William Hollingsworth Jr. arrived in Chicago in 1930 his head was filled with a
pragmatic, far-from-airy dream. As his chums back in his hometown of Jackson,
Mississippi, trained for jobs as clerks, lawyers, businessmen, or engineers, he
fancied success as a commercial artist.
He was a
slump-shouldered, boyish fellow of twenty adept at cartooning. He had spent two
years at the University of Mississippi as a general student, but he reasoned
that his talent would shine brighter and his chances of finding a job as an
artist would be bettered if he enrolled in an art school. He was accepted at
the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Charged with a beginner’s zeal, he
pitched his home-grown talents into serious study and the result was a
promising transformation. His classes in painting and his growing passion for
the masterworks hanging in the galleries of the Institute awakened him to fine
art. It became his calling. Even if commercial art (magazine illustration, poster
design, book covers, advertising agency work) became the source of his
livelihood after graduation, he resolved to be a painter too.
cherished Mississippi painter
Hollingsworth is a fixture in the pantheon of southern art. Since his death he
has been rediscovered repeatedly as new appreciators are enchanted by his
paintings. Though he died before satisfying his own high aim of being a
recognized original, the multitude of watercolors and oil paintings that he
produced in the short span of a decade is an astonishing achievement. In select
art collections, mostly in the South, his works are cherished as unique and
blessed with a talent to produce art that burns with dazzling imaginative
vision, Hollingsworth himself was modest and unassuming. He looked like just
any other ordinary guy. He was a little under six feet tall and dark-haired,
but sallow and very thin. A bit shy, he had a scholarly appearance because of
his gold-rimmed spectacles. Though remembered as “withdrawn,” he was well liked
among his set, and during school days in Jackson he was the known cartoonist in
the crowd. His father once had financed a summer trip to Chicago so that young
Hollingsworth could meet Cary Orr, the famous cartoonist of the Chicago
did the Institute wakened Hollingsworth’s creative powers, but it was the place
he met Jane Oakley. She too was a student, although enrolled in the school of
design. She had more training and more skill, but she watched in astonishment
as Hollingsworth quickly surpassed her.
I was better than he was,” Jane recalled, “but it wasn’t long before Hollie was
the star student. All of us admired his abilities and his work.”
hometown was Moline, Illinois, and her outlook was northern, Hollie’s decidedly
southern. However, drawn together in their discussions of art, they grew close,
fell in love, and married. A year later their son Billy was born.
his creative gift, Hollingsworth had a strain of melancholy that cast him into
dark moods. Jane understood him and tried to soothe and encourage him. This
inescapable sadness tinges all his work. It peaked in the art of his prime.
a.m. on February 17, 1910, William Robert Hollingsworth Jr. was born at the
family home, 754 North President Street in Jackson. When he was less than a
year old, his mother (née Willie Belle Van Zile) died suddenly, and he was
reared by his father and his elder sister Isabel, who was thirteen years older
than her brother. William R. Hollingsworth Sr., with Fred A. Tyson, his
son-in-law, headed a firm called Hollingsworth & Tyson Real Estate and
Rental Agents. His offices were downtown in the Merchants Bank and Trust
Building. The new residential development of Belhaven was among the senior Hollingsworth’s
Hollie’s birth, his father had bought the North President Street house from the
Mississippi School for the Deaf and made it a residence. A large dwelling with
high ceilings and a two-story octagonal tower surrounded by a semicircular
porch, it was situated a few blocks north of the state capitol and adjacent to
North State Street, an avenue lined then with imposing mansions and elegant
lawns. The house was demolished in the 1960s.
years Hollie attended Davis School, a block over. In a group picture of
schoolmates he is the only child who looks like a waif. He was graduated from
Jackson High in the class of 1928. Smith Park and the First Baptist Church,
which the Hollingsworths attended, were nearby. Downtown Jackson was a short
stroll from the Hollingsworth residence. So young Hollingsworth’s world of
school, church, movie houses, and parks was cozy and confined.
of black culture
had hoped after graduation from the Institute in 1934 to work in Chicago, but
heartsick over the impossibility of finding a place for himself in the big-city
art world, he retreated to Jackson. In his melancholy Hollingsworth considered
Jackson too provincial for his lofty aims. In his aspirations he gravitated
toward two modern masters, Cezanne and Matisse, hoping to attain their high
Hollingsworth and his northern wife came to Mississippi as the Great Depression
of the 1930s struck the nation, he rediscovered the culture of southern black
people. To the west of the city of Jackson and separate from the mainstream,
was the district of black neighborhoods and social life. Except as servants and
laborers, black people were strictly segregated and kept apart from white
society by social and political codes. This black culture theme developed into
one of the mainstays of Hollingsworth’s art. In Three in a Wagon, Brown
and Wet, The Rains, Sleepy Isaac, It Was Cloudy When
Evalina Married, and many other paintings the daily life of local black
people gave his work a refreshing spirit.
good fortune, Hollingsworth was one of the job seekers who found employment.
The Federal Emergency Relief Agency, one of the Franklin D. Roosevelt
administration’s New Deal programs, hired him as a clerk. The FERA’s Jackson offices
were located in the brand-new high-rise called the Standard Life Building. He
was truly unsuited for this work, but for four years he gave it his commitment
during daytime hours. At night he painted.
by Jane and by his chum Karl Wolfe, a local artist, he began to sketch and
paint subjects in familiar surroundings of home.
have to live in New York or Chicago to be a painter, Hollie,” Wolfe admonished.
“You can paint by looking out the window.”
It was good
advice. What Hollingsworth saw and painted was the rural countryside (Lost
Horizon, The Last Time It Snowed, Low River), the black
people idling along Farish Street and engaging in ordinary activities (Sudden
Shower, Dark Romance, High Farish), and the shadow and light
of the Mississippi seasons (Cold Wet Day, The First of December).
The lyrical delight in these paintings arises from the reality of the familiar
and from Hollingsworth’s keen insight that made it fresh and daring. The viewer
with a penetrating eye, moreover, senses the touch of sadness even in the joy
of the scene, for out of regional materials Hollingsworth chanced upon the
profound. Virtually every painting he produced, and indeed The Ice-Covered
Tree, reveals that he chanced too upon the signature tone of his work, the
sad beauty that surrounds us.
in a confined office became so distasteful to Hollingsworth that he and Jane
made an agreement when the FERA closed its operation in 1938. He should
concentrate full time on being an artist, painting at home. She would devote
herself to making a living while he achieved his goal. This became their
occupational arrangement over the next six years. When he made painting his
sole profession, he, Jane, and Billy moved into the family home.