why bright things are sometimes contained

Cynthia Close interviews
Holly Savas


Our art co-editor Cynthia Close recently had this exchange with Holly Savas, our Issue #17 featured artist. Here’s what she had to say about her transition from marketing to art, through her time in Spain; the details of her working process; and how she balances creative risk and continuity… Read more

Our art co-editor Cynthia Close recently had this exchange with Holly Savas, our Issue #17 featured artist. Here’s what she had to say about her transition from marketing to art, through her time in Spain; the details of her working process; and how she balances creative risk and continuity.


It is interesting that your academic credentials are not in art. You have degrees from the University of Wisconsin in Spanish and Marketing. But there is nearly a twenty-year gap between that period and the dates when you started being recognized for your art. Can you say something about this transitional time in your life?

It might seem unlikely that having gone to school for business I’m now a fine artist, but the truth is that I’ve been an artist my entire life. Growing up I spent a lot of time drawing, and my parents encouraged me and my brother to be creative. We had a pantry full of regular art supplies like crayons, paper and colored pencils, but we always added other things to our art projects – oatmeal canisters, egg cartons, yogurt tubs – and turned them into musical instruments and miniature cities. Looking back, I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t creating something.

I’ve aways been a maker of things, but within that I tend to be very left-brained, analytical and organized. I briefly considered an art degree in college, but I was drawn to the strategic and practical curriculum taught in business. I also wanted to travel and the business school offered an international business exchange program in Seville, so in the end that’s what swayed me. (I loved studying abroad in Spain so much that when I came back to the states, I stayed in college another year to earn a second undergraduate degree in Spanish.)

Going to business school and speaking Spanish served me well professionally in the years after I graduated and moved to California, where I worked in San Francisco in marketing, merchandising and business development for global companies as well as tiny startups. It was fast-paced work with a lot of travel – very challenging and exciting – but it left little time for me to be creative, so about seven years into my career I felt it was time to take a break from my frenetic life in San Francisco. I’d recently gotten married, and my husband and I had always talked about living abroad, so near the end of 2002 we rented our house to friends and moved to Seville. My plan for the year was to travel and to get in touch with my creativity.

Professionally speaking, that move was the best thing that has ever happened to me. I spent an entire year making drawings in cafes, experimenting with paints in our tiny, brilliantly sunny patio and seeing more art – Picasso, Murillo, Goya, you name it – than I’d ever seen in my entire life. Spain is also incredibly rich architecturally, and somewhere in between the Moorish palaces of Southern Spain and Gaudi’s Barcelona, I became interested in the language of design. (I began to dabble in graphic design – teaching myself Photoshop and Illustrator – as a result.)

As we traveled throughout Spain, I fell in love with the landscape. Stark or lush, dry or wet, I just couldn’t get enough of looking at what I saw and then drawing or painting it. As the year progressed, something interesting began to happen: wherever we stopped, my work drew attention from locals. When an innkeeper asked me to draw her historic building and grounds for a new series of postcards she was planning, I began to consider making art and design a full-time career.

Spending 2003 in Spain made an indelible mark on me, and when our year there ended it was very clear that art and design would be the focus of my path forward. Many of my friends were blown away when I came back to San Francisco as an artist because they had only known me during my business career. It was exciting to surprise people – and to have reinvented myself simply by showing part of myself that had been there all along.


Your work is very joyful. There is something about your color choices and use of rounded lines as opposed to sharp edges, although abstract, that elicits a smile. Does this “happiness” reflect your world view?

I would say that my work absolutely reflects my world view. I have every reason to be joyful about my life: I live in a beautiful city, with stunning bridges and easy access to the ocean, beaches and mountains. Within five minutes of leaving my house, I can be completely surrounded by redwoods in Golden Gate Park. I have my health, my family, my friends and my community. On top of all this, I was born optimistic.

At this point in my career, art feels like a good place for me to take risks. Creative risk-taking has become a very large part of what I love about what I do. It could be the reason I make bold and unconventional choices with color, or why I’m currently playing with shapes that are wobbly and unsteady instead of perfect. The main reason I take such pleasure in creative risk is because now that I am a parent, there is a necessary, routinized (and often pretty boring) order to my family life – I strive to be as consistent, responsible and steady as possible for my children. Artwork is one place where I can bend the rules – colors can be bright and unlikely, lines don’t have to be straight and shapes don’t even need to be recognizable. This is one way my work has evolved over the years. It’s very liberating.


Our MSR editor quoted your describing your work as embodying “the tension created when contemporary colors and patterns are paired with primitive shapes.” In terms of art history, what “primitive” artists or objects have influenced your work?

