Alison Hildreth at her studio in Portland. Hildreth’s works are part of a multivenue retrospective representing 50 years of work. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

As a student at Vassar College in New York, Alison Hildreth studied landscape design. She and her classmates would take field trips in the Hudson River Valley, where they were tasked with mapping the sprawling gardens they visited.

Hildreth became a studio artist rather than a landscape architect, but that aerial view has stayed with her for decades.

“I hadn’t seen the world that way,” she said. “A lot of the work that I do is a kind of mapmaking. It’s a kind of exploring. It’s a way of traveling on paper. So it answers a lot of the things that I’m interested in.”

This year, galleries from Vinalhaven to Portland are considering Hildreth’s work from that same sweeping perspective. Speedwell Contemporary, a Portland nonprofit that promotes the work of women who have made a lifelong commitment to their artistic practice, is spearheading a retrospective that includes three exhibitions, a documentary and artist talks. Hildreth, who is 89 and lives in Falmouth, still works in her Portland studio most days and will debut new pieces at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland for the occasion.

“Her dedication and the quality of her work is really an inspiration,” said Jocelyn Lee, founder of Speedwell. “I can only hope to be 90 years old making work that is so powerful. She is not repeating herself, and that is really a contribution. Someone who is her age, who has been dedicated to it for so long as she has, who continues to make innovating and powerful work – to me, that’s a great artist.”

The shows will reflect Hildreth’s range across drawing, painting and printmaking. It also presents an opportunity to highlight her installation work, such as “The Feathered Hand,” a hanging display of glass and plastic puppets permanently housed in the atrium of the Portland Public Library. Hildreth said moving between disciplines over the years has fueled her creativity.


“To go from discipline to discipline is a break,” she said. “Each one feeds the other.”


Hildreth grew up in Massachusetts and Maine. As a child, she put her painting set in her closet to make her first studio and would spend hours outside making little villages out of rocks and sticks. Her friends call her “Wooly,” a nickname that came about because her mother and great-aunt were also named Alison. After she graduated from Vassar College, she moved to New York City to continue her studies at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Art. She and her husband, Horace “Hoddy” Hildreth, who was also from Maine, then returned to the state, where they raised four sons. She enrolled at what was then called the Portland School of Art (now the Maine College of Art & Design) and graduated in 1976.

“We have a butcher block kitchen table, and I have all of these X-Acto marks on it because at 4 o’clock in the morning, I would be doing my 2D-design homework,” she said with a laugh.

“Soundless as Shadows I” by Alison Hildreth. Tonee Harbert © Courtesy Alison Hildreth

She had a few studios in Portland over the years. One was on Exchange Street, where she recalled swapping art for avocado sandwiches from Walter’s and spotting David Koplow, known as the “Dogman” for his gaggle of unleashed dogs. But for decades, she has worked out of The Bakery Studios on Pleasant Street, above Artemisia Cafe. The building was once home to the Portland School of Art, and when the school moved out nearly 30 years ago, Hildreth bought it with fellow artist Katarina Weslien of Portland.

Weslien had become friends with Hildreth on Vinalhaven, where they both liked to spend time in the summers. They would take long walks to explore the island and travel to New York to see art; Weslien said they shared the same pace and interests when they visited galleries and museums. Hildreth told Weslien that she wanted to create artist studios in downtown Portland, and today, The Bakery is home to more than a dozen artist studios and the printmaking cooperative Peregrine Press.


“We were fortunate enough to be able to buy it with the idea that we would save the space in a really fast-growing city that was just for artists, to make it as affordable as possible,” Weslien said.

Hildreth was also involved in preventing the sale of much of Congress Square Park to the nearby Westin Hotel for an event center. She has since been involved in the redesign of that public space, sitting on the committee to select public art by New York artist Sarah Sze for the square.

In her studio last week, Hildreth said she moved into the sunlit space with the feeling that she would never fill it. Now, the room is lined with books and supplies. Glass figurines from a previous installation hang from the ceiling, and a painting her granddaughter Frances made of two dogs wearing crowns is taped to the door (“4 years old now,” reads a penciled note). Dozens of paintings were staged in the storage space with a sign that read: “TO SPEEDWELL.” Two walls were covered with the drawings and paintings that will be exhibited at CMCA, and Hildreth was in the midst of gently ironing the paper works so they would be free of wrinkles.

