Artist Virginia Holmes on the freedom of abstraction
“The grey area between ‘what the f*ck is that?’ and ‘Is that a fish?’ excites me,” said Virginia Holmes when asked what drew her to abstract painting.
It began in college when her professor showed a video of Jackson Pollock hurling paint and flicking ashes on a canvas. Noting the gleam in Pollock’s eye, Holmes thought, “I want whatever he has.”
She didn’t start painting until after dropping out due to depression.
“Growing up, I was never taught I could be angry or sad, but told that was a sign of weakness and a black woman should be able to deal with her issues.”
That growing up was in Section 8 housing in Greensboro, where Holmes witnessed gang violence in neighborhoods where, “the only time you saw a white person was if they were coming to disconnect the lights, water, gas, or cable. It was very segregated and institutionalized, and I didn’t fit in at all.”
She continued to feel alienated until she encountered the work of another painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat. She discovered the1996 biopic with his surname as its title while watching Netflix with a friend whose couch she was sleeping on. “From the opening scene, I saw myself in a man’s body, reaching for peace and comfortability in his own skin and vices.”
She asked her friend to take her to Michael’s, where she used her last $20 to buy the cheapest canvas “and a brush I had no clue how to use and paints I didn’t understand.” Back at the apartment’s patio, Holmes painted the canvas for her friend’s birthday.
“I remember sitting criss-cross-applesauce, waiting for inspiration like in the movie.” It came when she “just started hurling shit.” When finished, she “felt so much better, I got scared.” That fear represented something breaking loose inside her.
“I’d never felt freedom before that day. Not only did I create it, I was reborn in it.”
Holmes has come very far since then but hasn’t forgotten her roots.
“I’ve set up at abandoned buildings and sat with people forced from their homes by gentrification and new laws that stopped or limited their social security or disability, leaving them lost in the city their ancestors helped build. I go back to remind myself where I came from.”
But she’s also found a new community via RAW, an international artists collaborative that hosts events and showcases independent creatives in over 70 cities worldwide.
“One of the directors found my Instagram and said that I should create a profile and submit to a local show.”
She said she was in a bad relationship and hadn’t created anything she found meaningful in a while.
“In addition, I’d been denied entry to a juried gallery event, so I was reluctant and questioned my abilities, but felt like I should at least try. I had no clue that from that moment my entire relationship, life, and business were about to change.”
It was three months before she received a response, “but when it happened was the happiest day of my life.”
She’s looking forward to another happy day, or rather two of them, in Greensboro this coming weekend.
“On April 7, my company, The Haze Art, will be hosting its very first showcase in Greensboro.”
That will be held at Club Orion at 4618 W. Market St. from 10 p.m.-2 a.m., and include live demonstrations, moving art, live music, and vendors.
“On Sunday, April 8 I’ll have my very first solo exhibition at 406 Prescott St. [also in Greensboro]. This will be monumental for me, because this is the anniversary of my very first rejection from a major gallery, and look at me hosting my very own!”
Holmes isn’t bitter about that rejection. “They wanted ‘urban’ black art or ‘African art’ they could sell by saying, look, she’s black and she paints black too!,” she said, referring to Greensboro’s white-owned galleries on Elm Street. “I’ve learned to navigate my passion with no grants, very minimal local support, and no official studio.”
“My dreams don’t come at night,” she said, “but when I’m awake, which is why when I work with or create for someone, I thank them for daydreaming with me. I feel like where I am now is just the beginning, because my perseverance has brought me to a place where I’m confident about my work and can use it to inspire, uplift, and change so many people regardless of who or what they are.”
A selection of paintings by Virginia Holmes can be viewed at her online RAW gallery.