The sidewalk outside Lana Holman’s Bay View home is full of stories.
In the last year, the concrete squares have been Holman’s canvas for more than 80 chalk portraits of notable figures, both historical and living.
The art, along with short accompanying biographies posted to social media, have provided windows into the lives of everyone from Milwaukee Bucks stars to jazz musicians to victims of police violence.
Telling those stories sometimes means shining light on obstacles people faced on their way up, or giving recognition to little-known pioneers.
Last summer, spurred by the racial justice movement and the murder of George Floyd, Holman focused on drawing people of color. Her current series is on famous Milwaukeeans.
As her work gains prominence, Holman hopes the art offers onlookers a new, more nuanced view of the world.
“Instead of getting people angry, I have tried to really highlight the lives and the accomplishments that they have given to us in the world,” Holman said. “Often people just see things (as) so simple.”
‘I really want to be proactive’
Floyd was Holman’s first chalk portrait.
She recalls watching protesters march past her home last summer and wanting to contribute to the conversation about racial justice in a positive way. As a white woman, a busy mother of eight and an artist, she thought her voice could be best expressed on her Oklahoma Avenue sidewalk.
“It really upset me. And I was like, I just don’t want to sit and argue on Facebook, I really want to be proactive,” she said.
As her husband, Elias Holman, remembers it, the decision to draw Floyd was a spontaneous one.
“It was really just a, ‘I want to create something in the community. I’m just going to walk out to the sidewalk in front of our house and I’m just going to see how this goes,’” he said.
It took some time to figure out how to draw on a surface that wasn’t a canvas but instead a “gravelly, coarse” sidewalk, Lana Holman said.
The trial and error process was aided by special blending sponges and YouTube tutorials. Holman’s distinctive, abstract style transferred well, and the portraits started gaining recognition.
People walking past her house began striking up conversations, asking Holman about her project and where they could find more of her work.
With the pandemic canceling most events last summer, the art provided a sense of community as people took daily neighborhood walks, Elias Holman said.
“The response was so overwhelmingly positive, and it ended up taking on a life of its own because people expected there to be new art out all the time,” he said.
Lana Holman eventually had to put a sign outside directing people to her social media accounts, where they would find a more permanent record of the temporary works of art alongside biographies her husband started researching and writing.
Temporary, because rain usually washes away each portrait within days.
The rain is both Holman’s enemy and her friend. Sometimes it’ll ruin a half-finished portrait and she’ll have to start all over again. But there’s also a beauty in making something meant to be short-lived.
“I really love that I get a fresh canvas,” Holman said.
On average, Holman will complete three to four portraits a week. If it’s not raining, she tries to draw outside every day.
Holman enjoys learning, sharing life stories of others
Holman doesn’t have a shortage of people to draw. Neighbors and friends are always offering suggestions, and she and her husband have found they love digging into history and learning more about the world around them.
“You start to see history as this big tapestry with these stripes that you keep filling in as you see different things going on in the world,” Elias Holman said.
Take Holman’s recent portrait of Beulah Brinton, a historical figure after whom a Bay View community center is named.
The Holmans were familiar with her name but not her story. In researching, they learned she taught English and sewing to the wives of immigrant steelworkers in the late 1800s and opened the neighborhood’s first public library from her home.
“It’s nice to go to Lana and say… here are the names, I know a few facts about them, but let’s actually learn some more about them and fill in the gaps,” Elias said.
Now, the Holmans are brimming with biographical details about trailblazers in various fields. Some are people they feel never got the credit they deserved, or whose life stories reveal systemic injustices.
There is Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells in the 1950s were the source of an important cell line medical researchers still use today. The cells were taken without Lacks’ consent, and she was not compensated for her contribution to medicine.
And there is Della Wells, a renowned folk artist who had a difficult upbringing in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood. After many years working in county government, Wells became an artist in her 40s. Her work is displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, among other places.
And for a series on famous Black musicians, the Holmans profiled jazz legend Cab Calloway. Along with chronicling his stardom, they included a story about the racism he faced.
“Despite being one of the most famous performers in the world in 1945, Calloway and a friend were beaten by a police officer and arrested in Kansas City, Missouri” for trying to enter a whites-only ballroom to see a show, Elias Holman wrote.
Sometimes, though, Holman’s portraits simply show off her fandom. A lifelong Bucks fan, she has drawn everyone from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Sterling Brown to a retro version of the Bango logo.
Holman’s growing social mediafollowing has meant organizations are inviting Holman to take her drawing to new canvases — cement or otherwise.
In June she was invited to do a live drawing of Brinton for Bay View Community Day outside the Cactus Club music venue.
And as the Bucks played Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Holman drew broadcaster Zora Stephenson outside the Aloft hotel, where she is also the artist-in-residence.
Becoming a full-time artist is Holman’s ‘second act’
The role at Aloft, and the growing audience for her chalk portraits, are encouraging developments as Holman charts a full-time career as an artist.
Her social media pages are titled: “Act 2 Art by Lana Holman.” Act 2, because Holman sees working as an artist as the “second act” in her career.
Holman worked in the jewelry industry for much of her adulthood after she was “discouraged” from studying or pursuing art as a job, she said.
But she continued to harbor a love of art and painted in her free time, taking classes to learn more about certain styles and holding a few gallery shows.
The chalk portraits proved to be Holman’s big break.
She became Aloft’s artist-in-residence in August, where her watercolors of Bucks players and Milwaukee landscapes are now displayed.
Her husband said it’s been a blessing to watch Holman have the opportunity to us
e her talents.
“I was so happy to see her inspired and wanting to get out there,” Elias Holman said. “Art’s tough.”
Holman has been able to “shake off” many of the sentiments of those who discouraged her from pursuing art as a career, and she’s honed her artistic skills as well, her husband said.
As Holman sees it, the chalk portraits have played double-duty during the pandemic. The work keeps her creativity flowing as well as offers a welcome reprieve from her big family.
“It’s kind of cathartic,” she said.