Holly Mae Pendergast has always been one to follow her bliss. A bliss which has led her from her childhood home in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina to her current home in the hills above Utah’s Rockport Reservoir.
In her stripped-down A-frame cabin she has little social interaction and, at least for now, rarely leaves the home. She can do little else but paint, and even that has become increasingly difficult for her, as the materials she uses threaten to destroy her health.
This is the personal bliss for an extremely courteous and friendly person who has an obvious concern for people and wants nothing else than to be able to paint what is inside of her. “If I’m going to be known for something,” she says, “I want it to be what I feel.”
As a teenager, Holly Mae remembers a book her mother gave her. It was entitled “How to Marry a Rich Person.” The book gave advice along the lines of: if you can’t afford a membership at a country club, see if they will provide a partial membership, such as a pool pass, that will still allow you to interact with the rich single men. But how-to books were not to be the compass for Holly Mae’s life, especially not one that would lead her to a superficial life of vapid comfort.
Holly Mae’s compass is interior, and though it may have taken her years to peel off the layers of outside encumbrances around that compass, she feels that she is finally getting a better understanding of what her true north is.
Her bliss first took her to the Columbus College of Art and Design where she received a BFA in 1992. After graduation, she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a freelance conceptual designer, while painting on the side. It was also here that she met her husband, Mike Reid, who was doing animatronics and robotics in the Special FX and film industry at the time.
After living in LA for five years, Mike and Holly jumped at an opportunity to move to Park City to become ski bums. And it was here in Utah that Holly’s desire to paint full time began to take over her life.
Holly’s time in Utah has been a revealing process, one that has slowly allowed her to see what she wants out of her life and her art. Over the past four years she seems to have found what it is that is inside her, willing itself to come out on to her canvas. She has found what she wants to create, not what she wants to produce.
Holly has been best known for her colorful, painterly landscapes – particularly aspen trees — which have sold well in Park City and other areas of the west. But despite the temptation of success, she has continued to search for new avenues of expression, and has changed both her style and her subject matter. Her husband, Mike, points out that the aspens were something she truly felt at the time, not simply a concession to the market in the west. But the pursuit of her art has developed into a new direction. The impasto aspens have given way to scrubbed-on surfaces and bare-bones figurative work.
Holly Mae sees the shift in her work as a dramatic change towards finding a figurative medium (and not simply portraiture) that can realize the interior vision she wants to bare to the world. This shift has been intricately wound up in the health condition she has developed and which has dramatically affected her life. One that seems to have both liberated her as an artist but also jeopardize her very capability to continue as one.
Holly Mae has been diagnosed with MCS, multiple chemical sensitivity, “an immune- system disease which most typically affects the lungs, nervous system, digestive tract, and brain. It is caused by hypersensitivity to low-level exposures to chemicals and is precipitated by a single massive exposure or long-term low-level exposure to chemicals encountered in the workplace or at home.” (reference)
People with MCS have a heightened sensitivity to the chemicals and toxins that are present in the air, water and food around them. This sensitivity may develop overtime to the point that the person’s body will react violently to exposures normal people can tolerate. These exposures can trigger disabling health problems ranging from severe asthma or migraine to anaphylactic shock (MCS is related to what has become known as “Gulf War Syndrome”). As there is no known cure for MCS, the only available response is management.
Because of the high use of chemicals in even everyday products, people with MCS often become confined to their homes in order to avoid exposures. Thus, added to the physical ailments which afflict them can come loneliness and depression.
Holly Mae has had continuing problems over the years with chemicals, especially the thinners she uses with her medium of choice, oil paints. Over the years, she found herself going through various periods in which she was overcome with both physical and emotional problems. She had gone to a number of medical doctors, all unable to help her. They attempted to detoxify her body by giving her antibiotics, which only served to increase the toxins in her body. The simple truth was that her body had become so overloaded with chemicals and toxins that she simply could not deal with the chemicals she came into contact with in normal situations.
