Robin Holder: Public Artist

Michele Cohen, Ph.D.

Figure 1
Fig. 1 Lucienne Bloch, The Evolution of Music, 1938, six panel fresco. Photographer: Stan Ries
The decade also ushered in a more inclusive worldview, anticipating the multicultural perspective that has dominated public art in the last three decades. A number of New Deal artists celebrated the art, culture, and history of non-Western cultures, situating the United States in a global context, though they did not always portray the diversity within its borders. Some artists recast the image of America itself as an ethnically diverse nation. Lucienne Bloch's The Evolution of Music, completed in 1938 for the music room at George Washington High School is one such example, foreshadowing some of the themes that Holder has explored in her public art projects.

Figure 2
Fig. 2 Dialogue, 1997, 6' x 5' Stained glass window. Photographer: Amy Lampel
Bloch believed that subject matter must reflect the function of the building and in the case of a school should be educational: "A mural should not exist of itself. It exists in a room, with the architecture, with the light. It exists with the building, and is a continuation of the ideals of the building."11 Her fresco for George Washington High School conveys her vision of music as a common thread linking people across continents and centuries. The rich earth tones of her panels represent African, Asian, European, and American musical forms and art with a mélange of instruments, patterns, and figures engaged in music and dance. In her panel of the modern student chorus in The Evolution of Music, 1938 (Fig. 1), Bloch posits a vision of tolerance, cooperation, and mutual respect, blending multiple voices into one.

Figure 3
Fig. 3 Exchange, 1997, 6' x 5' Stained glass window. Photographer: Amy Lampel
Holder's installation for the High School of Redirection completed over a half a century later reprises Bloch's theme of global harmony and casts it in a more contemporary and specific idiom. In Holder's stained glass windows and corridor installations, entitled Dialogue, Exchange, Cooperative Education, 1997, and Rites of Passage, 1998 (Fig. 2–5), students of all ethnicities are shown as individuals rather than as racial symbols. They interact with teachers and each other, nurturing and being nurtured. Commissioned for a school that provided a second chance for teenagers who had been incarcerated or failed in more traditional settings, Holder wanted her audience to identify with the piece, but also to be inspired.
Figure 4
Fig. 4 Cooperative Education, 1997, 6' x 13' Stained glass windows. Photographer: Amy Lampel
Taking her cue from the collegiate Gothic architecture, she found a way to bridge the decades between the school's original construction date and its transformation from a traditional elementary school into an alternative high school. Like Bloch, Holder sought to educate by example, explaining, "The imagery symbolizes moving from one stage of life's path towards another with a sense of inquiry, collaboration, and self-determination. The intention is to use architectural features of the building to create a work that reflects and celebrates the members of the school community whose goal is to prepare young adults for a productive future with conviction and integrity."12

Figure 5
Fig. 5 Rites of Passage, 1998, 4' x 9' x 8' Eight painted wooden figures, lighting, ceramic and glass. Photographer: Beckett Logan
Holder recalls that she hadn't wanted to use figurative imagery for this commission, but once she visited the site and talked to school administrators and observed students, she realized that abstraction would not "make sense for this community," so she "sacrificed" her "personal desire."13 She did, however, incorporate a symbolic pattern based on day signs from the Aztec calendar in the ceramic relief tiles bordering the corridor lightboxes. The abstract imagery both reinforces the concept of personal and societal growth and connections to the Latino heritage of this school's community. In subsequent commissions for the Connecticut Juvenile Rehabilitation Center and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Holder dropped all figurative elements in favor of a sign system to communicate complex meanings. In the Connecticut installation, Holder designed stained glass windows based on Adrinka symbols from Ghanaese proverbs, expressing sentiments that have been traditionally mounted on the proscenium arches of public school auditoriums. Explained by a key posted on the near-by wall, the symbols exhort students to be resourceful, work hard, and respect themselves and others.14