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On the life and impact of Roger Hull

The beloved Willamette University professor often reminded students 'the work of the art historian is never done.' Mentee and friend Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander reflects on Hull's life and lasting legacy.

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Painting of man with white hair with glasses in a black silhouette of a car indicating driver's seat. Green hills and trees out the window with sign post with home
Bonnie Hull (American, born 1944), The Driving Head Goes Home, 2004. Acrylic on paper, 28 x 26 inches, Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University, Gift of the artist, 2010.022

The life of Roger Hull (1943 – 2023) is a testament to what can be accomplished when one embraces rootedness, community, and quiet persistence in a world that so often forgets the power of a slow burn. A beloved and award-winning art history professor at Willamette University for forty years, he was also the visionary behind the establishment of Hallie Ford Museum of Art twenty-five years ago and an incredible scholar of the understudied field of Pacific Northwest art. He was also one of my favorite people on planet earth—along with his wife, artist Bonnie Hull—I consider them my north stars, kindred spirits in life and art, keepers of essential wisdom gained through decades of experience, and my chosen family that chose me back. To speak to Roger’s impact within his scholarly and curatorial community could easily turn into a never-ending monologue, though a group of his former students and colleagues did our best to honor him in the recent book, Unfolding Forms: Studies in Honor in Roger P. Hull. As grateful as I was to contribute to his Festschrift, there was more to I wanted to say about mentorship, museums, and the magic of Roger Hull—for me, who he was as a person is inseparable from his work, and to speak only of his vocations is to miss the fundamental joy of knowing and learning from Roger.

Roger and I were forty-two years apart in age and met when I was a sophomore at Willamette University, and he was approaching retirement. In retrospect, our meeting seems like generational kismet: I was just entering my adult life and career as he was approaching the twilight of his; in fact, I graduated in 2010, the same year he retired. At the time, I was unlike the typical Willamette student, as I was a little older than my peers and already certain about my major and career path. I was single-minded about being an art history major and becoming a curator, so I didn’t exactly embrace the exploratory ethos of a liberal arts college. Even still, a professor can, for better or worse, make or break a student’s ambitions, and given my interest in modern and contemporary art, Roger’s support would be crucial.

Alexander and Roger Hull at Archive Coffee & Bar on May 15, 2022

Like any legendary professor, Roger’s reputation preceded him, though I had already encountered him prior to my Willamette days while working as a barista at a now-defunct downtown Salem coffeeshop. So, it was with great anticipation that I enrolled in my first classes with Roger, whose lectures were renowned for ingenious slide comparisons (a foundation of the discipline) and unmatched dry humor. In that darkened lecture hall—endowed and named after Roger, no less—we listened to whir of the slide projector while Roger’s expressive hands danced across a screen illuminated by images by Max Beckmann, Carl Hall, and Fra Angelico. As fellow Willamette art history major turned art historian Raino Isto (’08) shared, “the things that stick with me from Roger’s classes are about the energy he conveyed through his hands and the tone of his voice (especially his hand gestures, which I feel like are still the most dynamic and evocative hand gestures of any person I’ve ever seen lecture!).” George Johanson’s gorgeous 2010 portrait of Roger lovingly captures his signature gesticulations in the top register of the painting, a touching homage to his memorable lecture-performances.

Painted portrait of a man in a dark suit and scarf with paintings, including a Renaissance portrait by Piero della Francesca on the wall
George Johanson, “Portrait of Roger Hull,” 2010, acrylic on canvas, 59 x 43.5 inches, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund, 2010.

Roger taught us about close looking, another core principle of art history, but his demeanor rewarded careful listening, as well. Daydream and you might miss a subtly raunchy joke about Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, which was delivered with such deadpan seriousness many students missed it in the frenzy of notetaking. Recently I spoke with artist Marie Watt (’90) and she recalled this exact Bosch joke (a bit too bawdy for print, but if you know, you know), which charmed me: Roger made sure to remember his best material and share it with each incoming class. Humor was a rhetorical device Roger deployed with style to get you interested in the actual substance of art history. For those astute listeners, once you understood the narrative journey he was leading you on, the whole demonstration became irresistible. I would often sneak in my friends who were not enrolled in his courses just so they could have the experience of a Roger Hull lecture. Exposure to Roger, and later the truly charming combination of Roger and Bonnie, became a method of social discernment, a litmus test to help me find like-minded people in life and art.

