Hollie Davis is an artist born and raised in Beverly. Davis’s art focuses on expression, authenticity, and urban living through the use of color, shapes, and complex backgrounds. Her portraits portray people who have achieved despite facing adversity—from Nipsey Hussle and LeBron James to Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker.
She is also the founder of the Connect Residency, a virtual international program that offers emerging artists the opportunity to connect with each other and share their progress. The residency will have its second cohort this fall.
South Side Weekly spoke with Davis about the inspiration behind her work and her journey as an artist. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What has your journey been like as an artist?
I’ve been interested in art my whole life. It’s very powerful. What resonated with me was that many artists that I’ve met, or knew growing up, use their art to build community and deepen the emotional and communal connection. When I was twelve, my mother had me take the ACT and I scored high enough to go to college. In return, CPS provided me with a free class, which was an Art History class, at the Art Institute. Just being around paintings and movement really empowered me.
I always hear that you’re either a “fine artist” or a “commercial artist” and I think I bridge those two—I’m more of a community artist. I’m interested in creating art from any perspective.
Art is very personal to you. Can you speak more about that?
I was dealing with a lot of uncertainty when I was young. When I was making art, it was very isolating—I was in college, it was in a very rural area, and I felt like I lost my audience. I felt a little adrift because the people who I knew didn’t understand my passion. It made me question a lot. At the time, I didn’t even know what I liked to make. My technical skills were a lot newer and less developed.
As an arts major, I had this critique from this artist, and he goes, “This will never sell, and you only have five pieces here—five pieces won’t make a career. You’ll just end up in the Black History section, like Kara Walker.” Well, Kara Walker is a millionaire, but I won’t get into that!
So I was a little unsure at first, but art is my first love.
Are you thinking of a particular audience when you’re creating your art?
My audience tends to be a Netflix-documentary-watcher-type-of-crowd. Anyone who’s interested in history, storytelling, and the idea of understanding the two together through a lens that you don’t ordinarily see. When you say that you’re into art or want to buy art, it’s a very one-percenter thing to say for some people. I think it’s critical that artists can speak to what they do.
How does your home shape your identity and influence your art?
My parents collect art—they love art. I don’t remember this but my parents told me that as a baby, I would be really irritable so they would walk around the house and talk about the art pieces. That was the only thing that would calm me down. When I was growing up in Beverly, there was a sense of the adults being really involved with the young people. I felt like any time I showed any sight of aptitude in an area, it was encouraged to the max.
My parents also made sure that we traveled, and we also have family abroad. Overseas, there’s a very strong preservation of culture while in the U.S. there’s this idea that culture recycles every twenty years. I’ve been going to see art in museums, since I was four years-old, every year. There’s this intentionality in investing in their cultural resources.
My parents both had a very hard time growing up. My mom grew up on the South Side of Chicago with not much, and my dad grew up in Mississippi during the 1960s. While I’ve been involved in art, I’ve also been involved in politics and social justice. My dad had me going to political meetings since I was thirteen years old. I very much engaged with the world of art and community-building. It’s the best place to find authenticity.
What usually inspires your work?
What people recognize in my work is the background, details, and color. I try to show that we’re more the same than we are different in the people that I portray. The backgrounds are complicated because I think that it’s our background that individualizes us. I also make the backgrounds abstract because sometimes we’re not even aware of what’s in our backgrounds. It’s also, in a way, a symbolic “I love you” to everybody who has put me in spaces where I’ve seen art that looks like this. It gave me enough of an education and background in art that I could pull from so many different types of historical arts. Make sure that you’re grateful and thankful for everyone who has helped you because I believe that art truly moves people.
How would you describe your art process?
I mainly use acrylics typically when I’m doing portraits. When there’s a complicated background, I draw everything with pencil first, and then typically I paint the background. I think that if the background is painted first, it looks like it’s receding a bit more than if you paint it after the portrait. Then I paint the portrait, which I mainly do in black and white because I think as individuals we tend to think of everything in black and white. Like us and them.
How do you tell a story through your art?
Well, I collect images that I think are culturally impactful. It’s a very instinctive, almost visceral experience—I kind of look at what I’ve been painting. I’ll pick a photo that will suit the idea. I’m more of a planner. I think that comes from the fact that for the last three years I’ve been booked once a month. So it depends on what shows are coming up – if it’s a group show, or solo show, or a theme.
I always try to focus on expressions instead of accuracy. Accuracy is important but it’s like, how do you create the most authentic expression? It comes from practice, figuring out what you like and what you’re good at. The Bus Stop Series started in 2020 because we were all locked indoors. Urban living is so important because it allows you to be almost anywhere and interact with people.
My biggest thing, though, is that I make sure to spend twenty hours a week artistically. But it’s weird when someone asks you how you do it! It’s just like, I don’t know, I do it!
What in Chicago inspires you?
The hustle! I mean that in the best way. I always say to my out-of-towner friends that Chicagoans love a project. They love a hustle! When I’m at the lake, I hear people talking about nonprofit ideas or ways to open businesses. I think that Chicago can compete with any city in the world when it comes to art—there was a comic book exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Lucien Caillouet at Grand Gallery is doing phenomenal things—throwing shows almost every month. You have, like, Lessie Vernado Dixon and Lisa Taylor at the Morgan Arts Complex, which is who I work with, and they throw events. I think that’s a true advantage of Chicago—people are your resources.
I want to talk more about the Connect Residency. What is it and what inspired you to create it?
In 2020, I was accepted into a virtual international residency from Mango Residencia in Argentina. We met weekly, for about six weeks, and showed each other our progress. The people were from New Zealand, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, but I was the only Black woman. In 2021 we had a group exhibition in France, and it really motivated me. I could really offer something to people that could make us all a lot more interconnected. I wanted to create something for the busy, emerging artist that doesn’t have time or money.
A woman, Meg’n Barba, had opened a wellness studio and gallery [a few years back] and [in February 2021] we became really great friends. We ended up talking about our goals. I was like, “I would love to put together this program, it would be virtual, and I just need a place to have the exhibit,” and she said, “Well, why don’t you have it here?” She became my first community-partner.
A lot of people applied to the program—I got about thirty-five responses, and I chose eight people because of the amount of space I had in the gallery. Half of the participants were from Chicago and the other half were from Nigeria, Brazil, Turkey, and France.
I want the Connect Residency to be a program that’s contracted by universities, art centers and other institutions to help underrepresented artists. If you have connection after connection after connection, then ideally all you need is motivation. I’m currently working on the second cohort, and I received about forty applicants. I’ve consistently been encouraged and supported – I’m trying to create a professional development experience that gives that to artists.
You can learn more about the Connect Residency and view Hollie Davis’s work at holliedavisart.com
Sarah Luyengi earned her B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. Some of her non-fictional work has appeared in Borderless Magazine. She last reviewed an anthology of Chicago poetry.