Asking Questions Through Art: An Interview with Holli Harmon

Edited by Andrew David Baker

Holli Harmon is a Santa Barbara artist who describes herself as a “contemporary traditionalist.” Some of her recent projects include “Portraits of the Central Coast,” a series of paintings documenting the lives of 19 local personalities, and “The River’s Journey,” a collective effort in which she and five other artists spent a year chronicling the Santa Ynez River.

Holli Harmon with LA Lies and Lawns.JPG
Holli Harmon with L.A. Lies and Lawns.

Tell me about your new series, “Califia.”

Califia was the mythological goddess that California was named after. I’ve used the female figure to help me explore cultures and layers and how we see ourselves and how we represent ourselves. What do we remember of ourselves? Where are we going? But it’s still anchored in the land. So figure and landscape, but they’re more abstracted and there are multiple layers.

Describe one of the paintings.

L.A. Lies and Lawns was the first big one, and this was after a big discovery of Saturday Evening Post covers at Art From Scrap. I had done the water project, “The River’s Journey.” This skyline is from a city view that I took at the Getty Museum looking out over Los Angeles. This big western figure is kind of a representation of our Hollywood version of ourselves. A bikini-clad cowboy – the story of how Mullholland robbed the water from Northern California – I’m playing with imagery, saying this is stolen water. But is she the sheriff? Is she the villain? We don’t know. There’s a little girl up here in the clouds and she’s watering L.A. And this Saturday Evening Post story totally ties into the story that most of us hold in America that we all should have a white picket fence and a nice lawn, that that’s our lifestyle and that’s what we’ve been programmed to think. But in California, having green lawns is not really feasible or doable with our limited water resources – that’s one of our biggest wastes of water.

Pattern interests me. Pattern becomes like a paintbrush – it’s like “We have this bright, big sunny lifestyle” – the daises make me think of that. And yet I’ve gridded off into squares and I have circles and bubbles and these clouds are floating.

Which of the paintings had the longest time until you felt that it was finished?

Barbara and Ynez and the Chains that Bind was the second painting after I did some initial little gouaches. This is the Santa Ynez River. The backdrop is Lake Cachuma at its very lowest point. We had not had rain. There’s this big storm coming in. Barbara, this figure that is almost off of the canvas, is lost in the rain. The braid has turned into a chain. We’re so bound to Lake Cachuma and Santa Ynez for our water in Santa Barbara city, on the other side of the Santa Ynez Mountains. We’ve drilled three tunnels in order to import water into our community. We can’t survive without it. It is Santa Ynez becoming this beautiful woman, and Santa Barbara is beautiful, too, but she’s tied up with Ynez. It took a long time because I wasn’t sure – What am I doing? How does that look? What do I leave on? What do I take off? Is this figure too strong? Santa Ynez is more prominent than a lot of the other figures, but I’m letting them each speak to me. Each one will be different.

You’re weaving together portraits, landscape, and narrative. Does that come naturally or is that challenging for you?

What’s challenging is sometimes I say, “Holli, why are you making this so difficult? Why don’t you just do one thing?” I think all of this is a trajectory of my own art practice and what interests me. It’s interesting how I’m still a representational artist but there are abstract qualities to what I’m doing. I’m always exploring other mediums rather than saying, “This is what I do.” It’s more “What medium can I use to say what I want to say, or what’s interesting to me?”

Some of these Califia images actually have collage elements in them. I thought that was interesting, so I went and took a class with Susan Tibbles so I could learn more about that, looking at how other artists have used it. When you are learning something, not only are you looking at why you are choosing this method and what that medium offers you, but you have to learn the technical part of it – How can I do it? And it seems like I am always trying to learn the skills of the medium so if I want to use it, it is a tool in my toolbox.

Harmon Adds Texture to Super Bloom (work in progress).JPG
Harmon adds texture to Super Bloom (work in progress).

You had this idea of water, but then this exploration of technique came into it?

Yes. Ten years ago, I’d done some work like this, with layers, painting on different surfaces, taking multiple figures, very abstracted. They’re just layered on. I did a couple of pieces a couple of decades ago with rodeo figures and bulls and cowboys and they were just a montage. So the Fibonacci spiral, I’m just coming back to it. I will use this until I am ready to move onto something else. But right now I am really intrigued with using the female figure and landscape to talk about who we are.

You said “It’s a trajectory of my own art practice and what interests me.” So what interests you?

