The sunflowers came later — much later, Ekua Holmes said, sitting way up high in the third-floor studio of her Roxbury Victorian. But they’d always been there for her, somewhere in the background, until she could see them clearly — their resilience and persistence, the way they huddle together like family, the way they lift as they climb.
“They really are the most human flower,” she said, perched on a stool amid tabletops filled with snips of paper and color, paint and ink. “Did you know that, if there’s a field of sunflowers and somebody comes along and plants 20 more, the plants will adjust so that every sunflower gets what it needs? When I learned that, I saw in them a representation of myself and my community.”
On the east lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts this summer, a stand of them now quiver in the midsummer breeze, clustered together, strength in numbers. Holmes put them there in May, a prelude to “Paper Stories, Layered Dreams: The Art of Ekua Holmes,” the first survey of her much-acclaimed work as an illustrator of children’s books. But the Roxbury Sunflower Project — the proper name for an ongoing effort that grew out of her neighborhood and a lifetime of community there — might be the most important piece of her inaugural museum turn. The sunflowers declare the strength of a community historically ignored and left aside by most of the city’s cultural elite, making their vibrant, mutual reliance, huddled up against the building’s indifferent stone, powerful indeed.
Softening the museum’s neoclassical façade isn’t left only to Holmes. The sunflowers pair with Elizabeth James-Perry’s “Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden,” which surrounds Cyrus Dallin’s “Appeal to the Great Spirit” with a stand of native corn. Together, the two works make up “A Garden for Boston,” and what one hopes is the a promise of new life at an institution historically inclined to tend a very different kind of garden: one rooted in European sensibilities and the mass movements they spawned, with little interest in what might be growing in the blocks and miles that surround it.
“I live — I have always lived — a half a mile away from there,” Holmes said. “Museums have always tended to leapfrog someone right in their environment. Maybe there’s a shift. I guess we’ll see. But the responses that I’m getting from people help me to know that the stories I’m telling belong to a lot of us.”
Those stories, of course, are the reason we’re here, and Holmes has told plenty. Her work — sometimes straight illustration, but most often powerful, multi-layered mixed-media collage, evocative of the complexity beneath the simple stories they represent — embodies the gamut of dignity and justice often denied to Black Americans but nonetheless achieved through determination and positive acts of will. More than 40 pieces from six books (one to be published in September) make up “Paper Stories, Layered Dreams,” among them “Saving American Beach” (2021), by the author Heidi Tyline King, which tells the story of the Florida-born singer and environmentalist MaVynee Betsch, whose tireless activism saved a historic Black-owned beach from being swallowed by development interests. Another, Kwame Alexander’s “Out of Wonder,” pairs her exuberant collages with 20 original poems meant to inspire children.
I don’t know that there’s a better message for children growing up in this fractious time: that self-worth is for you to define, not anyone else. Holmes’s work is exuberant, buoyant, ebullient, but with the weight of material presence and hand-wrought detail that gives her subjects gravity and grace. The stories she helps tell resonate with her own experience growing up in Roxbury, where her roots run deep. (“I grew up over there,” she said, waving toward a big bay window and the rising heat of the day outside. “I went to school over there. I can touch every house on this street, one by one, and tell you a story about it.”)
Holmes lived through Boston at its worst, with racial tensions at their peak and segregation an active, unofficial practice for much of the city. After earning a degree at MassArt, where she runs a public art program, she worked in graphic design for a time. (She laughed as she recalled starting her degree in illustration, but switching to photography because it “wasn’t a good fit.”) But living in a city where Black visual culture couldn’t get a toehold frustrated her.
In 1983, she opened a gallery on Columbus Avenue in the big back room of painter Leon Brathwaite’s framing shop. Over a long career, Brathwaite, who died in 2005, endured the kind of discrimination that moved Holmes to open her gallery in the first place. A maker of abstract watercolors, he was routinely turned down by the Newbury Street gallery scene because “they just weren’t interested in works by Black artists, period,” Holmes said. They were, however, interested in his perfectly crafted frames, and his business was born.
Brathwaite went on to be an in-demand framer, for years making museum-level work for places like the MFA. Out back of his shop, Holmes was building a small empire of cultural community. “The main thing was, here are voices that have not been heard, here are stories that have not been told,” she said. “How can we get them out there?”
In the 1990s, the gallery moved to a fourth-floor walk-up on Newbury Street under the name Renaissance Art and Design. Over time, she showed a who’s who of Black artists: Fern Cunningham-Terry, Hakim Raquib, Allan Crite, Milton Derr, Paul Goodnight, and Khalid Kodi. But she was content to stand in the background, running the show and making her small collage works on the side.
At one point, Holmes had a show devoted to Black women artists set to open. Suddenly, one of the artists dropped out, leaving a blank wall to fill. Desperate, Holmes hastily framed a handful of her collage pieces in oversize frames. “And every one of them sold,” she remembered with a smile.
From there, Holmes built a following and a devoted client base. Book illustration wasn’t even a thought. Then, during a show at J.P. Licks in Jamaica Plain in 2012, an editor from Somerville’s Candlewick Press approached her. “When she reached out to me and told me ‘children’s literature,’ I didn’t really know what to say, but I told her I’d consider it,” Holmes said.
Time passed, and Holmes moved on. But then the editor got back in touch with a project: an illustrated biography of the great civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who Holmes long admired. “I just thought, ‘Well, she’s not offering me a book about a duck,’” Holmes said with a laugh. “She’s offering me a project about this substantial, head-and-shoulders-above-the-crowd, powerful woman from the south. And I knew: This is for me.” The book, “Voice of Freedom” by Carole Boston Weatherford, won a Caldecott Honor in 2016.
Hamer, it so happened, lived as a child in Sunflower County, Miss. And so an idea took root. “Sunflowers are survivors,” Holmes said. “But not only are they survivors. ... they give you this great beautiful halo, full of seeds.” Seeds, so that new things may grow.
PAPER STORIES, LAYERED DREAMS: THE ART OF EKUA HOLMES
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave, through Jan. 23. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org