Loie Hollowell Translates the Emotional Journey of Pregnancy into Powerful New Artworks
Working from home in Queens, the artist documented the weeks leading up to her child’s birth during COVID-19
Even under normal circumstances, pregnancy and early motherhood is a period of great transition for most women. And during a global pandemic, that experience is magnified. Artist Loie Hollowell, who gave birth to her second child at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, translated that unique journey into her artmaking and developed a vibrant new series of pastel drawings that are currently on view in an online exhibition titled “Going Soft” at Pace Gallery.
When New York’s stay-at-home order went into effect, Hollowell made a last visit to her studio, which is located just a mile away from her home in Ridgewood, Queens, bringing home with her a stack of paper and a small supply of pastels. “I had already been thinking that I need to settle down and process some new ideas at a time when I am huge and exhausted and ready to pop!” she tells Galerie. Hollowell turned to drawing for its small size and immediacy, and her first few weeks were defined by a chaos of brightly colored pastel dust. “I was putting plastic down on the floor and wiping it up each day but quickly realized there was dust absolutely everywhere!” she says. “I had a one-and-half-year-old toddler and a cat tracking it all over the place.”
It was when the virus began really affecting her community—neighbors getting sick and sirens sounding at all hours—that things got more serious. “We started realizing that this is a problem for our son and our soon-to-be daughter, and I wondered whether I could have a studio practice at all.” When weeks of quarantine turned into months, Hollowell, who is known for her large-scale paintings that evoke bodily landscapes and sacred iconography, used the time at home to further examine her own body and its changing form. Building on her 2019 exhibition “Plumb Line” at Pace Gallery in New York, which she created when she was pregnant with her first child, the 12 new works on paper reflect a very different experience and in turn demonstrate a marked shift in her visual language. “I felt like I was more in tune with what was happening in my body because it already had an embedded history from the first time,” she says. “I felt like I could be more conscious of it conceptually.”
Considered abstract self-portraits, each work spotlights the artist’s state of mind at the moment of its creation. Handwritten annotations around the paper’s edge add to their diaryesque feel. Birth, Perspective from Above and Below, created on June 5, for example, allows the viewer to see Hollowell’s growing belly and breasts from the artist’s vantage point. In another, Post-Pregnant Belly and Boobs, created on June 17, the forms become more abstracted; a small bright red circle floats among waves that at once call to mind a surreal landscape and folds of skin or even stretch marks. There’s a sense of humor and playfulness, too. In both Mechanics of a Breast Pump and Trickle Down, round breastlike shapes spurt droplets across the paper in an animated cartoonlike fountain. “I feel like I could objectively make fun of the process, like leaking breast milk or spilling precious milk that I had pumped in the middle of the night,” she says.
Hollowell listened to podcasts while working, and a passage from an article by Carvel Wallace for the New York Times resonated with her: “I remember when my son was being born and the midwife described labor: ‘On one side there are all the women who have not given birth, and on the other there are all the mothers welcoming you with love and open arms. And in the middle is a long dark path that you and only you must walk alone.’”
Letting go of control was important and allowed the artist to be more improvisational and respond quickly to her observations. That sense of freedom is felt in the loose mark making and bold use of color—a palette Hollowell describes as “blended, rainbow-y, acidic mush” and a “Ghostbuster-y world of gooey cartoon flesh.”
While hunkered down at home and sheltered from the world at large, she surrounded herself with works by artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, and even Frida Kahlo. “I feel like it is really uncool to say that Georgia O’Keeffe is a constant influence for me because there are so many other amazing female painters that just don’t have the same market presence that she has. But I still remember seeing her work for the first time and there was a connection with my soul. It spoke to me directly.”
“Having a creative outlet is such a saving grace in really hard times”Loie Hollowell
Hollowell herself has experienced a meteoric rise to success—in the past few years, she has gone from an up-and-coming painter showing at an artist-run space on the Lower East Side to being represented by the global juggernaut Pace and inaugurating its new 75,000-square-foot, eight-story building in Chelsea with a major solo exhibition alongside the likes of Alexander Calder and David Hockney. By the time the gallery opened to the public, the works, stunning six-foot-tall canvases enhanced by round, foam sculptural implements that protruded from the surface, had already sold out and the wait list was growing. At Frieze earlier this year, a 2019 painting sold for $250,000. Her art has already reached staggering figures on the secondary market, too, with a 2014 painting selling for more than five times its high estimate at Christie’s London in October 2019.
Still, Hollowell remains grounded. “I know that Pace has been able to sell my work, which I really appreciate, but I definitely don’t feel especially popular,” she says. “Since having kids I have been so out of touch. My brain is so far away from the glitz of the art world.” The quarantine also served as a welcome break from the demands of her career. “There was so much pain and sadness everywhere, I wasn’t feeling the need to show my work to an Instagram community. I didn’t have that immediate depression or gratification that comes with posting something and getting comments, which was freeing.”
As so many artists and creatives have noticed during this time, artmaking was an important healing tool. “Having a creative outlet is such a saving grace in really hard times,” says Hollowell from her studio, which she’s been able to return to with restrictions. “All different trials and tribulations I have gone through, art has always been a source of meditation and calm—and drawing specially, direct and pure.”