Gravitation Generator: Erica Hill on Beck, Artist Michelle MacNaught + Finding Inspiration

Erica HillDirector, Photographer and Producer Erica Hill and I first met prior working on Clem Snide’s “Your Night to Shine” video (below), from their debut album “You Were A Diamond” (Tractor Beam Records). Her beautiful work on this video speaks for itself.

It is one whose visual simplicity belies a complicated production. In it, Hill enlisted a crew of volunteers, arranged for waltzing dancers and avoided being hit by cars. Recently, she located the original video master.

More importantly, Hill has worked tirelessly on many admirable causes, many of them pro-arts. Amongst them, she is one of the founders of the Lily Sarah Grace Fund, supporting arts education in public elementary schools. Additionally, she helped produce the first benefit for the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls (with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah), and currently is producing and curating openings for the artist Michelle McNaught.  The latest event – “The 12×12 Show & Silent Auction” which will benefit the artist’s namesake scholarship funds – will take place in Andes, NY, on August 10, 2013.

In showing her desire to help, Hill has herself become an inspiration. I decided to dig a little deeper.


Dan Efram: What was Ludlow street like back in the mid-late 1990’s? I remember there being a dolly in the street and you and Director of Photography Mott Hupfel shooting over and around cars as they drove by – a really fun experience! I had never dodged cars on a shoot!
I loved that building on Ludlow Street! This was a really fun shoot! I loved the traffic going by and used that as an element in the video. Ludlow was so different back then. There were hardly any bars on that block and it was pretty quiet at night. We didn’t even have a cop with us – just a permit to shoot. Imagine trying to do that shoot today?

DE: I remember seeing and being a fan of your photography early on. Do you remember any favorite art projects?
I started taking photos in 6th grade when my dad loaned me his camera… an old Minolta. In high school I was always taking photos at different events or parties. In college I majored in Art & Geography after changing my major 4 times and had to take all my requirements my Junior & Senior years. I took 2 photography classes and hated them. My favorite class was run by the head of the Art Dept., a really tall bald guy who was famous for ripping students’ art off the walls and stomping on it! I took a lot of color theory classes that I loved. But my favorite one got us to think about art outside of the traditional mediums.
For one of my projects I sent everyone in the class on a scavenger hunt around the campus. When they came back, we had all the elements for a picnic and sat in the classroom and had it. The other one I remember and loved doing involved me making a 24-layer cake. I cut a slice out of it and placed that on a plate, so you could really see the layers. Both the cake and the plate were placed on a table I made myself – that I collaged with photos of myself as a young girl that my dad had taken. Those classes made me really wish I had started in the Art program sooner. I love map and design and my focus at the time was cartography. I got a job straight out of college in an architectural firm in Boston and within a year was running their art department. From there I went to work for the City of Boston where the highlight of my almost three years there was designing the (now infamous) “You Are Here” maps all around the city showing historical places. Prisoners actually produced the maps, which I always thought was interesting.

Fingerpaint Reocrds 10"DE: What was Fingerpaint Records and how did you end up releasing Beck’s “A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight”?
Fingerpaint Records started when I was in Los Angeles. We were four friends who just decided it would be fun to have a vinyl only label.  We all either worked in music or were huge fans so it made sense. We each had specific jobs within the label and mine was the artwork.
I love the record! And he is awesome. We went to his house a couple times to have finger painting parties… everyone got a finger painting along with the record in the first pressing. He had a really sweet roommate and I would run into him all over town.

DE: How and why did you end up back in New York?
While I was living in LA, I lost one of my closest friends and my cousin within 3 weeks of one another. Their deaths made me really realize that this is all we have and if I was hit by a bus tomorrow, I would want to be doing something in my life that I was passionate about. I moved back to NYC and again quit my job. Within a few months I began working at a tiny production company and that was the beginning of my career as a director/producer/all around anything film or video related. I have continued to take photos through the years… sometimes professionally and sometimes just for me and I love it.

DE: You have a deft touch…
Mainly I just love people and their stories.

DE: Me too! You have always fought for the underdog. Tell us about artist Michelle MacNaught.
Michelle. Michelle worked for my husband Scott & I at our store upstate, Delaware Trading Post for the summer between her Junior & Senior year of high school and the Summer between her senior year and college (SUNY Purchase).  She also lived at the other end of our road upstate in DeLancey, NY. She was full of energy and just a great spirit… beautiful, funny and she drove a bright blue VW bug, a car that fit her perfectly! She had a little hippie in her but was also really practical.  She would always draw these fantastic kinds of whimsical pencil drawings on old pieces of cardboard or brown craft paper we used to wrap presents in the store.  Fantasy type things… think giant mushrooms and fairies. They were pretty great!


