Arica Hilton of ‘Hilton: “Be confident in everything you do”

Be confident in everything you do. Leave fear at the door. In the beginning, I was unsure of myself because I had no mentors to guide me. I succeeded by failing an awful lot of times. Finally, one day I learned to stand up, my back straight, my eyes looking forward, and I learned to walk […]

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Be confident in everything you do. Leave fear at the door.

In the beginning, I was unsure of myself because I had no mentors to guide me. I succeeded by failing an awful lot of times. Finally, one day I learned to stand up, my back straight, my eyes looking forward, and I learned to walk through life with confidence and faith in my decisions.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Arica Hilton.

Arica Hilton is a Mediterranean born artist, gallerist, curator, and poet who has devoted herself to capturing the beauty of water. Her work is layers, depth, limpidity. It is also a message: recycled bits of micro-plastic infuse the fairy-tale colors, highlighting the very real human impact on water and its consequences for the planet. Today, Hilton is a Chicago-based visual artist, poet and global advocate, in addition to the director of Hilton | Asmus Contemporary Gallery in Chicago.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I came to America with my family when I was 6 years old not speaking a word of English. Six months later, I was speaking English as though it was my native language. As the oldest child, I helped my mother raise my brother and sister while she worked. I did not have a normal childhood of play. At the age of seven, I was tasked with the care of my siblings, so in effect I became their parent. Life was not a perfect, but then again, whose is? My childhood was spent devouring books and daydreaming. I read War and Peace and Gone with the Wind when I was ten years old. In school, I was the smart-aleck who always raised her hand when the teacher asked questions. I read encyclopedias for fun and loved losing myself in stories, facts and fiction. I always knew I wanted to be an artist and writer. But I also wanted to be an architect. I wanted to build homes that were a sanctuary, a place of peace, tranquility and inspiration. I think that’s why I love being an artist: I can take a blank canvas and design my life as I wish to guide it.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization (business/artwork) are trying to change in our world today?

My work and passion focus on the protection of three key areas: the environment at large, human rights, and species at risk of endangerment and extinction. I have never believed that our lives are predestined by events that happened before or that we cannot change our circumstances because of one choice or another. Perhaps because of the deep responsibility that was thrust upon me as a child, I developed a sense of vision and empathy. I have always believed in free will, that we can choose our path the way we want to design it. So, I designed my business to not only be a profitable enterprise, but a way to enhance the lives of others. I leverage my gallery platform to support other artists and environmentalists, such as National Geographic photographers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier, who have dedicated their lives to exploring solutions to climate change, species extinction and threats to ocean health. Another artist I represent is David Yarrow, who has donated millions of dollars through the sales of his works for animal conservation, medical research, funding for frontline workers during the pandemic, funding for the devastation of the Australian forest fires and much more.

One of the biggest environmental issues we face is the proliferation of plastics in our ecosystem. Using my art as a form of communication, my goal is to precipitate action. But we cannot only speak to the environment or to the protection of the species without working on behalf of humanity as a whole. Everything is interconnected.

It is a society-wide dilemma. Bringing awareness is not enough. We have to understand what is important to each individual. Someone who is struggling in life cares first about their next meal and having a safe haven. If we cannot shape the direction of social interactions between people by providing tools to help individuals build a solid foundation, feel proud to stand on their own, how can we ask them to take care of the earth that houses them?

I am currently working on a “healing arts” initiative with an environmental theme that comprises visual arts, music, dance, literature, poetry, theater, film and more, between the Chicago Police Department and children from all walks of life throughout the city of Chicago. With the overwhelming surrealism of the events that have shaped 2020, from the pandemic to protests, I am working to foster communication and understanding between people and cultures. With so much animosity and anger directed at the people who are hired to protect us, imagine policer officers teaming up with children to create a large-scale mural, write music, sing, act in a play, learn ballet, plant a garden, write a poem AND clean up their own neighborhoods — a first step in taking care of our earth. Imagine the possibilities of these two-person teams of police officer and child, learning about one other’s lives, not in a way of authority, but more like how a family or friend takes care of one another. Imagine people from all walks of life teaching one another, learning from one another and at the same time, learning to clean up their own neighborhoods and find pride through their partnership. Anything is possible through the arts — the arts are a direct and immediate way of self-expression.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I love water. I love to swim in water. I love to drink water. In life, I wish to flow like water. When I learned that plastics do not decompose for 500 to 1000 years and that our oceans have become the repository for our negligence of our earth and its inhabitants, I decided to use my art and my business as an instrument for change.

I decided to create a series of eco-conscious paintings using recycled plastic infused in my oil and acrylic paintings as a commentary on the effects of discarding plastic without thought to where it will end up. As in the cycle of life, birth and rebirth, the plastic becomes the water in my paintings.

