Hugh Wiley was a painter, sculptor, muralist and educator. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 1940s, and after returning from World War II went on to Mexico City, where he created murals under the mentorship of Carlos Merida. He moved to New York City in the mid 1950s, where he had two one-man shows at the Bertha Schaeffer Gallery, did a series of mural commissions, and befriended the artist Mark Rothko. The expectation to create art as a marketable “product,” coupled with post-war trauma, pushed Wiley to reinvent himself and move to Marin County in Northern California during the mid 1960s. He taught art at California College of the Arts (formerly CCAC) in Oakland from 1965-1984. In the late 1970s, Wiley designed and built a homestead and studio in Mendocino County, where he found inspiration through the solitude of nature. Much of his art featured in the Lost Art Salon collection comes from this Mendocino period, spanning the last thirty years of his life.
Hugh Wiley was born in 1922 in Auburn, Indiana. At age ten, Hugh’s father gave him a set of French oil paints, and he began a life-long passion for art. He began painting portraits of Native-Americans, and during high school had his artwork included in two national competitions. After high school, he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, aiming to be a portrait painter. When World War II broke out, Hugh enlisted and trained in the Army Air Corps. He was sent to the front where he worked as a radio operator until being seriously injured a mere month before the war ended. After returning to the U.S., Hugh spent 11 months recovering in Army hospitals, where he was finally able to take up painting again.
Hugh returned to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1946 as an illustration student. He placed first on two occasions in national illustration competitions, and in 1948 was awarded a traveling scholarship. Hugh went to Mexico City, where he began to work on murals under the mentorship of Carlos Merida. It was there that he met Juan Robles-Gil, an architect and engineer, who would become a life-long friend and supporter. Through Robles-Gil, Hugh returned to Mexico City in 1951 to produce a series of murals, abstracted landscapes in concrete and mosaic. These mediums would inspire Hugh’s art for the rest of his life, as is evident in his later sculptural work.
Hugh returned to the U.S. in 1954, settling in New York. He met with the postmodern architect Phillip Johnson, who recommended him to the Bertha Schaeffer Gallery, which promoted his work through two one-man shows and secured him a series of mural commissions in the New York area. Hugh kept a studio in Bronxville from 1954-1963, and befriended Mark Rothko. At this time, Hugh was teaching at the Philadelphia College of Art, versing students in watercolor painting and drawing, as well as producing his own work- both personal and commissions. Around this time, Hugh was struggling with his undiagnosed PTSD and war injuries, marital problems, and the expectation to create art as a marketable “product.” He traded artwork for therapy sessions.
In 1965, Hugh moved to Marin County. He began teaching at the California College of the Arts, then California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland, California. Hugh initiated and was Director of the Environmental Studies Program from 1968-1980. As the Vietnam War progressed, Hugh mentored returning veterans and produced art in protest, including a wounded warrior sculpture that was carried on a stretcher through the streets of San Francisco, in protest of the Mai Lai Massacre.
Hugh delved deep into the world of esoterica and world religions, leading to work heavy with symbolism and inspired by the writing and images of those he studied. In the late 1970s, Hugh and his fourth wife, Elizabeth*, moved to Mendocino, California, where Hugh designed their modern and rustic home and his studio. Together, they shared a passion for global travel and anthropology, Eastern Philosophies, and Asian Art. Hugh continued to teach at CCA until 1984, amassing a powerful fanbase of loyal former students. He also taught watercolor painting at Mendocino Community College from 1974-1984 and served as an Arts Commissioner on the Willits Art Council. Hugh enjoyed the seclusion and beauty of Mendocino, where he found refuge in the natural world and was inspired by the space and movement of the creatures he observed.
* We would like to thank Elizabeth Wiley, Hugh's wife, for bringing his collection and story to us.