DE: When and how did you hear of her of illness?
In September or October 2010 Scott took the girls to horse riding camp and came back with the news that apparently Michelle was in the hospital with ovarian cancer and it didn’t look good. I was stunned. We knew where she was, so I just called the hospital in Boston. She got on the phone and told me what was going on… they had found a tumor the size of a grapefruit wedged into her hip. She was 20 years old. From there she moved to treatment at (Memorial) Sloan Kettering. She would come down for chemo and I went up there a couple times when that was happening.  One of those times, she brought some of her work for her doctors to see. It would end up being part of her “Chemo Series” and I was just blown away! I couldn’t believe the intensity of the work especially from someone so young. As time went on, I couldn’t get the images out of my mind. (View Hill’s beautiful video about MacNaught below.)

As Michelle got more ill, I spent more time with her and her family at the hospital. One day she was telling me that the adult version of “make a wish” was going to do something for her and she wanted a new wig. I just thought to myself a new wig doesn’t seem like enough. I really, really wanted to others to get to see her work and for her to be able to see others appreciating it! The idea of the show was born!

michelle macnaught 12x12 show

Please join Erica Hill and the Andes, NY community in a silent auction on Saturday, August 10th, 2013 at The Maggie & Leo Koenig Barn. Funds are tax deductible, will benefit local art scholarships and given in Michelle MacNaught’s name. 

DE: How did the MacNaught gallery show develop? What exactly went into that?
My friend (former actress and antiques dealer) Brooke Alderson contacted Leo Koenig, who has a gallery in NYC and a place Upstate. He said if we could wait until November we could have his smaller space for 5 days and we took it. Leo was incredibly moved by Michelle’s work as well… as was everyone who saw it. I am a do-er and always have been so from there I reached out Tom Munro, another friend who was familiar with her work. He helped get Damiani on board to make her book for us for free. Everything was about our upstate community coming together and it was amazing. As the show date approached, Michelle was getting much more ill and it was clear she couldn’t endure the drive down from her home. So I decided we needed to raise money in order to fly her in via a helicopter. Again, I reached out to the community and photo rep Julian Richards started raising money from his friends; I found the amazing helicopter pilot; the Delhi hospital agreed to let a helicopter land on their helipad; we had an ambulance pick her up from the West Side and bring her directly to the show. 
After some delays Michelle made it to her show and there were about 750 people in attendance. She was surrounded by family, friends and strangers whom were all there to celebrate her and her work. It was amazing! She got to see her work hanging in a gallery and went home with a book of her work! The weather became a problem so we had to organize an ambulance to meet her in Kingston to make the journey the rest of the way to her home. Sadly, she died the following Sunday at the age of 21. I saw her the night before she died and she was looking through the book and talking about the show.
(Ed note: Approximately $20,000 was raised for the Michelle MacNaught Ovarian Cancer Research Fund at Sloan Kettering from book sales.)

Check out an online gallery of MacNaught’s work.

DE: That’s such an amazing story and journey! I remember going to that opening, just believing I was going to be happy to see you for a few minutes… was totally floored by the huge crowd, Michelle’s work and the beautiful glow that had overcome the gallery. I felt so fortunate.
That all happened due to the goodwill of others. They gave Michelle a gift beyond her wildest imagination. This year I am putting together another show (see below) to honor her. Only this time, I have asked artists to create a work 12″ x 12″ that is inspired by her piece “Patron Saint of Normal” that you own! I am so excited! I think it is going to be amazing and the hope is that it is a big success and we are able to make it a yearly event! The money raised is going to local high school scholarships and will be overseen by her mom.

DE: What are some other projects you are currently working on?Besides the art show August 10, I am working on a cookbook based on the recipes from the big July 4th party we go to every year. There is an article in the latest Town & Country about the party and I am finishing up a video on it. Adam Horovitz (Beastie Boys) is also working on a documentary about it. Anyway, I am working on that with Brooke Alderson, who along with her husband, artist Peter Schjeldahl, host the party – she organizes it and he does the insane fireworks.


I am also going to Brazil in September to work on the skateboarding documentary I am doing on Harry Jumonji and continue to work on my documentary on Astronautalis, who has a record with Justin Vernon coming out along with one with P.O.S. based on F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories.


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