Curlee Raven Holton has achieved many accomplishments within the Art World. He was the David M. and Linda Roth Professor of Art (retired) at Lafayette College. Holton was of the first three endowed African American Professors in Art in the United States. It was at Lafayette College where Holton founded the Experimental Print Institute (EPI). EPI was a place where prints were published for African American Artists such as Faith Ringgold, Emma Amos, Grace Hartigan, David Driskell, Elizabeth Catlett, Bettye Saar, Allison Saar, Richard Mayhew, Sam Gilliam, William T. Williams, just to name a few. Holton is currently the Director of the David C. Driskell Center located at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland. He also is the owner and founder of Raven Fine Art Editions, which is a commercial printing studio located in Easton, Pennsylvania.
I first met Holton in Havana, Cuba. There were approximately 90 creatives who traveled to Cuba with artist, Ben Jones to attend the World Museum Exhibit entitled “African American Abstraction”. Surrealism of Dali & African American Abstraction in Cuba – Havana Times. I have come to know him as a very introspective artist who thinks deeply within his interior to create.
Holton’s interest in art began as a child observing his older brother drawing and decided that he wanted to do this as well. He has traveled extensively on a global level, and it is readily recognized within his body of work. He is inspired by his personal life and his reflections of the world. His work has underpinnings of philosophy and psychology, as well as being well grounded in American Art History. He is a classically trained artist, and as such there are glimpses of the inspiration received from Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Holton is a Master Printmaker, Painter, Scholar and Art Administrator and cites Robert Blackburn, Faith Ringgold, and David C. Driskell as personal friends and colleagues who have all mentored him greatly in the past. It shows up as mutual respect, and relevancy of their legacies.
Holton’s practice is bifurcated. He has two studios on his property in Easton, Pennsylvania; where he dedicates one for painting (an historic brick schoolhouse) and the other for printmaking (just recently built). In Holton’s printmaking and drawings there is no doubt about the artist hand in the creation. These works seem like a natural extension from his hands and is vividly transferred with the same precision and attention in his paintings. During our interview, we focused on his paintings and his exhibition titled “Curlee Raven Holton Deluge: Rebirth, A Retrospective 1981- 2021” mounted at New Door Creative Gallery, located in Baltimore, Maryland.
Holton has created self-portraits in many mediums since he was 18 years old. He is a figurative painter. Self-portraits enable him to document his life and establish his legacy, in addition to serving as a catalyst for self-examination.
Curlee Raven Holton’s new series entitled “Deluge” has successfully given us personal narratives woven within this entire body of work. It is honest and evokes metaphors of healing and strength. Beauty has a profound repetitiveness in all of Holton’s paintings; but I especially found it to sing remarkably in the work entitled “Prophet” and “Resilience”. Holton discussed the painting entitled “Technically I am Black”; which is based upon his research and study of albinos. He was interested in examining identity both from an exterior and interior approach. He spoke about his interest in understanding what lies beneath the surface of a human to function in a manner without regarding the humanity of others. It is a subtle approach to the issue of race and identity; but digs deeply within the psychology of others. In his piece entitled, “Bred for Pleasure” he reflects upon the question of identity as it relates to slavery. Holton discussed the intentional breeding of African Americans to sub-categorize them in terms of mulattos and quadroons. The breeding served the purpose of creating a slave to look Caucasian; while simultaneously being mindful to stay within the defined limits to keep them as a slave. Holton reminds us of the two purposes of slavery, e.g., economics and the other White male pleasure. A mulatto is a person of mixed white and black ancestry, more specifically having one Black parent and one White parent. A more contemporary term is bi-racial. A quadroon is a person with one quarter African and three quarters European ancestry. There were many similar classifications such as octoroon and hexadecaroon. I was reminded of Louisiana’s historical Codifying Caste laws that determine a person having “1/32 or less of Negro blood shall not be deemed, described or designated as colored, a mulatto, a black, a negro, an African American or a person of color”. Unbelievably, these laws were only abolished in the 1980s. However, with the growth of the BIPOC movement, self-identification has become increasingly more understood by brown and black people. They are beginning to unite.
He also discussed how art can change lives. An example of this is the painting “Yellow Cake” where he told us that every time his grand daughter Leai visits his studio and sees the painting she says, “That’s Leia”. It is no doubt that it is important for people of color to see images of themselves in this world. It builds self esteem and increases thoughts of relevancy in this world as we continue to self-identify and become comfortable within our own skins.
Holton’s work is an emotive bridge connecting universal experiences of longing and release. His work is authentic as he shares his life journey. As I conducted this interview and attended his exhibit in Baltimore, this very personal body of work has stirred feelings within me to examine my own personal life and experiences of longing and loss. Holton’s work is not solely honest; it is important, universal, and brilliant. While viewing the “Deluge” series I longed to spend more time with the work because there is so much to discover.
Curlee Raven Holton received his degrees in Art from the Cleveland Institute of Art (B.F.A.), Kent State University (M.F.A.) and the Institute for Doctoral Studies (PhD). His honors are numerous. Just to name a few Curlee is the recipient of the Beidleman Award for excellence in scholarship, the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Anyone Can Fly Foundation.
“Curlee Raven Holton Deluge: Rebirth, A Retrospective 1981- 2021” exhibit is currently up at The New Door Creative Gallery, owned by Michelle Talibah. It can be viewed by appointment until July 23, 2021.
For more information or to view Professor Holton’s work go to:https://www.newdoorcreative.com/new-events/curleeravenholton-deluge
Or find him on Instagram at: Curlee Raven Holton @curleeholton