The Faculty History Project documents faculty members who have been associated with the University of Michigan since 1837, and the history of the University's schools and colleges. This project is part of a larger effort to prepare resources for the University's bicentennial in 2017. Find out more.

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Faculty Profile

Alfred Hinton
The Michigan Alumnus

AL HINTON, U-M professor of art and 
Michigania workshop leader, is a 
bargain for students and art lovers—he is 
two artists in one package.


"I seem to use different sides of my brain 
for each of the two aspects of my art: the 
rational, analytical side for my public
 work, and the emotional spontaneous side 
for my personal work. But then I guess
 artists are supposed to be a little crazy," he 
laughs.


Schizophrenic he 
is not. A mere click 
in that artist's brain 
seems to switch him
 onto the right track,
 where he runs until 
it's time to switch
 again. The mode he
 chooses—public or 
private—depends on 
whether he's prepar
ing a commissioned
 piece for display in a
 public area, or one of 
his personal metal-
work creations.


Maybe Hinton is
 simply good at mak
ing transitions—
from football player 
to art professor, from
 accident victim to
 recovered artist (in one day), from gregar
ious teacher and collaborator, to solitary 
artist.


The artist is first and last. "I decided I
 wanted to draw at the age of three and
 have been ever since," he says. "My par
ents were always supportive of my artistic 
aspirations, but concerned at the same time 
about the difficulty of sustaining a living in 
that profession."


They also worried that he might chose a 
career in his other area of interest through-
out high school and college: football. He 
won an athletic scholarship to the Univer
sity of Iowa and went on to play profes
sional football for Toronto and Montreal
 teams. He eventually realized that he was 
happiest and most productive working as
 an artist.


In 1970, Hinton began his career as a 
teacher of painting and drawing at West
ern Michigan University and in 1977, he 
accepted an appointment in the U-M
 School of Art. Since then, he has exhibited
 in Toronto, France, Brazil, and Birmingham, MI, and received several major com-
missions for his work, including one for the
 State of Michigan Museum Library. He has 
received a number of awards and grants
 and is a member of the Michigan Council 
for the Arts.


Although the worlds of fine art and pro
fessional football seem irreconcilable, Hin
ton finds the traits he developed as an athlete serve him as an artist. "The energy and
 discipline required to
 succeed in athletic 
competition are just 
as necessary to suc
ceed in art," he says.
" My football training 
has helped me to sus
tain a high level of 
performance, even
 when things aren't
 going as they should
 physically."


Hinton refers to 
one of the most major
 physical setbacks an
 artist could suffer,
 the unintentional
 mutilation of his
 dominant right hand.
 In 1989, he had been
 working with his
 favorite media,
 metal, on a sculpture.
 Where he had meant to cut through metal, 
he nearly cut off his hand instead.


His solution to this personal and profes
sional crisis was characteristically practi
cal. He learned to work with his left hand.
 The accident barely interrupted his work 
on a show for his alma mater, the Univer
sity of Iowa. Three months later, he dis
played in Iowa City some of the most free
 and innovative work he had ever pro
duced.


The accident had a positive outcome in
 that it forced Hinton to work with other 
artists for the first time. "The diminished
 capacity of my right hand meant I had to 
rely on friends for help with some of my 
projects," he says. "I discovered this was
 okay. Teamwork sets up a different kind of
 energy and idea flow that can be very
 invigorating."


This discovery led to several rewarding
 collaborations in the 1990s with interna
tional artists including Louis Jaquet in
 France and Sei Shinohara in Tokyo. In
 1995, he took a sabbatical to provide technical assistance to Shinohara on a massive
 steel mural she is installing at Cambridge 
University's New Hall Complex.


Hinton has installed his own commis
sioned murals and collages in public areas
 throughout southern Michigan. These are 
the "public" works—"the abstract, intel
lectualized pieces I design to function in a 
certain way," he says. "I enjoy the public
 work because it provides the challenge of
 controlling a space and the way people 
access and view the work."


His mural that hangs in the Heart and
 Vascular Institute of St. Joseph Medical
 Center visually arrests anyone entering the 
building's front lobby. One momentarily 
experiences Caribbean skies and seas 
rather than the heavier atmosphere of a
 center for advanced treatment and
 research. Blues, from cobalt to azure, dom
inate this work of aluminum, titanium, and
 steel.


"The St. Joseph commission required an 
uplifting piece, nothing too jarring, since 
this was a hospital area," he explains.


His personal work—fortunately not so
 personal that he hides it—also emerges
 from metals, his favorite media. But these
 mostly hand-cut and sculpted pieces
 arouse more curiosity because they resem
ble symbolic characters from ancient religions and cultures. In one cutout, a serpent 
wraps round a man standing next to a 
woman. Both wear nothing but African
 masks. Adam and Eve? Hinton merely
 calls it "The Messenger."


He paints the multicultural symbols
 with vibrant colors in the tradition of
 African and Haitian artists. Some pieces 
also show the influence of Brazilian artists,
 with whom he studied under a Minority
 Faculty Grant in 1991. The intensity and
 richness of these works, he says, comes 
from a different realm than the commis
sioned art.


"It's more magical. I don't have to think 
about these images; they just come up, out 
of the spiritual places where the soul
 resides."


Hinton brings his passion for art of both
 kinds to the classroom. As a teacher, he is
 adept at recognizing different kinds of
 artistic abilities and giving students free
dom to develop at their own pace, accord
ing to his students.


"He makes you want to work," says Julie 
Horn, senior in the School of Art and a for
mer student of Hinton's. "He is candid but 
in an encouraging way and he doesn't 
impose lots of guidelines. If he sees you 
going off on your own path, he says, "Go!"


He also dares to assume that his students
 will want to earn money with their art—a 
subject that is almost taboo in many art 
schools, Horn adds. "No one had ever 
talked to us about being professionals. But
 Al sat down with us and told us how much 
money certain pieces might bring, how 
much we should ask, depending on the 
amount of materials used. He took us to
 galleries to show us how art is presented.
 He showed us the business side of art."


Non artists as well find him an inspiring 
teacher. In his summer and fall workshops
 at Michigania, he teaches alumni to "read"
 works of art. "I try to help the people in 
these classes look at the work from the
 artist's perspective. We discuss key ele
ments like composition, focal points, color,
 symbols—the basic tools they need to 
access visual images"


Both U-M and Michigania students’ 
remark about Hinton's great accessibility
 as an instructor. But h 
a day doing and discussing art. I can't help 
but try to engage people in it."


"I find teaching at Michigania very relax
ing. The people in my classes have been 
terrifically responsive. We have fun. I give
 the students a 'midterm' and 'final' during 
their week-long stay."


—Kate Kellogg