Bay View artist Lana Holman has drawn over 80 chalk portraits

The sidewalk in front of Lana Holman’s Bay View house is full of stories.

Over the past year, the Concrete Squares have been Holman’s canvas for more than 80 chalk portraits of notable figures, both historical and living.

The art, along with accompanying short biographies posted on social media, opened windows into the lives of everyone, from Milwaukee Bucks Stars to jazz musicians to victims of police violence.

Telling these stories is sometimes to highlight the obstacles encountered by people in their ascent, or to recognize little-known pioneers.

Last summer, spurred by the movement for racial justice and the murder of George Floyd, Holman focused on drawing people of color. His current series is about the famous Milwaukeeans.

As his work gains prominence, Holman hopes the art offers viewers a new, more nuanced view of the world.

“Instead of making people angry, I tried to really highlight the lives and achievements that they have given us in the world,” Holman said. “A lot of times people see things (as) so simple. “

Chalk artist Lana Holman puts the finishing touches on Beulah Brinton on Saturday June 12, 2021, in front of the Cactus Club in Milwaukee.  Brinton welcomed immigrant factory workers into his home and later taught them to read, sew, and other skills.  Brinton was a prominent figure in Bay View, and a community center and house are named after him.

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“I really want to be proactive”

Floyd was Holman’s first chalk portrait.

She remembers seeing protesters march past her home last summer and wanting to contribute to the conversation about racial justice in a positive way. As a white woman, a busy mother of eight, and an artist, she believed her voice could best be expressed on her Oklahoma Avenue sidewalk.

“It really upset me. And I was like, I just don’t want to sit down and chat on Facebook, I really want to be proactive, ”she said.

As her husband, Elias Holman, remembers, the decision to draw Floyd was spontaneous.

“It was really just a, ‘I want to create something in the community. I’m just going to walk on the sidewalk in front of our house and I’m just going to see how it goes, ”he said.

It took a while to figure out how to draw on a surface that was not a canvas but rather a “gritty and coarse” sidewalk, said Lana Holman.

The trial and error process was made easier by special mixing sponges and YouTube tutorials. Holman’s distinctive and abstract style transferred well and portraits began to be recognized.

People passing by his house began to strike up conversations, asking Holman about his project and where they could find more of his work.

Lana Holman attracted jazz musician Thelonious Monk in July 2020 as part of a series of famous black jazz artists.  Holman's husband Elias wrote a short biography of the musician's life to accompany the photo on social media.

With the pandemic canceling most events last summer, the art provided a sense of community as people walked through the neighborhood daily, Elias Holman said.

“The response was overwhelmingly positive and it ended up taking a life of its own because people expected there to be new art all the time,” he said.

Lana Holman finally had to put a sign outside directing people to her social media accounts, where they would find a more permanent record of the temporary works of art alongside the biographies her husband began to research and write.

Temporary, as the rain usually wash away each portrait in a few days.

Rain is both Holman’s enemy and his friend. Sometimes that will ruin a half-finished portrait and she will have to start all over again. But there is also a beauty in doing something that must be short lived.

“I really like having a new canvas,” Holman said.

On average, Holman will take three to four portraits per week. If it’s not raining, she tries to draw outside every day.

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Holman enjoys learning, sharing the life stories of others

Holman has no shortage of people to draw. Neighbors and friends always offer suggestions, and she and her husband have found that they enjoy digging into history and learning more about the world around them.

“You start to see history as this great tapestry with these stripes that you continue to fill in as you see different things that are happening in the world,” Elias Holman said.

Kate O'Keefee, left, takes a photo of Lana Holman's art on Saturday, June 12, 2021, outside the Cactus Club in Milwaukee.

Take Holman’s recent portrait of Beulah Brinton, a historical figure who gave his name to a Bay View community center.

The Holmans knew his name but not his story. During their research, they learned that she was teaching English and sewing to the wives of immigrant steelworkers in the late 1800s and opened the neighborhood’s first public library from her home.

