Rose Marie Hill | May 31, 1976 – January 8, 2008
Rose Hill left us on January 8 of this year. After 11 years living with, exploring, and performing in a body riddled with cancer, she chose to stop treatment and say goodbye.
When Rose died she sent out small charms containing her ashes to some of her friends and family to do with as they pleased. This, her final performance, was an instruction piece: “You can bury me in your yard with a little headstone; you can scatter me over the earth or water near a place that is important to you; you can put me in your pocket or keep me in your sock drawer! Whatever will make you feel closest to your memories of us and the time we spent together.”
I carry her around on my keychain.
The note continued: “Know that my love for you exists for always in the space between things, feelings and places: in between here and there; living and dying; holding and loss; joy and grief. I have tried to live in and between these places […]”. Indeed, Rose did live her life in and between these spaces. In and between, it seemed to those watching, every space she could find.
When Rose and I met in graduate school (we did our MFAs together at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts) she had already been living with cancer–one that never went into remission–for four years. She made work in between spaces of autobiographical particularity and social critique, from mock body-as-a-battleground performances in which the audience was brought through the progression of her illness as if it were a strategic battle plan (but with the referent–her cancerous body–left enigmatically unclear) to poetic durational works using materials wrought from the intersection of her autobiographical and activist selves. The former galvanized her experience of being in a terminally ill body and her ambivalent relationship to her religious upbringing, the latter her critique of any rhetoric that privileged positive thinking and strength of spirit to overcome illness. In this, she made me a believer. If strength of spirit, committed action, and a purity of heart could overcome illness (and I were the judge of these characteristics) Rose would be alive today.
I still remember the first conversation we had together. Walking down the hall from the performance studio, one breast proudly missing (she always sported her lop-sided chest, daring people to pity or judge her), she turned to me saying: I could outlive anyone around me. No one knows when their time will come. I know that my time is limited, but everyone’s time is limited.
Rose lived every day as if it could be her last, and, at the same time, as if it wasn’t. She was always looking for what she wanted to experience next, and going for it: from mountain climbing to art school to working with sex-offenders to performing internationally to cherishing her friends and loved ones. When Rose decided that she wanted to fly, she took pilot lessons and went skydiving. When Rose decided she wanted to turn 50, she threw herself a 50th birthday party, had a ’50s dress made for herself, and handed out CDs with her favorite ’50s music.
For the 2006 7a*11d festival, Rose performed a piece called After the Re-Membering. It was the last in a series that she started in Chile in 2005. The first was built around urinals filled with red wine and 50 loaves of bread torn to pieces, the second around bread dough full of lamb meat and human hair, the third around a horse piñata filled with raw meat and red wine, and the fourth around a pile of breadcrumbs and a tiny tin soldier. Remembering Rose’s work, a fellow artist and friend, BBB Johannes Diemling, remarked: “I saw a lot of artists dealing with their backgrounds, their biography. But often I saw that this was like a show, a therapy. Rose didn’t do this. She really could transform her ‘handicap’ into a unique readable sign.”
In reflecting on Rose to write this memorial, remembering who she was to me, as an artist, as a friend, I wish that, like Rose, I could transform my reflections, my memory of Rose, into a “unique readable sign,” but I cannot. That distinction goes to Rose. As a “unique readable sign” she touched those around her, and, touching us, she left us changed–in and between here and there; living and dying; holding and loss.
Rose Hill was born in San Diego, California and grew up in Washington State. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 at the age of 21, while a senior at Wells College in Ithaca NY. She completed her BA while undergoing treatment and went on to earn an MFA at the School of the Museum for Fine Arts (SMFA), Boston, MA in 2004. She also received a Master’s Degree in Counseling and Clinical Psychology posthumously from the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, University of California Santa Barbara, CA in May of 2008, having completed her studies with honours. Between 2004 and 2006, Rose traveled the world as a performance artist, performing in United States, Canada, Chile, Ireland, Poland, and traveled to numerous other places; Italy, Germany, Morocco, Tunis, France, England, Spain, Portugal, New Zealand, Panama. The SMFA in Boston created the Rose Hill Performance Award in honor of Rose’s contributions to performance art. In a December 2007 email regarding the establishment of the Award, Rose wrote: “I feel so blessed to have had a year of what it would taste like to truly be a part of the international performance community. Every festival was so amazing and different and the same. I loved all of it. I am surprised and amazed and honored that you would name a prize after me. How cool would that be? I think it should simply be the ‘Rose Hill performance art prize’ and that it should go to someone who finds performance art at the museum school and then just throws his or herself wholeheartedly into creating their performance language and isn’t afraid to get dirty doing it, but has respect for the life and pain of other living things. Those are my two cents and a quarter.” Rose Hill appeared in the 6th 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art in 2006.