Treasures from the Vault: Hollis Sigler

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints and Drawings

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so I decided to select a work by Hollis Sigler in loving memory of her and in honor of the multitude of breast cancer survivors and those who are no longer with us. This disease has become far too familiar for many of us, whether it has been faced firsthand or experienced through the care of family members or friends.

Hollis Sigler’s name may be familiar to the Fort Wayne community.  The Fort Wayne Museum of Art featured her work in Working Towards Paradise in the fall of 1995.  This solo exhibition included a large installation that allowed visitors to physically walk inside a room, just like entering one of the artist’s drawings.  The museum offered various workshops on self-healing and culminated with the purchase of her painting, An Individual Doesn’t Get Cancer, A Family Does, through the community-wide support of businesses, organizations, and individuals.

Born in Gary, Hollis has Indiana connections.  She was academically trained at Moore College of Art and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  In the late 1970s Hollis was working in a photorealist painting style, popular at that time.  Despite its alluring, superficial beauty, she felt an emotional detachment from her own artwork.  This moment of crisis led her in another direction.  She explained, “I was stuck.  But eventually I remembered that as a child I never had any problems drawing.  So I tried to work as I had then. . . drawing without skill, without perspective, without proportion. . . I tried to deal with my interior space, to describe in images how I felt at the moment, rather than deal with things outside myself.”(1)

Showing the inside of a room with a window that takes up one side of an entire wall, on the green and orange checkerboard floor is a trunk, a chair, and a side table with a mirror hung above it. Floating out of the trunk with the help of birds are three dresses, from bottom, purple, green, and pink. They go into the setting sun, as a breeze blows the white curtains back from inside.
Hollis Sigler, American, 1948-2001. The Only Permanence Is Change. Color Lithograph, 1995. Gift of Robert F. Schroeder in memory of his grandmother, Vida M. Lamb, who died as a result of breast cancer in 1970, 1996.10. Used with permission from the Estate of Hollis Sigler. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In 1985, Hollis was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Initially, she addressed her illness indirectly in her art by simply exploring the emotional and psychological impact.  By 1991 the cancer had metastasized into her bones.  It was a time of silence, when there was limited talk about breast cancer publicly.  Feeling determined to create something positive, Hollis made her illness the subject of her art, beginning with The Breast Cancer Journal: Walking with the Ghosts of my Grandmothers in 1992 Her work resonated deeply with people largely because she dealt with how it felt to have breast cancer.

In her paintings and prints, Hollis draws people into domestic interiors, spaces traditionally associated with women.  “The Lady,” a personification of the artist, is mentioned in many of her narratives, but is typically absent.  It is as if she has just left the scene, but her presence is still felt.  Instead, household furniture and clothing become the protagonists.  Hollis infuses her work with vibrant colors and describes objects with spontaneous, delicate lines.   Handwritten prose borders the images in the frames and mats.

In 1995, the artist made a series of works using the dress as an allusion to her mother, who had been battling breast cancer for thirteen years.  In The Only Permanence Is Change (1995), black birds gently lift three dresses up to the sky through an open window.  In the spring of that year, Hollis’ mother passed away.  The title reveals her understanding of the transitory nature of life.  A mirror is shattered into glass shards, perhaps an evocation of pain.  Encircling the image in her own handwriting, Hollis provides staggering statistics about breast cancer occurrence and acknowledges its impact on the family.  She encourages us to remain hopeful.

Hollis’ work became a catalyst for breast cancer awareness and advocacy.  The National Museum of Women in the Arts opened an exhibition of Hollis’ work in 1993 coinciding with the kickoff of the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s petition drive summoning Congress to increase breast cancer research funding.  The artist was there when the group presented the petitions to former President Bill Clinton.  Spending for breast cancer research would see a jump from 95 million to 400 million dollars.

Hollis was an indomitable spirit.  She continued to teach at Columbia College in Chicago and to create artwork until the end of her life.  Her last four prints, Suite for the Gods (2000), is a poignant reconciliation with her impending death.  She wrote a year earlier, “Cancer has given me a gift to be able to relate to those with a severe crisis in their lives.  Each crisis has a loss and a gain.  I would like to think that my experience with cancer has given me compassion about human frailty.  I see how little we are in control.  What we need most is faith.”(2)

1. Eight Artists: The Anxious Edge (Minneapolis: Walker Arts Center, 1982), 8.
2. Susan M. Love, M.D. and James Yood, Hollis Sigler’s Breast Cancer Journal (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1999), 33.

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