Hollis Sigler

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Hollis Sigler
Born March 2, 1948
Gary, Indiana
Died March 29, 2001
Lincolnshire, Illinois
Nationality U.S. citizen
Other names Suzanne Hollis Sigler, Suzanne H. Sigler
Occupation Artist, educator
Known for Autobiographical art works

Hollis Sigler (1948–2001) was a Chicago-based artist whose paintings addressed her life with breast cancer. She died of the disease in 2001, at the age of 53.[1] She received degrees from both Moore College of Art and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her mature artistic style was faux-naïve, featuring paintings whose subjects, furniture and clothing set in doll-house type interiors and suburban landscapes, were stand-ins for the implicitly female figure. She was an openly lesbian artist[2] and a prominent member of the faculty of Columbia College in Chicago. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985,[3] Sigler’s themes became more personal, confronting ideas about body image, heredity, illness, mortality and hope.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Sigler was born Suzanne Hollis Sigler[5] in Gary, Indiana to Philip Sigler and Marilyn Ryan Sigler. Her family moved to Cranbury, New Jersey when she was eleven. She completed grade school and high school there, receiving her diploma from Hightstown High School in 1966. Accord to her father, Sigler was interested in art as a child and began painting in elementary school.[6] She went on to study art at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, where she was awarded the Bachelor of Arts in 1970; she completed graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received the Master of Fine Arts in 1973.[7]

She had early success with a series of photo realist paintings that depicted underwater swimmers[6] but by 1976, in a gesture meant to repudiate what she considered a male-dominated style, she abandoned realism entirely in favor of a faux-naïve approach. Her subject matter, presented in a way that suggested the work of an untutored or naïve artist, focused on a woman’s world-view. A tendency toward autobiographical content was evident even at the early stages of what would become her signature style.[6] According to the gallery owner Steven Scott, Sigler portrayed

"unpeopled room interiors and fanciful landscapes [that] depict the debris of an incident already climaxed. These scattered objects (along with the provocative handwritten titles appearing on each piece) convey not the cause but the effect of the drama of the departed heroine, whom Sigler acknowledges is her alter-ego."[8]

Scott also observed that beneath the bright colors and expressionistic strokes of the artist's paintings was Sigler's examination of her fears and feelings of inadequacy, and the anger and hurt she felt in her relationships with her parents and lovers. Her paintings often compensated for these feelings with themes of escape and the fulfilment of desire.[9]

Effect of cancer diagnosis and illness on art[edit]

Breast cancer ran in Sigler’s family; her great-grandmother, Sarah Anna Truitt Ryan, died of the disease and Sigler’s mother, diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983,[10] succumbed to it in April 1995.[11] Sigler received a diagnosis of breast cancer in August 1985. The artist underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy, but by 1993 the cancer had spread to her bones, pelvis and spine.[12]

Among the first art works dealing with her illness that Sigler produced after her cancer diagnosis was a series of five vitreograph prints. Produced in the fall of 1985 at Littleton Studios in North Carolina, the prints, titled "When Choice isn't Possible," "Forever Unobtainable," "Needing to Make a Change," "She still Dreams of Flying" and "There is Healing to be Done" introduced a darker side to the artist's woman-oriented works. Almost a decade after those works where produced, Sigler noted in a 1994 interview that she thought the images in her paintings would change as she changed; instead, while the content of her work changed, her imagery remained the same.[13]

In an interview published in Chicago’s New Art Examiner, Sigler said that she realized that she would eventually die of breast cancer, and this knowledge had changed the way she approached her art.[14] In 1992 she began her series of paintings “Breast Cancer Journal: Walking with the Ghosts of My Grandmothers.” Intensely personal, the vividly colored works portray unpeopled scenes where women’s clothing (dresses, aprons, corsets, gloves and stockings), furniture (including chairs, beds and vanities) and antique sculptures (including the Nike of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo) are surrogates for the artist. Embued with a life of their own, they enact the emotional responses of the artist to her illness.[15]

These paintings could be shockingly forthright. In a review of the 1993 exhibition "The Breast Cancer Journal: Walking with the Ghosts of my Grandmothers" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, journalist Lee Fleming wrote of the content of one painting in particular:[16]

"The glorious Nike of Samothrace, "Winged Victory," stands in armless profile atop a shallow fiery-hued tumulus not unlike a breast. Red rain falls; a bloodied, paving-stone path encirles the mound like a scar. The ground inside and outside this red-gray line is littered with discarded contemporary and antique clothes, all of which share a bleeding cutout where one breast would be..."

