Flylords got to meet George Hill, an oil painter based in Missoula, Montana. Originally from Michigan, where he first learned to fish and to paint, George has netted trout and salmon all over, from Northern Lake Huron to Alaska to Patagonia. He shared with us the techniques he paints with, the conservation message behind his pieces, and a few epic tales from his Argentinian adventures. Check out more below!
Tell us a bit about your background with art and fishing.
My mother was an artist and I had a sister who was an artist, and we always had a lot of art materials around the house—sketchbooks, paints, and canvasses. I don’t recall when the first time was that I started experimenting with art. I think it was just something that I enjoyed doing, and I always had a sketchbook around when I was younger and was always doodling. I think I doodled my way through middle school and high school instead of paying attention.
I grew up in Michigan and my family had a cabin on Northern Lake Huron for many years. My father spent a lot of time on the water when I was growing up, too. He loved to be on boats, but didn’t really like fishing—he didn’t have the patience for it. Because he always wanted to take the family to the water, I got to spend a lot of time on bodies of water as a kid, and it became a part of me—it gets into your blood. My dad took me on a few little fishing trips, but my curiosity for fishing about what was residing under those waters came from within. My interest in fishing was definitely the result of having a father who was obsessed with being around the water and getting his family around the water.
I had one buddy who was fly fishing when I was in middle school, and I went on a few trips with him and his dad. I didn’t start fly fishing after that, but I recognized “this is cool, I like this!” I had another friend who was fly fishing from a very young age, and I remember going over to his house and tying flies. Those two people were my first introduction to fly fishing, but I really didn’t get serious about it until college. One of my best friends came home one day with a brand new Orvis outfit, and I was like “alright, I want to do this now!” So, while at our cabin on Lake Huron I went to the bait shop in town and bought this old Martin fly reel they had. It had been sitting there for like 30 years and was all dusty and faded—it was only like $30. That was my first gear purchase and then I would go fish a creek nearby that emptied into Northern Lake Huron. It had some smaller resident trout and some pretty big runs of salmon and steelhead. After that it was over—I was like “I gotta just go fish.” I graduated college and went to Argentina pretty much right after.
What inspired your travels to Argentina?
Latin America was a part of the world I had always wanted to go see, and Argentina has incredible fishing. The Trout Bum Diaries did a film on Patagonia, and there was this one scene where they were fishing in a place they called middle earth. It was this little creek tucked away and they were fishing these little streamers and catching giant rainbows and browns. I was like “I gotta go find that spot!” I was going to go to grad school and I had this gap of a few months to go down there, but I ended up staying. I was going to go down there for three months, and at the end I called home and told mom and dad I wasn’t going home. I had them sell my car and wire me the money, and ended up staying for a year and a half. Then I came home for a little bit and guided in Alaska, and then went back for another nine months.
When I went down there I really didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t speak a word of Spanish, but I found this ranch in Northern Patagonia, and was able to work there for room and board. It had this incredible trout stream that ran through it and was full of big, feisty rainbows. I spent a lot of time living down there and had the river to myself. The characteristics of the river were incredible. It took me a little bit to get dialed in on how to catch the fish, but once I did it was phenomenal.
I moved around in the region after that, hitchhiking around and living out of a backpack. My Spanish improved and I could talk more with locals and get more information. I ran into some guys who were writing a Patagonia fly fishing guide book, so I ended up befriending them and fishing with them. Some stuff we’d have a lead on, and some stuff was exploratory and ended in failure or bushwhacking.
At one point I ended up meeting one of the guys from the Trout Bum Diaries film, and I made friends with him and did some fishing with him. He never told me exactly where that spot from the film was, and I don’t think I ever found it. I found a lot of similar, equally impressive places, but I don’t think I ever found that one.
When winter would come I would retire my fly rods and move to a city further north and get a job teaching English or working in different places. I really fell in love with the people and the culture and became almost like a local. I had a job and a girlfriend and kind of blended in—people thought that I was Argentine, unless we got into a really involved conversation and my accent came through. That was in my twenties, and those were the most memorable and formative fishing years of my life.
What are the most memorable stories from your time in Patagonia?
