Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane-proof art?

The owner of "Bending" happily reported to me today that my outdoor piece installed on her balcony in DC survived the 65mph winds we experienced last Saturday. "The ceramic pods didn't move at all." The neodynium magnets held fast.

Monday, August 8, 2011

"Savage Beauty"

Savage Beauty
Thrilling! What remarkable visions. Pictures don't do the work justice. I wish that my design-savvy mother had been there with me. She would have enthusiastically appreciated the pattern-matching, the innovative use of material (including clam shells or hair/beaded silk chiffon combo) and the idea of making the side silhouette perfect.

By the second room, I thought, McQueen is dressing goddesses. The clothes themselves seemed larger-than-life. And the use of mannequin hoods focused attention on the work. The mood music filled the rest of the remaining space.

My favorite dress: gold feather dress
in the gothic room.

My favorite show video: Chess Show from 2005

Waiting in line for four hours,
walking slowly through galleries I'd never been in before, I had great conversations with teachers, lawyers, Korean language-loving IT workers, art critics and pumpkin carvers. It was a fabulous moment in time.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"Tumbling" gets poetry press

"Tumbling" 48"H x 72"W, steel, vinegar, acrylic, ceramic


The stones
That sleep
In the stream's
Themselves in place
With dreams
Of eventual tumble
To ocean deep
Crumble by crumble.

At 2009 Artomatic, the poet, Brash, wrote a poem inspired by my work, "Tumbling." On August 4, a blog, Long Story Short, published the poem, "Stones that Sleep," on its Poetry Page. Congratulations and thanks to Brash!

Frieze Cast of Characters and Narrative

The Frieze Project
Cast of characters

The Muse - Gaga
The Wanderer - House
Wise Guardian and Divine Warrior - Superwoman
The Father - General Petraeus
The Wanderer’s Supporters - New Orleans Jazz Band

Narrative of the First Frieze Panel:
Image #1 - Mirror images of the empty cliff and the Bamiyan Buddha looming over the entire valley in Afghanistan begin the story of the Frieze. These represent the sense of destruction and loss that I feel when I’m in the presence of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image #2 – Crinoid, in my vocabulary, represents durability and survivorship.

Image #3 – The Temple of Dendur in situ in 1875.

Image #4 – The temple of Dendur dismantled into some 640 blocks, in storage on Elephantine Island in the Nile River, waiting for the political game to play out between Washington and Cairo in the late 1960’s.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pink Line Noise Spotlight

Spotlight on Leila Holtsman
By Katlin Chadwick on Jul 11, 2011

It seems right we should start with the desert. The barren landscape is blurred by a subtle softness. Its sand feels soft to the touch. Colors are muted, hazy. And the atmosphere feels dreamlike.

But if you become at all acquainted with the desert, you’ll also find it’s one of the hardest things known. Leila Holtsman describes this contrast with fervor.

The landscape is rock solid underneath, and it hides things. Only when it gets a major drenching—every 5-10 years—can you see the truth revealed. Flowers bloom and life emerges from places most unlikely. And you can sense that it had been hiding there the whole time.

Leila is a mixed-material artist who creates sculpture and site murals. She transfers and screen-prints found images and objects onto steel panels. Her solo show at Artisphere (, The Frieze Project (, is up now through August 6th.

During her childhood, Leila spent ten years in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It was here where she became utterly in love with the desert. She identifies this passion as her wellspring. That’s not to say her ideas come from here only, but it might be fair to say, in some way, most do.

Only recently has she begun to verbalize this inspiration.

“I don’t know completely what it means. It’s so infinite; and that’s why it’s a wellspring. Just when I think I’ve tapped it, I discover I’ve only uncovered one capillary.” There are so many ways, figuratively and physically, to explore softness versus hardness. Contrast not only makes for interesting explorations in material, contrast is also reflected in Leila’s journey into an artist.

Leila’s father was a linguist, so her family moved often when she was young. She’s always had an interest in different cultures, histories, languages, and landscapes. Art was included in this, of course—but in the larger context of a culture.

After receiving her MBA, she climbed the corporate ladder to become a successful businesswoman in the finance world. She never knew she needed art until she took a pottery class at the Torpedo Factory ( It was there she discovered she needed that physicality art could provide—sculpture specifically. She liked the way her hands moved over clay and the asymmetry they could create.

After much nudging from friends, she finally, though still warily, made the shift from the corporate world to full-time artist.

Her everyday life shifted from the overly analytical to the creative and the physical.

