Hollis Sigler

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Hollis Sigler
Suzanne Hollis Sigler

March 2, 1948
DiedMarch 29, 2001 (aged 53)
OccupationArtist, educator
Known forAutobiographical art works

Hollis Sigler (1948–2001) was an openly lesbian Chicago-based artist. She died of breast cancer in 2001, at the age of 53.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Sigler was born Suzanne Hollis Sigler[2] 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.[citation needed]

Sigler was interested in art as a child and began painting in elementary school.[3] 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. She had early success with a series of photo realist paintings that depicted underwater swimmers[3] 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.[3]

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 own mother, diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983,[3] succumbed to it in April 1995.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[1] 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.[5] 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:[7]

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.[5] Lee Fleming cites "To Kiss the Spirits: Now this is What it is Really Like,"[8] as an example of a painting that "sums up Sigler's struggle in a glorious apotheosis ..."[5]

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" 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.[citation needed]

Sigler's companion of 21 years was the jewelry designer Patricia Locke.[6]

Teaching and art[edit]

You Can't Always Get What You Want by Hollis Sigler, Honolulu Museum of Art

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. Sigler's teaching awards included the College Art Association's Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement in early 2001.[1]

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.[9] You Can't Always Get What You Want, in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art, is an example of the artist's doll-house interiors painted in a faux-naïve style. The American Academy of Arts and Letters (New York), the Art Institute of Chicago, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Contemporary Arts Center (Cincinnati, Ohio), the High Museum of Art (Atlanta, Georgia), the Honolulu Museum of Art[10], the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, DC), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Seattle Art Museum and the Spencer Museum of Art (University of Kansas) are among the public collections holding work by Hollis Sigler.


  • Lyons, Lisa, Eight Artists. The Anxious Edge. Jonathan Borofsky, Bruce Charlesworth, Chris Burden, Robert Longon, David Salle, Italo Scanga, Cindy Sherman, Hollis Sigler, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1982 ISBN 9780935640106
  • Rhea, Patty, Hollis Sigler: Expect the Unexpected, Rockford Art Museum / Chicago Cultural Center, 2009
  • Schwabsky, Barry, Awards in the Visual Arts 6: an exhibition of works by recipients of the sixth annual Awards in the Visual Arts: Ross Bleckner, Christopher Brown, Jill Giegerich, Peter Huttinger, James Michaels, Archie Rand, Bill Seaman, Hollis Sigler, Michael Tracy, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art,, Winston-Salem, N.C., 1987 ISBN 9780961156077
  • Sigler, Hollis, Hollis Sigler's Breast Cancer Journal, Hudson Hills, 2002 ISBN 9781555951764
  • Tannenbaum, Barbara, Hollis Sigler: Paintings, Drawings and Prints 1976-1986, Akron Art Museum, 1986 ISBN 9780940665002


  1. ^ a b c Cotter, Holland, "Hollis Sigler, 53, Painter Whose Theme Was Her Illness", New York Times, April 3, 2001.
  2. ^ "Smithsonian American Art Museum". Retrieved 2009-07-24.
  3. ^ a b c d 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.
  4. ^ "RootsWeb.com Home Page". ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com.
  5. ^ a b c d Fleming, Lee, "Journal of Joy and Sorrow; Hollis Sigler's Emotion-Drenched 'Breast Cancer' Paintings", Washington Post, pp. B1, B4, September 20, 1993.
  6. ^ a b Windy City Times, "Artist Hollis Sigler Dies", Lambda Publications Inc., April 4, 2001.
  7. ^ The painting, "Walking with the Ghosts of My Grandmothers" (1992) is a 66 x 54 inch painting with a hand-painted frame.
  8. ^ The 1993 painting is an oil on canvas, 66 x 66 inches square with a hand-painted frame.
  9. ^ Corinne, Tee A., "Chicago Painter Hollis Sigler, 1948-2001", artcataloguing.net; accessed November 21, 2003.
  10. ^ You Can't Always Get What You Want, 1978, oil pastel on paper with painted frame, accession 2017-31-11