Robin Holder: Public Artist

Michele Cohen, Ph.D.

The expression of ethnic identity has been an American public art trope since nineteenth century immigrant groups began competing for recognition and respect by commissioning bronzes honoring their national heroes, among them German musicians, Irish poets, and Italian explorers. But it was not until the government sponsored programs of the New Deal in the 1930s that women and artists of color participated in greater numbers in shaping and reflecting American cultural identity in the public sphere. The civil rights movement solidified this trend, especially visible in art commissioned for the New York City public schools in the 1960s and 70s. In recent years, driven by the mandate of government-funded Percent for Art programs, public art is all about inclusiveness, beginning with how and which artists are selected, designs are developed, and audiences are targeted. In New York City, where diversity and the arts intermingle, the Percent for Art Program has provided opportunities for women and artists of all backgrounds that are perhaps unparalleled elsewhere in the country. Since 1982, close to half of the City's three hundred commissions have been awarded to artists who are neither male nor white. In this context, Robin Holder, whose art probes the thorny issue of identity politics and her own personal history as a child of a biracial couple, can be seen as a consummate public artist.

The challenges of public art have given Holder an opportunity to test herself in unfamiliar terrain, mastering new materials, negotiating with funders, and interacting with various communities. In 1993 she completed her first project, Camino de Animales for P.S. 5 in Manhattan, enlarging her familiar silhouette animal forms into gigantic colorful pre-cast concrete pavers, and since then, she has translated designs into stained glass, laminated glass, painted wood installations, and ceramic titles, completing a total of seven permanent installations for schools, subway stations, and churches. She has used a combination of abstraction and figuration, depending on her audience and site conditions.

Her next project, Portraits and Patterns, 1996, commissioned under the Sites for Students program initiated by Public Art for Public Schools to engage students in the design and fabrication of permanent public art for their school building, combined her expertise as a teaching artist and printmaker. Working with special needs students, Holder guided them in the exploration of their own personal identities, creating a ceramic installation that incorporates the naïve unadorned self-portraits of children with sophisticated framing devices and pattern. During her thirty-two years as an arts educator and curriculum developer for the New York City public schools, Holder has undertaken numerous collaborative public art projects to foster cooperation and a global cultural perspective. Holder uses her experience developing public art with students to test some of her own assumptions about artistic creativity, encouraging students to "wrestle with the issues of group versus individual voice … and the responsibilities they must grapple with in creating permanent large scale work that is appropriate for all members of the community."1