“Making a work seems to strip life down to its essence. It simplifies it into something pure, and there is nothing else in that moment.” This comes only with hours upon days of focus and being surrounded by art.

“Simplicity, naivety, and spontaneity come out of this intense focus and not thinking that hard,” she says.

There’s thinking, and then there’s thinking. She’s not talking about analytical, left-brain thinking, but the act of doing art every day and blocking out everything else.

“If you do, all the crud (read voices) comes out, you can acknowledge them, and then it’s easier for the good stuff to eventually pour out,” she says. Stuff just gets solved.

Shutting off that analytical side can be tough. It’s why writers get writer’s block. For Leila, it’s hard but intensely worth it.

“I’m not a multi-tasker, and sometimes this overly technological world is challenging for me.” She loves to be able to go into her studio with one, sole focus. It’s a big reason she makes art.

Another big reason is to communicate.

Instead of engaging and persuading people to do things based on what she finds statistically (what she was used to in the corporate world), nowadays, she works with others to place her art in their homes ( She loves the feedback and the give-and-take in the process.

Art is a communicative tool. And it doesn’t have to be pleasant and pretty and nice—just effective. So what does “effective” mean?

“Since my work is organic, ‘effective’ can mean a broad range of things. It can mean the viewer sees the shapes and colors as representative of my inspiration. Or it could mean they just see the color as an oversimplified emotion. Or it can mean something in between.”

Her goal is to have her work communicate with others. If she’s there with her viewer, she often feels the need to use words to help—she has a linguist background after all. She likes words too much to not use them to help communicate.

“My work is part private, part public,” she says. “I don’t publicize everything, but it’s important to me to share a lot because I want people in it.”

She’s also not wedded to viewers seeing what she originally saw. She’s open to interpretation. Some of her work is physically interactive for that reason. In her piece entitled “Bending,” for example, abstracted clay spheres are magnetized and moveable atop a steel surface.

“On some level, you must disassociate from your art. It’s hard, but it stops being your baby. And the ultimately successful communication if someone buys it,” she says.

Another important reason art keeps her engaged is the act of continually learning more about her materials.

Her main materials are steel, clay, and printed images. And she consistently wants to get to know them better.

“If I don’t keep learning something new about the material each time, I die.” For example, she loves frescoes. With her most recent endeavor, “The Frieze Project,” she was inspired by the softness of frescoes and, therefore, wanted to figure out how to make steel seem soft. She discovered she didn’t have to use the same plasterized lime as in traditional frescoes, but could layer gesso instead. She filled the nooks and crannies of the steel, making it seem deceptively soft but still reading as steel.

“The Frieze Project” subject matter required this softness and ghostliness. The screen-printing she’d done in the past produced a clean, precise, vivid result that wouldn’t have worked. So she used a solvent transfer, usually done on paper, on steel instead. This translated into something not literal or verbal, but dream-like and intuitive.

Through her materials, Leila communicates. In the past, she worked a lot with both the sensitivity and aggression that comes with steel. This reached a small audience, which was satisfying, but she wanted a broader reach.

“I found people respond very strongly to figures and narrative—as do I.” And this brings us to about eight months ago, when Leila first began “The Frieze Project.”

A frieze usually tells a story or relays a journey. In this piece, there are layers upon layers of this theme of journey.

As a child, Leila moved every two to three years to cultures strange to her, an uprooting that has inevitably impacted her. The theme of home resonates in much of her art, and in this piece especially.

Where is home? What does it mean to wander from place to place?

In a way, this frieze narrates a journey of the journey itself. It’s a modern-day take on the Odyssey sprinkled with pop culture characters from today. There are many wanderers, a main one being Leila.

And the journey in actually creating the frieze is interesting in itself…

It seems right we should end with the desert.

The most overt layer of journey in the frieze is inspired by the journey of the Temple of Dendur from Egypt to its current home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Leila grew up around ruins, and she’s always been both puzzled and emotionally moved by them.

When she first saw the temple in the museum, her immediate reaction was anger. Anger that someone would pull this great temple from its Egyptian context, stripping it of its meaning. Anger that turned into inspiration.

Within a few weeks after starting “The Frieze Project,” however, she learned that this inspiration was flawed.

She learned that the temple’s being here was actually a calculated move by Egypt to save its tradition. In the early 60s, the Aswan Dam was created to control the Nile and fertilize surrounding land to support millions more people. With this additional flooding, temples would be destroyed. Egypt couldn’t save them all, but saved a few by moving them back from the flood area—moves that had huge monetary costs. The U.S. was one of the countries that provided funds, and Egypt repaid them with a temple.

