Inspired by her humanitarian work in Africa, Hollis Chatelain creates art quilts that raise awareness of the human condition in the third world. Back in the States, she wanted to tell the stories of the African people she missed, so she taught herself to paint on fabric with dyes to create the images on her quilts. Hollis creates depth and detail in her large whole cloth painted pieces with quilting, choosing her threads with great care. Her work is driven by her continuing passion to create understanding for people living in the margins.
Tell us your background as an artist.
My major switched from Early Childhood Education to Interior Design by mistake when I transferred colleges in my second year. Art was brand new to me in college. I received A’s in the Jewelry and Multimedia classes I took at my first college so they put me in Interior Design when I transferred to Drexel University.
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Photography, design and drawing intrigued me, so I stayed. After working for an architect for 3 months in my junior year, I decided to pursue photography instead and ended up working as a photographer for 10 years. Also during this time I discovered my passion for drawing and started drawing regularly.
When I went to Africa I lived in countries that discouraged photography, and it was just too hot to draw (my hand would stick to the paper). I fell in love with the beautiful African fabrics and decided to teach myself to sew and make quilts.
Once I moved back to the states in 1996, I wanted to put the African people I missed so much into my quilts so I ended up teaching myself how to paint with dyes. I had never been to a major quilt show, so I had no idea that my African people quilts were quite different than what other quilters were doing. I continued to make them because I felt it was a way to give a favorable message about Africa and help people to understand a continent that is so misrepresented.
How would you say your creativity has evolved over the years?
For the first three years I was painting, all of my quilts were very realistic and only about Africa. Then in the year 2000, I started to have mono-chromatic statement dreams about social and environmental issues. I had often dreamed my artwork, but these dreams were different.
They were more insistent, and if I didn’t integrate my dreams into my art, they would recur until I did create them. I kind of feel that I didn’t choose to center on humanitarianism, it chose me. Then once I created the pieces inspired by my dreams, I realized the one-color schemes had an emotional impact that was different than that of a full-color piece of artwork and I loved that!
My latest project is totally different than my other work because it is based on the drawings from my educational coloring book Stories of West Africa. The sixteen quilts in the exhibition were actually professionally printed from my colored pencil drawings and then quilted because I wanted them to look like large colored pencil drawings. The goal of this project is to educate all ages on the everyday life in West Africa. My goal is to get the coloring books into the schools. The content fits into the 4-5th grade curriculums. Several schools are using the books with great success. The children love them and the teachers are using them to write their syllabuses.
Stories of West Africa is now traveling the country and you can find the schedule on my website: https://www.hollisart.com/upcoming-exhibitions/
What took you to West Africa and what inspired you to stay for so many years?
I originally went to Togo (which is in West Africa) with the Peace Corps as an Agriculture Education volunteer. The moment I stepped off the plane I knew that it was where I wanted to be. I loved it! I met my Swiss husband there because I was eventually assigned to the village where he had been living for four years. It was love at first sight and we married in a traditional ceremony in the village. Our first child was also born in Togo, delivered by kerosene lamp by Togolese midwives. After she was born, we moved to Pennsylvania for two years, Switzerland for two years, and then back to Africa (three other countries) for another ten years. We were working for humanitarian organizations during those ten years.
How has that experience influenced your work?
From the time I was young, I worked to bring attention to social and environmental issues. Living in another country also tends to influence an artist’s work. My time in the third world gave me a whole different perspective on the world, especially working with the people.
Do your quilts have stories to tell?
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I am inspired by what is happening in the world or by my dreams. I rarely work in series except for Stories of West Africa which is different because it started with a coloring book and evolved into an exhibition.
When a piece begins with a dream, how do you make the leap from the idea in your head to the art you create?
It will sometimes be 3-4 years from the time that I have have the dream until I actually finish the piece because I will do research for my images to make sure that what I saw can be reproduced as I would like it to be. Once I have figured out my drawings, the larger pieces often take more than a year to complete. Over the years I have discovered that my dreams are prophetic which is strange to me.