Despite increasing problems with chemicals, Holly Mae’s desire to paint, to explore and to expand, kept her active. It was this fall when she attended a seminar in Scottsdale that her health situation came to a critical point. Her reaction to the chemicals at the residency was so bad that she spent much of her time behind a gas mask.
“I knew going to the workshop was a bad idea so I bought the gas mask. But I had received a scholarship and I wanted to paint.” Holly Mae’s body came back distressed from the massive exposure and she found she could no longer function in many normal situations. Now, she says, every time she has a major exposure she becomes very ill and loses the ability to eat a food group.
Because of the MCS, she can no longer descend from the relatively pure mountain air of her home to what she refers to as Smog Lake City. Recently she has even become homebound, in an attempt to be in a controlled environment where she can attempt to detoxify her body.
Holly Mae’s life has become a process of stripping down. She has stripped down her travel, her social interactions, her menu. She has even stripped down her house, in an attempt to create a controlled environment. The carpet and paneling are gone but have yet to be replaced as the couple searches for non-toxic materials. One of Holly’s paintings, a wonderful freize-like arrangement of musicians painted on a thin, warm, pink background, hangs on bare wallboard.
Holly Mae’s artwork reflects the process that is going on in her life. When your life becomes so consumed with hidden chemicals and substances in the air to the point that you can’t have a friend in for a chat because they use drier sheets, or wear perfume, you can’t help but feel that influence in various aspects of daily life.
But not all the side effects of MCS are negative. Holly Mae is able to see positive things resulting from the changes in her life.
“If I can’t buy a new car, or I can’t buy new leather hot pants to go dancing in next week, and I’m stuck in this house, then the financial aspects of success go away . . .our need for income has dropped immensely.”
Her process of stripping down her life has also brought clarity to it.
“I am intensely interested in seeing what lies at the core of things in my life, be it beliefs, lifestyle, consumerism, relationships and my art. I want to see what things look like without the drama. I want to get rid of the things that aren’t truly needed in life. Be it perceptions I’ve adopted because of someone else’s opinions or a trinket that my friend gave me and I have kept out of guilt. If I can love and appreciate life in it’s simplest form then the rest is icing.”
“I don’t like to clutter my artwork with deep meanings and cliché ideas, either. My artwork just is and because it is a product of me it reflects what is happening in my life. It is about showing people as simply as possible and still maintaining the essence of the person.”
This desire to show people in their essence has been developing in Holly Mae’s work over the past couple of years. It germinated at another workshop she attended, this one in Vermont in 2001. She remembers being filled with a huge desire to paint, to experiment, to expand at the workshop. She stretched a long canvas across the walls, completing 28 figure works in a month’s time, laying one down next to another on the long stretch of canvas.
It was also during this workshop that she began to feel released from some previous encumbrances. She recalls seeing the abstract work of Paul Russotto. She was not impressed by the work but decided to attend his workshop. The first slide of his she saw was an early self-portrait in charcoal, realistically rendered, that was so powerful she says she felt like crying. Afterward she talked with Russotto and asked him how he did it, how he broke free from such beautiful but realistic works to his mature abstract style. His response was, “I never said I wasn’t scared.”
“I think that liberated me,” Holly Mae says, “because when I think of letting go I feel scared and now I think it’s okay to go in that direction.” Her letting go first meant exploring portraiture and the figure. And within that subject matter it has meant a continual exploration of stylistic possibilities.
“I wanted to do portraits, but I didn’t know what was allowed.” She says that around the same time she attended the workshop she saw works by Modigliani, an artist whom she had never encountered despite four years of art history classes at the University. She saw an immediate affinity with her own work and a revelation of what portraits could be. “It helped me to see that it’s okay for me to let this part of me shine through.”
“I feel that anybody can take a class and learn how to paint and make it look like somebody, but to have something distorted, eyes one an inch higher than the other and still be able to catch the essence . . . I think that is what’s hard. So I’m looking for how simple I can make it and I think I keep pushing it to make it more simple.”