The Egyptian government gave the Temple of Dendur to the U.S. as a fair exchange for money and expert archaeological assistance. But I was in love with my idea that it had been unfairly gained and was reluctant to abandon it for a couple more months.

“I’ve never experienced that amount failure in that concentrated amount of time,” she recalls.

Three months were spent in reflection on how she should proceed. She had a choice to make. She wanted her piece to have kernels of truth that she would embellish, so she could either follow her anger to its original source. Or adapt.

Perhaps it’s because of her variable upbringing, or her big career shift, or even her everyday swapping between left-brain and right. Perhaps because of one of these things or all of them combined, she reworked the frieze as something that would be true to her.

“I’m nothing,” she says, “if not adaptable.”

The Frieze Project: Now through August 6, Artisphere, Mezz Gallery, Free

Artist Talk: Critiques and Collaborative Art Studio Environments; Tuesday, July 19, 7p.m., Artisphere,Bijou Theater


Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Originally, and to this day, I want to wrap a building with a frieze. I'd applied to several artist residencies and for grants, but had no takers. I was delighted last July when Artisphere jurors, Jefferson Pinder, Jayme McClellan and Al Miner, accepted my proposal for an internal frieze, site-specific for the Mezz Gallery.

I thought that I knew what the Frieze was supposed to look like. Anger inspired it and I knew I wanted color in it. So I'd planned to print screen images in color, a la Rauschenberg's 34 Illustrations for Dante's Inferno.

Numerous dead ends in terms of the underlying narrative, meant 3-4 months of treading water. I collected images blindly, not knowing yet how to use them. At least I knew I'd be working on steel to get better acquainted with its properties, specifically how to take advantage of its porosity, which I thought meant "softness."

I met with Gretchen Schermerhorn and Marty Itner of Pyramid Atlantic(an excellent, too-little known print studio) to tap into their expertise in solvent transfer and screen printing. Discussing my project with Gretchen convinced me to use solvent transfer as the best way to evoke the dry desert and dream-like qualities I was striving for.

Simultaneously I was reading two of my husband Dave's gifts: "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum" and Fagan's translation of "The Iliad", in addition to "The Odyssey", "The Writer's Journey" and my perennial favorite, Gaiman's "The Sandman" series.

An underlying troublesome voice insistently reminded me not to be too literal and give it all away, story-wise. So many factors to bring under control.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Friday, May 20, 2011


The silhouette tests from last August are making their way into my frieze.

Blackrock Arts Center - Gazette

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Accidental pictures and organic forms dominate BlackRock exhibit
byOn View, Claudia Rousseau

A three-person exhibit in the Art Gallery at the BlackRock Center for the Arts is modest, but intriguing. While the works in this exhibit are generally on a scale too small for the large, airy space, this requires the viewer to move in closely, and to look harder.

The photographs of the late Carl Dahlke are selected from a body of work titled “The World at My Feet.” Dahlke passed away last November, so the exhibition takes on the character of a memorial. Fascinated by the patterns and forms that one can frame looking down, many of his photographs have a faintly naive quality. They reminded me of looking at the street while walking to school as a child, checking for cracks, or becoming enthralled by some detritus or accidental formation on the sidewalk. In this, they provoke memory of a kind of experience that is fairly universal.

Dahlke was a software developer, and had remarked in his artist’s statement that his photography, which he practiced alongside this frenetic work, forced him to slow down and give himself the time and space to see those small things that get passed over so easily in our ordinary lives. This idea is well communicated in the photos where the surprising beauty of a few pieces of blue glass strewn on the ground (“Blue Glass on Ground”) or the accidental crucifix formed by some bits of glass and leaves over the cross pattern formed by the seams of concrete panels on the street (“Green Glass and Cross”) record that stopping and looking. A number of photos include painted marks on the street the kind that usually herald construction of some kind and send a chill through the average commuter. Dahlke found interest in these somewhat mysterious marks, and ways to pair them with other shapes to create his unexpected compositions. Again, these are modest pictures, but they hold the sense of delight and thoughtful contemplation with which they were taken.

Leila Holtsman’s contribution to this exhibit includes two three-dimensional works and a group of “Frieze Studies,” all of which involve a technique of printing with acrylic ink on steel, most of it salvaged. Among the more interesting aspects of the imagery printed on the steel pieces is the dominance of plant and other organic forms, perhaps suggesting the entropy in nature, where plant life begins to creep back over abandoned structures. In this, there is some connection with Dahlke’s photos that seem to document those forgotten places, and in a few instances, loads of junk and broken bits pushed into piles (“Heavy Hand 1 and 2”). Holtsman also uses mythological references, such as the horned moon crown of Isis, or the arms of the empowered goddess raised in ceremonial gesture. While I could have wished for a richer use of this imagery, perhaps with more color and more consistency, the message it makes is fairly clear. The best works are the two sculptures, “Untitled (Strella #1 and #2) of salvaged steel made into star or mountain-like forms about a foot high, lovely in their ruffled edges and the vegetative, netted imagery growing up over them.

