Abstract Pattern

UM retrospective aims to capture the imaginative and determined career path of artist Joseph Holston

October 22, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

As a youngster growing up in Chevy Chase and Bethesda, painter Joseph Holston taught himself about art by looking at the sky.

"Back then, as far as inspiration goes, you didn't get much in school," Holston recalls. "So I used to look at cloud formations, where I'd see bodies, shapes, all sorts of things. I used to look at the tops of the trees and see figures there and imagine things like an orchestra playing."

From that active childhood imagination sprang a 40-year career as an artist, a career that will be celebrated Sunday when the University of Maryland University College presents an exhibition of some 50 of Holston's most recent paintings and etchings at its Inn and Conference Center gallery in Adelphi.

The UMUC campus houses the largest collection of Maryland and regional artists in the state, and Holston, at 59 still a lean and remarkably fit-looking man, is one of Maryland's most accomplished and prolific painters.

His colorful canvases, watercolors and etchings are filled with vibrant, expressive forms that recall the scenes of his youth, his trips abroad and the members of his family, as well as the flights of fantasy that have inspired his art since childhood.

Holston attributes much of his success to the influence of his mother.

"She was a book-learner," he said in a recent interview. "When I was around 5, she started taking a correspondence course in art. I would copy the lessons she got in the mail; that's how I got started drawing. All the other kids would be busy playing outside and I would be inside copying her work."

Holston's mother was a teacher in a Chevy Chase nursery school who eventually opened her own school in the family's home. His father was a delivery man for a Chevy Chase grocery store. Both parents had come to the Washington area from Tennessee in the 1930s.

"I grew up on Hawkins Lane in Chevy Chase," Holston said. "It was really a black country community within the white suburbs then. I remember it as a very sheltered, protected place."

Holston attended Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, which had been integrated in 1957, during his sophomore year. But then his family moved to Washington, where he enrolled at McKinley Technical High School. He wanted to study commercial art, but the program at McKinley wasn't very good, he said. A friend told him about the program at Chamberlain Vocational High School, a little bit farther away, and Holston ran home to get permission from his mother to enroll there.

"She said, `Look, you're going to have to get a job and work when you graduate, so there's no point studying art,' " he recalled.

Despite her words, Holston couldn't get Chamberlain out of his thoughts.

"I got on the bus to McKinley the first day of school the next year and when I reached my stop I just couldn't get off," he said. "I stayed on that bus until it rode all the way to Chamberlain. Then I got off and went in and told the registrar I wanted to attend that school. They gave me a test, which I passed, and he said, `Normally we don't admit students like this, but you can come here if you want.' "

Holston was elated, but he dreaded having to tell his mother he had disobeyed her instructions.

"So I went home that afternoon, and she said, `How was school?' " Holston recalled. "And I said, `Mom, I can't lie. I didn't go to McKinley, I went to Chamberlain and they let me in.' I was expecting her to be real mad. But she just looked at me and said, `Oh, that's great.' "

Holston completed his education as a commercial artist at Chamberlain, where he got a solid foundation in basic techniques and materials.

"It was quite an experience," he said. "It's where I got all my skills. After I graduated I worked as a layout artist at Sears & Roebuck for the next eight years. I had always wanted a job where I could wear a suit to work; I didn't see too many African-American men doing that then. So I worked in a small graphics shop and learned the business."

But by the 1970s, Holston was becoming impatient with commercial art. He wanted to do something in the fine arts but knew he needed more training. Around that time, he saw an ad in a magazine for a workshop in Santa Fe, N.M., taught by portrait artist Richard Goetz. He sent away for more information and eventually saved up enough money to afford three weeks of study at Goetz's school.

"That really opened the floodgates of my fine-arts career," Holston said. "I was one of about 25 students in his class. Every day, we'd go outside and paint sunrises and sunsets. That was my first time ever painting in oils."

Though Goetz was a successful portraitist as well as teacher, he persuaded Holston not to go into portraiture. Instead, he advised the young artist to broaden his knowledge of the whole fine-arts tradition and find his own creative path.

On his return from New Mexico, Holston began seriously exploring the entire canon of Western painting for the first time.

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