Man with glasses in academic garb holding a maroon diploma. Arm around woman also with glasses and short white hair wearing a scarf.
Roger Hull and Bonnie Hull after Roger received an honorary doctorate from Willamette University on May 15, 2022.

As I wrote in Roger’s Festschrift, his vision to establish a university art museum is perhaps his greatest and most impactful contribution to the regional cultural landscape. The Hallie Ford Museum of Art is unique within Oregon, as collections-based university art museums in the Pacific Northwest are rare. While museums have come under intense public scrutiny in recent years—rightfully so, as many of them are the product of cultural imperialism and perpetuate these historical ills in their current practices—the best serve a public good, seek to correct history, and fulfill educational missions. Under Roger’s guidance, I curated my first exhibitions at the Hallie Ford, worked a paid position in the collections department, and gained vital professional knowledge that would have otherwise been unavailable to me in Salem, Oregon. One may take all the college courses they want, but in the museum world, as in many fields, there is no replacement for experience. Today, I am a curator at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University (my dream job), a collections-based, mission-driven university art museum in Palo Alto, California. With art history professor Marci Kwon, I also co-direct the Asian American Art Initiative, an ongoing project that seeks to provide meaningful platforms for the display, research, and engagement of Asian American art and artists. Though not immediately apparent, Roger’s advocacy for Pacific Northwest art—which, like Asian American art, has been historically excluded from mainstream art historical narratives—serves as a personal reference point for my current work.

Looking back at Roger’s career, in some ways, it runs counter to current beliefs about what constitutes or is necessary for success in the art world. Nowadays, it is rare for a scholar or curator to remain in one place for the entirety of their career as there is always a ladder to climb and a different, more prestigious institution at which to work. Moreover, Roger almost exclusively wrote about and curated shows on the work of historically underrecognized artists of the Pacific Northwest—he was neither a name-dropper nor market-chaser, choosing instead to focus on those mostly ignored in art history. His bibliography demonstrates his lifelong commitment to putting Pacific Northwest modernism on the map, and art history is certainly richer for it. While he was always humble about his work, now that I exist firmly within the mainstream art world, I have a deeper appreciation for his quietly iconoclastic methods. It is a good lesson for how to make a difference in one’s community, and I think about his approach often in context of the Asian American Art Initiative.

Woman seated in front of an audience with art on the wall at the Bush Barn Art Center. Roger Hull in vest and beanie cap in the corner of the image
Bonnie Hull and Roger Hull at the opening reception of her exhibition, Marking Time: Bonnie Hull, at Bush Barn Art Center, in Salem, Oregon (November 2022). Image courtesy of Bonnie Hull.

What has not been said thus far is that Bonnie Hull, artist and spouse of fifty-four years to Roger, is the linchpin to everything—she was the soulful blues to Roger’s rhythm, the creative energy of the household, and the open heart I often consulted during life’s troubles. Meeting Bonnie during college endeared Roger to me even more: she softened his somewhat intimidating exterior and made him seem more human and less legend. I doubt I would have maintained a relationship with Roger all these years if his other half weren’t Bonnie—for many of us close to them, their pairing served as a paragon of creative collaboration and seemingly effortless mutual care and affection. I loved how they found each other endlessly amusing. Even after decades of co-existence, the magic was always present. 

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Moreover, I maintain a deep respect for Bonnie’s wide-ranging artistic practice, which takes the form of vibrant quilts, paintings, and drawings. Her thoughtfulness and vitality are mirrored in the objects she makes, each a product of joyful consideration and energetic detail. Any visit with the Hulls was also an opportunity for a studio session with Bonnie, where she shared her experiences learning from the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, whose work I would, as it turned out, touch on in my dissertation. During the many pre-and post-dinner cocktail hours I experienced at their exquisite Salem home (the oldest private residence in the city), Bonnie would quilt as the three of us talked about topics ranging from the work of D.E. May, another Salem artist and legend, to the often hilarious trials and tribulations of academia. These conversations, which sometimes lasted quite late into the evening, are where I will miss Roger most.      

