The Arctic Circle has always been a place of dreams for Westerners: Ancient Greeks searched out a source of tin, Dark Age Vikings explored with faith for colonization, and more modern Europeans have believed for centuries they might find life-affirming resources (The Fountain of Youth!) and creatures (unicorns!) among the frozen wastelands. In the world of fiction, Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein attempts to disappear into it to escape the judgments of mankind, as does Siegel & Shuster’s Superman whenever he needs time to chill in his Fortress of Solitude. Humankind loves a miraculous utopia, even if it’s in a place unlivable to most living things. During the winter months, the sun never rises and the temperature often reaches minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit; during the summer months, the sun never sets and much of the ice melts and breaks away, causing global catastrophes for lifetimes to come. Human beings from both scientific and artistic communities have always asked: What else is out there beyond our own perception of reality? Sacramento-based painter, poet, photographer, and teacher Laura Hohlwein is one of those artist-explorers always striving to show us.
The Hohlwein family name is one recognized by many across the Sacramento Valley and in many other places around the world. Laura’s mother Kathryn was born in Utah and studied poetry and philosophy in places like Utah, Vermont, France, and Spain. She met Laura’s father, Hans-Jurgen Hohlwein, a German painter, in 1953 Spain; their first child, Reinhard, was born in Lebanon, where they were both teaching English and Art. After leaving Beirut shortly after, they raised their infant son in Scotland for a year and then returned to the United States to teach in Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, and finally, Sacramento. Hans (who died when Laura was a teenager) was the head of the printmaking department at California State University Sacramento in the 1970s and painted extensively throughout his adult life. Kathryn has taught poetry, philosophy, and creative writing at many universities around the world, and has been a literature professor specializing in the poetry of Homer at CSU Sacramento for many years. Since the turn of the most recent century, Kathryn, with the assistance of her daughter and others, directs an organization known as The Readers of Homer, a group of Classics enthusiasts that create nonstop readings of The Odyssey or The Iliad in public places, featuring grand audience participation. Sacramento, London, New York City, The Library of Alexandria, Egypt and Kos, Greece are a few locations used thus far. Creativity begets creation, indeed…
Laura has been using the same studio—an upstairs, true-blood Downtown Sacramento artist’s loft with all kinds of open space—since 1989. Its high ceilings make it easy to take a deep breath and appreciate the act of conception, while the clean night air that flows through its several open windows enthuse to no end. It is a room that has clearly been used by an artist for almost twenty-five years, but not cluttered with history and useless artifacts like many famous artists’ studio portraits suggest. Some paintings are framed; others are not. Classically worn drafting tables, glass tops, and paint-spattered easels speak of past rituals. Laura’s paintings have been displayed in about three dozen solo and group shows around the United States and Europe, including her most recent “Hard Rain” show in 2012 at the Solomon Dubnick Gallery in Sacramento. As an equally brilliant creator of paintings, poetry, and photography, Laura is not the type of artist that is happy being comfortable with one particular medium, form, or style.
The youngest Hohlwein’s artistic life emerged while making lithography with her father as a little girl; her older sister Andrea was very artistic early on and inspired Laura to craft as well. During the 1960s and 1970s, their parents were close friends with world-famous locals like Wayne Thiebaud and Fred Dalkey, and one can imagine those party conversations inspiring much inner thought and analysis about the nature of creativity within the young Laura and her siblings. The Celtic illuminated Gospel manuscript The Book of Kells encouraged her immensely at a young age, as well as a book of Vincent van Gogh paintings Laura remembers obsessively studying as a twelve-year-old. As an undergrad, Laura studied among a band of “misfit intellectual kids” at Ohio’s Oberlin College, but unusually high tuition rates required her to return to CSU Sacramento, where its English professors created and fostered a love for creative writing and literature. Her students today would be shocked to know that she “almost flunked Color Theory” (“deeply resisted the study of,” she supplements later on) at the historically progressive Oberlin, the first American university to admit African-American and female students in the 19th century. McGill University (Montreal, Quebec), CSU Sacramento, and the International School of Art in Umbria, Italy, followed. She earned a Masters of Fine Art in Creative Writing from Vermont College and a second MFA in New Media from Transart Institute of Danube University, Austria. Inspiration, dreams, and education have never been lacking from the life of Laura Hohlwein.
