Tree of Life: Artist thrives, despite cerebral palsy

A sample of Hank Holland's work
A sample of Hank Holland's work

Folk artist Hank Holland is earning an international following after just five years of painting.

His scenes of life on the bayou hang in all 50 states, 106 countries and the Vatican.

The Smithsonian is now in discussions with Holland to display a few pieces, but Holland's handiwork is really just the window dressing to a stunning life story.

Hank Holland's paintings are a blend of his memories: the good and the bad - lessons learned the hard way -the triumphs and defeats.

Every stroke is strengthened by love, plus the patience and determination Holland learned from those who came before him.

Juke joints and Who Dats adorn some paintings. Swamp life pops out of other works. The one, entitled "Nola Love" features New Orleans' skyline rising up from a piano's keys. It pays tribute to musical legends Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Dr. John.

One of Holland's most popular series is called "The Tree House."

"When I was growing up, most of the kids gave me a hard time because of my disability, so my dad built me a tree house," says Holland, who was born with cerebral palsy.

Growing up, other children taunted Holland because of his awkward walk, ostracized him because of his slurred speech. The tree house Holland's father built served as his escape from all the bullying, a safe haven where he came to terms with his unique challenges:

"It's where I found my belonging in life and I began to understand my disability," says Holland.

Understanding cerebral palsy didn't mean giving up. Accepting CP actually helped Holland learn to live life to the fullest.

"When you're born with a disability, you're born with so many strikes against you to begin with. You have to constantly prove yourself and work harder to get to where you want to go," says Holland.

In 2003, Holland was working as an environmental auditor when he decided to volunteer at United Cerebral Palsy of Greater New Orleans. There he met Loyola graduate Maria Hernandez, who was working at the non-profit in marketing despite also battling CP. Things moved fast!

Jen Hale: "You met in August and you proposed at the end of September?!?!"

Holland: "I was smitten, I was in love!"

The couple married in September 2004 and began wrestling with whether to have a baby. Maria had long dreamed of a family, but had concerns about whether she could be a good mother.

"God told me - it's not your decision. And if you have a baby, I'll be here every step of the way to help you," says Maria.

In November 2004, the Hollands began trying. One month later, they found out they'd been successful. Christian Holland came early - August 2005 - just ahead of Hurricane Katrina. Despite the premature birth, the storm and the doubts swirling in Maria's mind - she was a natural at motherhood.

"Everything I worried about when I was pregnant: 'How am I going to do this? How am I going to do that? What if I drop him?' It never happened," says Maria.

Today, Christian is the picture of health, a 7-year-old second grader whose favorite subject is Science.

Thanks to hours spent scrimmaging with his dad, Christian can school you on the basketball court: "Doing all kinds of tricks and dribbling," he says.

That is, when he's not on the baseball diamond:

"I like baseball a lot because when you pitch the ball really hard, it goes really far. That's what I like about it," Christian explains.

Jen Hale: "Becoming a dad - what was that like for you?"

Hank Holland: "Oh it was scary, mainly because I wanted to pattern myself after my father - who was a good man. He wasn't alive when Christian was born."

Holland summoned the memories of his father: for inspiration in raising Christian and in dealing with the scorn he and Maria face from others:

"You get a lot of looks when you're in public, like 'What are you doing with him? Who are you to have a child? Can you take care of that child?' It's always hurtful. I want to scream I get so mad sometimes," Holland says.

The Hollands overcome through prayer and the philosophy they should never let someone steal the day's joy. They rely on God, faith and a strong belief in themselves.

"You've got to believe in who you are," Maria says.

Faith and love are common themes in Holland's paintings.

He often incorporates the principles he lives by, and there are many nods to his favorite Bible verses, too.

Holland always signs his paintings with an upside down signature - because as he says - he's just a little different. Then he adds a cross:

"Because I didn't paint that by myself - God and I painted that together! And we have a good time doing it," Holland laughs.

There's someone else who Holland credits with guiding his artistic hand - his mother Jane.

She was a painter her entire life. Holland grew up watching her, but never picked up a brush.

Five years ago, after Jane died, Holland missed her so desperately, he tried painting simply to feel closer to her.

"Every time I paint I feel like my mom is sitting right there saying 'Do this or do that' or 'Hank you need to take a break!'" says Holland.

Holland's paintings now number more than 8,000. He paints 8-10 hours every day.

"I taught myself, so sometimes when I get stuck, I'll holler at momma - 'Ok Momma I can't figure this out - help me out here,'" says Holland.

It's working! Even though Holland has no professional training, galleries like Mosaic Garden in Baton Rouge have a hard time keeping his work in stock.

"People will stand here and look at his paintings for hours," says art gallery owner Pam Steinsiek, who has 18 years of experience in collecting and selling art. When Steinsiek saw Holland's paintings for the first time, she says they touched her:

"When I talk about him I get chills on my arms. He gets you right up front and you can't help but fall in love with one of his paintings. He has a lot of perspective. And he has action in his little figures."

Steinsiek says she'd classify Holland's work with the top folk artists in Louisiana - Clementine Hunter and William Hemmerline:

"I sure would. Absolutely, absolutely."

Her favorite piece - Holland's reverse painting done on glass:

"Anything that would come last, comes first. The stars on the flag here," Steinsiek explains.

The end result is a glowing piece that looks illuminated. It's a difficult technique requiring precise planning and vision.

"The last thing he does is the water, the grass, the sky. That's last. Normally when you're painting that would be the first thing you lay on your canvas and then you'd build your painting from there. He's amazing. He's an awesome artist," Steinsiek says.

Holland's art is developing a cult-like following. Many just appear on Holland's Lockport doorstep, looking to purchase a piece:

"We're going to have to build another house just to hang your work. Our house could be your gallery," Robert Winter tells Holland after traveling to his home from Covington to purchase an 8th piece of art.

After years of enduring the shuns and rejection - Holland describes every sale as a humbling experience - an honor that someone wants to bring a piece of him into their home.

Holland's work is online under the name Baby Jane Studios - in a nod to his mom:

Hank and Maria Holland are also about to publish a children's book they wrote together to teach kids about disabilities. The Zydeco Crew features swamp characters that are all learning to deal with different handicaps.