by Sheila Julson
Throughout her life, artist Gayla Hollis has traveled down many avenues of the performing arts and fine arts realms. While growing up in the Opelousas and Bayou Courtableau region of Louisiana, she pursued dance. She has vivid memories of turning flips on her balance beam in the family’s backyard, and as an adult she taught dance lessons and aerobic classes.
During the 1990s, Hollis created an arts-in-education program awarded by the governor of Texas. Recycle What?! utilized original character puppets and songs to teach Dallas metro grade school students, and enabled the city of Plano to win state and national awards. During her studies at University of Louisiana, she served in AmeriCorps. Yet when Hollis started painting during her later adult years, she found it the ultimate channel for life’s experiences, celebration of nature, and her French/Native American heritage.
Hollis’ watercolor on canvas paintings consist of whimsical lines and bold colors. “What influences me is nature and emotion,” she says. “As a child, we camped under the stars, so I have a deep love and respect of forest trees and nature. I love expressing positive feelings with happy, beautiful colors.” Flowers, the sunrise, guitars, and the variety of the arts she’s been involved with over the years all appear in her work.
Art captures life, and many of Hollis’ personal experiences also have made it to the canvas. As an adult in Louisiana, her family survived a tornado—a rare weather occurrence for that state during the 1980s. The twister that ripped through their bayou countryside destroyed their house, but Hollis was grateful that she, along with her husband and children, walked away unscathed. Tornadoes are depicted in some of her paintings.
Hollis also studied at Nichols State University, in Louisiana. Returning with her family to Oklahoma, her birthplace, she attended University of Oklahoma and attained a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in studio art from East Central University. There her deep interests in her French, Cherokee and Chickasaw heritages were solidified. During her final year of school, in 2011, she had a dream of a colorful flashing thunderstorm, with hail and lightning illuminating the night. Underneath a tree surrounded by awe-inspiring color was a white buffalo.
A couple of months later while shopping for art supplies, the store’s owner casually mentioned that the “Third True White Buffalo” calf was born in Texas. Amazed by the coincidence and hearing the buffalo was named Lightning Medicine Cloud, Hollis was prompted to research white buffalo and its symbolism, as well as Native American respect for nature and the Earth.
Many of Hollis’ paintings depict white buffalo. Other images of life on the Great Plains appear in her work, and New York Times best seller historical novelist Lucia St. Clair Robson commissioned Hollis’ paintings, including Comanche War Horse. “She wrote my favorite novel, Ride the Wind,” Hollis says. Private collectors in the U.S. and Belgium have purchased her work, and Governor Bill Anoatubby of the Chickasaw Nation, has acquired her art now held in permanent collection at Chickasaw Nation’s Cultural Arts and History Gallery.
When she’s not working her daytime position with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, Hollis spends as much time as possible painting in Oklahoma City and at a studio retreat nestled in the Arbuckle Mountains. Hollis is active with several arts organizations, including the Artists of the Arbuckles, Oklahoma Art Guild, Ada Art Guild, Ardmore Art, Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition, Individual Artists of Oklahoma and the Paseo Arts Association. She’s won several awards. Currently her paintings are on exhibit at the Art Hall, Lake Murray Marina and Studio 112 and a Half.
“Each painting’s outcome is a most wonderful surprise,” she says. “A comparable elative feeling to the surprise birthday slumber parties my mom gave me. The difference is you, the viewer, are invited.”
For more on Gayla Hollis, visit GaylaHollis.com.
Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.