The paintings could also embody the artist's vision of the spiritual human being triumphing over the ordeal of breast cancer.[17] Fleming cites "To Kiss the Spirits: Now this is What it is Really Like,"[18] as an example of a painting that "sums up Sigler's struggle in a glorious apotheosis..." [19] The lower part of the composition shows a night time village of small houses with glowing windows. A description from the National Museum of Women in the Arts notes that

"the upper two thirds of the canvas pay homage to Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night. At the center of the picture, bathed in celestial light the silhouetted "Lady"[20] rises effortlessly along a fluted staircase, changing color from purple through rose to white as her arms slowly lift upward to become an angel's wings."[21]

A book of Sigler's paintings titled "The Breast Cancer Journal" was published by Hudson Hills Press in 1999.[22]


In 1978, Sigler became a member of the Columbia College Chicago faculty in the department of Art and Design. As a teacher, she was up to date on issues in contemporary art and had a talent for communicating this knowledge to her students. She was also fond of taking her students on field trips to learn first hand about influences in art from the European-based collections at the Art Institute of Chicago to the anthropologically-based exhibits at the Field Museum.[23] Marlene Lipinski, a colleague of Sigler’s at Columbia College, said that Sigler believed that acquiring knowledge of other art forms was as important to the contemporary artist as creating her or his own art.[23] Sigler’s teaching awards included the College Art Association’s Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement in early 2001.[14]

Works in public collections[edit]

Art works by Hollis Sigler are in the collections of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York; Art Institute of Chicago, Baltimore Museum of Art, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio; High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia; Indianapolis Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Seattle Art Museum.


Sigler's companion of 21 years was the jewelry designer Patricia Locke.[24]


  1. ^ Cotter, Holland, “Hollis Sigler, 53, Painter Whose Theme Was Her Illness”, The New York Times Obituaries, Tuesday, 4/03/01
  2. ^ Corinne, Tee A., “Chicago Painter Hollis Sigler, 1948-2001”, http://artcataloguing.net/glc/qcan012/qcan012d.html Accessed 11/21/2003
  3. ^ Cotter, Hooland, "Hollis Sigler, 53, Painter Whose Theme Was Her Illiness, The New York Times, Obituaries, Tuesday, April 3, 2001
  4. ^ Fleming, Lee, “Journal of Joy & Sorrow: Hollis Sigler’s Emotion-Drenched ‘Breast Cancer’ Paintings”, Washington Post, Page B1 9/20/93
  5. ^ "Smithsonian American Art Museum". Retrieved 2009-07-24. 
  6. ^ a b c Caponegro, Casha, “Renowned artist succumbs to cancer; Hollis Sigler, former Cranbury resident dead at 53”, Monday, 4/9/2001
  7. ^ Corinne, 2003
  8. ^ Scott, Steven, "Hollis Sigler at Steven Scott Gallery 3/4/93-4/30/93" (exhibition flier with excerpt from Steven Scott's 1988 master's thesis, "The Visual Confessions of Hollis Sigler", Department of Art History, University of Maryland)Steven Scott Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland, 1983
  9. ^ Scott, 1983
  10. ^ Caponegro, Casha, "Renowned artist sucuumbs to cancer: Hollis Sigler, former Cranbury resident, dead at 53", The Cranberry Press, Princeton, New Jersey, Monday, April 9, 2001
  11. ^ http://ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/ssdi.cgi Accessed 7/24/09
  12. ^ Fleming, Lee, “Journal of Joy and Sorrow; Hollis Sigler’s Emotion-Drenched ‘Breast Cancer’ Paintings”, Washington Post, Page B1, 9/20/93
  13. ^ Windy City Times, "Artist Hollis Sigler Dies", Lambda Publications Inc., 4/04/2001
  14. ^ a b Cotter, 2001
  15. ^ Fleming, 1993, B4, Col. 1
  16. ^ The painting, "Walking with the Ghosts of My Grandmothers" (1992) is a 66 x 54 inch painting with a hand-painted frame.
  17. ^ Fleming, Lee, pages B1 and B4, 1993
  18. ^ The 1993 painting is an oil on canvas, 66 x 66 inches square with a hand-painted frame.
  19. ^ Fleming, 1993
  20. ^ Sigler referred to the silhouetted form of a woman that she occasionally used in her work "the Lady." National Museum of Women in the Arts, http://www.nmwa.org/collection/detail.asp?WorkID=2593 Accessed 8/26/09.
  21. ^ National Museum of Women in the Arts, http://www.nmwa.org/collection/detail.asp?WorkID=2593 Accessed 8/26/09.
  22. ^ Essays in the book were written by Susan M. Love M.D. and James Yood. Corinne, http://artcataloging.net/glc/qcan012/qcan012d.html Accessed 11/21/03
  23. ^ a b Adair, 2001
  24. ^ Windy City Times, 2001