When I came back down to Argentina for the second time, I did some of the trip with a couple of friends from the states, and we decided we were going to hike the entire length of the same river that ran through the ranch where I had lived and fished my first time there. We were going to start at the headwaters, and the ranch is like half-way down the river. It was about a twelve-day backpacking trip right around Christmas, and we wanted to get to the ranch for New Year’s. It was so remote—there were no roads anywhere, and you could only get there on foot or on horseback. We were showing up [to the ranch] unexpectedly, and it would be a total shock that we had hiked there from ten days away along miles and miles of river. We were about a half-day’s hike above the ranch and we wanted to bring a gift for when we got there.
We ran into a group of gauchos, who are kind of like cowboys but a lot more bad-ass. They do all the same kinds of work but wear these little cloth shoes and do pretty much everything with one big knife they carry. We rolled up in our fancy backpacking gear, and these gauchos were taking their siesta. You can imagine, they’re sitting there with their big knives and three gringos roll up after ten days of hiking—they were looking at us like “what the heck do you guys want and where the heck did you come from.” We purchased a baby goat from them because, out there, meat comes from goats because the locals raise their cows for sale. The baby goat is a delicacy. Looking back—it’s kind of awful, but when in Rome—we had them slaughter a baby goat for us to bring to the ranch for New Year’s so we could show up with a gift.
We arrived and had a wonderful fiesta—they were happy to see us and happy to see us bring this delicacy. We grilled it ourselves in the traditional Argentine way—they cook it whole with a lot of salt on it, build a really big fire, and cook it at a distance. As the fire burns down to coals they move the goat closer and closer to the coals. They might cook it for four or five hours, but it comes out delicious. Then when it’s done, each person comes up with their own knife and a piece of bread that acts as a hot-mit. You walk up, cut your piece off, stick it on your piece of bread and go sit down.
Another time, I thought I had found the middle earth spot from the Trout Bum Diaries film. I’d looked at a lot of maps and things, and I found this river that emptied into a lake, and to get to the mouth of the river you had to take a boat across the lake. So, [my friends and I] found someone who had a boat and paid them to drop us off. We loaded up two or three days worth of food and water. We fished this thing, and it was really amazing fishing for a tiny body of water because the big fish from the lake would move into the stream. The fishing was so good that we just kept going up, and I never recognized anything that looked like the middle earth spot, so I kept thinking it was further up and we needed to keep going.
Eventually we got so high up that the fishing really thinned out, and all our rations were gone. To get back to the road we had to hike around what was basically a mountain range, and we got into some of the thickest bushwhacking ever. There were these bamboo forests and I couldn’t see my buddy three feet away from me. You could drop something and it wouldn’t hit the ground cause there was so much vegetation. It really got sketchy and we started to get really tired and hungry, but we came upon this little pasture with an old, dilapidated, wooden barn. We were falling asleep because we had gotten so hungry, exhausted, and depleted, and I remember we found apples and kept picking and eating them.
The paths all just petered out, and we were actually thinking we might not be able to get out of there alive. We were like “Okay, one last cigarette, one last apple, we’ve got one shot here. Obviously we can’t go any further, we’ll never make it around this mountain range, and we just need to turn around and use every last bit of energy to go down the creek back to the mouth of the river.” We just prayed there would be somebody around there with a boat. We gave it our all and hiked for like ten hours, and were literally down to our last bits of strength and energy, but luckily when we got to the mouth of the river there was a guy there with his son fishing.
How did your trips to Argentina influence your art career?
I was just fish-crazed during those years. For a lot of my twenties I was trying to tailor things to where I could be around amazing fisheries, either making money as a guide or hitchhiking and living out of a backpack—living on a shoestring kind of thing! So I wasn’t really painting in my twenties—I actually dropped out of art school and transferred from art school into the liberal arts program at University of Michigan. I put down my art for a while and did all this traveling and fishing.
When I was ready to settle again, all these amazing fishing experiences and being totally fish-obsessed coincided with settling down and returning to my art. It was kind of serendipitous and two-and-two came together—fish were a subject matter that would be appropriate. But it wasn’t just a timing thing because I was also just obsessed with these creatures. In Argentina I’d be in my tent in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do at night, and I remember just sitting in my tent looking at a little digital camera going through photos of the fish I caught. It was like my TV—I would go over the photos for hours and learn all their details. That really ingrained a lot of the imagery of fish in my head.
