Holly Ballard Martz: Shedding Light in Dark Places

  Holly Ballard Martz ,  Constellation of Transgressions (Bang Bang) . Spent primers and encaustic on panel. Photo courtesy of Nick Felkey.

Holly Ballard Martz, Constellation of Transgressions (Bang Bang). Spent primers and encaustic on panel. Photo courtesy of Nick Felkey.

At first glance, and from a short distance, you might smile at the shiny gold sparkles glittering like stars. They form an elegant, cursive script that rests on a rich, black ground like a night sky. But come closer and you’ll notice that the script is formed from hundreds of spent primers—the component of a cartridge that ignites the explosive charge propelling a bullet. This “constellation of transgressions” is an example of the thought-provoking works of Seattle artist Holly Ballard Martz, whose show, State of the Union, is currently on exhibit at The Art Project. It is the latest in a series of shows in which Martz has unapologetically­—and sometimes with a dark-edged humor—shed light on many of the culturally divisive socio-political topics of our time.

Growing up in Southern California until age 10, then moving to Seattle, Martz has creative expression in her DNA. With her father a producer of commercials at advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, and her mother a deftly skilled creative maven (the family jokes that she was Martha Stewart long before Martha herself), Holly was encouraged to pursue and explore art and creativity. She still remembers fondly her parents’ bedroom in North Hollywood with wooden shingles on the ceiling and walls covered in craft paper, and the kitchen walls painted orange, mustard, and magenta.

Although she thought she’d end up on a commercial path with art, like her father, Martz discovered and fell in love with the art of printmaking. She earned a BFA in the subject at the University of Washington, and years later took to painting. After a break in art and printmaking of several years, she found it an easier medium to manage around the chaos of raising a young family. But in 2011 Martz’s life—and art—took a dramatic turn, as her daughter was overwhelmed with debilitating depression and anxiety.

A few years earlier, Holly had started creating in 3D, experimenting with a variety of processes. She started with encaustic and later introduced metalwork, casting, and sewing—using found objects and media. Because it was difficult to find people open to talking about mental health issues in 2011, Holly turned to her art as an outlet for “the grief, regret, and glimmers of hope” that were her daily companions in this new existence for her daughter and herself. Says the artist, "I am a collector of objects and language. These phrases and things are already fraught with meanings that I push and shift and combine with other media to say what I need to say. My art expresses my anger, grief, and incredulousness over our damaged world and assuages my personal heartbreak over a child gripped by mental illness."

In response to Martz’s works, people were more open to speaking about the taboo topic, bringing it out of the shadows. From that point, the artist decided to continue to use her art as a conduit for dialogue­ around other difficult topics such as gun violence, corruption, and immigration­—all themes touched upon in the current show. 

 Holly Ballard Martz, shown fourth from right, discusses her show with gallery visitors.

Holly Ballard Martz, shown fourth from right, discusses her show with gallery visitors.

Holly Ballard Martz’s exquisitely crafted works may elicit a range of responses from awe and admiration to annoyance or anger. Says the artist, “There’s a kind of inverse relationship between the way my art is viewed and the way I work. Someone can immediately respond to color, design, text, or symbol and then unravel heavier, murkier implications.”

Martz doesn’t expect everyone to agree with the messages of her art, but rather be open to thinking below the surface about the issues they raise. “We can love our country, but still be able to see its flaws. My art distills my thoughts, amplifies my voice, and hopefully, engenders critical dialogue.”

State of the Union runs through April 29 at The Art Project.