PORT TOWNSEND — Joy, crows, grief, Mexico, Wisconsin, a painting titled “Jackrabbit Jazz and Funk”: They’re all together in a two-day open studio, sale and show called, of all things, “Blues Taco.”
Artist John Hillmer cooked it up. Centrum’s artist in residence for the past two weeks at Fort Worden State Park, he’s inviting the art-curious to see his work from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. today and from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.
Admission is free to the studio; the entrance to Fort Worden is at 200 Battery Way.
His originals and prints, populated by birds, fish, musical instruments and people — often blending into one another — await in Building 205, which is across from the Madrona MindBody Institute.
Hillmer has a long relationship with Centrum: He’s the artist behind the logos for the Acoustic Blues Festival and the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, for example.
Then there are his murals. They’ve backdropped the likes of Ray Charles, Maya Angelou, Keb’ Mo’ and John Lee Hooker.
At this open studio, Hillmer will show many musically inspired works, including some not elsewhere seen.
A Lutheran boy from Janesville, Wis., he studied journalism and political science at the university in Madison. Then he became a teacher, working in Seattle and earning a master’s in international education at the American School Foundation in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Art has taken over, though. Hillmer, who counts among his inspirations the late Francisco Toledo of Oaxaca, began creating illustrations and designs for musical and literary events in Seattle, California and beyond.
Then he got work making murals for Zootunes, the concert series at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. He traveled to Mexico, lived in Mexico and loved Mexico.
Celebrations of this can be seen in his open studio and at JohnHillmer.com. These days, he spends much of the year in San Miguel de Allende, the art-rich city in the Mexican state of Guanajuato; the rest of the year he lives in Bend, Ore.
The title “Blues Taco” evokes the mix of flavors found in a roomful of Hillmer art.
Turquoise blue, desert browns, tomato reds, black and white piano keys swim together on these canvases — yet “I never want to tell stories about my work,” he said, because “I’m blown away by people’s interpretations.”
Centrum Program Manager Mary Hilts calls these tacos “filled with truth.” The characters dance into the frame, yes, but there’s also a depth — in symbols representing the rough parts of this life.
“The honesty,” Hilts said, “pulls the viewer in and holds them tight.”
When asked if he has advice for young artists, Hillmer paused. Then he offered something not just for youngsters but also for the rest of us.
“Everybody needs to create. Doing art is an essential part of life,” he said.
“You need to express. You need to create,” about what’s happening in your heart and in the world.
Hillmer wants his own work to be an expression of joy — “but there’s definitely a lot underneath,” including grief.
In these images, the artist works through his own emotions, emotions that are universal.
“Globally, we’re dealing with a lot of grief,” over climate change, violence and the news of any given day.
“Hillmer sees a culture that tells us to look the other way. He believes in facing life and taking action, be it political, creative or both.
He shows a visitor his “Afghan Blues” painting. A bride and groom fly across one side while an Afghan man plays a guitar-like instrument. Bombs are falling on the other side. It’s a classic Hillmer mix: