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Grand Rapids artist Derrick Hollowell’s big concept

Derrick Hollowell, artist, musician and teacher has spent much of his life expressing himself through paintings and music, but words don’t escape him, either. Derrick talks about art,
The articulate and soulful Derrick Hollowell, Grand Rapids artist

The articulate and soulful Derrick Hollowell, Grand Rapids artist /Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital

Underwriting support from:

Derrick and ArtPrize

While Derrick Hollowell participates in all kinds of community art events, ArtPrize really captured his attention.

When ArtPrize, the "radically open" art competition, first came to Grand Rapids, Derrick dove in. He thought big. He entered the competition to win.

Derrick collaborated with other artists and came up with a kind of dancing-in-the-streets concept based on experiences he’d had in other cities (think Mardi Gras). He wanted the scene to be celebratory and high energy.

With restrictions loosened for the event, the artists turned up the lights and the music and gave the live-work space at the corner of Division and Oakes a new theme every couple of nights. They had a jazz night, masquerade party, reggae theme, sports night and, of course, a hip-hop event. The public was invited.

In spite of ArtPrize’s first year challenges (the venue was left off ArtPrize’s printed materials), Derrick and his crew had a remarkable time presenting the art.

“It was a real awakening to the Grand Rapids art scene and to the Grand Rapids culture, just to see the mass population all come downtown for this event,” Derrick states. “We have been here trying to do art — I’ve been here trying to do art just in this particular space for six years and in metropolitan Grand Rapids for the last 10 years.”

"Allie in Sunlight" (2007), located on the third floor of Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.

"Allie in Sunlight" (2007), located on the third floor of Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. /Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital

"The Battle" (2004), also located on the third floor at Mary Free Bed

"The Battle" (2004), also located on the third floor at Mary Free Bed /Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital

Derrick Hollowell spends a lot of time thinking.

The 46-year-old artist, musician, and teacher has spent much of his life expressing himself through paintings and music, but words don’t escape Derrick, either. Articulate and soulful, Derrick has a lot to say about culture, humanity, the city, and, of course, art.

Home for Derrick is a work-live studio above The (106) Gallery on South Division in Grand Rapids. It seems apropos the artist lives not just in the heart of the city, but also in the heart of the Avenue for the Arts district.

The floor to ceiling windows in Derrick’s studio frame the city’s landscape, inhabitants, and traffic. The ever-changing scene outside his window is accompanied by drawings and paintings affixed to the walls.

Derrick’s roots are in Grand Rapids, having grown up in the city. He is a graduate of Grand Valley State University and began his music career in Grand Rapids. He traveled a lot with his hip-hop group in his twenties and early thirties but, eventually, his path returned him to West Michigan.

You can see Derrick’s art around town. He spent a month “researching” the lighting at The Hopcat Brewery for a series of paintings now hanging on the establishment’s walls. In 2010, Derrick won a Juror’s Award at the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts. When he participated in the first ArtPrize® competition, his participation was big.

While Derrick is fully invested in growing the Grand Rapids art community, he also has some bigger things on his mind. Things such as making a difference for the community’s children and for those with disabilities.


Derrick’s Medical Mystery

Derrick is no stranger to living with a disability, although he doesn’t dwell on it.

An athletic kid, Derrick and his family thrived on competition. His uncles, cousins, and brothers were all into sports. Derrick was no exception.

Derrick recalls a Rocket Football game where he made an interception. He figures he was about 8 or 9 years old at the time.

“It was actually a really easy play to make because the guy threw it right to me,” Derrick said. “My uncle came up to me after the game and was like ‘Yeah! It was good. Good interception, but why were you running so slow?’ So, that’s my first cognitive memory of taking on some type of disability.”

A few weeks after the football game, Derrick was playing ball in the street when his mom noticed he was limping. And so began a string of doctors’ appointments and hospital stays.

Over the next five or six years, no conclusive diagnosis was made. Doctors speculate that Derrick could have suffered a trauma at birth that didn’t surface until later in life, or that he suffered an injury on the football field that triggered his symptoms.

As Derrick grew and his condition worsened, he developed issues with mobility as well as spasticity (abnormal increase in muscle tone often associated with muscle spasms and sustained muscle contractions). One of Derrick’s doctors recommended going to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital for physical therapy, a suggestion that, years later, would lead to much art for the hospital.

