Hilliard finds joy in spreading love of art to students

May 20, 2011

PLAINVIEW – In many ways, Mark Hilliard says the move from full-time farmer to full-time art professor is not really that much of a stretch.

“I can’t get away from dirt,” he laughs. “Potters have always thrived in an agrarian society.”

Hilliard’s current life is a far cry from the days when he farmed his family’s land outside Plainview and set up a small studio in the farmhouse to create his art. Now, as assistant professor of art and art education at Wayland Baptist University, his main studio is located in the Harral Arts Complex at WBU where he still sculpts and shares his art talents and inspiration with a new generation of artists.

A native of Plainview, Hilliard attended Wayland for a few years before transferring to McMurry University in Abilene to study art exclusively. His first class effort was basic pottery, though he admits he wasn’t that comfortable with the medium at first.

“I didn’t really like it at first and was bad at it,” he recalls. “Then after Christmas, I decided to declare a ceramics major.”

Part of that change in heart came from having good mentors at McMurry that inspired him and taught him the tricks of the trade. He began dreaming there of a career as an artist, doing what he loved most.

“We entertained dreams about being hermits somewhere and creating our art,” he said with a smile. “It’d be nice if it worked that way, but it doesn’t.”

Instead, Hilliard enrolled in a master’s degree program in art at West Texas A&M University after earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from McMurry in 1986. He came back to Plainview to work the farm, sporadically attending graduate school for 12 years.

Finally, Hilliard received his Master of Arts degree in 2001. While he was finishing his master’s thesis, he gave in to consistent prodding from current WBU art department chair and Professor of Art Dr. Candace Keller and joined the WBU faculty as an adjunct instructor. She urged him to continue to the terminal degree – in this case, the Master of Fine Arts or the Ph.D. degree would suffice – so he could join the faculty full-time.

In 2003, just after he signed a contract to come on board the faculty full-time, he enrolled at Texas Tech University for the MFA. Meanwhile, he kept teaching a full load, earning the terminal diploma in ceramics in 2006.

It doesn’t take being around Hilliard long to see that the simple, functional bowl is his artistic forte. His master’s thesis was on the bowl and he trained as a functional potter, not really doing pure sculpture until his graduate school experiences.

“I just like bowls,” he said. “You can see everything at the same time, there is a lot of surface area to carve or paint or manipulate in general. Bowls are inviting to people.”

While he likes using the potter’s wheel from time to time, Hilliard said he also enjoys hand-building pieces using various techniques like weaving, braiding and piecing to create unique designs on his bowls. He points out that functional pottery doesn’t have to be boring, and many of his works have proven their unique artistic merit.

Back in 2005-06, Hilliard was the driving force in a local service project based on a national emphasis called Empty Bowls. Hilliard, his students and others throughout the community created some 600 soup bowls that were sold with tickets to the Plainview Chamber of Commerce banquet held at WBU. The emphasis was meant to raise awareness for hunger and relief efforts, and ticket proceeds benefited local hunger relief organizations. Banquet attendees forewent the usual plated meal for a simpler offering of stew and cornbread, then they got to take one of the unique bowl creations home as a memento.

In his early years as an artist, he did production pottery part-time – creating primarily functional pieces – and would travel to art festivals and shows to display his work. But until he landed the teaching job at Wayland, art was always a side job.

“I farmed in the summer and made pots in the winter,” he joked, adding that he still has a garden at home and sells vegetables regularly at the local farmers’ market.

Hilliard teaches all the ceramics coursework at Wayland as well as design, printmaking and art education, which is a methods class in basic design for elementary school teachers).

In this role, he loves being able to create his own work while sharing his skills and talents with his students. He said the students inspire him and provide new ideas as much as he provides them, and the open environment of the art department helps both student and teacher thrive.

“It’s not isolated. I get to be around art all the time, and that’s made me a better artist,” he said.

He also gets to be at the place that still bears some family history. His grandfather, J.V. Hilliard, was the first track and field coach at Wayland and the track and soccer facility at WBU still bear his name.

Now that the school year has ended at Wayland, Hilliard is busy working on a set of 15-20 new bowls that will be part of a display at the Unger Library this summer. He described the pieces as sculptural more than functional, focusing on the artistic quality of the bowl and hand-building each piece in the studio.

Hilliard and wife Rebecca, who teaches science at Coronado Junior High, have two grown children and two grandchildren.