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Holly Farrell recreates vinyl album cover art with "The Album Project" exhibition

'I want people to think about their experiences with this music, the albums I honour in my exhibition. I think the wear I have painted in on each painting elevates the album in a different way'

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Holly Farrell has spent the past two years planning, painting, and perfecting her newest exhibit called “The Album Project,” a collection of paintings of old vinyl album covers.

From Animals by Pink Floyd to Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John, Farrell has beautifully recaptured not only the ranging artistic variances by the artists but also the wear and tear of a vinyl album cover.

“My search for 'things' to paint always lands me in antique barns, malls, stores, the odd discarded curbed item. I connect with things, look them over — I look at the wear, the cracks, the sun faded colours and think about the life and lives these things have had to finally end up in my studio,” says Farrell.

“I have always been drawn to vintage albums — some pristine and treasured by owners, who, like my husband, had all their music organized by the 'I don't know what system,' because sometimes packaging takes precedent, sometimes alphabetized, sometimes what? I can't figure him out. I am not a 'new in box' kind of person. I like to leave signs of me for future owners. So, I have old albums out there with Holly Farrell written on them. I have new books that I make a point of dog-earing the pages where I pause, a silent 'Holly stopped here'. So, I like the wear on album covers. They imply a history of motion, of listening, of turning the cover front to back, back to front while listening. I loved to look at the covers. I loved to lay down on the shag carpet of our Powassan, Ontario home and keep pulling the needle back to play a favourite song over and over.”

The 60-year-old Farrell, who was born in North Bay says living room dance parties were a regular thing growing up.

“Home from school for lunch hour, on my own, I would dance. This was the 70s and having six siblings, and a mother who loved music, I danced to music from the 40s all the way to and through the 70s. I am one of those people who downsized their vinyl collections when CDs came out, but these past years have had me collecting vinyl again. I needed to express all this in paintings.”

She says when people come through her exhibit, she hopes to reignite that nostalgia for those days when vinyl was the only place to hear that song on repeat.

“I want people to think about their experiences with this music, the albums I honour in my exhibition. I think the wear I have painted in on each painting elevates the album in a different way — to something more tangible for each person who stands in front of one that they connect with. It becomes theirs, they see it only in reference to their own past.”

Farrell says in order to put this exhibition together, she needed permission from the artists.

“If I had known how difficult getting permissions was going to be I wonder if I would have continued,” she says.

“The response to my first ‘record’ paintings was encouraging, but almost always the discussion would turn to whether or not I needed permissions to do these paintings.  I see the work as in line with my Still Life, combined with ’the idea’ of Portraiture, so it wasn’t something I had considered. I decided then, back in 2019, that I had to be able to answer this question — put it to rest — so that people could focus on what was really important: the painting, the music, one’s connection with it. I decided that I would only paint records that I had received approvals for. Thus began 'The Album Project'.”

Farrell says after hundreds of emails and phone calls with people across the globe, she was able to connect with musicians, managements, labels, lawyers, estates, cover artists and more to bring all of the work together.

“I have been quietly persistent and genuine in my quest — from a nice conversation with Pink Floyd’s manager (while huddled in my parents' car outside a Tim Hortons!) to sending a FedEx package to Jim Steinman (sadly, I was still in the process of seeking permission for Bat Out Of Hell when he passed away), to getting approval for Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Eagles, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Carole King, and more.”

And getting permission was only a part of the overall process.

Farrell says actually finding albums to recreate was another step, as well as “my husband cutting and prepping my boards, to painting, to framing. An exhibition of 16 to 20 paintings would take me a year,” says Farrell.

“Covid kept me indoors and focused these past two years. I was also trying to cope with my mother’s cancer diagnosis — she succumbed in October of 2020. Painting helped me through it all, it gave me purpose when COVID-19 and my mother’s cancer had me on the verge of falling to pieces. My mother would have loved this show, she loved music, she loved to paint. Painting was the last thing we did together, days before she left us.”

Farrell says it wasn’t painting in particular that she was encouraged to do as a child, but instead, the emphasis was on being creative.

“I liked the doing of whatever activity I set my mind to. I was absolutely focused when it came to colouring, or following Mr. Dressup's crafts, to making sock puppets,” says Farrell.

