The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery will feature the exhibition “Maggy Rozycki Hiltner: Vantage Point” from Oct. 7 through Feb. 14, 2020.
In April 2014, Hiltner was selected to create an installation for the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum’s Dr. Ruth Tan Lim Project Room. As an embroidery artist, filling 72 linear feet of wall space with hand-stitched imagery would be her largest project to date. She began by designing an idealized landscape with a big blue sky, green grass and puffy white clouds. Researching ways of depicting cloud forms led her to think about clouds as water vapor and then water vapor as greenhouse gas. Other clouds — volcanic plumes, mushroom clouds, emissions from factories and puffs rising from the cooling towers of nuclear reactors — drew her attention as well. The resulting piece, “Vantage Point,” traveled from Mesa to other venues, changing shape to fit each one. In 2018, Hiltner stitched an additional 39 linear feet to make the piece site-specific for the Holter Art Museum in Helena, Montana.
Hiltner’s previous work centered on intimate figurative narratives, Dick-and-Jane style kids in semi-autobiographical scenes from her childhood. She was raised in Pennsylvania — the land of coal and steel. The more she researched, the more she knew she had to include pollution, both seen and unseen, from her personal landscape.
Hiltner grew up in the 10-mile evacuation radius of Limerick Generating Station, a nuclear power plant in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. The Limerick towers could be seen from the windows of her middle-school classroom. Hiltner and her friends swam in the bathtub-warm water downstream from the power plant.
“The Schuylkill River, once dubbed America’s foulest river, was cleaned up in the ’40s and ’50s. This meant the coal silt was dredged from the river and dumped in an area we kids would later call the ‘Black Desert,’” Hiltner said. “After a day of riding our bikes through the Black Desert, we had to hose off the black silt before we’d be allowed in the house. On Thanksgiving trips to Grandma’s, my father would make a short detour through Centralia so the family could check on the progress of the underground coal fire that had been burning there since 1962.”
These troubling exposures have colored Hiltner’s adulthood and her creative output.
Hiltner set herself to stitching natural and manmade disasters into her landscapes as she continued to research these ecological problems. Maps and illustrations drew Hiltner to include portolan lines and vanishing points, adding movement and a linear design element and poking fun at her tendency toward flat representation.
The artist also generated a list of terms and places picked up from headlines, news stories and research. This text became a news ticker above and below, informing the individual scenes. The world Hiltner visualized is still beautiful, but the impact of human consumption and waste is everywhere.
Hiltner searches antique shops, thrift stores and yard sales for embroidered linens, collecting the brightly colored flowers, foliage and animals that appear in her work. What she cannot find, she hand-stitches and mixes in with the collected embroidery. She uses the familiarity of the stitch, along with seemingly lighthearted and cheerful designs, to convey more serious subject matter.
Hiltner is a full-time studio artist and activist living in Red Lodge, Montana. She comes from a family of makers: her mother and grandmothers needlepointed pillows, made quilts, and stitched or knitted clothes and toys; her father built odd things, cooked what she describes as “outrageous meals” and painted murals in their home.
The Hillestad Gallery is located on the second floor of the Home Economics Building, 1650 N. 35th St. It is open 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment. Admission is free. Guest parking is available near the Home Economics Building and in metered stalls in the Nebraska East Union lot. For more information, click here or call 402-472-2911.