When art becomes part of life's journey
Jan. 14, 2004
Fred Lewis
Staff Writer

Bryan Haynes/The Gazette

Silver Spring artist Joseph Holston stands beside his oil on linen painting titled "Summer Shower" in the University of Maryland University College Art Gallery. Holston said the painting, which depicts seven figures dressed in blue and huddled beneath bright blue umbrellas, shows figures held together by the color blue and connected by the unspoken shared experience of seeking shelter.

Holston continues to test new horizons

Growing up in Chevy Chase, Silver Spring artist Joseph Holston didn't play much with the children in his neighborhood. He liked to wander off on his own, observe and absorb the beauty of the world around him.

It's something he's done throughout his life and during his 30-year career as an artist and painter. Whether it's a walk through the bustling neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., a visit to the vibrant jazz clubs of the city, a career-launching trip to Santa Fe, N.M., or an excursion to Africa, Holston draws inspiration from each journey and shares his experiences, his visions and his world through an explosion of bold, contrasting color and dramatic lines.

"When I want to draw inspiration, I tend to go off on my own," said the 59-year-old artist during an interview at his latest exhibit in the art gallery at the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi.

"When I was a child, my mom used to wonder about me. I'd wander off from playing and go into my own world. At the age of 5, kids were playing, and I'd go off and take in the beauty of the trees and clouds and the beauty of the sunlight dancing on the treetops."

He can remember looking up at the clouds, marveling at how they changed and mingled above him.

"And I created a story about it. I could see all kinds of objects dance across the sky," he said. "It was more important to me than running around with the kids and playing Cowboys and Indians."

At the time, he didn't know he was going to be a respected artist whose work would grace the halls of galleries, museums and institutions in Maryland and across the country. He didn't know those observations and experiences would find their way into paintings and etchings throughout his 30-year career.

"It was something I didn't connect with at the time -- that I was destined to be an artist," he said. "An artist's life is dictated to them."

Holston is a studious observer who wants his viewers to feel what he's seen and be where he's been. With each brush stroke, he puts you there and shows you the emotion and beauty in people and places others might find ordinary.

"In order to create a painting, I have to understand more about what I want to paint. I have to walk around the building just to paint one part of it," he said.

"I start off with color and form to bring you in, but what ultimately I want to do is get you involved through form and expression and color," he said. "You feel more than you see. You may not see a lot looking, but you should feel a lot."

Holston's current style -- mostly cubist, a style of painting made popular by Pablo Picasso and his contemporaries in the early 20th century -- evolved over his life's journey to include many of his experiences and art styles.

Holston's style is one that resonated both with laymen and art experts, said Marilyn Maupin Hart, director of the art program at University of Maryland University College.

"As a Maryland artist, he's very important," Hart said. "He's a very fine painter who dialogues with the viewer. I think that's important because our galleries are for the layperson and his paintings and works resonate with the average person on the street, which is important in Maryland. He's also African American and that gives that community a voice."

While Holston has gained notoriety in the state, Hart said the artist also is beginning to be recognized nationally.

"He's taken a big step," said Hart, who extended Holston's exhibit through February because of the popularity of the show. "He's caused a lot of commotion -- a lot of good commotion.

"But I think the experts are still looking at him. Could I say almost everyone in the art world thinks he's 'it'? I can't say that. But he's really stepped up his popularity. We had more than 800 people at his opening and that took us by absolute surprise."

Finding a direction

While Holston is making a big splash on the Maryland art scene, his entry into the art world was gradual. Shortly after moving to Northeast Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, Holston transferred from McKinley High School and enrolled in Chamberlain Vocational High School for commercial art.

"I ran into one of my friends when I moved to Washington, D.C., and he said he attended a school for advertising art," Holston recalled. "He said he spent all day long studying art. And I said, 'What's wrong with that problem? I need to partake in that.' "

So Holston took an entrance exam, passed the test and was accepted to the school. As far as he was concerned, that was the easy part. He had an intense interest in art and had already developed some talent. The hard part was telling his mother.

"We weren't a rich family. As far as my parents were concerned, college wasn't an option. I had to get out of school and make it on my own. ... That's normal for a parent. She just looked at me and said, 'I guess you know what you're doing.'"

After graduation in 1964, Holston worked as a commercial artist and illustrator, honing his craft and, just as importantly for a struggling artist, learning how to market and sell his own work. The job was rewarding and he learned a lot, but Holston wanted more.

"Illustrating was nice, but it was just a job. I didn't 'feel it,'" Holston said.

He wanted the freedom to express himself. He wanted to pursue fine arts. So Holston mustered up some money and traveled to Santa Fe to study with professional artist and teacher Richard V. Goetz in an intensive three-week course that transformed his career and his style.

"That was the next high point of my career, when I connected with the environment -- the beautiful sunsets and the adobe houses," he said. "That's when I realized I wanted to be a fine artist.

