Barbara Holliday: Art & Soul
When I met Barbara Holliday two summers ago, I could see from her work that she was a gifted artist and knew from her welcoming smile that she had a sense of humor, but I also feared that she was perhaps overly optimistic. After all, she had called me about joining the Gallery Walk in a boat . . . that is, in a somewhat ragtaggish, Pembroke motor yacht she was repainting to serve as a fair-weather art gallery. This antique wooden vessel was "beached" on the upper parking deck overlooking the Marina Restaurant on Putney Road, at the mouth of the West River. This "opportunity" had tapped her on the shoulder while adding decorative touches to the restaurant's interior. Although the paintings, prints, cards, beachwear and bits of whimsy offered in The Minnow Gallery -- remember Gilligan's Island? -- were offered at a fair price, she had a 10-year-old daughter and limited time to keep the gallery open. It turned out to be a one-season wonder.
We've kept in occasional touch by e-mail, but our paths crossed again only recently. Still on our e-mail list, she heard about the photo op we were planning to promote our Yankee Magazine Editor's Choice honor and showed up that morning. The group posed jauntily in front of Vermont Artisan Designs with examples of the work they do or sell. That unexpected encounter led to my connecting her with a venue looking for a June featured artist, and then to my learning more about Barbara's arts-filled life.
Her story begins in Detroit's inner city, where she was born and raised. At a very young age, Barbara met renowned blues artists like John Lee Hooker and James Cotton, hung around with some of the Motown gang, and at only 13 or 14 began writing songs and accompanying herself on the guitar -- generally in the blues or R&B vein. She was only 16 when she got her first paying gig at the now famous Chess Mate in Detroit. She went on to spend her last two years of high school in Stockbridge, Mass. with Christopher Guest and Arlo Guthrie. (Her earliest Vermont connection was skiing at Mount Snow in the '60s.) Barbara then devoted herself to perfoming with her own bands and also played with many great musicians while living in New York City, Ann Arbor, Detroit and northern California. Along the way, she also learned to play the bass, piano, and saxophone.
You may already be thinking, "Wow!" -- as I was when first scanning Barbara's autobiographical highlights -- but it gets even more interesting. The next line reads: "I came East, met, married and performed with James Montgomery for 17 years, performing 300 nights a year." As an integral part of Montgomery's group, she met and played with countless musical celebrities, including the Steve Miller Band (when Boz Scaggs was a member), Dan Aykroyd and the Blues Brothers, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Paul Shafer from the David Letterman Show house band, and Alex Taylor, the oldest of the Vineyard Taylor clan -- for awhile they toured as James Montgomery, Alex Taylor and the East Coast Funk Busters!
By the late '80s, Barbara was getting tired of touring with a busful of guys (now we know where she developed her sense of humor) and split from James and the band. She had already established an art gallery and recording studio in Williamstown, Mass., in one of the oldest Art Deco facades in Berkshire County. Keeping this successful business as a source of income, she "retired" to Nevis in the West Indies in 1989, having found the Caribbean ambience inviting on several musical tours of the region.
And that is where the "rest of the story" begins. . . .
"I began painting," she wrote in her notes to me. In fact, her first painting as a chiefly self-taught artist -- "The Egret's Secret Garden" (4'x 5'), which took four months to execute -- was chosen by Isadore Sharp, founder and president of Four Seasons Hotels International, to be his signature painting at the first resort in the Four Seasons chain, built on Nevis. A far cry from the surroundings in which that painting lived, Barbara's home for some of her six years on Nevis was a 100-year-old "gingerbread" house with no TV and no phone. (She even did without hot water for two years!) "It was a total reversal of life for me," she explained on the phone when I called for additional details. "I would get up at 5:30 to paint, the time when I would have been getting ready for bed in my old life."
A former British Colony, Nevis became independent in 1984. When Barbara first visited there, "it was still undiscovered. Most people rode around on donkeys and mopeds, or in Jeeps. . . . The identity of the West Indies was magical, mythical to me. . . . The base of artists there made it easy to pick up some canvas and paint." In addition to painting canvases that were snapped up by collectors vacationing on Nevis from the U.S. and around the world, Barbara undertook a unique creative project for the Four Seasons Resort: a stage set of sorts, consisting of 12 elaborately painted pieces (each 10 feet by 16 feet), each comprised of 4 hinged panels that could be used as folding-screen backdrops for banquets, or be assembled into four-sided "houses" displaying unique scenes of island life -- its people, homes, shops, flora and fauna.
In case you're wondering, Barbara didn't trade her musical soul for a life devoted only to the visual arts. While on Nevis, she performed with a steel-pan blues band, as well as a big band known as "Caribbean Roots." In spite of all this fulfilling creativity, she eventually decided to return to the States and ultimately to settle in Brattleboro, Vermont six years ago -- with stops back in Williamstown and then Orleans, Mass. and a bit of time in Maine along the way.
Among Barbara's recent accomplishments has been helping to develop a seed company based in Wardsboro. She spent six months this past fall and winter designing Bloomers' logo, seed packages, displays, and collateral business materials. I was not at all surprised to learn that Barbara's creativity is not limited to success as an artist and musician. She's also the owner of Green Mountain Hot Works, which specializes in an award-winning line of sauces. Barbara's musical roots have bubbled up to the surface again, too, resulting in a just-completed, self-produced CD with five new songs.
Barbara's art has also become very personal of late. Included in the current exhibit at the Pain Management Center of New England (139 Main St., Suite 604) are works from two new giclee print series that have resulted from her experiments with computer-enhanced artwork:
· "Bikini Wax" features sculpted, multicolor torsos of women wearing bathing suits adapted from Barbara's richly figured artwork. The bodies have no heads, making a statement about how women are perceived and judged in our popular culture. Baywatch star Traci Bingham has been communicating with Barbara about possibly using these designs as the basis for a new beachwear line.
· The "ColonARTScopy" series was based on a frame from the recent film of Barbara's colon, presented as the "being of beauty that it is." By imaginatively turning this image into artful, more familiar forms, her intention is to demystify the insides of our bodies, creating a recognition that we do not have as a culture. "If we know and understand more about our insides, we may take better care of ourselve and gain new perceptions about how our bodies work," says Barbara. "The actual event of having the colonoscopy was much easier than the anxiety leading up to it. I want to bring this ease into public focus and heighten awareness about this most important and life-saving procedure."
A selection of prints and cards, and the new CD, will also be available for purchase at the opening reception on June 4. Please make this a stop on your walking tour during Gallery Walk or sometime later in the month.
I must also mention that Barbara's daughter Sadie, now 12, is particularly devoted to both soccer and band these days. She's already an accomplished tenor saxophonist and has earned high acclaim among her peers for her original songs. Barbara is of course quite justifiably proud to see Sadie -- her most precious creative effort -- finding success in some of the same outlets that she enjoys. Could a mother-daughter CD be next?
MID-JUNE UPDATE: Due to changing circumstances in the Hooker-Dunham Building, the exhibit described above at the Pain Management Center was taken down in mid-June. It may be relocated in the near future. In the meantime, contact Barbara at (802) 257-8987 for further information about her work.
Copyright 2004, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont