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Origins of Dreaming with Lily Hollinden

Painter Lily Hollinden creates vibrant, surreal scenes that blend dream-like worlds with sometimes surprising subject matter, like the frequently featured clown as of late. Her work engages a bold color palette and compositions that offer an introduction to her formal background. We asked Hollinden to share more about her introduction to practicing art and to divulge what goes into creating her pieces. You can catch her work on view as part of Blue: a color story at MIXD.

Nest Diptych by Lily Hollinden, 2023, oil on canvas

What’s your background?

LH I was born in Indianapolis, but lived in Bloomington, Indiana, from the age of 2 until I graduated from college there at Indiana University. I grew up in a very artistic and musical family, and have had the good fortune to be able to pursue my childhood interest in art all the way well into adulthood!

How did you start making art?

LH I was always an art kid, it’s honestly always been my main interest and the only thing I ever seriously considered doing as a career path. The earliest artworks I made that I can specifically remember were what I called “Baby Doll Destroyers” at the age of maybe 3 or 4. When I was a little kid, I thought baby dolls were really creepy, so I would draw these monsters covered in teeth and claws and other weapons to, I suppose, destroy baby dolls. I think my parents still have some of them back home!

I also remember being in the 1st grade and spending a good long time drawing a portrait of a historical figure on the cover of a blank book for my class, being very proud of the final result, and then being distraught when I realized I had drawn my masterpiece on the back cover and not the front. I suppose it’s good to get used to those kinds of mess-ups early!

Do any of your relationships inform or influence your work?

LH Oh, absolutely! My artworks are often inspired by personal experiences of mine. My familial relationships, friendships, and particularly my romantic relationships make it into my paintings a good amount. If I’m dating someone and they make it into a painting, that means they were impactful to me (either positively or negatively!)

Desire and Distrust by Lily Hollinden, 2023, oils on canvas, 40 x 32 inches

How does your chosen media influence your work?

LH Specifically with painting, I feel like I am very much connected to the lineage of the medium. I think I have a lot in common with painters of the low-brow pop surrealist movement, as well as 18th century Italian painter Domenico Tieppolo and his series of “Punchinello” clown paintings and drawings. I’m also heavily inspired by women painters of the past, such as Frida Kahlo and Hilma af Klint, who were groundbreaking artists that revolutionized the medium. I often pay homage to my “painting elders” in my work, either by replicating compositions, or adding art-historical references into my imagery. I want to carve a space for myself within the canons of art history, as we all continue to build off of what each artist before us developed. 

Can you give us a peek into your artistic process?

LH My best paintings start from an idea that feels impactful to me, especially if it’s a notion that makes me laugh, like a pun or phrase, or a ridiculous image in my head. Most of my work gets a few sketches in the sketchbook before I start working on canvas so I can feel out how I want to compose the painting and try a couple different paths to illuminate this idea. Once I move to my official surface, things usually start with a washy acrylic underpainting, then I’ll move to oil paints. I try to keep things open in the composition for as long as possible, which is usually not easy for me as I really enjoy cleanliness on my painting surface! Once things do lock in, I have a lot of fun adding and subtracting elements, playing with intense color, and pushing the painting as far as I think it can go. 

What defines some of your favorite art?

LH I find myself really drawn to really definitive, busy, robust artworks. When it comes to paintings, I enjoy works that feel solid and structured compositionally, where no square inch goes to waste, and I’m super into meaty, authoritative paint application. I prioritize intention, authenticity, and the liveliness of the material.

My favorite painting at the Crystal Bridges Art Museum up in Bentonville is Peter Saul’s Superman Versus the Toilet Duck. I’m particularly fond of Saul’s work, especially his early paintings; they’re very lively and colorful, and draw your eye all over the canvas through an authoritative color structure. My favorite painters would have to be Kyle Staver, Celeste Rapone, Philip Guston, and Matt Bollinger. 

How do you see your art evolving? Or, how has it changed throughout your career?

LH My work has changed vastly in the last couple years here working towards my MFA. I went from really caring about how “academically good” my work was during my first year, anatomically correct figures and all that, to totally switching gears and painting clowns. Once I stopped caring about my paintings being, for lack of a better term, “undeniably good”, or “universally good”, they became ACTUALLY good. My work is much more authentic to me now. All bets are off, and nothing is off-limits. I can’t please everyone, so at least I should please myself, right? I’ve had a lot of success over this last year following all of my ridiculous ideas, so I don’t plan on stopping!

Primordial Soup by Lily Hollinden, 2023, oils on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

Does your work respond to current events or provide an escape?

LH I think my work can do both, it just depends on the painting. I have been thinking a lot more politically in the studio over this last year, which was something that I was never really interested in until I suddenly just… was. I painted my first clown in the summer of 2022 as an indulgent one-off in response to the overturning of Roe V. Wade, and I found it very cathartic to express my frustration and hopelessness with our current political landscape. I’m a firm believer in the phrase “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. There’s a time and a place for escapism, and my studio is not that place.  

Do you have a favorite project or memory as a visual artist?

LH I’ll always cherish my first ever solo show, which took place this last January at Bruno David Gallery in St Louis, called “Funny Because It’s True”. It felt like a rite of passage, and I was so honored to finally cross that threshold. The turnout was great, and I was so pleased that so many people took an interest in my work and wanted to talk to me about it. It was the first of many, I hope!

When do you feel most creative?

LH I feel the most creative when I have a new idea that is just bursting at my mental seams to get out! It’s the best feeling when I’m going to bed and feel truly excited to get into the studio the next day to pour it all out. This often happens fairly sporadically, but I’m lucky that I’m the kind of artist who feels comfortable treating the studio like a day job. I don’t spend a lot of time waiting for the “right time” to paint, or for inspiration to strike. I get artist’s block for sure, but it’s not common, and it usually passes quickly once I catch interest in something new.  

Is there anything that you dislike about the ‘art world’?

I am not very fond of the weird etiquette that surrounds galleries and art shows. You can’t really approach a gallery with your work and ask to show with them, because there’s a very good chance they’ll find it presumptuous and rude. There are a lot of unspoken rules in the art world, which is really difficult to navigate as a young artist who hasn’t experienced much of the art world yet. There are no set standards, and every gallery is different, so you always have to kind of feel out the situation with every opportunity you face. I’m a big fan of rules and explicit expectations, so this is not ideal for me.

There’s also a very delicate, walk-on-eggshells way of speaking that I encounter a lot in the art scene that makes it difficult to voice opinions. I can be an opinionated person, and I love discussing contrasting artistic opinions on artworks and engaging in playful, but authentic, debate, but not enough people will just say “I don’t like this because XYZ”. Where’s the fun in that?

What work are you excited about next?

I’m entering my third and final year of my MFA at the University of Arkansas, which means I am working on my thesis exhibition that will be shown in the spring of 2024. I am extremely excited about starting this work, as I am planning on having both paintings and ceramic sculptures in this exhibition, and am pursuing following an overarching narrative within the work. This will be the most cohesive and extensive show of my career so far, so I am committed to making it as grand and thorough as possible! It is very exciting to focus on only one big project and to really throw myself into it. Stay tuned for my thesis! 

Introduction by Rachel Roberts

Interview by Kaitlin Morelock

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