Steven Slosberg: In her heyday, Pati Hill was hard to overlook

Steven Slosberg: In her heyday, Pati Hill was hard to overlook

Record-Journal
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Pati Hill on the cover of Elle in 1950, six years before she arrived in Stonington. She made her presence felt in the town for about 30 years.

Today would have been the 95th birthday of Pati Hill Bianchini, who died two years ago at her home in Sens, France, and who for several decades lived in Stonington, where she fashioned herself into one of the more mercurial personalities in a village not unacquainted with eccentricity.

Thrice-married, a top haute couture model who appeared in the 1940s and 1950s on the covers of and in layouts in leading magazines here (Harper’s Bazaar and Life ) and abroad (Elle), and a prolific and acclaimed author, she morphed, while in Stonington, into an artist using IBM photocopy machines as her medium. She was the owner, at one time or another, of four houses in Stonington. She also was the creator of what purported to be a universal symbol, or hieroglyphic, language that was taught sporadically in Betty Henry’s first-grade class at Deans Mill School in Stonington in the mid-1970s.

For good measure, she had an antiques shop along Holmes Street in Mystic for a couple of years in the late 1980s.

Three of her houses — 32 Main St., 51 Main St., and 20 Grand St. — were in the borough. The fourth, at 8 Watch Hill Ave., was not. She never lived in the latter, but, since 1977, my family and I have. We bought the house from Jose and Maria Silva, who bought it from Pati Hill Bianchini.

As it happens, Pati Hill Bianchini is also the focus of an ongoing (though April 24) exhibition — “Pati Hill: Photocopier” — at the Arcadia University (formerly Beaver College) Art Gallery in Glenside, Pa., near Philadelphia. She was the subject this month of a lecture at the university: “The Lives of Pati Hill and the Problem of the Overlooked Female Artist.”

Richard Torchia, the Arcadia art gallery director, has championed her photocopier work and wrote a thoughtful appreciation that appeared online on Artforum.com in December 2014.

“Untrained as an artist,” wrote Torchia, “Hill was not alone in experimenting with what she called ‘a found instrument, a saxophone without directions’ at a moment of unexpected possibility for this evolving communication technology. Nevertheless, her approach to the copier, coupled with her lucid and inspired writing about it, proved both singular and prescient, especially regarding the potential of self-publishing and image-sharing we experience today.

“Unlike many artists who flirted with this instant-duplication process — a medium whose affordability and use of plain paper made it revolutionary — Hill sustained her commitment to xerography (or ‘dry writing,’ from the Greek) for forty years, never wavering from her aspiration to create works in which image and text might ‘fuse to become something other than either.’”

Born in Ashland, Ky., in 1921, by the time she arrived in Stonington in 1956, she not only had been a sought-after model, but had published essays and stories in The Paris Review as well as a first novel and a journal, and had been married and divorced twice. Her second marriage — to Robert Merservey, a champion skier and, later, a prominent physicist at MIT — was accorded a photo spread in Life magazine.

Honors students at Arcadia University prepared a lifeline history of Pati Hill as part of the exhibition, and reported this as her first appearance in Stonington: In 1956, “Hill lives in Stonington, CT, with a friend, Brayton Marvell, in the house of Anne Fuller. In Stonington, she meets writers James Merrill and Truman Capote.” That same year, in New York, she met an art dealer named Paul Bianchini, whom she would marry in 1960. Among those at that wedding was the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, a cousin of Bianchini.

Before she married Bianchini, however, she and Marvell bought a house at 51 Main St. in the borough in 1957 and lived there for two years. She kept writing and publishing. After having a daughter, Paola, with Bianchini while in Geneva, Switzerland in 1962, she returned to Stonington with her family, buying the house on Grand Street.

Memories

Betty Henry, the retired first-grade teacher at Deans Mill School, remembers her kindly, a woman of spontaneity and creativity who came into the class to teach the children the symbol language she devised.

“We lived in the village then and there were very well-educated people there,” she recalled.

“It was a freewheeling time. We didn’t really socialize with her but we got to know her. Pati was such a wonderful person.”

Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., a noted writer and editor living in North Stonington, interviewed her for his 2008 biography of George Plimpton, “George, Being George.” Plimpton, among various literary ventures, was a founder of The Paris Review.

“When I first came to … town, in the early ’70s, as a guest from somewhere north of the borough, she was a mysterious absence,” wrote Aldrich in a recent email. “The NYC lit people in town talked about her repeatedly – ‘so beautiful... great style, on the page and off... elusive...’ Plimpton and (Peter) Matthiessen had been in love with her in Paris; Plimpton told me so.”

Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington. He was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day of New London.

Online: http://gallery.arcadia.edu/


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