Michael Riley-Hill found his appreciation of nature growing up in a small town. He was fascinated by architecture and buildings and would spend hours sketching and painting in his youth. Riley-Hill attended Kutztown University, where he developed his talent for painting. His unique method of painting one small area of the canvas at a time was questioned, but ultimately was discovered to be part of his innate talent for detailed paintings.
Riley-Hill works primarily in watercolors and acrylics. People are often fascinated by the detail of his work, as there is so much to be seen. His watercolors are rich and vibrant accounts of ordinary life: sometimes gritty, sometimes picturesque. Riley-Hill is a truly diversified artist.
PGN: I understand that you’re from out in the boonies.
MRH: Yes, a small town in Pennsylvania called Bangor, which no one has ever heard of — they all assume I’m from Maine, but we have one here too. It’s outside of Easton.
PGN: Since I’m a city kid, tell me about growing up in such a rural area.
MRH: It was very isolated. There wasn’t much to do, which probably encouraged my artwork. I would color with crayons when I was young and then by middle school and high school I was into painting and drawing. It took up a huge amount of my time during those years.
PGN: Give me a sense of what your home was like.
MRH: Well, my father had 24 acres and my uncle owned another 24. We were pretty much in the middle of nothing; the nearest house was my grandfather’s. There were no kids my age anywhere around. So I was pretty isolated and when I went to school — which was about 40 minutes away — I was very shy since I wasn’t used to being around other kids. It was hard for me to make friends. I’m a quiet, introverted person so I took refuge in my art. I tried almost everything I could get my hands on: painting, sculpting, metal work, ceramics, printmaking. I even did some jewelry. I was lucky to have a really great high-school art teacher. I spent a lot of my time in the art room. My best friend in senior high was also an artist so the two of us would try to outdo each other.
PGN: Do you come from a large or small family?
MRH: There’s just two of us: me and my brother.
PGN: Are you the only artistic one in the family?
MRH: I think my brother probably has the talent for it, but his aspirations were elsewhere. He’s an aerospace engineer and was very academically inclined, whereas I was more artistically inclined.
PGN: Describe your method of painting. I hear it’s a little unique and that your teacher tried to talk you out of it.
MRH: Yes, I paint in little, very detailed squares, almost like a mural maker. In college, I had a professor who tried to change that. He said, “Well, what most artists do is start with a general tone and flesh it out from there.” He had me do that and then said, “Never mind.” He said that it wasn’t bad but that when left to my own method I did a much better, more detailed painting. I continued doing it my own way and I’ve been doing it ever since!
PGN: What would one most likely see in a Michael Riley-Hill?
MRH: Basically, places I’ve been, things I’ve seen. I work from pictures I’ve taken. I don’t paint on site because it takes me so long, because I’m so detailed. I’d have to camp out for a month at the site! So I open the picture up on Photoshop and start painting one area at a time. I have to finish one area before moving on to the next. Sometimes it gets me into trouble: I was doing a painting of the Phoenixville Foundry and it had a lot of brickwork. It’s been sitting unresolved for five years because I just got so sick of painting bricks that I kept putting it off. I liked the painting and was looking forward to completing it, so I finally said, “OK, I just need to buckle down and finish.”
PGN: It sounds like how I feel when doing a crossword puzzle with lots of sky. You’re like, “No more blue!”
MRH: Exactly, and I have to do each one so that they’ll look uniform.
PGN: Where did you go to college?
MRH: I went to Kutztown University. I’m honored to say that I won the Terry Lynn Boyle Memorial Award for Illustration.
PGN: I know life as an artist can be tough. Do you have a day job as well?
MRH: Yes, I’m a graphic designer at Vanguard for 21 years. So I do graphic work by day and then go home and do my painting. Try to find clients who might be interested in the work so that I can retire at 50 and do nothing but art!
PGN: Can you tell me a little more about your work?
MRH: My works are heavily influenced by architecture and nature. I believe that both nature and architecture are intertwined. I love the details and believe that’s part of the narrative in my works. I like to seek out subject matters that have light, color and texture to show the beauty of how I perceive the world. I’ve been doing this since I was young and my paintings tell the stories of my journeys through life. I’ll take a photo and then translate what I perceive and tell it through paint. I want to take the viewer with me through my journey in life, and hope they will enjoy my story, if it be beautiful and scenic, or hard and gritty. I do people on occasion but not often.
