Art & Design Art & the Artist

The Playful Geometrics of Minimalist Still Life Artist Holly Coulis

By reducing everyday objects to their basic geometric forms, the Toronto-born artist creates still lifes that are simultaneously understated, playful, and challenging

At first sight, artist Holly Coulis’s paintings might look like basic representations of fruits and kitchenalia. But by paring down her subject to lines and blocks of color and flattening it onto canvas, she cleverly produces paintings that are quietly bold, minimalist, and almost naive in their apparent simplicity.

“I love an underdog,” says Coulis, “and the still life is sometimes overlooked in favor of abstraction or paintings of humans. But really, the way I paint does veer into abstraction. There is a geometry in my work, as well as flat space and a type of color reverberation.”

Holly Coulis Table with Still Lifes
Coulis's work, including Table with Still Lifes, has been shown at the Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery in New York. Photography: Fernando Decillis

Now based in the United States in Athens, Georgia, Coulis always starts by mapping her ideas out in a sketchbook, deciding whether, for example, an orange should take center stage or stay in a corner. “How to decide between a peach and a lemon is nebulous, but I do try to find a balance between humor, composition, and what seems new to me,” she says.

I’d like my paintings to have a type of quiet energy—to be places for contemplation and rest.

Coulis entered art school in Ontario in 1991, ignoring the advice of a teacher who urged her to paint, instead opting for sculpture and installation. “My early creations were probably inspired by the work of my peers and were pretty structural and formal, but filled with very important angst!”

Holly Coulis painting
Artist Holly Coulis at work in the Athens, Georgia studio she shares with her husband. Photography: Fernando Decillis

Eventually losing interest in sculpture, Coulis started painting in oils with instruction from her now husband, the artist Ridley Howard.

This was not, however, her first encounter with oils. “My mother went through a period when she was painting in the house and used oil paints… I loved the way they smelled,” she says. “Her works were kind of Surrealist in tone and felt very in tune with the times.” Encouraged to join her, Coulis remembers painting an apple and a worm.

Holly Coulis artwork in progress
Geometric designs and bright-hued oil paints are a hallmark of Coulis's work. Photography: Fernando Decillis

“The worm was outside of the apple, and they were both on a horizon. It looked like they just bumped into each other on the street.”

Today Coulis paints from a studio she shares with her husband in a converted live/work warehouse space, working mostly in silence. Recent works have featured bolder lines around her chosen subject matter, a direction the artist may pursue further.

“There are a few directions I could see this work going in,” she says. “Changing line weight is part of that. Scale, minimalism vs maximalism, and color shifts too. I’d like my paintings to have a type of quiet energy—to be places for contemplation and rest.”