September 2014
Homeplace & Community

Artist of Note

Bonnie Holland has received national and international acclaim as a botanical artist. Now, she is creating art using embroidery thread.  

Pike County’s Bonnie Holland is overcoming obstacles with forward thinking.

For more than a decade, Pike County artist Bonnie Holland was on the fast track.

Everything she touched seemed to come up roses.

Holland had received national and international recognition for her botanical art and had penned two award-winning cookbooks. She had written her memoirs and she had more ideas taking root in the creative recesses of her mind.

Then, about 3 years ago, life threw her a curve. She was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, a condition that affects some polio survivors years after recovery from an initial acute attack of polio.

"I knew it could happen," Holland said, with a smile. "The Salk vaccine came a year too late for me. I contracted polio when I was 9 years old and will probably be among the last generation that will be affected by post-polio syndrome."

As a child, Holland suffered paralysis on the right side of her body and, with years of "therapy and tender, loving care," she was able to walk again by age 15.

"By the time I reached young adulthood, unless someone knew I’d had polio, they couldn’t tell," she said. "I was blessed. I still am."

Holland said, with post-polio syndrome, there is a gradual weakening in the muscles that were previously affected by polio.

  Post-polio syndrome has challenged Bonnie Holland, nationally acclaimed botanical artist, to find an alternative way to make art. Although she spends most of her day in a wheelchair due to the weakening of the muscles, her fingers are not affected. She is creating note cards with embroidery thread as the medium.

"It came on slowly. For a while, the effects were mild. Then, I got where I just couldn’t stand for long periods of time," Holland said. "But my muscles continued to weaken until I was in a wheelchair most of the time. Now, just about all of the time."

Holland said, at first, the muscles affected by post-polio syndrome tighten and will not relax.

"Then they atrophy and nothing can be done about it," she said. "That’s why I’m in the wheelchair – to protect what I have left. Now, the muscles in my throat are affected, making it harder to speak. But I have way too much to be thankful for to let this get me down. I won’t let it."

Holland faced the onset of post-polio syndrome the same way she faced polio as a child, with optimism and the determination "to just keep going and see it through."

But, as the effects of post-polio syndrome became more taxing, Holland found her botanical artwork more demanding than she had thought it would be.

"Botanical artwork takes a lot of organization," she said. "There’s so much in the way of inventory. There are files and files of pressed flowers and there is a lot of activity involved in the artwork. It is very demanding and I was finding it more difficult."

Holland found herself in an uncharacteristic frame of mind.

"I was getting outdone with myself," she said. "I didn’t feel like I was being productive. I wasn’t being productive. That was not the way I had lived my life and that was not the way I wanted to live my life."

Holland had never been one to "follow the leader." She had always been forward thinking. She was not in her comfort zone.

"Then one morning, I was sitting in my wheelchair and reached over and picked up a blank note card and some embroidery thread that was on the work desk," she said. "I realized that God was sending me a message like he had done so many times in my life. I began to imagine what I could do with note cards and embroidery thread. That was another beginning."

Holland’s extremely successful career as a botanical artist began with note cards decorated with pressed flowers. From those cards grew a flourishing botanical art business featuring framed artwork created from funeral and wedding flowers.

She got God’s message - "Do what you can with what you have."

"Even though my muscles were being affected, there was something I could do," Holland said. "I just had to decide what it was."

Holland began to envision note cards, not with pressed flowers but with colorful, intricate, geometric designs made from DMC embroidery thread.

"I start with a simple geometric shape," she said. "Then, I start drawing lines and expand the design and see how it develops."

She then takes a needle and punches holes along the pattern lines. She threads the needle and connects the "dots" with an array of colorful threads.

"I have boxes and boxes of embroidery thread so I never run out of colors, and ideas for the designs keep coming," she said. "I’m working on an idea to mimic hummingbirds. But right now, I’m doing cards for Christmas with red, white and green thread and I’m inspired by them. To me, they are so beautiful."

The designs range from simple to very complex. But no matter which, the embroidered note cards are works of art.

"It’s such a blessing that I can do this," Holland said. "Even with the adverse effects of post-polio syndrome, I can continue making art because my fingers are not affected. I can design and make cards throughout the day. It gives me something productive to do. And, if I can’t sleep at night, I can get up and work because everything I need is right at hand."

Holland continues to do botanical artwork, but on a limited basis. Her husband Gene assists her with the mobility challenges inherent in pressing flowers and designing compositions.

But embroidered note cards, she can do in the rush of the day or the quiet of the night.

"Nobody else is doing this," Holland said. "Folk artists make art out of whatever is available to them. That’s what I’m doing now. I guess I’m a folk artist in the truest sense of the word."

Holland’s artwork is available at her home studio on Highway 29 midway between Troy and Luverne. For appointments, call 334-566-5700.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.