Hilger uses grant to write, travel, share with students

Art teacher-turned author Mary Hilger used her Lily Foundation grant to fund two books: An art literacy book full of her student’s art, poetry and photographs and a book about the compassion of complete strangers surrounding the unexpected death of her husband.
MacKenzie DeGroot
Staff Writer

Long time Indian Springs Art Teacher Mary Hilger had big plans for the 2017-18 school year, her last year before retiring from the position. Hilger won a $12,000 Lilly Foundation grant for teachers for her proposal to learn how to write, a skill she said she never had.
“I’m an art teacher and I always felt like I was a horrible writer,” she said. “I always need help.”
In order to learn to write, Hilger planned to take a couple months worth of classes and attend a writing conference in Italy, the country that has inspired her art for years. She hoped that the country would inspire her writing, as well.
In order to showcase her writing, Hilger planned on writing a book about her art ministry work. One side of the page would showcase a piece of artwork Hilger has made, and a short story about the art would lie on the next page.
The other part of Hilger’s grant was her plan to bring back all that she learned about art and writing and teach it to her own students. Hilger thought that the perfect way to showcase student’s art was to create an art literacy journal and publish some of the art inside it.
Hilger planned on creating two books, but she did not expect the books she ended up with.
Soaring Eagle

Part of Hilger’s plan was to create an art literacy journal with her students to showcase their art and talents. What she ended up with, however, was a book full of passion and stories about her student’s lives.
One project Hilger had the students create was a portrait piece. Hilger taught the students how to make a self-portrait using a grid. After they were done, the students were instructed to fill the border around their portrait with anything they felt described who they are and what their story is.
Some students used logos, another student used songs and others used everything in between, Hilger said.
“The pride that these kids had about making themselves was just so personal and I was so proud of them,” she said. “And the families were just elated when this happened.”
Hilger said the parents of one student were so proud that they visited the school to take pictures of his project hanging up on the classroom wall. The parents of children who had their work published in the book bought copies for themselves, their children and extended family members as well.
“They were so excited about their child’s artwork being in this book,” she said. “The parents were so enthused and appreciative of me doing this book it made me think ‘why didn’t I do this before?’”
In order to get students excited about the journal, Hilger made sure to tell them that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to showcase their art and talents, including photography and poems. Since she started the journal in her last year before retirement, Hilger is not sure that it will happen again at Indian Springs. She encouraged her students to send her photos and poetry and keep working on their art throughout the year in hopes of creating something wonderful. Hilger said the most wonderful pieces earned a place in the book.
Though only the best of the best pieces were chosen for the book, the students were not discouraged. Instead, Hilger said they kept coming back with more and more artwork for her to choose from.
“I know for a fact that some of these kids wouldn’t have tried so hard if they didn’t know it was going to be in the book,” she said. The students kept coming back with more and more artwork asking Hilger “is this book worthy?”
Hilger said that most of the students made sure to tell her that they wanted their art back, which she said was like a dream. She always wanted her students to have so much pride in their work that they can’t wait to bring it home to show their parents.
Hilger said the art literacy journal, titled “Soaring Eagle,” turned out to be so much more than she expected.
“It just kind of snowballed,” she said. “Well, I’m fulfilling my Lilly grant but then it turned into this beautiful experience for the students and the parents and me. It’s just with all these awesome relationships that are very positive, its a great way for me to go out, with this incredible project.”
Finding Beauty in Ashes
The other part of Hilger’s grant, learning to write by writing a book about her art ministry work, took a massive turn last April, when her husband John collapsed during a river cruise the two were taking abroad and later passed in an Amsterdam hospital.
The book she proposed for the grant was one her husband motivated her to complete, but after his sudden passing, she was no longer inspired to write it. Instead, she was inspired by the people who surrounded her and helped her family during their time of grief.
“I didn’t know this about writing,” Hilger said. “I thought that writing was writing and art was art. Writing and art are so much alike because they’re both arts and you have to have the right mindset to write.”
Hilger said that after her husband’s passing, she was inspired by the way strangers came together to support and help her family. Everyone who touched Hilger’s life in the weeks surrounding her husband’s death went above and beyond their duties as a river boat tour guide, hospital staff, and even airplane staff members who got their six daughters (and one of their grandchildren) to Amsterdam in time to say goodbye to their father before he passed.
“That’s what this is about,” Hilger said. “It’s about humanity. Its about how there are good people out there and I found them in Amsterdam and I found them on an airplane and I continue to find those people in my life that just touch me and lifted me up in my time of sorrow.”
Hilger said that writing the book about her grief taught her so much more about writing than the book about her art ministry did.
“The other book was easy,” she said about the art ministry book. “The other book was just art and short stories, this book was me.”
Hilger’s book Finding Beauty in the Ashes will be available May 18. Both this book and Soaring Eagle art literary journal can be purchased by contacting Hilger at hilger8@aol.com
She will host a book talk and signing at Peabody Public Library on June 9.