PGN: Where can people find it?
MRH: I have a website, and believe it or not I get a lot of business from Facebook. I also do the Chester County Studio Tour each year; that’s coming up May 21. They get a large number of artists in the area to open up their studios and homes to people and almost all the artists in Chester County participate. People can go from house to house and look at art and buy from different artists. A lot of people love to see where people paint.
PGN: That’s cool.
MRH: Yes, me and my husband have had two different houses on the House Tours of Historic Phoenixville: our old house and now the one we’re in currently. It’s fun.
PGN: So speaking of things like husbands, what was it like coming out in the middle of nowhere? When did you have your first inkling?
MRH: I think I first had an idea when I was in about seventh grade. It was tough because, at that age, especially back then, you didn’t know that there was anyone else like you. You didn’t have the TV shows and movies with representation like we do now. I’m in my 50s and back then it was something that was just whispered about or made fun of. So I didn’t know how to tell anyone, which led to more isolation. I don’t think I actually told anyone until my senior year of college and then I told a friend and it turned out he was gay as well, which was interesting. Then I started reading people out and about or online and started recognizing people from high school. And I thought, Man, if I’d known them or about them in school it probably would’ve made things a lot easier, to have someone to talk to you about it. I always tried to stay in the background so that people wouldn’t notice me. Perhaps if I’d known there were others, I may have been more sociable.
PGN: How did you come out to the family?
MRH: My mom found a copy of the PGN in my backpack! She passed away, but she was very religious so there were two weeks of nonstop crying and talking about it. It was hard for her and it was hard for me because, by that time, I wasn’t totally out to everyone but it wasn’t something I shied away from. It was at a point in my life where I was sick of living in the closet. I had to say, “I know you’re sad, I know you’re scared, but it’s going to be OK.” This was around the time AIDS was beginning to appear and she was afraid for me. She didn’t want to tell my dad but we finally told him and he was fine with it, which was a surprise for both of us. It was kind of interesting we both really feared his reaction; he was a regular guy from a rural area — a carpenter — and yet it didn’t seem to faze him.
PGN: How did you and your husband meet?
MRH: It was online. We were writing back forth and then decided to meet up. We went out once and just clicked and we’ve been together ever since. We got married for the first time up in Provincetown in 2010. The first time, it was just the two of us and our dog, but now that it’s legal across the United States, we wanted to do something special. We had a very short ceremony and then a party for about 65 of our friends at a small art gallery in Phoenixville.
PGN: Is there much of a gay scene in Phoenixville?
MRH: There used to be a club but it closed about seven years ago, but there are a large number of gay people in Phoenixville. We just passed an LGBT antidiscrimination bill. There’s no particular club but there’s a very large community here. The town is very gay-friendly. The only time we had problems was back at our old house. There were some drug dealers living next door, and I think they were more upset about the fact that we were the type of citizens to call the police when there were problems. I’m the town-watch captain in our area. Us being gay was something for them to target but it could’ve been anything; they were more upset at having neighbors who were trying to make change in the area.
PGN: What happened?
MRH: Basically it was a couple of older women sitting outside when my partner Tony came home from work. They mumbled something about faggots under their breath. My husband is not one to be silent about that kind of thing. There was nothing physical but they had a verbal confrontation. And the police were called. They’ve always been very nice any time we have a problem. They said to him, “You have to be careful Tony, because there are no hate-crime laws on the books here.” But he’s never been one to back down so he said if they started something he would finish it. But other than that, we’ve never had any problems. This is a small town and the kind of place where everybody knows you. If we call to make reservations at a restaurant, it’s the kind of place where people will respond, “Oh great! We haven’t seen you and Tony for a while!”
PGN: What does Tony do?
MRH: He is an activities director for a senior complex. It’s outside of West Chester and he’s been doing that since I met him, which was about 10 years ago.
PGN: OK, let’s end with a silly question. Outside of your own work, what’s a painting you would like to venture into?
MRH: I’ve always been very fond of the Dutch Renaissance period. I think I’d like to check out life inside of one of paintings of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, you know, “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” artist. But only if I could be one of the gentry; I don’t think I’d like to be a common man. [Laughs] And I don’t think I’d like to stay there for too long! There’s no place like home.
For more information on Michael Riley-Hill, visit www.mrileyhillart.com.