At first glance, what’s important to Holly Farrell are things. Objects. Specifically, inanimate ones.
The Toronto-based artist likes chairs, books, couches, and doctor’s bags. Toys are important to her as well. She rarely fills the frame, instead focusing on one subject that stands alone in front of a seamless colored background or a patterned wallpaper. But her subjects don’t earn such precise focus because of what they are as physical objects. Rather, Farrell puts the spotlight on them because of the rush of emotion and memory each one gives her.
Or as she describes it, “It clicks. You pick things because they make you feel comfortable or they make you feel uncomfortable. When they’re uncomfortable, I think you’re trying to work something out. And when you’re comfortable, you want to honor it somehow.”
Holly Farrell has always had art in her life. She fondly recalls the first time one of her older sisters — as one of seven children— brought home an art project. “I remember my sister coming home from high school and she did this painting of a landscape, and I thought, ‘That is so beautiful.’” She continued to seek that beauty wherever she could, taking up any craft or art project she could find on children’s shows or in magazines.
And perhaps more important than the love for art she picked up as a child, were the memories and experiences she gained, those of which she still draws from for many of her pieces today. She explains how she channels memories of her father through diner-oriented subjects:
“When I was a young girl my family owned and lived behind a diner/gas station on Highway 11. This was a very hard time for us. My dad was a alcoholic – a lot of paintings that relate to that period are diner themed. Life revolved around my father and where he was or what he was doing and what mood he was in. It was a strange and awful time, but I think something has come out of it.”
Even though art was Holly’s strongest subject in school, she couldn’t find a place for it in her life after high school. It never occurred to her that she might be good enough to pursue art professionally, but she also didn’t have another passion to replace it. “I thought I was going to be a housewife with kids. I never thought it would be any different. In college I studied to work with children with special needs because I decided if I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, I should do something that I felt was worthwhile.”
Holly enjoyed working with children, but she was eventually promoted to a management position, which she admits she was not cut out for. “I realized I wasn’t good at managing people, I was a better frontline worker. And I just found the stress and the politics to be way too much for me.” It was a difficult time, but it led her back to art. Holly’s mother had a woodworking shop north of Toronto and she would go up on weekends to parlay craft into stress relief. But after a year of that, she yearned for something closer to home, and her husband Steven suggested she try something that could fit into their apartment: painting.
She did, and after a few months, some of Holly’s paintings- which she’d never intended for public consumption- caught the eye of one of her husband’s friends, a sculptor who was entrenched in Toronto’s art scene. He suggested she submit her work to the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, and not only was she accepted, but her art sold.
Over her career, Holly has so established her style that even when she paints portraits, such as a collection of clown portraits she did in 2014, or landscapes, she says she still approaches them as if they were still-lifes. But she didn’t set out with that mindset.
After the first experience with the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, she decided to approach her art more seriously, and to do that, she knew she needed to practice, and what better to practice on than the things around her house? “It had never occurred to me at that point to go to art school and I was much too intimidated by that anyway. So I sat down and began to draw things in the apartment. And the subjects were the things that my family had given me. My grandmother’s teacups or a chair or a bowl, and the whole idea was to practice drawing. I saw it as an exercise.”
As the exercises evolved into paintings that she found she was quite proud of, Holly applied again to the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition. While she was rejected that year, she refocused her efforts and was accepted again on her third attempt. This brought an increase in sales that, along with the ongoing stress of her management position, led Holly to quit her job and join her husband in his house-painting business. “We were working full time house painting. Whenever I wasn’t doing that, I was obsessively painting. I couldn’t believe people were buying it. It was a total surprise for me.”
But sales grew to the point that Holly and Steven were able to quit house painting altogether and work on Holly’s art full time, Holly doing the painting and Steven handling the framing and business side. As the business became sustainable and she developed a fan base, Holly faced another challenge that she still deals with today: fitting in.
“I like to think that somehow I’m a folk artist.” Unlike many self-taught artists, Holly was aware of the Naive movement when she first started painting and aspired to be a folk artist herself. Her early pieces were memory paintings that lack her trademark realism and, though at first glance, they might more obviously fit into the folk category than her present work, she found herself unhappy with a majority of them. That’s when she began practicing with still life and working on subjects that were in front of her versus in her mind.
Through her development, Holly created her own brand of folk art. “I think the folk aspect of my work and learning all this stuff on my own still comes through in my paintings. You can’t call my work realism, especially if you see it in person. I understand why some people might do that, but it just doesn’t really work that way for me.” Her work can be seen as melancholy –– something Holly feels isn’t a negative thing. “A woman once asked me, ‘Why do you always like to paint poor things?’. And I never really thought about that. It was just the stuff of my experience. We were poor growing up. Farmers were poor. People in town and outside of town were poor, but we didn’t really think of ourselves that way.”
Her pieces’ tendency to toe the line of folk make it difficult to peg the style of gallery that best suits her work. “When you see my work in a gallery with just contemporary art, it looks really odd. And when you see my work in a gallery with just naive art or folk art or outsider art, it looks really odd, so I have a hard time fitting in anywhere. So when I get a gallery, I really appreciate it.”
Right now, those galleries are the Garde Rail Gallery in Texas,the Megumi Ogita Gallery in Tokyo, and the Clark Gallery in Lincoln, MA and Florida’s Cornell Museum, the latter two of which will showcase Holly’s work later this year. Her solo show at Clark is first, and she plans to focus on one of her favorite subjects, books. “When I look for books to use as subject matter I often find little notes tucked between the pages – like a hand written recipe from somebody else’s mom, or lists of ‘things to do’ – sometimes even saved valentines or dried flowers. I love finding those things. I like knowing the subjects that I paint have had some kind of experience, some kind of life.”