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Meet the VBGB Artist

Holland Cunningham

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The VBGB tote is here! The inaugural edition of this limited-edition artist series, which features Holland Cunningham's 2017 painting Yellow Towel, gives back all day every day—100% of proceeds directly benefit the #VBGivesBackcharity of the month. For March, it's Maria Sharapova's Women's Entrepreneur Program with the National Association of Women Business Owners.  

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Here, we get to know the artist behind the work. Learn how Cunningham got her start, discover her biggest influences, plus get her personal guide to the best art in the city, including where you can check out her own oeuvre up close. (Spoiler: It's Voltz Clarke Gallery.)

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Q&A

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What is the backstory behind the painting on the new VBGB tote?
I am a collector of found photography and imagery. I had bought a large collection of photographs from an antique store and most of them were family beach photos. In many of them, the person taking the photo mistakenly cut off the head or arm, leaving just the torso. In this particular photograph only the female torso was visible—and a lovely yellow towel that, compositionally, made the image more interesting. I love the idea of the female form in a natural state—on the beach. It comes across as very fresh to me. 

How did you decide on art as a career? 
I have always painted. I still have a painting that I made when I was eight. Sadly, my painting was not going to support me when I moved to New York in 1990. I was making close to nothing in an entry-level advertising position, but I always found the money to draw and paint at the Arts Students League one night a week. I think it was about $12 for three hours. I also started a side business painting children’s furniture and decorative painting—that sort of thing. With a few other friends we would have a sale every year before Christmas. I started painting almost full-time after the birth of my third child. 

What's your medium of choice? 
I mainly work in oils, which I do love. Oils are, by far, the most versatile medium because they are effective when thinned with medium and can also be thick and rich. It is the variety that is most interesting and fun to work with. I also use watercolors and gouache, especially when I travel. They make for beautiful sketchbooks. 

Top right: Yellow Towel, 2017, oil on board. Here: The artist in her element, with a camera in hand.

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What subjects and themes are you drawn to the most?
The vernacular. Those moments of everyday life. Snapshots of time captured in a photograph... A photograph takes a fraction of a second but to paint such an image takes far longer and, therefore, it is a more contemplative process. I enjoy finding images of families on vacation, children milling about in the yard unsupervised. (This is the way I grew up—no organized play dates or activities when I was young. One had to be clever and resourceful.) Children in their own worlds have always been of interest. And, of course, any family snapshot—what you see is not really what you get. I am interested what lies behind the happy smiling families. 
Photographs are how we remember things—vacations, our homes, our family and friends. Oddly, looking at the photo albums of others, even strangers, memories are recalled and we make connections in our own lives. Other people’s memories being sold... for $1 a pop. How crazy that these incredibly personal moments captured on film are later thrown away or sold to strangers? I am obsessed with this idea. 

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First art love? 
Maybe not my very first love, but the most memorable was my first trip to the Uffizi in Florence when I was 19 years old. I grew up in a small town in southwestern Virginia and had not been exposed to a lot of art. I was an art history/studio art major in college and when I saw the Botticelli and Titian and Veronese paintings I was blown away. I don’t think I will ever forget staring at all of those important works of art for the first time. Years later, I think I was especially “taken” by the art of the Venice Biennale. The experience of seeing the renaissance art in Venice juxtaposed with contemporary art from all over the world has been an important part of my practice. I haven’t missed a biennale in 10 years. And there is another one coming up in 2019! Can’t wait. 

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And the artist who changed the way you see things? 
There are so many (varied) artists that have inspired me—in so many different ways. I love Diebenkorn and Gerhard Richter (both successfully work(ed) both abstract and figurative painting); William Kentridge (his animations are brilliant); Sally Mann (a fellow Virginian); Elizabeth Peyton (ethereal portraits); Michaël Borremans, Matthias Wechsler, Luigi Ghirri.... I could easily name 20 more. I am also grateful for working with the Venetian artist Maurizio Pellegrin, whose vision and ability to push and inspire is like no other. 

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Beauty, date unknown, mixed media oil on board

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I am interested what lies behind the happy smiling families.

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When you get the artist equivalent of writer's block... 
That is easy—I paint oyster shells. I have a collection of them and whenever I am at a loss of what to work on, I paint oysters. It gets me to move paint around and the hope is that it will get me out of whatever rut I am in. I also pour through my boxes of photographs and usually will find a new theme or series by revisiting the many photos I own (my boxes of other people’s memories).

Advice for the would-be artist?
Don’t stop taking classes. Find teachers that push and inspire you, and find a community of fellow artists. Always look at art—all kinds. And support all art forms. Go to galleries, museums, and performances. One of my painting teachers once said that as artists (painters), it is important to see opera, listen to beautiful music, see plays or performances. We should enjoy and have an interest in all different art forms. Not just our own. 

What are your top art hacks?
I am impatient, so I will often use a Japanese quick-dry oil medium for a first go at a painting so that I am able to continue the next day; otherwise, the painting will be too wet and, with some works, I have to wait for the painting to be somewhat dry first. I love that little metal device that you put on old tubes of oil paint to squeeze out every last drop. I also use disposable palettes. I am a mess and cleaning my brushes is enough of a pain. To clean a palette, too, may be too much. The disposable palette is not great for the environment—maybe I will rethink this—but I love throwing it out at the end of the day and starting anew the next. 

L.V., 2013, oil on paper

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Holland Cunningham's NYC Art Guide

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1.David Zwirner—they still have the best roster of artists, I think. 

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2.Yancey Richardson and Yossi Milo—the best photography galleries 

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3.Zürcher—it is on the way to my studio from the subway, the space is great and I like their art roster as well. 

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4.Marian Goodman—also an incredible roster of artists. specifically the brilliant William Kentridge. 

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5. And, of course, I always enjoy stopping in Voltz Clarke Gallery, where I’m on the roster. It is an uptown highlight! 

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6. I also still love going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I am a traveler and I am never disappointed wandering through the Egyptian temple, the small Italian Studiolo from the Ducal Palace at Gubbio, or classical sculpture hall and, to top it off, the Met has interesting collaborative projects with contemporary artists choosing from their permanent collection. There is everything there. It never gets old and there is always new inspiration. 

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Aerial, 2018, oil on board, and Jump or Dive, 2013, oil on board