By the time Derrick was 11, his condition leveled off. When he was younger, he never used assistive devices for walking, but now he notices his stamina isn’t what it used to be and he uses a paint-spattered cane to get around.

“I still feel very functional as far as doing what I like to do,” Derrick said. “You know, teaching and doing art. It [the disability] hasn’t affected any of that.”


A Way to Shine

Derrick’s family wasn’t just interested in sports. His mom was very artistic, and aspired to be a fashion designer. As a child, Derrick would often see her sketching fashion illustrations.

And then there’s Derrick’s Uncle James, whose vibe Derrick describes as “70’s art, cool, brother-style”. Uncle James was an art student at Grand Valley State University in the 70s. He kept a room — a converted art studio — at Derrick’s grandparents’ house where Derrick, his mom, and other family members lived.

“He [Uncle James] had easels everywhere, and paint supplies, and he kept it (the art studio) very private,” Derrick remembers. “The door would normally be closed. But on occasion, he would hear me outside his door and he would be like ‘Derrick, what are you doing out there? Well, come in… let me show you what I’m doing.’  And he would ask my opinion on some big painting he was working on. I was a little kid, but I would tell him what I liked. So I think he got a kick out of just every once and awhile letting me come in there to see his world. So that was another factor that made me really get into art — because I had such a cool uncle.”

“I love my uncle,” Derrick continued. “So I was like, I want to be like him. I want to do what he does.”

Thanks to his uncle and mom, Derrick started drawing more and more. Once Derrick’s disability became more severe, art, rather than sports, was a way for Derrick to shine.

“I always wanted to be the best at whatever I was doing,” Derrick said. “Art was another way to have a little world of my own.”

Kids in Derrick’s school used to circle around him and ask him to draw all manner of stuff. “Usually the bad stuff,” Derrick said with a laugh.

But, it was the start of Derrick’s creative career.


Doing What Comes Natural

Just as Derrick started college, he and his brother started a hip-hop group by the name of Fantasy Four. Derrick’s ear and mind was caught by the hip-hop music of the mid to late 70’s.

“…Because I was always creative thinking, I was like ‘What is this? You know, it sounds like music, but it’s like they’re rapping, and there’s a beat,’” Derrick says. “It was like James Brown. And I just loved it.”

Derrick, his brother, and two friends began performing around town and winning talent shows. Over the years, Fantasy Four refined its act and signed with a label. Throughout his early adulthood, Derrick traveled often with the group. He immersed himself in the music and performances.

But, the art still tugged at Derrick. While Fantasy Four was on the road, he always kept his sketch book close by. Although the music and promotional work distracted him from the art, he would find himself driven to sit down and create. He’d spend five or six hours at a time drawing.

When Derrick was so focused on the music, his family made sure he didn’t lose sight of his art.

Derrick tells how his mom and aunt would stay on him about his art. “They would say ‘You doing that rapping … what happened to your art? You went to school for art! … Quit messing with that hip-hop! Do your painting. Do your drawing. That’s your natural thing.’”

Derrick and Fantasy Four pressed on with their music. The group made a video that appeared on MTV, a Fantasy Four career highlight. Dr. Dre and Ed Lover announced the video’s debut. At the time, Derrick recalls, Fantasy Four felt like they were on their way to super stardom. In the end, though, it wasn’t meant to be.

Eventually, Derrick went back to what came natural.


Mr. Derrick is Committed to His Students

Derrick began teaching art early on. He volunteered and took community teaching jobs whenever he could so he could build his resume. Although he left Grand Rapids for a time while he pursued music, when Derrick decided to stay around Grand Rapids he really committed to the teaching.

“I didn’t want to be a fly-by-night teacher,” Derrick stated. “I wanted to at least see the children through a full school year.”

The art programs Derrick teaches align nicely with his own commitment to art. He divides his time between being a dedicated teacher and his own work.

Derrick believes that every person has the power to influence other people by how you treat others, which is maybe why he’s so devoted to his students.

Derrick teaches at the Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center, a charter school on the west side of Grand Rapids with an alternative curriculum. There, Derrick teaches kindergarteners through fifth graders — all 250 them. After a year and a half, “Mr. Derrick” has all his students' names down, an important accomplishment to the kids and to Derrick.

