“Figures Within”

Holland Hoagland, Sculptor

Holland’s sculptures can be as breathtaking in size and scope as they are in their minute realism. For decades she has given exquisite new life to wood, carving faces and animals, dreams and visions. From the “Eco-log”, which features 41 species carved out of a single log,  to “Women and Children Refugees of War”, which raises awareness of the humanitarian crisis of displacement, Holland’s work always stems from a deep impulse and need for expression. Here she reflects on her work, her muse, and the essence of creativity.

Could you speak a little bit about your artistic path toward sculpture?

I feel that I’ve been a sculptor pretty much all my life. When I was a little girl I whittled in wood and then started carving. I am a representative or an observational artist, particularly with nature and wildlife.  One of my goals in life has always been to represent species true to their form, and it takes a lifetime to work this out. I try to capture my subject’s being, its moving self in wood.  When I think about my creativity, I’ve had to really understand the muse.  It takes years of soul searching to figure out the workings of one’s own muse; I have internal forces that nourish my creativity.  One of them is my love of nature. Understanding that my muse will always be a source of inspiration, something I can rely on, balances me in times of difficulty and drives me on.

So when you talk about your muse, most of that is coming from nature?

The muse is always in the artist.  Nature has been my way of understanding where my muse is coming from.  I’ve spent many years thinking about the entire concept of creativity I think one of the most important things is that I’ve had to learn to listen to my muse when it speaks.  I work very feverishly during my highs, but then I try to listen and take internal advice during lows –  which is not to say depressed, but when a piece is completed, particularly a large sculpture, that’s a clear low.  That’s part of the nature of my art.

Could you expand upon that idea of internal advice and reflect on how you have learned to listen to that?

My sense of space is really important to me.  I live up in the hills of Pelham, for over 20 years.  So internal space and external space are the same here – my studio is my house – it’s peaceful, productive – nature all around me.  It helps me create, and nurtures my muse.  My sense of drive and motivation is very strong.  I’m disciplined about my art.  Every morning I’m up at 4:30 and work on my art until I have to go to my full time teaching job.  Being disciplined and making a habit of cutting out very critical time and space is just part of my nature. To keep whatever’s inside of me going, for my art, I have to have that sense of balance.  Time constraints really do fuel the energy needed for my art.  I never work late in the afternoon or the evening, because by that time I’m pretty well spent.  I’m very much a high-energy person and project-oriented, these are the keys to balancing my life.

Do you ever find yourself up in the morning in the studio and totally stuck?

Literally, I roll out of bed and grab some coffee and get to work, I don’t need any transitional time.  But the way I get stuck is that I have to go to work – paycheck work.  If I had my preference, I would be doing art more often.  I have so many pieces inside of me that I would love to produce. Yet, I love my full time job as a teacher of challenging teens.So that’s a way of getting stuck: I have to make that break, stop what I’m doing, and move to the next phase of my daily routine.  It’s all about balance.

What do you teach?

I teach language arts skills and reading. Working with teens is extremely rewarding but emotionally draining.  I weave art projects in with the teaching that I do with teens, because I don’t think there’ s a separation between art and literacy; they so enjoy art projects.

Have you found that your work with the teens actually informs in any way your art making in the morning?

No.  These are two distinct separate realms – teaching and my personal art.

Who are some of your major influences and inspirations as an artist?

My lifelong mentor has been Michelangelo and his lifelong struggles with the expression of the human form.  He has really spoken to me about the anatomical perfection of the human body.  But other artists like August Rodin – I really love his work because he’s more like an impressionistic realist, and I love realism. Another person I really admire is Kathe Kollwitz; her drawings and her sculptures show human despair and agony, and my other large sculptures and drawings often reflect some of her inspiration.  The piece I finished most recently, “Wounds of my Brother” was a lifetime accumulation of feelings about my brother and my father. The natural flaws of the tree spoke to me of the men’s deep wounds.

As you approach these pieces of wood with a feeling and an idea, how much of the sculpture are you designing beforehand, and how much of it is an in-the-moment conversation with the wood?

What speaks to me with my art is so separate and distinct.  When I have a piece of wood in front of me, I have learned to understand the elements of wood – the flow of the sap, the life force, the feeling of the flaws of the wood, and how I’ve tried to use those flaws in my carving.  Wood speaks to me. I definitely don’t design my carvings.  I can look at a piece of wood and know that these figures are in there – if I have something in mind and the wood speaks to me, it feels like I’m actually submitting to the release of the presence in the wood.  Feeling the precise moments of “the give” of the chisel into the wood really allows the figures to surface, amazingly.

To balance the subtractive side of carving, I am focusing on a new form of art; it’s an additive process, I create rice paper animals, mostly birds and butterflies, by layering the rice papers;  they look taxidermied with individually cut feathers..  So in this opposite form of art, yes, I do have to design, it’s additive.  But subtractive art, my carving, is infinitely challenging, you’re releasing the figures to form something new. I balance myself by doing both additive and subtractive art.

So when you’re in the subtractive art moment, I imagine that in the improvisation with the wood, there’s a real exhilarating sense for you the artist.

Very much so.

It may be an impossible moment to describe – but are there words that come to mind to describe being in that state?

You know the expression, “out of body”.  Sometimes you feel like it’s not really you who is carving.  It’s kind of a strange feeling;  giving in to a feeling as well as the tool in your hand and seeing the figures within.  It’s clearly coming from the soul, and maybe that’s what the muse is, right?

Are there some figures within that you think will be appearing soon?  Do new images press upon you with urgency?

In 2009 I did a spur of the moment carving, just using a stump of elm. Called “Hope” and it’s of a woman, hands to her face. I carved it after listening to the speech Obama gave in Chicago.  Scanning the crowd of faces, I saw this woman, hands up to her face, in a photograph, and she was just in awe of his words, as if saying, “Is this possible, can we bring about a change in our society?”  That spoke to me instantly, and within days I was carving and capturing the face.  She’s supposed to represent all-ethnicity women.

Do you think there’s a role for art and art instruction in the lives of non-artists, and what would that look like?

I would like to bring some people together and just give them an opportunity to take an object simple as a log and turn it into a figure, to express their feelings with the chisel and wood.

That’s another place where the art is so liberating, because the limit is the imagination.

It is, but there’s so many constraints in people’s lives and I guess I have to go back to the fact that I think it’s really important to define time.  It depends on the individual’s motivation, but you have to be disciplined and chisel out time somehow in your life for self-expression. And it takes years; it’s not like it can happen overnight.  I think one really has to persevere, and listen thoughtfully to your internal muse, as it speaks to you about what should be expressed.

[See more of Holland’s art at www.holhoaglandart.com]