Mid-October in Dallas and it’s still hot as hell. This time of year, one’s mind is on pumpkins, the change of leaves and the State Fair. On this day, we’ll have to settle for one out of three. Holly Lindem, 45, single, mother of five cats, slight of build with red hair loosely parted to the side, has invited her guest to join her for an afternoon at the Texas State Fair, a few miles from downtown. This being Texas, even the fair’s famous mascot, Big Tex, is even bigger than big, a mechanized five-story cowboy which looms over the entry-way to the fair’s midway, equipped with a surveillance camera and a human’s voice: “Howdy thar, young lady in the black shirt and feller there in the green cap. Welcome to the Texas State Fair.” Er, thanks Tex, now mind your own damn business.
There are few visitors at Two O’clock in the afternoon, so mostly Tex just stands there, arms akimbo, mouth agape, silent, paint peeling in the sun, praying for sunset. I didn’t know it yet, but it is places like this—animated yet deserted tourist attractions with rickety old rides and creepy side-shows—that make Holly Lindem tick. Places where the “normal” collides with the oddball, the freakish, the sad and the hilarious. Later that night, when the EZ Bake heat lamp dips below the western horizon, you just knew this place would be different—full of chattering families, shrieking kids, blinking lights, bells, bangs, sirens and cotton candy-fired energy. But now, it just sits there, like an Iguana, occasionally blinking its eyes and licking its lips, trying to make it through another scorcher.
“I love the State Fair,” says Holly, offering me a mustard drenched Fletcher’s Corny Dog, her favorite fair food. “It’s the kind of place where everyone comes with his or her own version of the same reality. It’s everything you remembered it to be…and nothing like it ever was.”
STRIP MALL BLISS
Later that afternoon, we pull up in front of the Lakewood Center, a strip shopping center built some time between 1950 and 1960 (they’re all alike) in the town of Pantego, Texas, a small municipality surrounded by Arlington, a sprawling suburb surrounded by Dallas, a megalopolis. “Welcome to Pantego, Texas,” offers Holly cheerfully, “where the water tastes like chalk and salt.”
There are no cars in the parking lot, save hers and one other, probably the podiatrist’s next door, Dr. Traska. Holly has leased two store fronts here, next door to a scuba shop and Dr. Traska, who chain smokes in the alley behind her studio. Holly frosted the plate glass windows to discourage passersby from disturbing her peace. Her landlady, by Holly’s report, is a root’n, toot’n Texas cowgirl named Wanda whose big white pick-up sports a barbed-wire pinstripe motif along its side.
For years Holly shared three different studios with long-time friends and fellow photographers Fredrik Broden and Brent Humphreys. As all three artists grew busier, they found themselves tripping over one another in search of workspace and privacy. To preserve sanity and friendships, in March 2003, Holly decided to take space at the Lakewood Center.
She has built a well-appointed and spacious studio, with plenty of room to work and think. There is a “thinking room,” populated, anachronistically, with the entire contents of her mother’s deceased-stepmother Freda’s 1930’s living and dining rooms with laden bookshelves and a scattering of Holly’s creations. Adjacent, in a small, bright office, she keeps the computers, files and records. Behind that is a large area that includes a kitchen and workshop where table saws and other large tools are kept in good working order. Still deeper into the space, a storage area opens to a back alley where Holly surreptitiously sprays paint and spray adhesive when Dr. Traska is not back there smoking cigarettes.
Lindem’s Lakewood Center studio has brought on a new surge in productivity and creativity, she suggests. “First of all, I’m not wasting time driving all around the city. Second, I have lots of storage room here so I’m not wasting time lugging supplies in and out of my home, car and studio. Third, I have lots of room to build and make a mess, so I’m not wasting time cleaning up at every step nor am I having to build my models on my dining room table then drag them into the studio to photograph.” Except for the odd shopper barging in to see if she’s got anything to sell, Lindem’s two-store-front studio inside an aging strip mall is—in her mind—almost Heaven.
CALL IT GENETIC
Holly Lindem the artist cannot be explained without describing the deep and vital relationship she enjoys with her 70-some---thing (working!) mother, Gene Burkhardt, with whom she shares both home and credit.
Lindem’s description of her life is both iconoclastic and non-nuclear. Yet she stresses that her early years, as well as the rest of her life, have been filled with laughter. Her parents divorced when she was eleven, and her mom moved her to Dallas to be with her second husband, fun-loving Bob Burkhardt. Her parents and her stepfather were positive role models. As the youngest of three, her siblings left home for school when she was still quite young, she found herself alone a lot—and grew to like it. Advanced for her years, she easily made friends with her parent’s friends, whom she always called by their first names.
