Rein Vanderhill, creator of countless beautifully painted white-petaled blossoms, is an artist we encounter daily. This talented artist began his stint at Northwestern all the way back in ’74, and now he’s ready to move onto to bigger and brighter flowers, perhaps. But Vanderhill has seen many things over the past 37 years prior to retirement.
Amidst personal growth as an artist, Vanderhill also saw the move from the old creamery building to the new Korver Visual Arts Center. He says the move from the art building made NW’s art department “more legitimate now. Though some would say we’re still not legitimate,” he said with a laugh. But regardless of whether people find art worthwhile, reality is that the art program went from “being isolated kind of off campus in a minimal facility” to an integrated part of campus life.
Now that the art department has more than two faculty members, Vanderhill has been able to focus more on his specialties, specifically painting. During the days of less adequate facilities when program growth was difficult to come by, the smaller department enabled Vanderhill to better discover his own artistry.
“The reason I started really concentrating on painting was I’d been here since ’74, and the art department was so isolated and neglected. I didn’t see much opportunity to grow it in relation to the college.” So Vanderhill said to himself, “Well, if the art department can’t grow well, then I need to grow as an artist. If I can’t get progress in one area, then I’ll get it in another.”
That, and a sabbatical in ’82, prompted the beginnings of the flowers. Vanderhill’s journey as a painter and artist began much before that, though. He recalls a reccurring situation in second grade. Expecting no more than a simple stick figure, his teachers asked the students to draw their families. Vanderhill was the kid whose pictures were marveled at because they looked so much like his actual family. It makes sense, then, that Vanderhill was connected and active in galleries already in high school. Though he’s spent the past 37 years as an art professor, academics didn’t appeal to Vanderhill for quite some time.
In fact, he graduated high school as an “at-risk student” with very low grades and only got into college because his art portfolio was interesting and someone decided to take a chance. His first two years in an undergrad program at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, were a struggle, failing many of the classes required to stay and graduate.
Vanderhill said, “Finally sophomore year, it hit me. I like making art. What do I have to do to keep making it?” Observing the life of his college art teacher, how he could make art and still get a paycheck, Vanderhill realized, “I guess I better get my degree.” Because he finally had a source of motivation, Vanderhill started paying attention.
As a college professor for more than three decades, Vanderhill has seen education change not only for himself but also here at NW. When Vanderhill arrived in ’74 and was hired by the late president Lars Granberg, he was told that he wasn’t doing his job to challenge students unless the president had gotten “an irate call from a parent saying my students are being led astray.” Whether it’s for better or worse, Vanderhill now sees the department leaning toward a more cautionary approach, though he admits “that’s just my opinion.”
Regardless, Vanderhill’s life as a teacher has served him well – especially since it saved him from fighting in the Vietnam War. After completing only one year of his MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Arts near Detroit, Vanderhill was hired as a professor at a junior college in Michigan. This job as a teacher not only fulfilled a position for a desperate school but also allowed a draft classification, protecting him from leaving the country or going to jail if unwilling to fight.
Though he’s no longer avoiding a draft or struggling to stay in school, Vanderhill continues to mirror his “depressive pessimist” attitude in most of his artwork. Whether or not he always understands it completely as an artist, he has truly examined what motivates his imagery-making. Nevertheless, he said, “My paintings are hopeful. I am not. I’ve never really understood that.”