“I’m one of the visual arts teachers,” Derrick says. “I get to go into these special classrooms and teach children how to paint. I show them how to mix colors and show them different approaches to creativity, and it is just awesome. It’s hard to even describe the experience because it’s my first time really working with children with specific disabilities. … I’ve had to really observe and learn as I’m teaching.”

Derrick also teaches for Very Special Arts (VSA), a non-profit agency that sends professional artists out into the community to teach children and adults with disabilities. He is teaching a workshop for autistic children and a painting workshop for adults

In Derrick’s adult class, he teaches painting to a blind woman. He describes how the artist touches the paint on her palette with her fingers, then puts the brush in the paint, and applies the paint to the canvas. Derrick guides her through the process. The results, Derrick reports, are amazing.

This spring, Derrick coordinated a field trip for his Discovery Center students. Kids came to Mary Free Bed to view the pieces created by people with disabilities. He wanted to show the kids not to let life’s obstacles get in their way, to show them that many things are possible even if you think you’re at a disadvantage.


He’s Been There

Around the corner from Derrick’s live-work space is Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. The rehab facility is definitely part of Derrick’s community. A former patient and star artist of the hospital’s extensive art collection, he’s this year’s featured artist for the Mary Free Bed Guild’s Annual Art Exhibition.

“I know what it’s like to be a kid in the hospital.” Derrick said. “It’s just a whole different way of living. When a child goes to the hospital, his life doesn’t stop. He has 8 hours, 10 hours that he wants to spend doing something.”

Derrick recalls being a patient at Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. When boredom hit, Derrick took to the halls, even though he knew he wasn’t supposed to. He ended up in all kinds of places inside the hospital.

“When I think about the kids at Mary Free Bed, I always picture those children in the peds wing of the hospital being able to sneak out and see my paintings and just look at it and think ‘Wow, that’s cool. I wonder who did it.’ So, I have tried to gear the work toward that idea.”

After sitting out last year’s ArtPrize and getting his head around how he and art fit into the Grand Rapids community, Derrick is once again ready to enter this year’s competition. He plans to present something a little quieter and a little more dignified — art that represents something very personal to Derrick.

Because Derrick has worked with Mary Free Bed for so many years, he came up with an idea to do a retrospective of the paintings that the Mary Free Bed Guild has purchased and hung in the hospital’s halls. The guild has purchased nearly all of Derrick’s Annual Art Exhibition entries and Derrick plans to show the chronological growth of his work.

“I’d like to present my work on one of the walls in my space and then some of the work of other people with disabilities on the other wall. … I’ll also debut a new painting specifically for ArtPrize,” Derrick explained.

Derrick’s ArtPrize entry extends beyond the art to a philanthropic cause — he hopes to bridge organizations together where he sees common ground. He wants non-profits to share resources and ideas that benefit children. Derrick is looking forward to doing work to benefit adults and kids with disabilities, groups such as VSA and the Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center.

The artist’s practical side shows when he says that he enjoys having his paintings at Mary Free Bed for a couple of reasons. One, because it furthers his reputation and credibility as an artist – it legitimizes his efforts as an artist.

But mostly, Derrick likes having his paintings displayed at Mary Free Bed because of the patients. He wants the pediatric patients at Mary Free Bed to know he has been there in more ways than one.


It’s a Big Concept

When Derrick is asked what he wants people to know about him, he grows even more serious, shifts in his chair, thinks for a couple of moments.

“You can actually alter a person’s outlook on life by trying to have compassion and caring for other people,” Derrick finally says. “It’s a big concept, but it seems so lacking now. People box each other in so quickly that it’s like we’re all just kind of bumping into each other as opposed to trying to share the space.”

“I really hope people can start to use our close proximity to each other as far as living in the same metropolitan area to show more kindness, more compassion,” Derrick continues. “We should try to reach out to each other a little bit more, be more understanding of the other person’s story and their background, and what got things to where they are — and how meeting me or you could change that dynamic.”


You can see Derrick’s paintings now through September 2 at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital at 235 Wealthy Ave. SE. Look for Derrick’s exhibit during ArtPrize 2011 in the Avenue for the Arts District.

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We need more stories like this. Stories about people who do not let the challenges of their lives get the better of them. Derricks story serves as an inspiration to many.