Sisters ‘at play’

Claudia Steel and Alice Hutchins are sisters who’ve combined for over 100 years of creating art

Above, “Approaching Rain,” by Claudia Steel

Above, “Approaching Rain,” by Claudia Steel

The picture of the two bathing teenaged beauties in a dinghy atop a placid lake reads “Victoria, Can. 1932.” Fast toward to today, and if you do a quick math estimate, you’d probably assume that the two are relegated to a geriatric ward. Wrong! Those sisters, Alice Williamson Hutchins and Claudia Williamson Steel, are still making waves in their chosen professions—as artists.

Two Sisters opened March 1 at the 1078 Gallery, and the pair’s photo graced the invitation to this show of two-dimensional works by Steel and mostly sculpture by Hutchins.

Raised in Chico and born 16 months apart, the two sisters enjoyed the freedom of living at what was then the edge of town—in a house on The Esplanade now replaced by Enloe Hospital. “We made a lot of mud pies and were allowed to express ourselves,” Hutchins recalled. “I was the bossy older sister to Claudia and our little brother. I’d write a little play and tell them what to do. I was supposed to set the example. As a child, I wanted to go to China and have adventures. But I wanted to experience life. I wanted to find my own way. I loved the unknown. I wanted to get out of Chico.”

Steel and Hutchins as young teens in Victoria, B.C., in 1932.

Courtesy Of Alice Hutchins and Claudia Steel

She did just that, attending UC Berkeley until she married her husband John. His work as a lawyer took them to 14 cities in 13 years, including Washington, D.C., and Cairo, Egypt. But it wasn’t until they stopped in Paris—by then she was close to 40—that Hutchins decided to start drawing. She drew everything in sight, including “the light bulb.”

But Hutchins is into the change, the flux of it all, in her life and in her art. Something clicked when she glimpsed tiny refrigerator magnets at an enormous French department store with a basement full of hardware. “I stumbled on these things, and as the older sister I’m interested in changing people’s outlook,” she laughed.

She grouped the magnets with clear plastic boxes and called them “playthings.” Her work still falls under that rubric.

How often can you go into a gallery and touch the art? At the 1078, Hutchins invites viewers to interact with her work with a posted sign, “If you would like to make another arrangement feel free to make a change.”

Sisters Claudia Williamson Steel, left, and Alice Williamson Hutchins at the 1078 Gallery

Photo By Tom Angel

Two Sisters features 14 of Hutchins’ pieces, created in the late-'90s and during the last two years. Assemblages of galvanized metal, steel rods and shiny round metal balls share a commonality—they’re all attracted to the magnets that serve as the base of these pieces. Her only two-dimensional work in the show is a 1967 self–portrait created when she was affiliated with the Fluxus movement in New York. (You may recall an earlier Fluxus artist by the name of Yoko Ono.)

On the opening night, Hutchins was spry and sleek, clad in black that contrasted with her closely cropped salt-and-pepper locks. She contentedly watched as visitors clustered around her works, more than happy to oblige the artist’s request, changing and rearranging the metal into a myriad of shapes.

There is something quite enticing about being able to create your own vision of another artist’s work. That could explain how Hutchins’ resume lists hundreds of international shows and exhibitions her work has been featured in.

Hutchins’ little sister Claudia bustled around the crowd on the opening night too, clad in a sage Chinese jacket, her hair a sleek white bob. The exhibit offers 24 of Steel’s works, from 1959 serigraphs to more recent abstract landscapes in oil. Her 2005 “Coffee Jitters” is very ‘60s retro, with its simple cup shapes and bright vivid colors. But more fascinating is her 1960 “Approaching Rain,” a one-of-a-kind serigraph that offers a most dynamic movement of color and line, not unlike an oncoming storm. “Mendocino Sunset,” painted this year, offers a multi-hued sky of clouds that connect to the sea.

Claudia Steel’s “Coffee Jitters.”

Steel was the one designated in the Williamson family to be the artist. “I was always drawing, from the time I could remember, and started showing my work when I was in high school,” Steel recalled. “But I was also influenced by a painting that our great Aunt Elizabeth painted from the porch of her house in 1885 when she was 16, of the gypsies that had settled across the street.”

The sense of freedom painted into “Gypsies at Play” had a profound effect on both sisters. The prized family heirloom was also displayed in this show, but only on opening night.

Steel studied art at UC Berkeley, earning a B.A. in 1940, and then traveling abroad to attend a French art school. (She stayed with her big sister in Paris.) After classes at the California of College of Arts and Crafts, Steel earned a 1967 M.F.A. from Mills College in Oakland. Along the way she married Lowell Frank Steel, a doctor, and had three children.

“But I was always sketching or drawing,” she recalled. “I would do watercolors in the field and put them under the bed. The children wouldn’t go under the bed. I was always working with children around. We lived in Lafayette, and I would paint out of the back yard or stop on the side of the road. It was fast and easy.”

Interactive metal/magnet sculpture by Alice Hutchins

After moving around and experiencing the art scenes offered in more-cosmopolitan areas, moving back to Chico in the mid-'50s was a challenge. “In the ‘60s I was doing things like a Jackson [Pollock] type of painting. I thought, ‘It’s a little provincial here; let’s stir them up a bit.’ In Berkeley you just painted with no how-to on perspective and you mixed your own colors. You never looked at one of those how-to books. You just put the feeling down.” Steel put her feeling down countless times, producing exciting bodies of work, so that like her big sister Steel has a resume listing hundreds of exhibitions featuring her work.

And the two sisters’ plans for the future? Besides an artistic bent, longevity also runs through their veins, with relatives living to 102 and their own mother marking 96 birthdays before she passed on.

Hutchins, who spends half of her time in Santa Barbara, is slated for a retrospective at that coastal city’s Contemporary Arts Forum, which opens Nov. 12. Steel is slated for a one-woman show at CSU Chico’s Humanities Gallery this September.

“I’ve already bought the canvases,” noted Steel, who just celebrated 89 years. “Now I’ll immediately start on that show, and we’ll just call it ‘Claudia Steel.’ I want to do some new work and show other work I’ve done. I have tons of work.”

A lifetime of work, to be sure.