I think I’m really recognizing how our world is changing. It changes at a faster pace. I’m hopefully only halfway through my life. So I have some perspective now of seeing things that are different but then seeing things that re-emerge, and then knowing that it’s changing again, it’s not going to be the same world in five years and ten years as it is today, in terms of the topics of discussion. But who we really are – you get a lot of clues from your past. I guess I’m interested in all of those things.

 When you say it’s changing and it won’t be the same in five years – are you the sort of artist who is a moment crystallizer, as some people describe artists?

Holding the moment? Yes. And that probably gives me the perfect way to answer a previous question: I’m interested in all three, portrait, narrative, and landscape. Just take a landscape – I better hold onto this open space. I know with the history of population growth it may not stay open space. I’m going to appreciate it today in the present. It was held as open space because this has been land grant that was passed down through a family from when we used to be a Spanish colony. So I’m interested in how it stayed as an open space. But I might hint to other ideas: “Wow, there’s a big freeway overpass crossing over this, and this is our future, and what’s going to happen? Is it going to be covered with condos?” and having that conversation in the image.

Would you call your art political?

I think that I have social conversations. I think politics are a by-product of social conversations. Really, human elements are what interest me. I’m looking at this one idea here of a woman at the beach through seven images and they’re all from a different decade and a different expression of women. The social conversation is evident: how somebody dressed to go to the beach in the early 1900s is different than what we wear today, versus a very modernist marble sculpture that is collaged into it, as almost a Cubist form. But those are social conversations. How do we view women? How do we dress? How do we connect with our land and our ocean? Obviously everybody likes to be down by the water. So those are more human, humanistic.

How long did you gather ideas for the “Califia” series?

I would say this “Califia” project has been in gestation for at least a year, a year and a half. I did those little layered paintings a year and a half ago, and now I’m creating full-sized works and I’m still adding to it because I say, “Oh, that’s interesting, I think I want to create a painting about that. Or, I love this image – how can I use it?” I went and took this collage class, and out of that collage class there was a failed print, and I kept images of it as I built this up. I mounted it on a piece of board. And then I found these words – somebody had been selling doormats with California greetings: hola, hi, howdy, and aloha – which really captures the vibe in California. So that other painting with the vaquero, the female Spanish rider on the big horse, all of that background design is built out of these words. And then I added in haku, the Chumash word, their greeting, which is our first language in this region. But how all of those words hold a little part of ourselves, how we greet each other – so there’s social engagement.

 Are you ever afraid that you might be straying into cultural appropriation?

I think I am completely straying into cultural appropriation. I hope that I am doing it in a way that I’m honoring those cultures, because that’s what I’m feeling when I’m uplifting it, I’m celebrating it. I’m hopefully bringing light to it in a positive way. I don’t think anything I’m making is something that is used for my gain. I’m trying to be a storyteller that shares what I find is beautiful. I had really great interns from UCSB also from Westmont college, on the “Portraits of the Central Coast project, and we had a lot of wonderful conversation about cultural appropriation. When are we appropriating? When are we celebrating? And it’s a great social engaging question. I don’t have the answer, but I’m trying to be true.

Are you post-modern enough that you don’t mind if someone is reading something else into your image, or do you have a little more ownership as the artist of saying, “Well, it’s a misunderstanding – which they are entitled to have – but really my intent was something else.”

If somebody were to sit down and write about my work and say, “She’s borrowing all of these commercial images, and it’s cultural appropriation” and it was a negative, derogatory message, I would want to have the forum to say, “This is where my intention was coming from.” I wouldn’t want somebody to be able to own and say what I’m trying to say. I don’t think that that’s fair. But I do think that whatever you bring as a viewer to a piece of work is your point of view, and it says more about you than it does about me. But that might be really fascinating to me, and if I like your point of view, I might be like, “Right on! Brand it!” Put it on that image. I’ll accept that.

So it’s intention with openness?


How would you define socially engaged art?

I think it’s when the artist is asking to connect to the viewer and we’re kind of posing the questions the way you’re posing the question to me. It’s “Let’s have a conversation: Do you see this? What do you see? Oh, you see that? OK, great. I wasn’t thinking of that but I can see how you engage with that.” And as we share our own story and somebody shares their story with us, we’re actually learning about ourselves.

So it’s maybe a process of co-constructing meaning?

Yeah, and I think every artist ultimately wants to have a conversation. We’re not making our art and hiding it under the bed. Most of us want to have it out in the world, breathing and having a conversation.


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