The ‘primitive’ shapes I’m drawn to are both natural and made by humans, but they aren’t necessarily part of any one art movement or single artist’s body of work. The shapes that influence me are everyday items, like the vintage bowls I’ve collected for decades – I love them even more if they are cracked and chipped – or the tiny towers of smooth, rounded stones that dot the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. I enjoy looking at things that are imperfect and have a bit of a tilt, like they might fall over at any moment. It reminds me that most things in life are not perfect, permanent or predictable, and that we should make the most of every day.

When I lived in Spain I spent a lot of time studying Cubist artwork. The way that Picasso, Bracques and Juan Gris used color and geometry in unlikely ways made a deep impression on me. What interested me most was that, close up, the individual details in a Cubist painting could make me feel uncomfortable, like something was out of place, but when I stepped back and looked at the work as a whole, it felt incredibly balanced and right. It was always that contradiction that brought me back to look at a painting again and again. Perhaps subconsciously that’s one of the reasons behind the tension between shapes and colors in my work.


You have developed a very distinctive, personal style within the medium of collage. Can you describe your process? How do you select your materials? Are there technical challenges that you had to overcome?

I wasn’t always a collage artist. Fifteen years ago I was intimidated by the very thought of mixing mediums. When I started making art every day in Spain, I either drew with pencil or painted with acrylic and water – always one medium at a time. The urge to combine materials didn’t happen until I returned to California and took an abstracts workshop where we used textured paper to make prints in acrylic on canvas. It was a big deal when I became daring enough – I’m laughing about this now – to tear off strips of paper and actually embed them into the paint. It’s taken me over a decade of making lots of mistakes, of experimentally combining acrylic, paper, pencil, debris and various media to arrive at my current collage process.

I actually have two processes that I use for making art: one for experimenting, and one for making a more formal series of work. The ideas for series are often derived from my experimental process, which is where I give myself permission to play with materials that might initially not make sense together or look coherent at all. While experimenting, I might also make dozens of small drawings that incorporate certain shapes and forms I’ve had running through my head. If I’m lucky, one or two things will jump out to inspire me while I’m experimenting, and I’ll build my next formal series around them.

Once I have an idea in my head for a series, I’ll make more small drawings – sometimes hundreds – and choose my favorite twenty or so. Choosing which drawings to make into full scale artworks is where I’m most decisive and quick in my process; it’s where my background in assortment planning really helps me weed out images that look too similar, or add elements that I feel are missing to a drawing in order to include it in the collection. It feels really satisfying to critique my own work in this way – to get both sides of my brain to agree – and to have my inner analyst shake hands with my inner artist at the end of it all.

Once I’ve got a collection of twenty drawings I’ll pin them above my work table, and then it usually becomes obvious to me that there are four or five that I really love. Those are the ones I’ll commit to making as part of the formal series, and that’s when I’ll invest my resources: panel, paper, paint and – most precious of all – time. Once the ‘pilot’ batch is finished, I’ll have enough information to know whether to continue making the series or move on. In the case of the “Shape Towers” series, I made the first five pieces and felt complete with the work.

When I talk about my process I absolutely have to mention color, because I feel it’s one of the biggest drivers of my work. In “Shape Towers” (and in the previous series “Containers”) I collaged imperfect strips of similarly colored papers next to one another, and then trapped all of them inside a paper line border. I love delivering a powerful punch of color while simultaneously containing it within a finite form; it’s like serving someone an exploding candy in a very tight, but very innocent-looking wrapper. There’s something unexpected about it, and the unexpected is what keeps the work interesting to me. For me this technique brings up all kinds of questions about why bright things are sometimes contained. Do they have to be? What happens when they’re not? And so on.


Your work exudes a maturity and self-confidence. The recent series especially presents itself as a cohesive whole. What factors have contributed to this momentum?

First of all, thank you! That’s so nice to hear. I think I’ve leaned heavily on my love of order and organization in creating the cohesion in Shape Towers. Another factor that contributes to the cohesion is that early in my business career, I worked in product assortment planning and visual merchandising for a few humongous retail companies, and I learned how to put a collection together in terms of color, size and style. And lastly, upon returning from Spain, I founded a stationery company and designed several lines of notecards and wrapping paper. In both cases I learned that it’s important to evaluate a group of things in terms of what’s missing (and what needs to be added) and what’s extra (that can be removed).

I’ve always been drawn to primary colors, and my latest work is no exception. I’m not afraid of taking risks with color, and perhaps that’s where the self-confidence comes through in the work. I love using red and blue together, but the combination can get overbearing, so in this case I added gray and cream neutrals to create balance throughout the collection, to ground it. But then I felt the gray, red and blue seemed very serious and patriotic, so I brought in orange to add a sense of playfulness. Of course now the orange is my favorite part of the entire series.


Professionally speaking, recognition of your work has taken off during the past two years. What has been your greatest success story to date?

