Past and present come together in Ekua Holmes’ work

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Artist Ekua (pronounced A-kwa) Holmes has had a very busy year. Currently a solo exhibit of her work as a children’s book illustrator is on view at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, along with a garden installation on the East Lawn of the renowned museum. As a continuation of an initiative spearheaded by Holmes called the Roxbury Sunflower Project, the artist planted hundreds of sunflowers in an area that tends to present a rather gray, sterile face to the Huntington Street entrance.

During 2020, Holmes completed work on her latest illustration project, a book titled “Saving American Beach” (2021) by Heidi Tyline King. The artist has been honored twice (2018 and 2019) with the prestigious Coretta Scott King Book Award for her illustrations. With all of these projects going on, Holmes has still found time to keep up with her work as commissioner and vice chair of the Boston Art Commission, which oversees the placement and maintenance of public works of art on and in properties of the city of Boston, and as associate director at the Center for Art and Community Partnerships at MassArt.

Despite this hectic schedule, the self-described workaholic also managed to carve out time to execute a new series of multimedia works for a show at Oak Bluffs’ Cousen Rose Gallery, which will be introduced with a reception on Saturday, August 14, from 7 to 9 pm.

Holmes works in collage, creating beautiful, vibrant images with handpainted cut and torn paper, as well as occasional “found paper” objects like bits of text from books, tickets, and coupons. Although the artist generally finds inspiration in the people and places in her home community of Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston, more recently she has started focusing on beach scenes. These images are playful, joyful, and wonderfully rich in detail and texture. Holmes’ multimedia creations from the current series evoke the celebratory feeling of summer on the Vineyard where, for many of us, the sense of freedom and boundless possibilities harkens back to our childhood summers spent at the seashore.

“I just love it here,” says Holmes. “It’s beautiful and peaceful, and there’s a place for every part of you — the beach, the woods, the social aspect of the towns. I feel like every part of me has a place to express itself on the Vineyard.”

Holmes has dedicated the new series of collages to, in her words, “all the folks who made beaches available to the African American community before beaches were accessible to all.” In doing research for her most recent illustration job, the artist took a deep dive into the subject — an African American opera singer and environmentalist named MaVynee Betsch and her dedication to a beach for Black bathers in Jacksonville, Fla. American Beach was purchased by Betsch’s millionaire grandfather in 1935 to provide a haven for Blacks during the Jim Crow era, when many beaches were off-limits to all but whites. It’s a fascinating story of a powerful Black woman activist.

“During my research for that book I discovered that many Black beaches had been established so that there could be freedom of expression, freedom of movement,” says Holmes. “These beaches provided a paradise for Blacks in this country.” Referring to the history of the Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs, the artist says, “It’s a story of African Americans making a place for themselves and their children to have freedom of social expression for one another.”

Community and inclusivity have long been areas of focus for Holmes. In her work for MassArt, she helped to establish, and continues to manage and coordinate, an initiative called sparc! the ArtMobile, a moving, intergenerational art education space. “We create art and design experiences for people who might not otherwise have access to these things,” explains Holmes. “We are grassroots and street-level. We want to be in spaces where people don’t expect us.”

Book illustration is another area that Holmes sees as providing a way to introduce people to art. She had only begun to work as an artist when she was first approached by a book editor with an invitation to illustrate a children’s book. “I always tell people that my first art gallery was in the pages of my books,” says the artist. “I fell in love with the idea that children of today might be looking at a book that I’ve illustrated and get interested in art that way. It’s like speaking to the future.”

A solo show of Ekua Holmes’ mixed-media work will be on exhibit at the Cousen Rose Gallery starting on Saturday, August 14. The artist will be on hand at the Saturday opening from 5 to 7 pm, signing copies of her latest book, “Saving American Beach: The Biography of African American Environmentalist MaVynee Betsch.”