A Black Jack spruce
Despite troubling eye sight and fear of heights, Baldwin City native Donna Hill is determined to touch up two murals she painted 30 years ago.
During the last two months, Hill and her son, Marlowe Hill, have returned to the Black Jack cabin east of Baldwin several times. Their mission is to refurbish the cabin's paintings before the Battle of Black Jack's sesquicentennial celebration June 2-3.
"I had forgot a lot about it," D. Hill said when she returned to the cabin 30 years after painting the murals. "It doesn't seem like I painted this 30 years ago. I see where I could have done a lot better if I had been more patient, but I don't like being a foot off the ground, let alone on a ladder like that."
A recent problem with vision has hampered D. Hill's goal of touching up the paintings.
"I could see until two weeks ago," D. Hill said. "Then one morning I woke up and I was blinder than a bat. I went to the doctor and said 'what the hell is wrong with me.' He said that my eyes were bleeding from behind and I shouldn't drive anymore."
In the beginning
In 1976, D. Hill was asked to paint the inside of the cabin. She painted two murals on the north and south walls of the cabin. The north wall is a depiction of covered wagons and the Santa Fe Trail, while the south wall is a painting of the Battle of Black Jack.
She was given no specific instructions on the paintings.
"He told me just to paint it, but he didn't say what to paint it," D. Hill said. "I have walked almost all of the three or four counties around here with my dad. I thought about the ruts and then they told me about John Brown. I had never heard of him before that day. It just happened to come out like it did, because I had no idea how it would come out."
An old friend of D. Hill's helped her make the Santa Fe Trail painting more realistic.
"When I was a really little kid, this Indian I knew told me there were no trees around here back then. He actually lived around here and I remember talking to him for hours. There were just a few trees back then and that's what I was thinking about when I painted this."
She used acrylic watercolor paints on the murals, but didn't use a paint brush to put much of it on the wall.
"I mostly used rags," D. Hill said. "The wagons were painted with a paint brush, along with anything small. But most of it, I painted with a rag because it's a lot easier and it goes a lot quicker."
After painting the murals in 1976, D. Hill never returned to check on their status, until recently. The late Katharine Kelley called her several years ago to inform D. Hill the paintings were in bad shape.
"Mrs. Kelley came to me five or six years ago and told me that the cabin was leaking," Hill said. "When we came out to look at the leaks, we saw large cracks in the seams of the wall."
The paintings remained in bad shape until the idea for the 150th anniversary of the battle came about. D. Hill heard about the sesquicentennial celebration from Marvin Jardon, former postmaster of Baldwin.
"Marv Jardon told me they were going to have a 150th celebration or something," D. Hill said. "He asked me if I would go look at those paintings and I said 'I had already seen those paintings with the cracks' and thought 'what a bitch.'"
Even though she didn't want to touch up the paintings 30 years later, D. Hill agreed to come look at their status, which was worse than before.
"When I came out here, this one was really black from the smoke from the fire place," D. Hill said of the Santa Fe Trail painting. "I knew it was going to be black when I painted it and I asked them if they wanted me to put any finish over it. They told me no. So this time, we are going to put three layers of polyurethane."
D. Hill and her son came out to the cabin at the beginning of March to begin refurbishing the murals. The first step involved filling the cracks and painting over the smoke covered areas.
"We filled it in, painted and sanded it off," D. Hill said. "Then painted and sanded it off a few times. Then the new white acrylic actually came through the sky and through the green. So we had to go back and paint some areas four times."
The new white paint created several problems for the Hills, because it would show through the original paints too much. D. Hill attempted to return the paint for better quality acrylic, but found out the paint she had was the best available.
She did have many of the original paints left from 30 years ago. Since her eyesight was failing, she mixed the paints for her son, who would then touch up the murals.
"I have the original paints and I would put them on the plates and mix them up for him," D. Hill said. "Then he would get up there and put it on. It turned out good."
The love of art runs in the Hill family.
"My kids always grew up liking to paint and do stuff with their hands," D. Hill said. "I have two boys and both of them are really good. I have two grand kids and both of them are really, really good."
During the touching up stages, M. Hill said he tried to make the trees more visible in the battle painting.
"On this painting, we added some green to the trees," M. Hill said. "The dust and the dirt made them even more blander so that they didn't stand out. Now the trees are darker and the obviously stand out so you know what they are."
M. Hill enjoyed painting the murals his mother did 30 years ago, and was pleased with how they look.
"It's nice and very pretty," M. Hill said. "It's all about what you appreciate in life."
Neither of the Hills know if they will be attending the sesquicentennial celebration weekend. D. Hill wishes more people would use the cabin for special occasions.
"Most people don't know they can rent it," D. Hill said. "They need to tell people, because if people knew, they would rent it. This would make neat weddings or picnic for families. They don't advertise it and I don't know why."