Weslien has maintained her own studio next door to Hildreth’s for decades. She described her longtime friend as humble and kind, dedicated to her craft, “an artist’s artist.”

“No matter what, she shows up to the studio and is always making work,” Weslien said. “I don’t think she would know how to live if she wasn’t making work of some kind.”



Weslien, who is on the board at Speedwell, worked with Lee to organize the retrospective. They both felt that Hildreth’s work had gained prominence in Maine but should be more recognized on a national and international level. So they partnered with two other venues – New Era Gallery in Vinalhaven and the CMCA in Rockland – to showcase her body of work and the different periods of her 60-plus-year career.

The show on Vinalhaven, which closed this week, included prints and small drawings. Speedwell has just opened an exhibition that looks back over 50 years, while CMCA will focus on new and ongoing projects. Speedwell is also assembling a catalogue of Hildreth’s work and a documentary about her career.

“Beekeepers” by Alison Hildreth. Luc Demers, © Courtesy Alison Hildreth

Over the years and across mediums, Hildreth has been inspired by cartography, landscape architecture, geography, astronomy, mythology, philosophy and environmental studies – to name just a few. She paraphrases the artist Paul Klee: “Drawing is just taking a line for a walk.” Much of her work up to this point has taken that aerial view of the earth, and Lee wrote in her introduction to the catalogue that the viewer often has the feeling of being “a giant or a hovering, extraterrestrial visitor.”

“Curiosity and the spirit of exploration animate and inform all her work,” she wrote.

Her latest work, however, looks up.

Hildreth will show two ongoing series at the CMCA. One is a collection of mixed-media work on fragile Gampi paper that again shows aerial views of the Earth, while the other is a collection of oil paintings that show planets and celestial bodies.


Tim Peterson, executive director of CMCA and curator of the exhibition, said the pairing of two different perspectives creates “a sense of our place in the universe.”

“Conversations with Alison are really exciting, really getting into the purpose and the reason behind her interest in these specific subject matters,” he said. “I love that there’s a chance to celebrate an artist who is still very much mixing it up at this stage of her career.”

“A Tear in the Fabric I” by Alison Hildreth. Luc Demers, © Courtesy Alison Hildreth

Hildreth said the celestial paintings were inspired in part by her interest in space. She subscribes to Astronomy Magazine and has been enthralled by images from the James Webb Space Telescope. “I’d love to be an astrophysicist,” she said. “But I’m so bad at math.”

“It must be so exciting if you’re in that field because that really is like going out West in a covered wagon,” she said. “You know, you just have something new around every corner.”

She wrote in 2021 about her growing interest in the interconnectedness and vastness of the universe and her desire to explore those themes in her work.

“I have been waiting for years to see a UFO or a spaceship land, would it carry a very advanced type of life (or aliens as we call them) on board?” she wrote. “Since they come probably from the same chemical mix as we do, I think they would be somewhat like us, these fellow space travelers. What would they think about our treatment of our blue planet and the consequences of our choices? Are they also leaving a desecrated planet and searching for a new home? I want to have a chance to ask them.”


Until then, the paintings have allowed her own exploration. Weslien said she has watched them develop in recent years and sees them as darker and more questioning than Hildreth’s previous work.

“She’s able to create worlds within worlds,” Weslien said. “Complexity is I think what we really need right now when there is so much division and everything needs to be black and white. Her work is all about the complexity between the binary.”

For Hildreth, a retrospective was unexpected. She said she is grateful for the attention to her work but never thought about presenting her work in this way. She compared looking back on her past work to reading old journal entries.

“I look back and think, what was I exploring then?” she said, and added with a laugh, “And some of them, I have no idea.”

Despite the busy schedule of the retrospective, Hildreth said she doesn’t see herself taking a break when it ends.

“I’m going to do some lithographs,” she said. “And that will be a change, printmaking from oil painting, stepping into a different world.”

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