Meet the Artist: Holly Cole
Expressing the vulnerability and resilience of endangered animals through artwork
by Laurie White
Art quilter, animal lover, and frequent Strathmore exhibitor Holly Cole was especially thrilled to contribute her pieces to Animal Kingdom: All Beasts Great and Small, the exhibition on displayed in the Mansion at Strathmore through October 28, 2023.
“I’ve been in three different shows [at Strathmore], but when they asked me to contribute to this one, knowing what an animal junkie I am, I was absolutely thrilled,” Cole says.
Cole, who transitioned to art quilting and sculpture after prolific careers as a costume and set designer and college professor, has created artwork based on endangered creatures for the past six years. Her subjects include the white rhino, of which there are only two left in the world, and a lion sculpture and orangutan installation featured in the Mansion exhibit.
“I tried to find different ways to translate their fragility and toughness,” Cole says of these species, sitting in front of her rhino quilt as we speak on Zoom. The quilt is created on translucent, delicate fabric, which she calls “an expression of fragility.”
The tension between vulnerability and toughness lives in Cole’s subjects and materials. Artist and military doctor Alberto Burris inspired her with his abstract art that incorporated elements of war surplus materials—like damaged tents, tarps, and parachutes—that he brought back home. She decided to similarly communicate the struggle of animals in her materials.
“I thought, what a great metaphor. They have a sense of veteran quality stress and wear, in what’s hard about their lives,” she says. “These animals are at war. They’re at war for their survival, and I’m trying to express that.”
She sources her materials from all over and uses them thoughtfully. The lion sculpture in the show incorporates the “very last possible bit of a fabulous old, damaged tarp that I’d gotten from a friend who had worked for years on top of it,” Cole says. The orangutan installation features 12 panels on layers of sheer silk organza, reflecting their precarious state.
“When you first walk into it, [the orangutans are] very dimensional and hairy, with bits of jungle around them,” she says. Further back in the installation the orangutans and the jungle start to disappear, “which is exactly what’s happening to them. The palm oil industry is wiping them out.”
It was also important to her for visitors to connect with the orangutans’ eyes, to further enhance a sense of connection.
“You’re on the same level as them, so you see into them,” she says.
Cole says that while she wants this connection and understanding of the animals’ struggles, and their contrasting fragility and toughness, that she doesn’t want to make tear-jerking or “corny” art. Still, she acknowledges that some people are so moved by this installation that they cry.
“It’s just how huge and overwhelming the issue is,” she says. “Imagine never having elephants in this world, or monkeys. All you have to do is watch a little David Attenborough, and we’re talking about the difference the next century can make.”
Experiencing Holly Cole’s artwork at the Mansion will help you to understand the difference, too.