My work is inspired by my ongoing fascination and respect for water and our environment, which has been an integral part of my life and work. As an artist, I feel the need to address issues in our world through my art and writings to raise awareness about a particular subject, such as the serious problem we have created with the billions of pounds of plastic weighing down our oceans.

When I talk about the plastic problem, many people do not realize that 70 percent of the air that we breathe comes from Earth’s largest bodies of water. It comes from tiny marine microorganisms called phytoplankton. Like plants, they get their energy from carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. This is integral to the air that we breathe. Plastics disposed after one use will end up in a landfill, in a pond, a lake, a river, our soil. Plastic does not decompose for 500 to 1000 years.

Today, much of the fish we consume, or sea salt or our drinking water is infused with microplastics. Our lack of regard and respect for our environment has now backfired on our own bodies, our air, our health. Not to mention the trillions of tons of plastic that has become toxic food for fish, birds and all living creatures. The very air that we breathe is danger.

Since water is the essence of life, it too is a living thing. If we can learn to flow like water, to become water, we will understand the interconnection we have with all life. I hope that my work can be a gentle reminder of the value we should place on our earth and ourselves.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

It was a conversation I had with my husband. He chastised me for drinking bottled water and told me that in his native Germany, they recycle plastic and care about the environment more than many Americans. When I looked up statistics at the time, I learned that about twice as much plastic was recycled in Europe as compared to the U.S. So I began to save my plastic water bottles and gave them to a client who had a recycling facility. Six months later, he returned with a bag of emulsified, ground up plastic, which became a perfect medium to infuse into my oil and acrylic paintings.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

First, I have to envision it and see the end result before I begin. If it is something that resonates in my heart and mind, then the research begins. I have to learn all aspects of the pros and cons of my desire. And when I see the cons, I try to figure out a way to make them fit into the pro column. I interview experts, work in that particular field and try to learn everything I can about the inner workings of that particular project or organization.

It is important to have faith and courage. There are many pessimists in the world. People who are afraid to attempt something for fear of failure. Do NOT allow their fears to infect you. Not everything in life is easy, but if one believes in something to their core, they will figure out a way to make it happen. It is like a thousand pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Once you see the entire picture, it is easy to find and place the pieces of the puzzle. And one thing I have learned: The universe conspires to help you achieve your goals.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization (began to create your artwork & work as an advocate)?

I have had so many magical experiences in my life. A few years ago, the publisher of Ocean Geographic Magazine visited my gallery. When he saw my paintings infused with recycled plastic, he invited me to join a scientific expedition to Raja Ampat, Indonesia, working as an artist in a group of scientists, marine biologists, oceanographers, National Geographic photographers and filmmakers. In Raja Ampat, there are more species of fish and corals than anywhere else in the world. Our mission: a health check of the surrounding ocean to measure the amount of plastics and microplastics in one of the most biodiverse areas of the world.

For three weeks, we sailed over 450 miles through the archipelago of islands trawling for plastics, from Ambon in the Maluku Islands (also known as the Moluccas or Spice Islands) to Sorong, West Papua on the island of New Guinea. Being able to dive underwater is one of the greatest joys of my life. It is like traveling to another world. The colors of the coral, the fish, the plant life is mesmerizing. What I learned from this exercise is that we need to take care of the inhabitants of our oceans and the oceans themselves. We found plastics and microplastics that had traveled thousands of miles in one of the most pristine waters on our earth. If we continue to carelessly treat our environment as a trash receptacle, we are not only destroying the beauty and health of our planet, but our own health as well.

One of my favorite moments was creating a painting underwater with water soluble paints off a sea wall on the island of Misool, one of the four major islands in the Raja Ampat island region. I wanted to show the life that exists underwater. I took off my oxygen tank, my mask and my BCD to be free like the fish and corals I was surrounded by. As I was painting, a giant sea turtle, perhaps 100 years old, swam by. It was a seminal moment for me.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I opened my first art gallery when I was 26 years old. I was so shy and afraid to talk to people that I priced everything at my cost because I was afraid to overcharge them!!! It didn’t last long because I finally realized that was not a sustainable business model! Over time, I learned to speak to people with confidence about the art I was presenting and not be afraid to charge a fair price that became a win/win for both the collector and my gallery.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Being self-taught, my mentors were from the books of history. From Renaissance painter Leonardo Da Vinci, I learned it’s okay to be a polymath. He was a mathematician, engineer, architect, botanist, scientist, astronomer, inventor and incidentally, he was an artist. From 19th century Romantic painter JMW Turner, I learned how to hold a brush and palette knife, generously apply paint to canvas and still be light and airy. From Icelandic/Danish contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson, I learned how to make my art a form of communication that touches upon the earth and our environment. From Neo-expressionist artist David Salle, I learned how to look, talk and think about art. Thinking before looking. Listening before painting.