“I’ve been writing poetry longer than painting,” she decides. When asked about how dreams influence her work, she declares, “Half of me is a writer, and my dream life is very connected to my poetry. It practically writes it for me.” Dreams and haunted memories play an integral role in many of her most recent paintings, especially those displayed in her Hard Rain show. Many of those pieces were both abstract and realistic representations of an old Long Island home that once belonged to her sister Andrea’s family. The building was destroyed shortly after Andrea passed away in 2005. Viewers found themselves lost in hallucinations of patterns, shapes, and explosive colors painted atop highly realistic depictions of familiar spaces that anyone could recognize and connect to their own image of “home.” Laura believes that her dreams come alive more in her written work. She runs a creative writing blog at http://dreamsandscraps.blogspot.com, where readers may find up-to-date poetic works like “Poem-a-Day: Day 9 (April 11, 2013)” which describes a delusional nightmare of being trapped in an elevator headed to “a field full of the mentally ill,” a vicious dog bite, and the harrowing closing lines, “It is strange to hear myself, crying/strange that even in sleep/I can form the word/Help.” Captivity, the loss of control, and humanity’s fear of attack are a few recurrent themes in her writing, including the book of original poetry, The House of the Liminal, that accompanied her paintings and photographs in Hard Rain. Jung’s theories of the collected unconscious suggest to us that we all know these dreams and fears collectively, and Laura’s written, painted, and photographed works all address them in both dramatic and dynamic fashions.
How does an artist follow up a multi-faceted triumph like Hard Rain that squarely confronted several grave realities in the creator’s psyche? Laura admits, “It was a very personal thing to work through, the death of my sister and the destruction of her very rich and huge world. I took on myself as my own art therapy project. And I hope that it helped; I don’t expect to be painting the same things.” The artists that fight complacency and refuse to be tagged by specific styles or genres are the most fascinating to observe for many art lovers. The next step in “escaping the doldrums” (as local songwriter Bear Williams calls it) for Laura involves helping open a brand new wine bar with her brother-in-law in Brooklyn called Cork, which lies only three blocks away from the world-renowned Brooklyn Art Museum. Laura is about to begin creating three 60” x 96” paintings which will hang next to each other on one wall, while another wall will exhibit smaller paintings composed upon dual layers of glass, then lit from behind. Dreamlike, ephemeral, Impressionist, Surrealist…any of these associations fit, but whenever asked about “titles” or “movements” associated with her art, she shies away from such naming conventions. She doesn’t like to talk about that kind of stuff, which is one of her most enduring qualities as a person and artist. She calls herself “A poet first, painter second,” but there is so much more to her personality and being: teacher, restaurant designer, filmmaker, philosopher, and explorer.
Exploring is what she is also currently preparing for as she readies herself, physically and psychologically, for a three-week voyage to the Arctic Circle in October 2014. When asked what some of her greatest fears are about such preparations, Laura declares, “Waves. I like traveling and adventure, but I have a genuine phobia of the sea. My parents were in a tidal wave on their second date. I dream about enormous waves all the time.” These never-ending waves crash through much of her work, both poetic (“I make love as water/folding over as a wave/into ourselves,/my arms, arms, these mine/but also, made only/of time/and only briefly”) and visual (a few of the Hard Rain paintings and photographs depicted dwellings and other objects in various states of deluge). She describes dreams of tidal waves as tall as the buildings downtown, about to collide with human culture and its markings. This trip to the Arctic that many of us wouldn’t dream of taking is all made possible by the Alliance of Artists’ Residencies, a professional group Laura has been associated with for a number of years now. The home that inspired Hard Rain was something Laura wanted to turn into a writer’s colony, in honor of her sister, who was writing a novel at the time of her death; but its premature demolition turned it to another dream deferred. Fortunately for her creative spirit, she remained connected with the international residency groups, which has allowed her to see many unique places in the world with painters, critics, poets, and other creative types of all walks of life, including a recent residency in Banff, Alberta, where she was detained at the airport for carrying oil paints. Laura has considered the days ahead of solitude and loneliness breaking through sheets of frozen ice, the lack of natural light, and the psychological repercussions of such an expedition, but she’s preparing for anything. Surrounded by artists, scientists, environmentalists, and others, Laura supposes, “I feel confident that the environment will be so profound on its own. People might try to not be amazed, to be jaded, but I’m expecting to be completely blown away by it.” The rest of the world patiently awaits what she sees up there and how she interprets those visions.