She also learned early to make her own decisions: in seventh grade she decided to take machine and wood shop class, even though she was the only girl. Boys laughed until she made drink coasters and a forged steel chisel better than they did.
“Growing up in Enid [Oklahoma] there wasn’t a whole lot to do,” she continues, “so I had a lot of time on my hands. Gene [she often refers to her mother by her first name] often dropped my older sister, Suzy, and me off at the theater and told us to watch whatever movie was playing twice, then to call her from the ticket booth to have her come to pick us up. The Chief and The Esquire theaters were cheap babysitters.
“My mother also had a lot of interests and hobbies, and, one way or another, they seemed to impact my life,” she adds. “She took a shop class and so she took me to the lumber yard to look for good wood scraps. She took a ceramics class and then taught me about a kiln and poured-form ceramics. When she sewed until all hours of the night, I had to get up early and make breakfast for myself, Grapenuts with tons of sugar and half & half. On my way to school, I’d cut through the neighbor’s backyard to get to Ruth and Don Okerlund’s house for a cup of coffee. I’d just sit there a few minutes, not saying much, before heading off to school.”
Although separated from her father, Jim Lindem, Holly insists that he also played a vital role in shaping her interest in visual arts. A graduate of the University of Minnesota/Minneapolis, he held a degree in commercial art, advertising and journalism. “He always had an oil painting he was working on in the garage and he always encouraged my interests in the visual arts. I will never underestimate the contribution he has made to my life.
“Sometimes I’d be lying on the sofa staring at the ceiling listening to music. Gene or Bob [her stepfather] would see this and say, ‘If you don’t have anything to do, I’ll give you something to do.’ But I’d say to them, ‘but I am doing something, I’m thinking.’”
“Now she’s making a living doing it,” adds her mother. “And I was always trying to encourage her to learn some marketable skill like typing. I’m glad she had the good sense to ignore me.”
After two years at the University of Texas/Arlington, Holly decided to go to the prestigious Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. “Overpriced and I hated it” she says. “They spent one year trying to squelch my creativity and all I got out of it was a big bill. For the next two or three years, I stayed in the area, working as a photography assistant to my friends and doing odd jobs. I got lots of hands-on experience, which, in effect, was my education.”
She returned to Dallas in 1985 and spent the next five years assisting, building her book and paying off her Brooks bill. Los Angeles drew her back in 1991. There, her career as a commercial photographer blossomed, with work for magazines such as Town & Country and various music giants including Virgin, Warner Bros. and A&M.
“The hardest part is finding the ‘idea,’” she says, referring to the visual metaphor that she conceives, then sketches, then attempts to sell to her client. “But the greatest amount of work goes into actually assembling the materials then constructing the models. It is very labor intensive, and there never, ever seems to be enough time to get it done.”
Her growing computer skills help too, enabling her to hide minor blemishes that occur when building one-of-a-kind models, sets, props and sculptures. She does all the work herself. “Well, not all of it,” she confesses, “I hire my mom to find materials for props and, sometimes, to help build or paint them.”
Given that her work generally features a “big idea,” the question begs itself: what if you come up with something really good and the client doesn’t get it or doesn’t buy it? “It’s hard to be original,” she admits, “I mean don’t ask me to come up with another way of communicating the ‘speed of e-commerce.’ But generally, I think my first ideas—my first instincts—are my best and I can sell them. Since most clients come to me through my agent, Renée Rhyner, they have a good idea of what I am about. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work out. Those are the moments when I say to myself, ‘Why did they call me in the first place?’—but I have to be diplomatic.”
It is Lindem’s execution of the props and image that make them effective, whether the original ideas are hers or not.
An idea of hers for Popular Science was for a story about crops grown for medicines. It was made using the expired prescription meds from her family and friends. It is her keen sense of the absurd and eye for materials and composition that put her ideas to flight. Moreover, her visual vocabulary is restrained and often ironic, but never malicious. Her effectiveness in conveying complex ideas lies in her simplicity and directness and her juxtaposition of the familiar and the surprising. Their marvel rests in their hand-made, hand-lettered, hand-painted tangibility. For example, the “Kiss,” about health and marriage, “Tomato,” about genetically-engineered foods, and “Glass Beakers,” about the unholy alliance between Houston’s medical community and its oil companies, exhibit these characteristics. It is a multi-disciplined, multi-layered art form; it is painstaking, detailed work—and it shows.
ECLECTIC AND BOLD
“It would be boring to be just a photographer,” she said once during the course of our visit. So, through the power of her own imagination, she decided to become more than “just” a photographer. Thinking it made it so.
Imagine that. ca