What do cypress trees, honky-tonks, acrylic paints, Cerebral Palsy, and the Vatican have in common? It’s not a what but a who. And that who is a self-made Cajun folk artist named Hank Holland. Born and raised in Lockport, Louisiana, along the banks of Bayou Lafourche, Holland met the challenge of Cerebral Palsy head on, not letting it handicap him in the least. Back in 1997 he did a “Walk for Cerebral Palsy” all the way from Shreveport to Grand Isle, earning money for United Cerebral Palsy and creating awareness for the group and the disability. My friend, Kay Matherne, recalls having a big pig roast for him at the Flambeaux, a local lounge she owned at the time. “Oh, it was a huge party, and we had a great time and got lots of support for Hank!” Untied Cerebral Palsy has another special meaning in Holland’s life. About nine years ago, he went there to fill out an application to volunteer and was interviewed by the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He went home and told his mother that he had met his wife that day. Not long after, he asked Maria on a date, and they’ve been married now for eight years.
Holland had supported his wife, Maria, and their seven-year-old son as an environmental engineer for many years. But after the death of his mother, he felt a deep sense of loss and a big void in his life, like a gaping hole that couldn’t be filled. His mother, Jeanie Cochran Holland, had been an artist, and a very good one. As he grieved her passing, thoughts about her art crept into his mind like seeds, planting the idea of painting in his brain. His grief seemed to fertilize those seeds until one day, the full-grown idea sprang forth, “Maria! I think I want to paint.” Without one art lesson, he went to a local store and bought a canvas, $10 worth of paint, and a pack of brushes, started painting and has never stopped. With each stroke he honored his mother’s memory, keeping it alive and turning grief into joy–joy in the form of a new passion. Now, at the age of 37, he finds himself making a living doing what he believes he was meant to do–painting. He shared with me, “Painting is like an addiction now. If we go to a camp for a few days just to relax and fish, I get antsy and Maria says I need to get home and paint!” He’s been painting for four years, the last three of which he considers himself a professional artist, having opened Baby Jane Studios. With a degree in marketing, Maria compliments his art by promoting his work and getting him “out there”. Her advice to say yes to every opportunity, donate to every organization that asks, and accept every invitation that is offered has been sage advice. Holland is now one of the top folk artists in Louisiana, and possibly the nation, with pieces in every state and 103 countries. They have donated $20,000 in artwork this year alone to various fundraisers, including Trinity Outdoors Disabled Adventures of Louisiana.
While swamp scenes and cypress trees are prevalent in his work, many of Holland’s pieces also portray religious and spiritual themes. One of those themes, the “Circle of Life”, depicts folks leaving a honky-tonk, descending into the bayou for baptism, then walking into a church. When I asked him about the “Circle of Life”, he said, “We are all sinners, but we are all forgiven. Just because we get baptized doesn’t mean we might not slip in life. That’s what the honky-tonk represents–whatever our sin might be. The ‘Circle of Life’ is my ‘Blue Dog’, like Rodrigue. Everyone will know me by the ‘Circle of Life’.”
Holland displays his artwork at Jackson Square in New Orleans twice a month. While there last fall, he was approached by a well dressed Cajun gentleman asking him about “The Circle of Life” painting. Intrigued, but in a hurry, the man said he would be back later to buy the painting. “I hear that all the time,” said Holland. Holland continued with the story, “The next morning I went to mass at St. Louis Cathedral, and I was looking at that priest. Man! He looked familiar. As he walked down the isle, I realized it was the Cajun man who had admired my work the day before. He stopped by me and whispered in my ear, ‘I’ll see you in a couple of hours.’ And sure enough, later that day, he came to buy the painting. “Turns out he was an archbishop who was visiting New Orleans because of the recent death of Archbishop Hanan. He asked me how much the painting cost, and I told him $400, but then I was prompted to ask him where the painting was going. He told me it was going to the Vatican, so I told him, ‘No charge, Father. Just take it.’ He took it, thanked me, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Holland takes things out of trash piles and turns them into a works of art. Painting on old metal chairs, old windows, cypress boards, and slate tiles, he continually takes one man’s trash and turns it into another man’s treasure.
One piece on display at this particular open house exhibited a unique talent Holland possesses–the ability to paint in reverse. This glass-top coffee table was painted with the “Circle of Life” theme on the back side of the glass. He explained the process to me, “I see in my mind what I want to paint, and I have to paint it totally in reverse of how I would do it if I were painting on a canvas. I have to start with the finest details first, and do the background last. I prefer to paint this way, and it only takes me five hours to do a painting like this when it would take me about twenty hours to do it the regular way.” One would think that painting in reverse would take more time than less. Even though painting in reverse with such ease might be his real claim to artistic fame, he was very matter-of-fact about his ability to paint this way. Just when I thought I had seen it all and was about to wind down the interview, he invited me into the kitchen where I saw yet one more interesting facet to this talented fellow.
There on the wall was a piece he calls, “Cajun Last Supper”, with Jesus and his disciples eating boiled crawfish atop an overturned bateau. Tied up in front of the supper table are twelve pirogues, each labeled with a disciple’s name. But what really makes this piece so significant is the fact that it was the last time Holland signed his name right side up. Since then, he has signed each piece upside down, thereby making this piece more valuable. A gentleman recently offered him $20,000 for the piece, which he turned down, letting the buyer know he will soon be offering prints from the original. Like artists, Cerebral Palsy is often misunderstood. But no matter how confusing CP might be to those of us on the outside looking in, there’s no doubt that Hank and Maria are very clear on what their gifts and talents are and how to best use them to further compliment this match made in Heaven. BW To connect with Hank and to see more of his artwork, please visit Baby Jane Studios on Facebook. His pieces range in price from $30 to $800.