From Emilie du Chatelet, 18th century French philosopher, mathematician and scientist (and lover of Voltaire), I learned that a woman can succeed in any time period against all odds by sheer will, originality of thought and total confidence in herself. Emilie translated Newton’s Principia (containing the basic laws of physics) from its original Latin, to French, and improved upon some of his formulas. Hers is still considered the preeminent translation to this day.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Absolutely! First, we have to educate ourselves and each other about the dangers of the continued support of the single use plastics industry. To begin with, when we go into a restaurant or café, we can do something small, such as saying no to straws and no to plastic take out containers. But there is a second part to this. We need to guide the plastics industry itself to transition to sustainable plastic products and packaging solutions that will protect not only the people they employ but our health and our earth.

Second, we need to come together as a powerful force and select politicians who will be an instrument and voice for the change they wish to make.

And third, once the politicians are in office, they need to be ethical and powerful in their representation of their constituency. They need to pass laws and support the transition from plastics to sustainable products that will ensure the protection of the land, the oceans, and the people, in such a way that they protect the balance of life on earth.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

I think it is truly about the choices we make in life. There is a charming café next door to my gallery that serves smoothies, juices, etc., in plastic cups with straws. Her business has always struggled to compete with the giant coffee houses. One day when I was ordering one of her delicious juices, I asked the owner if she would consider using paper, bamboo or some form of compostable, biodegradable straws. She took offense to my suggestion and insisted that her customers would stop coming to her café if she did not offer plastic straws, also noting that the environmentally friendly straws cost a few cents more. I offered to help her with marketing her café as eco-friendly and explained that I believed the customers would appreciate her initiative to protect the environment. Had she agreed, I was going to promote her business to my mailing list, and I offered to buy her first box of a few thousand of straws to kickstart her transition. She said she could not initiate the change out of fear of losing customers and was not willing to take on the nominal cost. A few months later, another café opened in our neighborhood that promotes environmentally conscious food as well as the containers they use. They are rocking it!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1 — Be confident in everything you do. Leave fear at the door.

In the beginning, I was unsure of myself because I had no mentors to guide me. I succeeded by failing an awful lot of times. Finally, one day I learned to stand up, my back straight, my eyes looking forward, and I learned to walk through life with confidence and faith in my decisions.

2 — Believe in miracles.

Because miracles always do happen. You just have to open your eyes and have faith that no matter where you are, what your circumstance is, life has a way of working itself out. Twenty years ago, I was doing a very successful business in Japan. Then all of a sudden, my client in filed bankruptcy. I had reinvested most of the money I had made into my business. I ended up nearly losing everything I sold my home to make sure all of my vendors were paid. I had to close my gallery and was sitting on the floor looking at the emptiness around me in tears. Then, the telephone rang. It was one of my clients. She asked me if I could come into their office the following week. They were opening up an international chain of restaurants and needed to discuss a collection of art for each of the locations. Within three weeks, what I had thought was the end of my world became the beginning of another.

3 — Start a savings account young and learn business!

Artists are not taught about finance. I have chastised art schools for not insisting that their art students learn at least the rudimentary principles of how to sell their art and how to run a business. So often, young artists are led to believe that their art is purer if they become a “starving artist” or they are not “commercial” artists. My answer to them is this: If they have ever sold a piece of art, that is commerce. Do they want to be Van Gogh and become famous after they die? Ask Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and the legions of other successful artists how they feel about finance.

4 — Never doubt yourself.

There will always be people who will shoot down your ideas and who will insist that you will fail from the start. Do not listen to them. Do your own research and decide for yourself what is right for you.

5 — Get to your appointments on time!

My husband always asks me, are we going on German time or Mediterranean standard time? My answer is: Business appointments, German time. Social engagements and parties, definitely Mediterranean time.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Young people are already learning about the positive impact they can make by the way they live. They get it. It is my generation that made the mess. Now we have left it to our children and our children’s children to inherit a world that is suffering from our callousness. The only way we can teach is by example. Telling young people to do something will not inspire them. What will inspire them to take action is to see their parents, their teachers and their role models taking action.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“We all choose what we wish to be. No one impels or compels us. The same wind which blows a ship on the rocks, can just as easily blow it into safe harbor. In short, it is not the wind, it is the set of the sail.” ~ Taylor Caldwell

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to meet artist and United Nations Development Program Goodwill Ambassador, Olafur Eliasson. He embodies the quintessential idea of a human being who uses all of his faculties to bring awareness and enact change in the lives of individuals, communities, states and countries. He is not only an artist, sculptor and architect, but a humanitarian of the highest degree. His works are designed to embody the experience and “feelings of self and community.”

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

THANK YOU!!!! With gratitude…Arica

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