Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Hilda Shapiro Thorpe (1919-2000) began her career in the arts in advertising. In 1940 she married Irvin T. Shapiro and later moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where she continued to work part-time while raising three children, Ellen, Stephen, and Andrew. It was not until 1955, when she was in her mid-thirties, that Thorpe formally enrolled in American University’s art program and began study in painting, drawing, and sculpture.
Finding success in her coursework, Thorpe began to exhibit. Showing first as a student in the Corcoran Gallery’s annual area exhibitions in 1956 and 1958, she premiered a collection of oil paintings and clay sculptures at Watkins Gallery in 1959, alongside fellow AU painting student Alma Thomas (1891-1978). Throughout the 1960s, Thorpe continued to exhibit while also teaching and traveling widely. Integral to the dynamic arts community of Washington, D.C., Thorpe’s career emerged alongside rising national recognition of artists associated with the Washington Color School, artists such as Thomas Downing (1928-1985), Kenneth Noland (1924-2010), Gene Davis (1920-1985), and Sam Gilliam (b. 1930). A regular exhibitor at Jefferson Place Gallery, founded by Noland among others, Thorpe maintained a rigorous studio schedule and actively experimented with a diversity of media while maintaining a consistent dialogue with paint on canvas — from large gestural abstractions to bold geometric canvases, from sculptural assemblage with objects found washed up on the shores of the Potomac to casting in bronze, aluminum, and pewter.
Subsequent decades continued Thorpe’s explorations in media. Having remarried in 1967 to Dr. James J. Thorpe, an avid sailor, Thorpe travelled extensively, documenting places and people in a vast number of sketchbooks and watercolor postcards. She was appointed to the sculpture faculty of American University in 1971 and exhibited at the National Collection of Fine Arts, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Baltimore Museum, and The Phillips Collection. In 1976, while visiting her daughter in Vermont, Thorpe was introduced to papermaking. Described by Thorpe as unlocking a “revolution” in her artistic process, the medium provided a new backdrop for her work with light and color: “What comes from the hands, molding mounds of water-weighted pulp—dropping it, pulling it, shaping it, sponging it—seems literally to come from the heart. A ten gallon tub full of water-logged paper pulp is my medium. My hands are my tools, the floor my table.”
Thorpe had long-considered herself “a painter who sculpts, a sculptor who paints.” With paper as her medium, the artist found new avenues and outlets for her exploration of light, color, and sculptural form. In every way she interrogated the media: from initial experiments with a 5 x 5-inch deckle and mold to applying pulp directly to gauze and cotton netting so that the form could be layered, draped, or pooled upon the floor. In a Washington Post review in 1982, Benjamin Forgey remarked on Thorpe’s success in blending painting and sculpture with the medium of paper, describing “a marvelous demonstration of self-confident inventiveness in the abstract mode…simultaneously touch[ing] the very different poles of articulate structure and lyrical color.”
Throughout her career, Thorpe’s sculpture and painting reliably demonstrate her emotive palette, improvisational eye for line and form, and masterful skill responding to media. The thread of exploration and play in her process can be traced over four decades of work. Today, this work is represented in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Phillips Collection, American University, and in numerous corporate and private collections.
Hilda Shapiro Thorpe died in Alexandria, Virginia in April 2000. The artist’s estate is actively managed and cared for by her children – Ellen, Stephen, and Andrew – whose intent it is to share her remarkable body of work with a contemporary audience and establish her legacy as a significant abstract American artist of the latter half of the twentieth century.