Woman shared stories great and small

Staff WriterMay 25, 2008 

— Anne Hill was by no means what you'd call a party girl, but she did love a good social gathering. Once her health had declined to the point she could no longer do yard work, she decided to celebrate her birthday by inviting friends over for a garden party.

This was a different sort of garden party, however; instead of mint juleps and chitchat in the gazebo, guests were put to work. They weeded the flower beds, mowed the grass, platted the garden. In return, Hill cooked for them.

She died a few months ago after suffering a pulmonary embolus and pneumonia. She was 75 and had survived a bout with cancer 25 years ago.

Anne Frances Hill was born near High Point in 1932. She attended what is now UNC-Greensboro, taught art for a year in the public schools, then continued to Columbia University in New York, where she earned a master's degree in library services.

As a librarian, her niche was storytelling. She plied her craft as a children's librarian at the New York Public Library. Over the years, she moved twice to the West Coast, taught art at Meredith College and set up house in Walnut Cove, near Winston-Salem, where she focused on drawing.

Cross-hatching was her method of choice, a technique in which she drew Xs, layering lines on top of one another, to form an image.

She and her housemate, Mackey Bane, had saved up money in order to pursue their art. They made choices about what to buy -- dry cereal, for example, was crossed off the list in favor of more economical oatmeal. But even though they lived frugally, their money eventually ran out and they had to find paying jobs.

In the late 1960s, Hill moved to Wake County and went to work for the library.

Making her own kind of home

Not long after, she bought a compound in New Hill in the community of Merry Oaks. The main property once had been a hotel, and there were a dozen rooms. There also was an old post office and a rundown general store, both in very bad shape.

As a single woman -- she was engaged to be married several times but didn't speak of the demise of those courtships -- she didn't need all that space. But it complemented her quirky personality and allowed her creativity to run rampant.

She didn't cater to the latest trend in House Beautiful. Instead, she relied upon her artist's sensibility as a guide. In one room, she ripped up a rotting floor and replaced it with plywood covered in brown kraft paper torn into pieces and affixed with Elmer's glue. After that dried, she coated it with resin. It turned out to bear a striking resemblance to flagstone.

She decorated her bathroom wall with unusual necklaces. She lined her staircase with hubcaps she unearthed in an outbuilding after she bought the property. Then people started giving her hubcaps. She wound up with at least 100, some in perfect condition, others crumpled from collisions.

Five dogs, a few dozen chickens, geese, ducks, peacocks, a bunch of cats and a rabbit also roamed the property.

Storyteller with style

Lee Hansley met Hill when she showed up one day in 1978 in Winston-Salem, where he was working as a curator.

"Showed up" hardly describes what happened, however. Hill always made a grand entrance, always made a story out of the most mundane of topics.

Hansley recalls how Hill exited her car that day, talking. She could make anything sound interesting with her great capacity for relating detail.

"Taking her trash to the Dumpster could easily morph into a very detailed and even interesting story," Hansley said.

Sometimes, her stories took a while. Some might call her long-winded. She preferred to think of herself as thorough. Always in control, Hill did not allow herself to be cut off or rushed. Her stories took their time, winding their way around and back.

One day at the old Olivia Rainey Library in downtown Raleigh, she intercepted Ron Jones, whom she'd noticed chuckling as she told stories to children. She persuaded him to forgo a job at a summer theater company up north and work instead at the library, spinning yarns.

He eventually went to library school.

"I tell people she gently nudged me into storytelling, but that wasn't the way it was," he said. "She demanded."

She and Jones talked nearly every day. She'd call him and say, "Here's the news from Merry Oaks."

Together, they told ghost stories at a local camp and shared storytelling billing at Artsplosure, Raleigh's annual downtown arts festival.

Art sales from her kitchen table

Once, Jones accompanied Hill to visit her mother, who would wear her deceased husband's overalls with no shirt. As they approached, her mother hastily tucked a flannel shirt into the overalls, then cheerily said, "You almost caught me! But you wouldn't have seen much."

With that, she lifted her shirt high to reveal duct tape binding her torso. She'd fallen recently, feared she'd cracked a rib, and decided to tape herself up rather than visiting a doctor.

Hill shared many of her mother's eccentric qualities. But that's precisely what endeared her to her friends.

Take her art, for example. She didn't believe in the gallery concept. She needed no broker to promote her work; instead, she sold it herself through word-of-mouth.

"She made it at the kitchen table and sold it at the kitchen table," Hansley said.

She made an exception for a recent exhibit at Lee Hansley Gallery on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh. For Hansley's 15th anniversary show, Hill contributed one of her crosshatch drawings. She died while it was on display.

Anne Hill is survived by a sister.

bonnie.rochman@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4871

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