Curran's Editor-At-Large, Kevin Sessums, visits the artist Holly Rae Taylor in her Vermont home and studio.
You can't stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
I thought of that quote from Milne as I made my way up the steep winding road in the Green Mountains of Vermont last fall to visit cartoonist and graphic novelist, Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home, her wife artist Hollie Rae Taylor, and their female cat Donald. No, the cat is not named for our new president or that happy-footed hoofer O’Connor who was the source of so much joy when he starred in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. I have that magic now because of creative friends like Alison and Holly Rae and now that newest darling Donald I've come to adore. Who actually is Donald Bechdel-Taylor’s namesake? It’s the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who is known for his theories about just that: creativity and the earliest stages of one’s childhood. “It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self,” he wrote, as well as this: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” It is that tension I recognized - even smiled about - as I parked my car there deep in the forest and, as I walked toward their home hidden there and the smell of the lamb ragout that Alison was cooking for our lunch, felt all the tension of my citified life already begin to fall away and understood why Alison and Holly Rae and Donald had found a home there in Vermont. I took in the crisp mountain air with notes of the lamb drifting my way and limning it and admired all the fall foliage - the roughhewn hues like those refracted in the glass that Holly now uses in her artwork I am here to see - and imagined what it must be like in the summer when Vermont turns verdant.
I treasure friendships and when a friend I treasure also creates the kind of art to which I respond - emotional, graphic, the kind of soulful physical tug such art elicits that mirrors in its way that same kind of tug the artist must have felt while creating it - I treasure it even more. I am honored to have one of Holly Rae’s glass paintings now hanging in the Curran. That day back in Vermont, the same piece was hanging over the dining room table where we settled in for that lovely meal. I loved that one piece and certainly wanted to see more and to find out how she arrived at such concocted beauty which seemed so carefully considered in its concoction yet also deeply intuitive. Such incongruity is the essence of art to me - whether it is that which comes to life on a stage like the musical version of Alison’s Fun Home or fashioned so movingly from a static piece of glass as Holly so expertly does.
...you will have the answer to why I have turned toward glass myself: There is an art and a God in there.
We started in her study off the hallway there by the kitchen where Alison was cleaning up after the lunch. Holly is trained as a botanist - “I’m a lapsed botanist, not a recovering one,” she said - and arranged on her desk for inspiration were leaves and twigs and bits of ferns as much as for their forms and shapes themselves as for her love of the natural world, a love that was evinced outside through the window above her desk by the labyrinth she had landscaped and her gardens which awaited the spring. Her bookshelves were lined with Virginia Woolf, Howard Zinn, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Henry Miller. There were tennis magazines neatly stacked about. A photograph of Madonna. An X-ray of Holly’s own molars. There was a well-ordered quality to what at first appeared to be a bunch of stuff just strewn about but Holly Rae is not someone who strews even though it appeared she found inspiration everywhere she looked.
“But this is the book that started it all,” she told me and showed me a volume from the old Childcraft Encyclopedia series she has kept by her side since she was a girl. “This one is titled The Green Kingdom. I poured over this book obsessively.”
“My favorite book when I was a child was Winnie-the-Pooh,” I told her.
She smiled at my own memory as she gently turned the pages of The Green Kingdom, some of which were notated with her childhood thoughts and doodles. “Maybe I was a botanist right from the start,” she quietly mused.
“And an artist,” I offered when admiring the way the doodles transformed into the circular abstractions that seem to be the cellular-like basis of so much of her art which relies on the well-ordered strewing of oval images.
“I loved this Childcraft book,” she said, still studying it. “The series was known as the how and why library,” she said.
“Howl and why?” I asked, having not quite heard her since she was still so quiet in her reverie of the book.
She looked up. Laughed. “I watched the best plants of my generation …” she joked, referencing Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl.
“A botanist with a Beat,” I joked back.
Alison was by then standing in the doorway of the study. “One of the biggest tragedies of Holly’s childhood,” she said, drying her hands on a dishtowel and joining in our bit of conspiratorial laughter, “was when her family went to California and they went to Disneyland instead of going to see the redwoods.”
“I was devastated,” said Holly. “That’s why I’m growing that redwood sapling in the other room.”
We all headed downstairs to Alison’s study where another of Holly’s glass paintings hung in a window. Why, finally, glass? “I love what light does to it. I just always wanted light to push through my paintings,” she said. “And then I thought: I should try this with glass.” She paused. She looked at the light which at that moment reached out at her though the glass of her art as it filtered, this newly illumined bit of light, through the autumn foliage of the trees outside after bouncing a bit off the mountains in the distance, the natural refracted into its new nature. “If you knew the answer to why there was so much glass in churches and in temples, you will have the answer to why I have turned toward glass myself,’ she said, touching the glass on her piece hanging in window before fingering the air about it as if it had been made tactile by the light that lingered, an echo of color. “There is an art and a God in there.”
We headed back upstairs to the mud room and put on our coats and scarves and drove a couple of miles to her studio located on the second floor of an old industrial building which serves, in its way, as her own church, her own temple. Once inside, there was a new spring in Holly’s step as I watched her go lightly about the vast space from point to point to point as she gave me a tour. At one end was an area where she has a thriving business making compost bins. Instead of her intuitive, artful work with glass, this requires specific, precise work with wood. How does each inform the other? “I do believe the discipline of making the bins has changed my art” she said. “Because the art that I’m doing now is craft-centric. There is a craftsmanship to the glass component. There is also a craftsmanship to painting. But there is a precision now and a respect for material.”
“Which is more zen-like?” I asked. “The bin making or the art?”
“They both are but in different ways,” she told me.
“But you are also doing something that is very inflexible with your art,” Alison offered. “I all looks so organic but in the end is, in fact, very rigid in terms of material.”
“And sometimes quite bitchy,” Holly said, smiling.
In another area of the studio was a stationary bike. A huge cartoon drawn by Alison took up a lot of the back wall. An apparatus that looked like a pair of gymnast rings had recently been installed. A painting by a friend was on another wall. A drum set sat prominently in its rightful place. There was projector that Holly said she used to display her drawings and sketches on another of the studio’s walls as a guide to her inclinations with the glass. “What I am trying to do with glass - which is this fixed medium - is to capture this impulse one has with a hand drawing in this solid, fixed thing.” Her music collection - listening to music is an important part of her artistic process as well- contained Thelonious Monk, Haydn, Dave Brubeck, The Best of War, Philip Glass, Joan Armatrading, Maria Callas, Cecilia Bartoli, and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. A huge new sheet of glass awaited its repurposing as art. “Alison gave me that for my birthday,” said Holly.
Making someone feel something is a contribution to society.
I looked around at all the well-ordered clutter in this gorgeously rendered space where art is - I would guess - so comfortably made. “So are you comfortable making art?” I went ahead and asked. “At what point does an artist become comfortable with that impulse to put something considered art into the world, that your art is worthy of being put there? There is that incongruity that all artists must confront: they must be humbled by the art itself even as they have to have the ego to create it.”
Alison and Holly exchanged a knowing look, one both artful itself and full of love. “I think that beauty matters,” Holly said. “I feel strongly about that. I think it makes a difference in people’s lives. I also make compost bins. That is a more obvious contribution to the planet and to society. Maybe my art is less obvious but it is not any less true that beauty can make a difference. That’s what this is all about to me - making something beautiful even if it is conceptual. It want to convey something and give someone a feeling. That’s the impulse. And getting back to what it is like to make the art, I can feel it in my body when it’s right. When I’m feeling something then other people can potentially feel something too. Making someone feel something is a contribution to society.”