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Bostonians of the Year

Ekua Holmes: The illustrator who makes an art of overcoming barriers

In her multifaceted career, the Roxbury artist depicts challenges confronted and conquered.

Boston, MA - 12/5/2016 - Artist Ekua Holmes posed for a portrait in her studio in the Piano Factory in Boston, MA on December 5, 2016. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff) Topic: Reporter:

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Artist Ekua Holmes in her Boston studio.

When Ekua Holmes submitted illustrations for what would become her first children’s book, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, the Roxbury painter and collage artist had a moment of deep self-doubt.

“I was like, ‘I hope they won’t decide not to publish it,’ ” says Holmes, who created the 2015 Google Doodle to honor Martin Luther King Day. “You can lose your perspective when you’re so in the work.”

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Scratch that: You can lose a lot of perspective.

Voice of Freedom, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, went on to win a raft of accolades in 2016, including a Caldecott Honor, a Robert F. Sibert Honor, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Honor.

And while the 61-year-old Holmes continues to exhibit her personal work — most recently at “Black History Matters 365,” a group show that runs through January 27 at the Nesto Gallery at Milton Academy — her illustrations in Voice of Freedom have transformed her career.

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This March, Candlewick Press, which published Voice of Freedom, will release Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, a poetry anthology that features Holmes’s artwork alongside the writings of Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth. She’s also illustrating two other children’s books: a creation story titled The Stuff of Stars and a picture-book biography of Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan, What Do You Do With a Voice Like That?

Add to that Holmes’s work as assistant director at the Center for Art and Community Partnerships at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and the artist says she’s had to “develop a new muscle for planning.”

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But Holmes, who still lives in the Roxbury neighborhood of her childhood, says her fine art, her commercial illustrations, and her work at MassArt are all of a piece.

“My work has always been about growing up in a Boston community that gave me room and support,” she says. “The stories I’m being offered echo that sentiment: a person being supported as they approach barriers and overcome them.” 

Malcolm Gay is a Globe staff writer. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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