"Santa Fe took me back to being totally free and gave me the ability to do what I wanted to do," he said. "Santa Fe created a backdrop for [future work]. I could go out and not paint, but just stare at the sunset. "

He was creating more representational work at the time, and went to Santa Fe to become a portrait artist. He thought it would be a good way to sponsor himself.

"But when I got there, Goetz said, 'You don't want to be a portrait painter. It's too confining and too grueling. You have to compromise too much. My advice to you is to learn how to paint.'

"I think he saw himself in me. [He said] I don't want to go off in that direction and compromise my career like he had. He was catching me before I went off in that direction. And he convinced me about 75 percent of the time.

"I said, 'This is freedom,' and that connected with what Richard said. ... Richard lined me up in a direction that I haven't deviated from today. That influence, it never leaves you. It was such a positive experience, even though it was 30 years ago."

Growing as an artist

When he returned from New Mexico, Holston drew from his experience in commercial art and began creating and selling his work on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Holston still worked on figure studies and learned to express himself through the human form. That interest would play prominently in his future works. While he set out in new directions, he continued to be a "people person," incorporating human form in many of his works.

He'd join other artists at the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial every weekend, painting some pieces and selling others.

"I used to do big canvasses and sell them for $100 to $150. That was an adventure for me," he said. "I could get the pulse of the buyer, watch their emotions and see how I could speak to them. I was like a marketing professional."

In 1976, Holston's work and life experience would change again with a three-month trip to Tanzania, where he painted, interacted with Africans and lectured at the University of Dar es Salaam.

"I moved around not as a tourist but as a person who lived the life of the everyday African person. I did my own shopping, my own cooking, took the bus and immersed myself. I took in a lot of culture and learned a lot."

Holston would set up his easel, work with translators and hire models for paintings, and gathered ideas that eventually would find themselves in future works.

Holston returned with a greater understanding of his culture and a desire to move in a new direction. But in the early '80s he had reached a creative roadblock.

"My career was becoming very stymied, very stagnant," he said. "I felt I needed to grow. I needed something to spark my career. I was the type of person who wanted to grow and wanted people to see that in my work. In 1985 my emotions started to rev up and bring out something beneath all this."

He began studying the collage work of African-American artist Romare Bearden (1914-1988) as a way to expand.

"I wanted to learn more about collages, so I went out to the fabric store and picked out a lot of fabric -- a yard here and there. And I began to reinterpret all of my representational works through collages.

"All I'd use was fabric. If I wanted flesh colors, I had to find the right colors. I did that for a year and was so motivated."

Like a right-handed artist who binds his right hand and draws with his left to explore a new creative path, Holston had unlocked a different style from his mind.

"I'd look at my work and say, 'Maybe I'll distort it a bit.' I started using paint and line and distorted it a bit more and it started looking abstract."

After more attempts using paint, fabric and line, Holston "learned through the back door" that what he was creating was cubism.

All of a sudden all of his experiences, all his observations and all of his creative styles flooded his mind. The clouds of his childhood, the emotions of the parties and jazz clubs, the line and form of his commercial art career, the sunsets of Santa Fe, the countryside of Africa, the portraiture of his early fine arts career, the fabric of his collages.

The result is a stunning body of cubist paintings, etchings and mixed media works. While the subjects may be what some might call ordinary -- the countryside landscape of "Along the Road;" the jazz club musicians in "Reminiscing;" a man on horseback in "Twilight Ride" -- the bold, contrasting colors, the dramatic use of line and the mix of organic and angular shapes bring Holston's visions to life.

"With my work, I try to give you peaks and valleys, soft and hard, darks and lights. All that evokes emotion that I want to get across," Holston said. "I think what I try to do is evoke emotion in my work by use of lines. That's what got me interested in this style. You can create so much drama with the use of line.

Holston, who works just about every day in his Takoma Park studio on Philadelphia Avenue, said he feels himself entering a new phase of his career. Although he's not sure what direction he'll move in, he said future pieces will likely involve styles and influences he's picked up along the way.

"Hopefully I'll see some growth and take it to the next level," he said. "In each body of work you might see a remnant of what might come. It might stretch a little more. In my mind I have certain things I'd like to experiment with.

"I've gotten a little closer to the light at the end of the tunnel -- and there's always a light at the end of the tunnel -- but when I look in retrospect I can see I've come a long way. When I look forward, I'm trying to look around the corner and look back at previous experiences."

"Dialogue in Color & Form: The Art of Joseph Holston" is on display through Feb. 28 at the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi. The University College will also host an art talk Jan. 21 from 10 a.m. to noon in the school's Inn and Conference Center, 3501 University Blvd., East, Adelphi. RSVP today by calling 301-985-7937. For more information, visit www.umuc.edu/art.