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CROWE'S NEST

Artist 'Drew Hill' paints an interesting picture, but it isn't real

The painter, who has been in jail in Los Angeles since December, has claimed to be former L.A. Rams receiver Drew Hill, a two-time Pro Bowl selection. It turns out to be not true — the real Hill lives in Atlanta — but there are no questions about the artist's talent.

September 26, 2010|Jerry Crowe

On its face, it's a wondrous story.

A talented painter, down on his luck, is befriended by a fellow artist, a benevolent woman in her 70s who welcomes him into her home studio on the Boardwalk in Santa Monica.

He tells her he is Drew Hill, a former Los Angeles Rams wide receiver and veteran of 14 NFL seasons.

She tells him he's an artistic genius, "the best painter I've ever seen in my life." She arranges the creation of a website that showcases his art, alerts a local newspaper reporter of his presence and stages a public exhibition of his paintings.

But there's a catch: It's not Drew Hill.

At least, it's not the one who capped his rookie season by catching a pass in the 1980 Super Bowl.

"It's mind-boggling," Hill says from his home in Atlanta. "You'd think he'd want to make a name for himself."

The artist's real name is an apparent mystery, but his talent is clear. And since December, when he was arrested on a robbery charge downtown and booked into Men's Central Jail — as Drew Hill — his legend has only grown.

Using only the limited materials available to him at the time — a pencil, Skittles for color, toothpaste for texture, coffee grounds for skin tone, etc. — he created an impressive body of work by drawing on envelopes, mailing the results to friends.

"They're phenomenal," says Susan Weinberg, his benefactor and longtime owner of Infinity Studio. "They display a lot of emotion. Everything he does is very intense."

The envelopes — one series of 10 shows Kobe Bryant morphing into a black mamba — were included in an exhibition of mail art this summer at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena. There is talk of featuring his work in a solo exhibition at the Armory, and as a jail trusty he paints wall murals that his jailers hope to see photographed for inclusion in a book.

In the first of two phone interviews, the artist maintains that he is Drew Hill, former NFL player. He says that he has been drawing since he was a child growing up in Georgia but that only his closest teammates were aware of his artistic pursuits.

During his NFL days, he notes without prompting, he abused alcohol and drugs, including steroids, and clashed with Rams owner Georgia Frontiere over his excessive partying.

"I loved the nightclubs, I loved the women, I loved that fast life," he says, adding that in his Rams days he ran with a Hollywood crowd and dated a number of celebrities.

His career took off after he was traded from the Rams to the Houston Oilers, he says, "because there was nothing to do in Houston," and so "I took the game more seriously."

Painting relaxes him.

"It's an escape," he says. "I think I'm at my best when I'm painting. When I paint, I go into my own little world."

It's interesting that he would say this because the Drew Hill who played in the NFL from 1979 to 1993 says that the artist is, indeed, living in a fantasy world. He wonders why a man so obviously gifted has co-opted the identity of a former football player.

Hill, who turns 54 on Oct. 5, says he has been aware for several months that a man in Los Angeles had taken his name.

"I go to this bar in Buckhead, in Atlanta," he says, "and some friends of mine came up to me one day and said, 'Hey, man, there's this guy that's on a website claiming to be you. He's an artist . . . so we know it ain't you. We know you're not an artist.'"

Hill laughs as he speaks.

"I've never picked up a paintbrush," he says.

Not even to paint walls?

"Not even to do that."

A single father of two daughters and a son, Hill says he lives a quiet life, spending much of his time playing golf.

As for dating celebrities, the former receiver laughs.

"That's not me," he says.

Hill, 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds, played at Georgia Tech before the Rams made him a 12th-round draft pick in 1979. A two-time Pro Bowler, he defied long odds by lasting 14 seasons with the Rams, Oilers and Atlanta Falcons, finishing with 634 receptions for 9,831 yards. Both figures rank among the top 50 in NFL history.

His productivity skyrocketed after his trade to the Oilers, he says, because his playing time increased and his quarterback was Warren Moon, a Pro Football Hall of Famer.

Performance-enhancing drugs, he says, played no part.

"Believe me, if I used steroids," he says, laughing again, "I'd have weighed more than 170 pounds."

He says he now weighs 180.

The man in jail who claims to be Drew Hill says he's about 6 feet tall and weighs about 260.

From Atlanta, Hill turns serious and says, "I'm concerned because this guy could do anything and it would reflect on me. I don't want a guy taking my identity."

He wonders aloud whether he should consult a lawyer.

The artist is questioned a second time and, from jail, finally admits, "I'm not the one that played football."

He claims, however, that his name is Drew Hill and that, like the former player, he was born in Georgia on Oct. 5, 1956.

Weinberg, his benefactor, doesn't care who he is.

"It doesn't make any difference to me one way or another," she says. "I was always interested in him as an artist. I didn't care if he was a football player or not. I never really believed it, to tell you the truth. I thought it was a grand delusion of some kind."

That much is true.

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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