The last two years have been a period of real creative acceleration for me, and it coincides exactly with the minute my youngest child started elementary school. Now I’ve got more time and energy to focus on my work, both in and out of the studio. Making more work means applying to more shows, and participating in more shows means more exposure for the work. My marketing background has been immensely helpful to me in managing the business side of being an artist. There’s definitely been a snowball effect that has made me feel more successful in what I do.

It’s hard to choose any one specific example – it all feels so validating – but if I had to, I’d say that having two back-to-back shows at STUDIO Gallery in San Francisco this winter has been really exciting. It’s not a gallery that normally showcases abstract work, so for my abstracts to be included in two shows in a row blew my mind, especially when so many of my family and friends attended the openings. The gallery owners Jennifer Farris and Rab Terry are lovely and are fiercely supportive of local artists.


Most artists would like to be able to support themselves financially from the sale of their artwork. Do you think there is a conflict between being a “fine” artist and the desire for commercial success?

I’m conflicted about this, and I don’t think there is any one correct answer to this question. I would never speak for any artist other than myself. I can say that I’d never depend on the results of my deepest, wildest creativity to pay the bills, first because I believe creativity is unreliable, and second because it would put too much pressure on my muse. On the other hand, I know that artists can and do profit from their work, sometimes tremendously.

As far as the desire for commercial success goes, the business person in me supports it wholeheartedly! For me the perfect synergy between my artist self and strategic self would be to make the art I want to make and be highly compensated for it. I’m very protective of my creative process and also keenly aware of the effort I pour into it. I’m always grateful for my business background when it comes to separating the making of art with the marketing of art – several times a week I’ll take off my creative hat and put on my business school hat, which I do very deliberately and consciously. I’ve learned how to make my left brain’s abilities support my right brain’s creativity and also how to keep them out of each other’s way.


Is public feedback from the exhibition of your work important to you? If so, how does it affect your process?

I try not to let public feedback affect my work unless I’m asked to make a commissioned piece, and in that case my client’s opinion means a great deal. I try to separate the work that is purely a reflection of my creative vision from the work that I do on commission for collectors. With clients, there is a certain amount of collaboration – size, colors, design – that goes into the work up front. Commissioned work almost always requires less creativity on my part. This is different from most of the work that I show in galleries, which comes out of my own creative process. If someone likes what they see in a gallery and wants to buy it, great! But I’m very careful to keep the two sides of my work separate. If I listened to everyone who had an opinion I’d never get anything done.


There can be a hidden danger in producing a successful “style.” There is the expectation that an artist can be innovative while still producing work that is identifiable, like a signature. What direction do you see your work going in the future?

If I listen carefully, the artwork usually tells me when it’s time to move on. When something’s not working for me I’m pretty quick to drop it, which is how I live my life as well. I’m the first to admit when my creative process and product begin to feel tired, and I feel an actual physical discomfort when I’m in a creative rut – almost like I can’t bear to continue. When that happens I force myself to complete a series if there is any unfinished work, but otherwise I just pivot. I pull the elements that I’m still connecting with through into the next phase of creation, and those elements could be anything – a color scheme, a certain shape or a type of paper. Designing two years’ worth of seasonal stationery lines taught me that it’s important to have consistent branding elements without growing stale.

I want my collectors to know that my work is evolving, but that I’m committed to consistency. This spring and summer I’m planning to work on much bigger panels than I’ve used in my current series, and I’m hoping to fill most of the background with work, rather than leave some of it a solid color as I did in Shape Towers. I’m still loving the feeling of stacks of shapes, of the precariousness of items balanced on top of other items, so that component will definitely stay in the work for now. But the work will get a lot more complicated.

I’m planning to add neon and debris elements as well. I’ve used debris in collage before, but rarely neon paper or neon paint, so I’m excited. I’ve just begun the first piece of this new series, and there are sections of bright neon orange paper running through it, cut from a batch of discarded acid-free envelopes I found at a paper store. It makes me happy when I can use something that would otherwise have been wasted – I think that’s why I love working with debris. San Francisco is a windy city and there are all kinds of fabulous scraps of paper blowing through it, which I try to catch and collect. It’s tricky to incorporate debris into collage because debris can be fragile, and overworking it with medium or glue it will fade or disintegrate it. But I’m hopeful that I can make debris and neon work together. If I wanted to try adding an element of lighting to it too, I could use neon lights, like those seen on the Neon Mama store, but it would be difficult to balance all three features equally in this piece.

By Holly Savas

Holly Savas is a San Francisco-based mixed media artist with a background in multidisciplinary design, illustration and space planning. For over a decade she has created commissioned artwork for individuals and organizations, and frequently collaborates with schools and other non-profits to develop art projects and art curriculum for elementary-aged students. She shows her studio work throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and western United States. In 2013, Holly won the Sustainable Arts Foundation Finalist Award for her work in the visual arts. She lives with her family in San Francisco’s NOPA neighborhood.