Tell us about your painting style—why do you paint the way you do?
A big thing for me is the way I paint. I try to combine impressionistic elements with realism, and that’s the art that I personally find the most moving and compelling. What really gets me excited is when I see artwork that reads realistic, but when you look closer at it, it doesn’t look like the artist just tried to copy a photo exactly. I like to see expressive elements that give us a little glimpse of the artist’s process, emotions, and unique touch—it actually feels like somebody painted it instead of a machine copied it. I think when you get too tight [and realistic] it sort of becomes an engineered process, and that’s almost the antithesis of creative expression.
But we all love to see something two dimensional that looks three dimensional, real, and alive, so hyperrealism and photorealism are neat things to see and are impressive. And so, I really love to see artwork that combines realism and impressionistic elements, and that’s what I try for with my art. I want you to look at it and have that “wow, that looks real” moment, but I also want the viewer to see the brushwork, the texture, the elements that give us a glimpse into the artist, the process, and the emotion that went into [the piece]. It’s a really hard thing to do to combine those two things—finding that balance can be really tricky because you can get too loose and too impressionistic and you’re going to lose some of that realism, and then sometimes I find myself trying to paint too realistically and I lose some of those expressive elements.
How do you think people best experience art? What connects us to it?
People don’t look at art in person anymore for the most part, especially now with COVID, and that’s tricky because you just can’t see a lot of stuff on a screen, like the elements that build up texture. In person you can see those things more, and I think that creates more of an emotional viewing experience because, again, it doesn’t just look like a replication or photo-copy. In my experience, almost everyone who buys art has had an emotional experience with it. With my art, it’s probably a recollection or transports them to a place on the water or a fishing experience they had. I think the power of art has always been its ability to transport the viewer out of their current reality and into that space and time created on canvas. With my art, hopefully I’m able to remove a [viewer] from where they’re standing in a gallery and transport them to a salt flat or a ridge in the rockies. In my opinion, for that to happen, people need to experience art in person.
What similarities have you experienced between painting and fly fishing?
The analogy I always make between painting and fly fishing is that they both require a really high degree of concentration, and if you’re not able to give that, you’re probably not going to succeed in either one. Because they require that high degree of concentration in that act of casting or minding or painting, they don’t allow your mind to be anywhere else. For me, the most alluring part of both is living in the present moment. I’m not on a phone living in some virtual reality, not living in the past, not living in the future, but living in the present. More and more people these days are less and less present, and when you’re living in the present that’s when you’re the happiest. Whether you’re with family or friends or out on a river by yourself, you’ve got to be there and appreciate what you’re living because if you’re not mentally there, you’re missing it all.
With fishing and with art, you can’t be fixed on an outcome. It’s not about catching that big brown trout at the end of the day, it was about everything leading up to that possibility, whether or not it happened. It’s the same with painting, as artists we often have ideas in our heads of how we want pieces to turn out, but they’re never going to turn out like that, and if you fight that the whole way along you’re going to be miserable. The important part is the process, not the final outcome.
How do you hope to impact your viewers?
Part of the reason I do the fish in the style of portraiture is that classical portraits of aristocrats and clergy people were done to bring reverence to them and make them look important. I want to bring importance and reverence to the fish, so that’s why I do the portraiture style. Our fish are our indicator species, like trout, that require cold, clean waters to thrive. Usually if there are trout present it’s indicative of a healthy ecosystem and that we’re doing a good job managing our land and our waters. So I want people to appreciate fish as species and give them reverence and respect with the idea that the respect will create this consciousness of conservation and preservation of our natural world and our natural stocks.
It’s concerning what’s going with Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about—when our natural stocks are gone, they’re gone. The mine has the potential to wipe out the largest salmon fishery in the world, which also creates a lot of jobs and is tied to a way of life for indigenous people. We need to focus more on the qualitative aspects, not just the quantitative. There’s a quote by Herman Daly, [an ecological economist who focuses on sustainable development] that puts it well: “Future progress simply must be made in terms of the things that really count rather than the things that are merely countable.” My hopes with painting fish in the portrait style and having them be attention grabbers is to make people think “what can we do to preserve these fish,” and tie that into larger environmental issues.
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