GETTING DOWN TO BASICS
Her most recent works have become simple, stripped down, dealing with the basics. They have a strong linear design, which she makes no attempt to mask, allowing the pencil drawing to show through and even sit on top of the painting. Her paint is often washed in with thin layers and only worked over in thicker paint in select spots.
The pencil drawing seems to be the framework, the skeleton, that lies beneath the surface of the painting and Holly Mae allows it to come through. It is the true essence, the abstract of the person. As her mother always told her, “We’re all just penciled in.” The color enhances the drawing, but does not cover it up. It is almost as if you are seeing through these people. They resemble the interior look that must consume much of Holly Mae’s day as she tries to manage her MCS.
In her life she is learning how to live large with very little and she seems to be doing the same with her artwork.
Her figures are performing a dance, between portraiture and symbols. The figures are real enough to be people but not so specific that they have to have a name.. In one work, a mother and child are distinct enough to have personality while remaining abstract enough to be symbolic.
“I’m just trying to get down what is coming through me” Holly told me as she showed me works in her studio. She holds up a painting of a little girl, a Barbie doll in hand, the other hand raised to her cheek in a coy manner. The painting is fairly thick, attention to detail layered over the surface. She has done this piece for a client.
“I found myself twisting and adding and struggling with this thing trying to get something that I think someone would like.” Then she shows me another piece. Same scene: little girl, doll in hand.
“When I did this one, I said ‘I’m painting for me this time.’” This one has been stripped down. It is simple and straightforward and very powerful. The first is a picture trying to be something it’s not. The second is a painting. Getting past the idea of getting it right, in the sense of making it look just like the little girl, she has found her painting and her style.
“As I did it, “ she explains, “I was asking myself, how little paint can I actually use and still have it be that little girl? With just line and what appears to be about five colors but is actually about 500 colors I wanted to get the essence of the thing down.”
The period in which she has suffered the most from MCS has been a terrific creative period for her. Yet, the irony of her health situation is that it has dramatically affected the direction of her art at the same time that it has threatened her very ability to create that art.
After her return from Scottsdale, the most critical point in her health situation when she wondered if she would even be able to paint again, there was a short hiatus when Holly Mae did no new work.
Now, however, she has returned to her easel with a passion. Mike says “Holly would keep making things no matter what material she would have to use. She would do watercolor or sculpture or whatever it took. But she would keep creating.” In her studio she jokingly refers to a box of colored pencils she has found which are made from all natural materials. “I may eventually have to become a colored pencil artist.”
For now, though, she continues to work in her medium of choice, oil. She has left the wood panels she used to use because of the chemicals used to prepare the wood. She has turned to working on watercolor paper.
Just as Holly Mae’s MCS has limited her artistic options, it has also limited her normal social interaction. But just as she has responded to the MCS by searching for new materials, she has also found new social interactions. She has found solace in a support group of individuals across the United States who also suffer from MCS. Via the internet, they communicate with each other and share their experiences.
This interaction, as seems natural, has entered her artistic life. Holly Mae would like to use her artistic skills to give voice and community to her support group. Oftentimes people with MCS feel forgotten because they may not be able to leave their homes. Many end up losing their jobs and having to move out of their residences. But even those who are able to manage their health problems fairly well still may have trouble interacting with friends and family.
“We really feel uncomfortable saying, ‘Excuse me could you please not wear that perfume anymore’ so we end up not saying anything ,” says Holly Mae.
Holly Mae wants to give voice to her group and bring MCS into the public eye. She has a project to do portraits of one hundred people from her support group. She hopes to hang them all in one space. She has even considered having everyone who attends wear gas masks, to both develop empathy and to mask who it is that really suffers from the ailment.
Because, as Holly points out, it may not be long now, with the ever-increasing use of chemicals, that a majority of the population is afflicted with MCS. In fact, Holly Mae no longer sees herself as a “sick” person. She considers herself and others who suffer from MCS as canaries in the coal mine, warning the world of dangers of living in a world that goes by the motto “better living through chemicals.”
Holly Mae Pendergast is represented locally by Old Town Gallery in Park City.
To learn more about MCS, visit:
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.