“It’s good to go see Lana and say… here are the names, I know a few facts about them, but let’s learn more about them and fill in the gaps,” Elias said.

Now the Holmans are full of biographical details about pioneers in various fields. Some are people they believe never got the credit they deserved or whose life stories reveal systemic injustices.

There is Henrietta is missing, whose cancer cells in the 1950s were the source of an important cell line medical researchers still use it today. The cells were taken without Lacks’ consent, and she was not remunerated for her contribution to medicine.

And here Della wells, a fame folk artist who had a difficult upbringing in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Milwaukee. After many years working in the county government, Wells became an artist in her 40s. His work is exhibited at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, among others.

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And for a series about famous black musicians, the Holmans featured jazz legend Cab Calloway. In addition to chronicling his fame, they included a story about the racism he faced.

“Despite being one of the world’s most famous artists in 1945, Calloway and a friend were beaten up by a police officer and arrested in Kansas City, Missouri” for attempting to enter a ballroom reserved for Whites to attend a performance, wrote Elias Holman. .

Holman also drew Cab Calloway, a famous jazz artist, as part of her series on black musicians.  In his biography posted on social media, Holman included an anecdote about the time when, in 1945, Calloway and a friend were beaten and arrested for attempting to enter a white-only ballroom to watch a performance. .

Sometimes, however, Holman’s portraits simply show his fandom. A lifelong Bucks fan, she has drawn everyone from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Sterling Brown to a retro take on the Bango logo.

Holman’s Growing Social Mediawhat follows has meant that the organizations invite Holman to take his design to new canvases – cement or whatever.

In June, she was invited to do a live drawing of Brinton for Bay View Community Day outside the Cactus Club concert hall.

And as the Bucks played Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Holman lured presenter Zora Stephenson outside of the Aloft Hotel, where she is also the Artist in Residence.

Artist Lana Holman drew Milwaukee Bucks broadcasters Marques Johnson and Jim Paschke to her sidewalk in May when Paschke announced her retirement.  Holman also surprised Paschke with a watercolor of the two broadcasters on a pre-game show.

Becoming a full-time artist is Holman’s “second act”

The role at Aloft and the growing audience for his chalk portraits are encouraging developments as Holman builds a full-time career as an artist.

Its social media pages are titled: “Act 2 Illustration by Lana Holman. “Act 2, because Holman considers the work of an artist to be the” second act “of his career.

Holman worked in the jewelry industry for much of her adulthood after being “discouraged” from studying or pursuing art as a job, she said.

But she continued to nurture a love of art and painted in her spare time, taking classes to learn about certain styles and hosting a few gallery exhibitions.

The chalk portraits turned out to be Holman’s big break.

She became Aloft’s Artist in Residence in August, where her watercolors of Bucks players and Milwaukee landscapes are now on display.

Her husband said it was a blessing to see Holman have the opportunity to use his talents.

“I was so happy to see her inspired and to want to come out,” Elias Holman said. “Art is hard.”

Holman was able to “shake off” many of the feelings of those who discouraged her from pursuing a career in art, and she also honed her artistic skills, her husband said.

In addition to drawing a portrait in chalk, Lana Holman interviewed Milwaukee artist Della Wells about her life and perspectives on racism and racial justice in her hometown.  Wells' portrait is part of a series this summer about the famous Milwaukeeans.

According to Holman, chalk portraits played a dual role during the pandemic. The work maintains his creativity and offers a welcome respite to his large family.

“It’s a bit cathartic,” she said.

At first, sometimes as many as seven of her children attended a virtual school at a time.

“I can walk outside without hearing the kids,” Holman said with a laugh.

The second summer of chalk art is underway and Holman plans to continue it for a while.

As the couple consider moving, they have an important consideration: Would the new house be on a main thoroughfare?

Would art continue to be seen by so many people every day, hopefully inspiring them to delve deeper into their history and the world around them?

Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or scarson@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.