Illustrator Brad Holland’s tornado piece, featured in this month’s story “A Texas Survival Kit,” provokes an ironic smile. But Brad Holland does not create art with people’s reactions in mind. “I don’t think about it,” he says. “If you try to consciously provoke an emotion, you are faking it.” Instead, Holland draws inspiration from life’s stories around him. The artist grew up in the Midwest, and watching tornados and experiencing floods were practically Holland’s spring pastime. He remembers listening to his town’s loud tornado sirens and hiding in the house while his father would go outside to watch the twisters. Here he talks about inspiration and art.
texasmonthly.com: How were you trained as an artist and an illustrator? Did you choose the position, or did the position choose you?
Brad Holland: Well, I never thought about being an illustrator. I just knew I wanted to be an artist, and I knew I had to make a living. If there was a shorter distance between two points, I couldn’t think of it at seventeen. I never went to art school. I quit taking art classes in the tenth grade. They weren’t teaching art; they were teaching attitude. And since I already had an attitude, I thought I’d learn something new.
texasmonthly.com: Describe the tornado and flood piece you just did for Texas Monthly. Where did your inspiration come from?
BH: My inspiration came from all over the place. When I was a kid in Ohio, we used to have annual floods. I was a Boy Scout, so we always got to ride around on the Army Ducks, sandbagging the town. We liked to think we were a big deal rescuing people whose houses were down by the river. And every spring, when tornado season came, my dad would stand outside on the porch and watch the twisters.
My dad had come from Arkansas, and his family still lived there. One year a tornado carried off my grandmother’s house, which ended up in the middle of the street. I was living in New York then, and a photo of her house made the wire services. I saw her home on the front page of the New York Daily News; it looked like Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz, except it didn’t have a witch sticking out from under it.
The vultures in the tornado picture are from an encounter I had with vultures in Brazil. My girlfriend and I had gone to Florianópolis, a little island off the coast of Santa Catarina province, just north of Uruguay. There were all these houses lined up along the ocean, and the roofs were covered with vultures that were perched on the peaks, hunched over, waiting for dead things to wash up on the shore. A goat head was lying on the beach, and the vultures were all fighting to get to it.
texasmonthly.com: What emotions do you try to reach through your illustrations?
BH: I don’t think about it. If you try to consciously provoke an emotion, you’re faking it. I just try to get the noses in the right place and the thumbs on the right side of the hands. Whatever emotions come out in a picture get there by themselves.
texasmonthly.com: How long does it take you to complete a piece?
BH: It depends on how many things I have to put in it. If I had drawn 25 cowboys riding the tornado, it would have taken longer. This picture came pretty fast, but then I monkeyed around with it a lot. At first I painted a cow on the roof of the house, but it looked more like a goat so I put horns and a beard on it. I spent one morning painting waves in the water; then I spent the afternoon painting them out.
texasmonthly.com: How long have you worked with Texas Monthly?
BH: A long time. For the June 1987 issue, I wrote and illustrated an article called “Sombreros of the Gods?” It was about how most of Texas culture had come from outer space. You know, the evidence is everywhere: chaps, peyote buttons, the recipe for chili. These things didn’t come from Europe. And what about the sombrero? Columbus wasn’t wearing one when he got here. In “Another Mysterious Disappearance in the Amarillo Triangle,” I had a giant spacecraft shaped like a sombrero hovering over the desert and abducting a prospector named Bub Traven—a nod to B. Traven, a very shadowy figure who was the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. As far as I know, I’m the only person to ever explain what actually happened to him.
texasmonthly.com: What assignment have you not yet gotten but would love to receive?
BH: If someone had a chapel ceiling, I’d be happy to give it a few coats.