“I didn’t think so much that I was good at what I did, I just liked doing it. I found every project rewarding.”

She says she was also encouraged and inspired throughout school.

“I have to say, my art teachers throughout public and high school inspired me. Mrs. Lubitz, Mr. Buchan, Mr. Camani, Ms. Warren, seemed to engage me absolutely. It’s what they taught me in those classes from grade seven through 12 that I tried to draw on some 15 to 20 years later. I think that school gives you tools, but experience is the real education.”

Farrell didn’t follow that passion to post-secondary however and says she wanted to settle down with someone and raise a family, but it didn’t end up happening.

“I went to college and earned my certificate to work as a counsellor to children with special needs. After college I worked in a variety of jobs unrelated to my training, before meeting the man I was going to spend my life with,” she says.

 “We moved to Toronto where I began working as a counsellor in a group home. During my time working with children with special developmental and psychological needs, I would 'de-stress' by drawing. Also, during this period my mother and I used to do tole painting together, woodwork — we would paint on anything that wasn’t nailed down. My time with her, which was really wonderfully bonding, was always creative. She too always found ways to bring art into her life. We both loved to paint. After each weekend was over, I would return to Toronto and feel a little lost — no woodworking room, a small apartment — long story short, my husband suggested I try canvas. My job was really stressful at the time, so he supported my decision to leave my job and focus on my art.”

Farrell says she joined her husband in his house painting business and worked together for a few years, but she also started selling her paintings.

“As my paintings started selling, we took fewer jobs, and eventually he left his work to help manage mine,” says Farrell.

Farrell says that’s why she encourages people to just do art if it's something they really love.

“If my paintings stopped selling, I would still paint. Do art because you like it. If I thought only of selling, I would have failed time and time again,” she says.

“I was 30 before I sold anything, and that was to family, and I was 31 before I sold anything to a stranger. I think because I never expected anything, every good that came from making art was especially satisfying.”

Farrell says she has shown her art in gymnasiums, parks, restaurants, and even her own living room.

“I was just happy to show it. I made very little for a long time.”

But it was the advent of the Internet that Farrell attributes to her larger success.  

“My success was built locally. Once I was online, it was still mostly Toronto that supported my work, but slowly, ever so slowly, I snuck south to the U.S. (online), and then a bit farther — the U.K., Japan, Australia. I slowly let go of self-representation and started sending my work to galleries.”

And now her latest work can be seen both online at www.hollyfarrell.com and up until October 16 at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto (www.godardgallery.com).

Farrell did over 30 different pieces and says, for herself, there is no favourite.

“I don’t have a favourite, because when I look at a painting, I see all the favourite parts, all the hard parts, all the easy parts, I just get mixed up in the painting of it all over again. But this leads to the idea of ’the challenge’. Who’s Next, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road were the biggest challenges. I felt more internal pressure for Elton John, as I was in regular contact with Ian Beck, the original cover artist. I really wanted his approval and so I was anxious about showing him the finished painting,” she says.  

Farrell adds she only has one technique for painting and says it is something “I don’t stray from. I am painting in acrylic and oil, many layers, many glazes, to try to make it look like his watercolour, pencil, acrylic, and whatever else he used to make his amazing original.”

Farrell continues, “Who’s next was a challenge just in the details — my actual copy of the record is sun-faded and worn down to the cardboard bone in some areas. Painting the slag they are standing on was time-consuming, more than just about anything I have ever painted. I kept at it until I was satisfied, which was about a week before delivery to the gallery. When I look at it, I’m completely satisfied, because it was just so damn hard to paint!”

Farrell says some of the original designers of the album covers, and some of the artists themselves have looked at “The Album Project.”

“I’ve had encouragement from some of the original designers and cover artists of the records. I was a little nervous about sending images of the finished paintings to these people, but thankfully, they like what I have done! I think painting in all the wear and tear history of each album is an honouring, a tribute to the longevity of this music, and the art that dons the sleeves. I’ve received best wishes for the show from some of the managements,” says Farrell.

To hear more about the individual paintings, you can check out Farrell’s personal Instagram page.

If you have a story idea for the “Rooted” feature series, send Matt an email at m.sookram@outlook.com