits of fellow artists, writers and musicians she had become acquainted with through this extraordinary life experience.
Molly’s journey with her illness and her relationship to her work has been a complicated narrative - a year navigating feelings about her own mortality. She had complications resulting from her radiation treatment and in July was told that her cancer has metastasized. I am guessing that her commitment to this show was a welcome point of focus, but also, at times an unnecessary burden. She has shared process images of work from the studio and thoughts about her spiritual connection to the work. She has updated me on the developments of her illness and treatment. We have had difficult discussions about how the show would need to be delayed. All of our communication were by phone and email, as covid has prevented me from making a studio visit.
Although Molly was not able to finish all the work she had planned, we decided that 2021 should be set in the right direction by moving ahead with the show. We collected a group of six new works, which are now in the gallery with the collection of four works we already held from 2019. The exhibition runs through March 7.
We were able to send Molly images of the installation, as she was going into hospice care. She described this phase to me as a means to managing her pain while she researched alternative treatments. She even asked me to be be patient with her as she had every intention of completing the works that were unresolved in her studio.
There is one painting that Molly made that is not included in the show - a large landscape, a body of water, the light hitting the horizon and an atmospheric sky. As soon as Molly had posted pictures of this, she was getting offers to buy it. But there was something about this painting that had become essential to Molly and her wellbeing. She felt a spiritual connection to this painting like no other. In the band of light she recognized a place of calmness and of love, and it gave her solace and comfort. Molly now resides in that light.
If you want to send your condolences to Molly's family, there is a page set up by her sister, Shanti Cliff, at https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/mollyhilts. Here you will also find journal entries dictated by Molly through her journey. The following is taken from Molly's last journal entry.
"I found out a few hours ago that my painting, titled Eagle Creek, is now in the Portland Museum of Art’s permanent collection of Northwest Art. The painting is a premonition of the fire that started in Eagle Creek and spread to the gorge—as the hills are depicted in a smoky orange. I painted it in 2016 and the fire happened in 2018. This is a huge honor for me."
I want people to know that what I have learned through all of this is that I am loved and that I have made a difference in peoples’ lives. And I want each and every person to know that they are loved and they may not know it, but they have an impact and touch so many lives in so many ways that they are not aware of—sometimes big and some times small, but always meaningful."