Three people (white haired man in a blue shirt, dark haired wiry figure in a black shirt, and woman with long bangs in a yellow dress) looking at a table covered in books.
Roger Hull, D.E. May, and Alexander in May’s Salem studio, May 2008.

I love(d) Roger and Bonnie like parents (I sometimes called them my art world parents), though I understood full well that they were not, which allowed me to enjoy the positive parts of such a relationship and none of the complications or fraught tensions that are inherent in actual parent-child relations. I was not beholden to any of the expectations or obligations children are often subjected to and would sometimes go most of a year without talking to them.

While I would describe Roger as many things—thoughtful, wry, poetic—effusive with praise, he was not. This didn’t particularly bother me, especially after I graduated, as I wasn’t really looking for his validation and was also used to that type of personality within my biological family. I was in it for the wisdom, common interests, and unique shared humor. Most of all, my relationship with the Hulls has affirmed that fostering intergenerational friendship remains one of my core values, as these bonds have sustained, supported, and enriched my life in the most meaningful ways, and I will always encourage others to nurture such relationships. History exists in the abstract and within people: every human being is a living archive. I consider every afternoon, cocktail hour, and dinner I spent with the Hulls a form of (the most pleasurable) research, and what I learned in those encounters belongs to a history I can help steward from now on.

As Roger approached the end of his life, which was a long and challenging journey, I observed the Hull family (Roger, Bonnie, their son, Zach, his spouse, Ashton, and their two children, Sidney and Vivien) embrace this process with strength, vulnerability, and transparency. Even in death, they modeled how to live: the family discussed health, potential timelines, and day-to-day difficulties with openness and signature Hull humor, never oversharing nor leaving those close to them guessing. Though one cannot really prepare for this kind of permanent absence, knowing what was coming and when was ultimately beneficial. Roger and Bonnie gave me what I consider one of my greatest life gifts: a parting conversation. A chance to say thank you and goodbye—which is not something I’d ever experienced. While Roger and I talked about many things in that conversation, it eventually came back to art. The thing that brought us together in the first place.

At one point, he said to me: “I am slowly, happily, peacefully, passing on.”

Roger showed me what it looks like to confront life’s end with intention, grace, and acceptance, and I am forever grateful to have received that final lesson from him.

                                                                        ***

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Anyone who knew Roger undoubtedly heard his common refrain, “The work of the art historian is never done.” Like many Roger-isms, this statement may seem simple on the surface but at its core is quietly profound. Of course, there will always be another artist to write about, a different historical moment to explore, archives to find and sort, and more shows to curate—the endless nature of art history is part of its allure. But this is how I really understood Roger’s iconic catchphrase: the art historian’s job is not to foreclose meaning; instead, it is to explode it, to elucidate all that is possible embedded within each work of art. A painting, sculpture, or photograph isn’t a problem to be resolved—in fact each one is a universe unto itself—and any single interpretation offered should never foreclose the possibility of others.

To me, his statement expressed an awareness that being a historian means dedicating your life to pursuing something that will always exceed your individual existence. Whatever you choose to write about will open different narratives and intellectual paths to be explored by others. So, by very virtue of being an art historian, your work will never be done—your contributions impact the scholarship of future generations, as they build on it in ways powerful and surprising and unanticipated. I’m sure Roger never thought his work on Pacific Northwest modernism would help shape someone’s thinking on Asian American art history, but it has and continues to do so. In my grief (itself a reflection of my deep love for him), it comforts me to know Roger’s work is not yet done, that it lives on in the work of his students, family, and colleagues, that it lives on, in a small way, in me.

Rest in power, Roger Hull.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander is the Robert M. and Ruth L. Halperin Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and Co-director of the Asian American Art Initiative at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. She received her Ph.D. in art history from the University of California, Santa Barbara (2018) and B.A. in art history from Willamette University (2010).

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