The Call of the Wild

by Jeri Magg

It was a cool summer’s evening in 1937 when eleven-year old Fritz Hilton’s parents, just returning home after an evening with friends, opened their refrigerator to find, stuffed between the shelves and wrapped in newspapers, a partially skinned dead Great Horned Owl. Fritz got the dead owl from a friend and decided to dissect it. “That’s when my parents thought it was time to do something about my interest in studying the anatomy of birds,” Fritz laughs.

Fritz’s father contacted a leading ornithologist for advice. He suggested the boy apprentice as a field artist with a well-known photographer so that he could learn more about the birds and animals he wanted to paint. Thus began Fritz Hilton’s love of wildlife; one that lead him to the halls of Cornell University and Johns Hopkins, enabled him to work as a sketch artist for the Navy in WWII and allowed him to paint commissions for both the National Audubon Society and the American Museum of Natural History.

In 1943, he entered Cornell University with a declared major in ornithology. After one semester, he was drafted, and only by a chance meeting with a former teacher remained stateside during the war.

“I was just about to be shipped out of Richmond to Mississippi to join the amphibious teams who piloted the boats that landed on Omaha Beach, when my former Art teacher saw me at the train station,” Fritz recalls. The woman’s husband, an executive officer at Camp Perry, Virginia, was searching for an artist who could paint portraits and do illustrations. “She threw her arms around me,” Fritz laughs, “ and told me how glad she was to see me.” The next thing he knew, his orders were changed and he was back in Washington illustrating anti-venereal disease posters or doing portraits of admirals like Cordell Hull.

“I guess my anti-VD posters worked,“Fritz chirped, “because I don’t remember a lot of deaths in WWII from VD.” Always under pressure by the admirals to produce portraits quickly, Fritz developed his monochrome technique. He’d paint in one color and enhance the portrait by using the color’s different tints and shades. He’d take a couple of photos of the subject, work all night to produce the portrait and return the next day for the Admiral’s approval. It was so stressful for the 19 year-old that for many years after leaving the service, he refused to paint portraits.

After the war, he returned to Cornell where he met his wife, Mary, who was an instructor working on her doctorate in Bio/Chemistry. He received a B.S. in Zoology/Ornithology and went on to graduate studies at Johns Hopkins where in 1958 he receive his Ph.D in Pathobiology/Ecology. Later that year he joined the faculty of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky. For the next forty years he remained there, teaching and doing research.

“I nearly didn’t go to Louisville,” he states. To earn extra money while an undergraduate, Fritz accepted painting commissions from the National Audubon Society, the American Museum of Natural History and Barton-Cotton lithographers of Baltimore. Barton-Cotton offered him a good job upon graduation. In his chosen field, he’d expect to be paid about $3,500 a year, but Barton-Cotton’s pay scale was more like $8,000 a year. He gave the offer some thought, but decided to teach and do scientific research, a choice he applauds today since he’s applied his art to his research.

He continued to sketch and paint and became proficient in all mediums, especially egg tempera, a watercolor technique used for permanent, fine works. This paint is made from artist quality finely ground pigments, egg yolks and water. The picture is then painted on composition board.

His teaching profession continued to provide subjects for his art. A sabbatical year in Aberdeen, Scotland, summers of research at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine and a stint in Viet Nam broadened his knowledge of native wildlife.

In 1968 and 1970 Fritz was asked by the American Medical Association to teach at a medical school built by the USA in South Viet Nam. The medical school was bombed so often it remained closed half the time. When he wasn’t teaching, Fritz would visit the open market to watch the Buddhists release birds as part of special religious ceremonies. He sketched the market ceremonies and bought mina birds to use as subjects for his art.

In 1972, Fritz was commissioned to paint a watercolor of the mockingbird, the State Bird of Texas. It was presented to the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin where it remains today.

In 1995, he retired as Professor Emeritus of the Department of Anatomical Sciences and Neurobiology at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. He and his wife had raised their four children, and he now wanted to travel the world painting wildlife. He is considered a wonderful “wildlife artist,” because his depictions of birds and wildlife resemble photographs.

In the summers of 1997 and 1999, he joined groups of artists on two African safaris, observing the wildlife in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. Some of his recent paintings, including pictures of animals from these safaris, were exhibited at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston, South Carolina. Prints of his bird paintings have been sold nationwide by Four Winds, Inc., and his original paintings are found in collections throughout the United States, France and Germany. He still takes photographs of birds and paints them until he’s satisfied.

Fritz, who will soon turn 80, has traveled extensively seeking out unique wildlife. He’s painting portraits again, (but now of his grandchildren), and he has a studio of work he’s “making better.”

He thanks that friend, who gave him the dead Great Horned Owl so many years ago and his parents, who encouraged his interest in wildlife painting.

Fritz and Mary have a permanent home in Louisville, but spend several months each winter on Sanibel Island where he studies wildlife at the ‘Ding’ Darling Wildlife Refuge where he continues to follow that call of the wild. •

from the May-June 2005 issue

A year in Aberdeen, Scotland,
summers of research in Bar Harbor, Maine
and a stint in Vietnam broadened
Fritz Hilton's knowledge of wildlife.

Great Blue Heron