Meet Hillsborough textile artist Hollis Chatelain. She creates large-scale, colorfully saturated textile portraits through a process called textile painting. To create the artworks, she draws out enlarged depictions of scenes that appear to her in monochromatic dreams, frequently using surrealist imagery. She then translates the design onto fabric, dyes the fabric in monochromatic shades, then adds all vibrant color through thread with quilting. Her textile art is internationally exhibited—held in the permanent collections of The Discovery Channel, The American Embassy in Mali, and the Durham Public Library, amongst others—and she currently has a 30 year retrospective of her work on exhibit at the Quilters Hall of Fame in Indiana.
As the subjects for her textiles, Hollis often draws upon the 12 years she spent working for humanitarian organizations like the Peace Corps in West Africa’s Togo, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Benin. Her artworks frequently feature individuals she knew from her time there and are inspired heavily by colorfully patterned West African fabrics. Initially trained as a professional photographer, Hollis was pulled to begin learning how to quilt after gathering spare fabric scraps from local tailors. When she moved to Hillsborough, where she has now lived for 25 years, she missed living in Africa, and so began putting the people she had known into quilts and teaching herself to paint. Hollis depicts these individuals’ stories as part of larger conversations. Hollis explains that “people love to take photos of the misery of Africa, not the joy.” “I look at my art as a means to educate people, as a way to tell a story, as a way to bring people into discussion,” she elaborates. “I really believe art can change the way we think about things.”
Another frequent motif within her work is women’s rights. Her textile portrait of early 20th-century women’s suffragist Gertrude Weil will be held permanently in the city hall of Weil’s hometown, Goldsboro, North Carolina, in commemoration of Weil’s activism work. Hollis was also commissioned to create an artwork for the Clinton Presidential Center’s upcoming exhibit “Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes, Women’s Rights.” The piece she created, “Dreams Realized,” is of three Black women proudly holding “I voted” stickers, and is meant to bring attention to the fact that “African-American women could not vote in every state until The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. They are a force to be reckoned within their communities across America.”
Additionally, Hollis has created a coloring book featuring 20 of her drawings with accompanying descriptive stories of her documentation of life in West Africa. The book “show[s] scenes from daily life—spending time with family, kids pounding millet as part of their daily chores, and even the process of checking bee hives.” Hollis explains that “there is very little information about daily life in Africa that isn’t negative.” She is delighted that the Carolina Friends School in Durham has used the coloring book with students in teaching about life in West Africa.
Hollis’ work was featured in a January 2020 forum in Washington, D.C. on Diversity and Inclusion. “It’s been a dream of mine to use art for social issues,” explains Hollis. The forum included a Question and Answer session with her on the experience of navigating how to fit back into one’s community when you’ve been out of work or away from work—the process of figuring out how to keep your identity as well as fit in when you’ve changed but so has the space around you. Her 25 pieces of her artwork were also used as backdrops at the event.
Learn more about Hollis Chatelain and her work at HollisArt.com.