Last, but certainly not least, are the paper sculptures of Jessica Beels that make up the largest number of pieces in the show. All are small, delicate and evocative of the amazing and often hidden patterns of growth in nature. Beels has developed a technique of wrapping a steel or brass armature with overbeaten wet flax and creating a taut, translucent skin with paper derived from the leaves or the bark of trees like mulberry (kozo and gampi fibers). The effect is extraordinary in that the resulting objects feel as if they are themselves, natural forms, with all the delicacy and surprising strength that things like bones and shells possess. For example, there are nautilus forms that look like the bleached remnants of these animals, the echo of their marvelous bony structures still evident in death.

I loved “Nautilus Skeleton,” a large wall piece that looks heavy but has that same surprising lightness that such things have in nature. The tiny cup-like forms that are part of her “Lotus series” are delicate and light as flowers, and other small pieces look like strange creatures that might be found stranded on the beach in late summer.

Two works have a more scientific or biological character: “Protein (Dodecamer)” and the “Fractal/Julia” set. “Protein” is a spiral form with points and curves that connote the tiny structures that make up the stuff of life. The Fractal series refer to the fractal patterns in nature, especially in shells, which these works evoke. Finally, three small scale pitcher-like forms (“Polka-dot squash series”) are painted with metallic acrylic to create light and dark patterns on their surfaces. They feel like something between the jeweled cups of Benvenuto Cellini and the artifacts of the tomb of an ancient Near Eastern queen that include a necklace of golden leaves. With her degree in art history from Harvard, I suspect Beels intended this reference something she expresses more fully in the jewelry she also makes. Beels’ artist’s statement sums up her aims evident in these works: “I am intrigued by the combination of geometry and randomness in natural forms, how patterns dissolve into and echo each other. Whether jewelry, vessels or purely contemplative pieces, my work explores the juxtaposition of interior and exterior spaces, light and shadow.”


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Blackrock Arts Center - Germantown Patch


Ancient Temple Inspires Artist’s Work in BlackRock Exhibit

Leila Holtsman’s pieces are precursors to a 120-foot work to be featured in a solo Artisphere show.

Leila Holtsman used gesso and broad panels of steel to tell the story of the Temple of Dendur, what began as an ancient Nubian temple, got its name after a flashy Roman makeover and is now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection in New York City.

“I’m trying to tell the story of three different points of the temple’s life,” said Holtsman, who chatted with Patch from her metal studio in Beltsville, Md.

The panels Holtsman created are part of a three-artist, mixed-media exhibit on view at BlackRock Center for the Arts. The theater is hosting a reception Saturday, May 14.

Holtsman said the work featured in the Germantown exhibit are studies for a 120-foot work she’s spent a year developing for an upcoming solo show at Artisphere. She said power and sacrifice were common themes for Dendur. Storyboarding and mockups have helped her organize the concept visually, she said.

“I’ve got well over 100 images going into this piece,” she said. “I’ve got a palette of five, six colors, photos that I’ve purchased that I couldn’t take myself. I’m telling three stories in a frame of how all this came about. It’s a lot to keep up with.”

This fascination with ancient temples started at an early age.

Holtsman of Garrett Park, Md., grew up in Maryland, but her parents were globetrotters. She spent 10 years of her childhood living in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Arabic was her first language, she said.

“When you live there, it really is another world,” she said. “You walk through things that have been left the in the same places that they were built 5,000, … 3,000 years ago. There’s something that takes over your soul, turns you into a romantic and makes you want to protect them and appreciate them just they way they had been left.”

It’s only recently that decided to devote all of her energy to being a full-time artist. Holtsman said she thought her world travels would have led to a government job, working for the U.S. Department of State, perhaps. She has a degree in international studies and Russian from University of Virginia and an MBA from University of Maryland. Yet, she left a job with the Red Cross.

She has no regrets.

“I was quitting a really great job,” Holtsman said. “In terms of the way people look at it here, it was a really desirable job, great paying, great benefits. It was interesting. Because I was leaving that, I thought it was really important to move on to something I really wanted to do. It was part of finding my voice.”