Veteran Painter Frank Baker Holmes Discusses His Prix de Rome and Life as an Artist
“I think the idea that art is everywhere isn’t true. Art is made. Beauty is everywhere.”
— Frank Holmes
I met Frank Holmes when I was an art student at Ohio University. He’d gotten his Bachelor’s at Pratt Institute and just finished seven years of teaching when he came to Athens to work on his Master’s degree. I remember the stir it created because somehow the word got around that he was an incredible painter and I made it an aim to get into one of his classes. At some point we saw his work, either in a show there in Siegfried Hall, or perhaps a visit to his home, and I was pretty much floored. His paintings of interiors were so intricate and detailed, and showed a complete mastery of the medium. They were also totally at odds stylistically with the abstract expressionism that was so in vogue.
During his time there while getting his degree he won the Prix de Rome, an elite prize in which only a few hand-picked artists receive the opportunity to spend an all-expenses-paid stint making art in Italy, studio space included, at The American Academy in Rome.
American Academy in Rome is a 120-year-old operation modeled after the French Academy. It was at one time independently funded with a three-year free ride. Now it’s more all-inclusive for fewer years. Holmes had a friend at Pratt who won the grant in 1962 when it was still for three years. When Holmes won, it was down to two — still a fabulous grant, two years with no obligation other than to do your work.
Upon returning from Europe Holmes went to New York where he had lived before his years at Ohio. I had a couple artist friends who were O.U. grads and one of them told me he had seen Frank while in New York. I asked for a report on how he was doing and I was told he was painting a piano, that he had a loft and had spent a whole year doing studies on this grand object. That was the last I heard.
Four decades later I began wondering whatever became of this incredibly talented painter who had won a Prix de Rome then went to make his mark in the Big Apple. A few minutes on Google directed me to a gallery that represented him and I made inquiry. I got lucky. Here are some notes from our first dialogue, with many valuable lessons about life as an artist.
EN: Can you briefly summarize your career since I last saw you, when you won the Prix de Rome?
Frank Holmes: That’s a big order, Ed, almost 45 years have passed! What I can say is that life has been, more or less, very good. I’ve been blessed to be able to do what I wanted, which was, and is, to paint. Winning the Rome Prize was a high point, for sure, and I cherish my many memories of it, including the day I got word I’d won — March 19, 1973. I was ecstatic. I had long had the Prix de Rome on my mind and finally felt my work had a chance. It all seems like a dream when I think of it now. I was teaching as a one-year guest member of the faculty at O.U. and had applied to the Academy with very high hopes. When I won, I was especially happy to be heading to Rome with my Masters, rather than job-hunting with it.
My career has changed a lot in the last 25 years. I work on a commission basis pretty much only now. I had different galleries through the years and have sold most everything I showed. I didn’t, however, save any money. My last gallery, a high-end Japanese gallery in New York, was forced to close in the early nineties when the Japanese economy collapsed. I had a contract with them. They paid me a stipend, which kept me alive and was great, but they owned outright everything I painted. When my last show with them closed, I had no paintings and, basically, no money. Lucky for me there were still people who wanted my work. They found me, I’m happy to say, and even though I had to tell them I didn’t have anything available, I explained that I would do something specially for them if they wanted — enter commissions.
It was an approach that worked. The interested party and I would discuss what of my work they’d been attracted to and I would propose to do a sort of “relative” of whatever it was for them — something similar but different. I’d make a sketch for their approval, we’d discuss size and cost and other particulars, sign an agreement, and I was off and running.
There were variations to this theme, of course, but it worked. This is how I’ve functioned for years — and I’m grateful. The problem is, as before, when the painting is gone, the money is gone. This means I can’t cover the time it would take to produce enough work for another show. If there are commissions, all is well. If not, I don’t know. That’s where I am now. I’m just finishing a commission of a highly decorated Egyptian sarcophagus. The client is very happy with it, which I’m glad of, but I’ve always had a commission waiting in the wings. For the first time I don’t.
EN: What were some of the emotions you felt as a painter in Italy?
Frank Holmes: Italy was overwhelming, for sure. There’s fabulous art and architecture and history everywhere you look. I’d been there once a couple years before, and had been introduced to the highlights — Florence, Venice, Rome, Naples, etc. — so I had some idea. The American Academy was a world unto itself. Being there with the many other prize winners — composers, architects, classicists, art historians, etc. — made it a completely unique experience. Some of them remain my dearest friends. The Academy building is a wonderful place. It was a big, beautiful dormitory. We were all taken care of and, for the most part, all of us flourished. Some wanted to integrate with Italian culture and some just wanted to do their work. I was one of those. I integrated well enough to fall in love with Italy, that’s for sure. It was a pleasure from beginning to end.