What kind of research do you do before putting color to cloth?
If I dream about Darfur (like my piece Exodus), I will look at many images of villages, and the types of clothing the people wear to see how close my dream was to reality (I often find that my dreams are pretty spot on!). If I dream about children from all over the world, I want to make sure that the clothing that depicts where they are coming from is correct. I once broke the different aspects of my process down: 15% of my time goes into research, 20% into drawing, 30% into painting, and 35% into quilting. I research the scene, the environment, the people depicted, and even the tiniest details to make sure my message comes across.
Did other people accept your work at first or did it take some effort on your part to be recognized by others?
People seemed to be surprised by my work at first. I think I kind of came out of left field. Most people thought I was appliquéing my images because people weren’t painting quilts to show in the quilt shows. When people realized that I paint my images with dyes, I remember them asking “Is it a painted quilt or a quilted painting?” This caused controversy and certainly changed the quilting world. Look how many people are showing painted quilts now. I love it!
How is your studio set up, and how does its organization contribute to your work process?
My studio has two rooms because of the layout of our house. I have one long narrow room that I use for quilting/sewing, and it has a large design wall. The other room is for painting and is smaller. Both rooms are white and full of plants. When I walk into the studio I feel good.
Much of your work is on a very large scale. What are the challenges of working large?
Working large is challenging because it takes so much time to make each piece. It is also more difficult to maneuver the art as you draw, paint, and then quilt it. It is also harder to sell larger pieces. But working large feeds my soul!
Technique(s)? What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
Hmmm, interesting question. I guess my signature would be dye-painting in monochromatic with contour quilting in full color threads. My people, I think, make my work stand out as mine. I try to give my art an emotional quality that will touch the viewer.
What does thread add to your painted images? Do you strictly plan your quilting, or does it evolve as you work on the piece?
Thread choice is a passion for me. My work is all about contour and depth. I want a piece to have volume. If there’s a piece of clothing in the quilt, I want it to look like you could reach your hand out and put it in the pocket. Color plays an important role here as well. Lighter and brighter threads will move an area to the foreground, while complimentary colors, such as green thread on red fabric, will neutralize an area and make it look shaded.
I estimate that I change threads about 200 times per day and spend a lot of time auditioning threads. I also don’t usually plan my quilting out ahead of time except figuring out the contours on a person.
Why do you use polyester thread for quilting on dye-painted cotton fabric? What are some of the other essential tools in your studio?
I like the sheen on the 40 Weight polyester threads I use, but I also use 30 Weight and 50 Weight threads in cotton and polyester.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
Value is one of the most important aspects in my quilts so I have red and green beholders that I use to help. I even sell high quality red and green beholders on my website and ask that my 10-year Masters Art Series students purchase them because they are so helpful.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
Each piece is challenging in its own way. Since I don’t make the same piece twice, I learn from each one.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
I listen to NPR or music. I love musicals, broadway shows, and all kinds of music with vocals.
Where do you feel most creative, and are there any environments which lower your productivity?
My creativity increases when I go for walks or spend time outside. Nature helps clarity come into my brain. Ever since I was a child I’ve had many many plants growing in my bedroom, house, or studio. I guess the energy of the plants helps me.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you? What would you ask?
There are many artists that intrigue me. If I could spend time with them, I think I would prefer to just be with them and not ask questions. Being in their space would tell me what I needed to know. This may sound odd, but each person is different and, even though I admire them, I’m not searching to do art like them as much as I’m interested in the emotional aspect of their art and how I feel in their presence.
Even though I admire different artists, I feel that what is going on in the world influences my work more. If I could “meet” people it would rather be spiritual people like Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama. I was lucky enough to have a meeting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and it changed my life.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I both teach and lecture and anyone can find information on my website: www.hollisart.com.
What areas of your work do you hope to explore further? What’s next for you?
Activism art has been part of my repertoire for the last twenty years and I would like to be even more involved in bringing attention to social and environmental issues through my art and public speaking.
Interview posted February 2019.
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