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John Holyfield: Art from the Heart [elan magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
elan magazine
Cover story

Morning light streams in through two giant windows in the Fairfax Station studio of artist John Holyfield. He sits back in a wooden chair, sips a steaming cup of coffee and considers the canvas before him.

Yesterday, John painted eight black circles atop vaguely shaped bodies on an olive green background. Today, he’ll turn the circles into faces. Tomorrow, more details will emerge. “It takes me about two months to complete a painting,” says the 33-year-old artist.

His prints have appeared on the walls of sitcom sets including “The Jamie Fox Show,” “The Steve Harvey Show” and “The Wayans Brothers.” And notables such as Oprah Winfrey and “Law & Order” star S. Epatha Merkerson have snapped up several originals, which range from $2,500 to $30,000, depending on the size.

From “Jazz Lounge” to “My Angel” to perhaps his favorite, “The Entertainers” (which depicts his sons as beautiful mimes), John’s art has earned him a reputation as one of the leading African American artists in the country.

Although the originals are popular with the gallery set, the bulk of his business comes from the sale of signed and numbered limited edition offset lithographs. Several of the editions have already sold out-including his most famous painting, “Blessing,” which resells on the secondary market for up to ten times its original price.

Fittingly, it was a lithograph that appeared on the 1970s TV show “Good Times” that inspired John to become an artist.

“Do you remember the artwork that came on at the end of every show, that famous painting by Ernie Barnes of the tall, muscular African American family?” John asks. “Well, something about that image stuck in my mind and when I started painting that style of art came out through my hands.”

Barnes, as well as Norman Rockwell and Frederic Leighton, have been tremendous artistic influence on John’s art-work that often reflects stories he heard in his childhood of what it was like to be a black American in the mid-20th century “Jazz Lounge” depicts a group of African American musicians, circa 1940, playing their instruments.

And in “Blessing II,” a 1950s family is seated around the Sunday dinner table holding hands as they say grace. “I’m never sure where an image comes from,” says John, who approaches the process of making a painting in a very spiritual manner.

“When I start any project, I say a prayer to ask that whatever I paint be positive and evoke lightness, joy and love.”

John says his deep sense of spirituality comes from his grandmothers, Gracie Holyfield and Ruby Watson—the women who raised him from the age of three, after he was orphaned. The family lived in the rural town of Clarksburg, West Virginia, and by the time John reached high school age his extraordinary talent was apparent.

John’s art teacher, Georgette Griffith, took a liking to him and regularly encouraged the budding artist to try new techniques and to study art history. Then, when John was a sophomore, Griffith entered one of his paintings in a state poster contest. It won and went on to compete in the national competition in Baltimore. John accompanied the painting to the event, and his life has never been the same.

“When I got to Maryland, it didn’t take me long to realize that there was a giant world outside of West Virginia,” he says. “I knew I had to live in a big city, and I had to do it as soon as possible.”

Upon returning home, John picked up the phone and called every relative he had in the D.C. area. Within a few weeks, his cousin Thomas Hudson invited him to move to Adelphi, Maryland.

After high school, John enrolled in the art program at Howard University where he eventually found a job as a graphic designer. To pay for tuition, and to get a discount on paints, he took a part-time job at an art supply store.

“I had no concept at the time that it was even possible to make a living as a fine artist,” says John. “But I did have a ton of ambition.”

He also was very resourceful. And one day, while leafing through the art magazine Essence, John spotted an ad for a company that was looking for prints from black artists. That night, he went home and gathered up samples of his best black-and-white drawings for submission. Within weeks, John’s work was accepted-setting him on a new career path as a fine artist.

At 22, he opened Holyfield Studio.

“I was always driven to succeed,” says the painter. “Mostly, I wanted my grandmothers to be proud of me. I wanted to be self-sufficient so they wouldn’t have to worry about me or my future.”

John has accomplished his goal-and created a life for himself that is more fantastic than he ever imagined. Annually, he sells thousands of prints through his and other web sites, and his original oil paintings are shown regularly at galleries around the country.
Every spare moment, though, is spent with the joys in his life—his two sons, Donovan, 10, and Nathan, 9.

“I feel blessed because I know why I’m here, and what my purpose is,” he says. “I plan to spend the rest of my life striving to the be the best painter-and father-I can be.”

For more information visit: http://www.holyfieldart.com/.


More Elan magazine / Artist profiles Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.