When I arrived at the Academy, my studio was being painted and refurbished so I had to wait a couple weeks before I could get to work. This down time allowed me to take an in-depth look at Rome, which I did, on foot mainly. It was a great introduction to the many, many marvels that are everywhere. I soaked them in. If I’d been able to get right into my studio I would have missed this wonderful experience. The extra time also allowed me to focus on what my goals were and what I hoped to accomplish during my time at the Academy.
I suspect that most art students draw inspiration from all their teachers. I certainly did. There was something in Frank Holmes’ manner that especially resonated with me back then, and it is with special pleasure that I share more of his work and story with you today.
EN: You were coming of age as a painter during the time of Warhol, Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein. What attracted you to realistic interiors?
Frank Holmes: Yes, that was my time — or some of it — and I did care about them, and many other contemporary painters of different stripes. As regards realistic interiors, the boss in those days was John Koch. He was a fabulous painter. I was a giant fan of his. Ben Kamihira was another favorite and an influence. My friend Ron Schwerin, who had won the Prix de Rome, was, too. They were all excellent interiorists. And from a little earlier, Vuillard and Bonnard — not realists, but wonderful; I cared deeply for them. Also, Ingres — not an interiorist, but my hero for a long time.
EN: What is 3-point perspective? How does it differ from painting a cityscape?
Frank Holmes: There is probably a technical definition of 3-point perspective, but I’m not sure what it is. To me it’s perspective that includes convergence of verticals and horizontals — not just horizontals, as with 2-point perspective in which all verticals remain parallel with the side of the painting. In my 3-point paintings, the viewer is always above the depicted event and all vertical lines converge downward and meet at a point below the painting. I don’t paint cityscapes so it’s hard for me to say how what I do is different. It seems if you’re painting a cityscape you may or may not want any convergence. If you do want it and you’re standing on the ground, the lines that describe the buildings will converge above — if you’re flying overhead, they’ll converge below.
In 1969 I did a painting of a couple sitting on a sofa in a sort of living room-like space. It was a busy image, lots going on. I slanted all the verticals just slightly toward what would have been a third vanishing point. About the same time I came across a little book titled Modernized Pictorial Perspective by T. Heaton Cooper. In it was a section he called SKEW-VIEWS. My studio at the time was a former bedroom and had just enough space to plot the right and left vanishing points but not the low point which was several feet below the painting. I solved the problem by rotating the canvas on my wall easel and locating the low point. Whenever I needed to use it I turned the painting 90 degrees, drew the lines or whatever and then turned it back. It wasn’t a perfect setup, obviously, but it worked. All three points were marked with nails in the wall. To each thread was tied. You can get the idea.
Later on, in early 1973 when I began “Dusk Call” (above) I devised a way to draw lines accurately to the third point without rotating the canvas. I made sort of a T-square that I could slide back and forth above the painting, always aiming at the third vanishing point. It, and the surface it would slide on, would both be part of a circle whose center was the third vanishing point. I did a scale drawing that showed exactly how far away and where that point would be. It was about 21 feet below the top of the painting. A lightweight chain served as a compass which, when extended the correct distance, enabled me to draw a curved line on a ten-inch wide board a little longer than the width of the painting. I then sawed the board in two along the line. I attached half to the painting’s top and made what would be the T-square from the other half. When I’d attached a long straight edge to it and made sure it would stay securely on track above its mate, it would slide back and forth and always aim exactly at the lower — 15-feet away — third vanishing point. Yes!
EN: Plenty of people conceive an exceptional idea. Fewer have the skill to pull it off. Can you talk about your painting unofficially titled The Sarcophagus?
Frank Holmes: The person who commissioned the painting has been a friend and patron of mine for over 35 years and has bought several of my paintings. He is a knowledgeable amateur Egyptologist as well as an art lover. He was fascinated that I once had drastically changed a finished painting (that I had exhibited and that had been published) by painting a new image over a major part of it.
He and I had often discussed the idea of my doing a painting of an Egyptian sarcophagus for him. Doing such a painting had been on my mind for a long time anyway. This, plus his aforementioned fascination, is what led to the idea of encasing a portrait of him within a highly decorated sarcophagus.
EN: So essentially, you painted a portrait of him wrapped like a mummy, then did the actual painting over this.
Frank Holmes: His portrait, and body wrapped Egyptian-style, was painted on the canvas first and the sarcophagus painted over it. He sat for me, but I also made a photo. I used photos of a sarcophagus in the Brooklyn Museum as reference. The rug it lies on and the room it’s in are fiction. The strip of hieroglyphs that runs down the sarcophagus’s center lists his name and profession, his wife’s name, and his children’s names.
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Details about the paintings on his page
Top: “Rudy” — Acrylic on canvas. 67"x 58" 1979
Middle: “Dusk Call” — The enhanced immediacy of 3-point perspective.
Below: “August” — 66"x 58", Oil on canvas, 1979
Very bottom: “The Bath”— Oil and acrylic on canvas. 46.5"x72.5" 1970–72