Holly Pereira is an artist, muralist and illustrator based in Dublin, Ireland.
If you are in Ireland you have probably met some of her work in the wild – colour drenched murals with the power to transform a miserable rainy streetscape. Holly’s work is playful, humorous, welcoming the viewer in; and it is often political. Pictures of her ‘Repeal’ mural were widely shared in 2018, making it an iconic image of the successful campaign for women’s rights to bodily autonomy. A mural in Dublin 4 reads ‘Welcome to Dublin – home of hotels, high rents and homelessness.’ And the absolutely gorgeous 2019 ‘Spinster’ mural lovingly reclaims and makes beautiful a word traditionally used to belittle.
In her interview with Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, Holly talks about believing in her own work, doubling down on her skills to grow a successful business, and the grace that comes with turning forty. “Sorry, younger self,” she says, “sometimes it just takes time.”
In this section we ask artists to talk about what started them down the road they are on – how did it begin? On Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, we want to explore what motivates people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?
Holly: I have been practicing as an artist for about twenty years. I have only become truly comfortable in this role in about the last six years. Sometimes I feel regretful about that, but recently I have come to think that this timeline is probably about right, for me at least. It took that long to be able to answer the question, “what do you do?” with “I am an artist”.
I always loved drawing and painting and sculpting and designing since I was very young. It was something I was consistently good at, and praised for by my family and friends. I probably grew in skill and confidence because of that.
I studied Sculpture in NCAD in Dublin from 2000 to 2004. The style of art that we were shown at that time was mostly conceptual: installation, video, performance, time-based and physical sculpture. It didn’t really resonate with me, and I remember feeling out of my depth. In hindsight, if I was even a couple of years older, it might have made more sense. But I enjoyed my time at NCAD, and finished with a degree.
After those college years of making some truly terrible video and performance art (on VHS and slide film, no less), I floundered. It was 2004; I didn’t have a laptop or video camera to make more video art. So I started painting again. I practiced as a painter for about seven years, with residencies and exhibitions in Dublin, London, Berlin and Singapore. My work was slightly surreal figurative work about feminism, and racial and gender identity. I made little-to-no money from my work, and usually came out of shows at a financial loss. I still didn’t really have a handle on what I wanted to say, or how. I felt like an impostor for a lot of that time.
I was working in various jobs during that time to pay bills – waitressing, face painting, teaching, admin. As I neared 30, I realised I didn’t want to be working until two in the morning anymore – I was tired! I thought I would try my hand at illustration, because I knew a couple of illustrators from NCAD, and they seemed to make at least some money from their work.
I returned to college when I was 31 to study animation in Ballyfermot. This was a defining experience. It was very rigorous. There was a right and a wrong way to animate; we did weekly life drawing. I left with a diploma in animation in 2015, and tried to get a job as an animator. However, I had no studio experience, and a very limited showreel, so the jobs were not forthcoming. Almost on a whim, I decided to set up a business as a freelance illustrator. I was unsure if I could make a living from illustration, but I was used to hustling from my various part time jobs. I thought it was at least worth a try. Now I’ve been working for myself for six years, and it is good.
I used to shy away from calling myself an artist. That word, for me, was too loaded. It conjured up images of lady painters who wore flowing scarves and kept hens. Or garrulous young men who smoked rollies and quoted Barthes. But through that rigorous animation training, and then the subsequent learning I did, literally on the job, since I have been freelancing, I started to feel more authorised.
I call myself an illustrator and a muralist. But the work I’ve begun to do in the past two years has leaked more into what I would consider art – large scale painting and murals and site-specific installations. So now I feel much less compunction in calling myself an artist.
When I started freelancing as an illustrator, money was definitely the motivation. Making a living and being able to pay rent and buy food with your own work is a satisfying thing. I had come from a period of about ten years of making work that had little-to-no commercial value. While this was creatively very free, and I didn’t feel stymied in any way, the flip side of that was that I was sometimes overwhelmed by economic realities. To be able to create whatever you want, and make a living from it, with no attention to market value, is a big fish to catch. It seemed out of my reach. Put it another way – in 2010, no one wanted to buy my paintings about periods and body politics.
To be an artist, you have to make a number of sacrifices, or bargains. If you want to make your own work with no limitations, or have to think about market demands, go for it. But realise that until the world agrees that what you make is good, or fashionable, ultimately sellable, then you’re going to be having two jobs: your real job (art), and your other job that pays your bills. You do the two jobs until you don’t have to.
I decided to become a commercial illustrator. I never saw it as selling out, because I got to make work that I was proud of, and make a living from it. Starting out, my attitude was really flexible. I was literally a “pencil for hire”. I took jobs that I didn’t know specifically how to do, then I googled them to see how. That allowed me to learn very quickly. There is nothing more motivating than paying your imminently-due rent. I suppose you need a certain amount of gumption to get to that stage, but I’m a great believer in faking it till you make it.
I knew that I would have to nail my style, until it became popular enough, or seen enough, for people to hire me for my own work. I hoped that eventually I would make enough of an impact, and create enough momentum, to be able to do that.
As a freelancer, there is always uncertainty of when the next job will land in your inbox. I’m far more sanguine about it now, but it’s a precarious place to be in. These days I work about four weeks out, and try to see slow times not as drought, but as time to focus on personal projects, and deepening my skill set.
In this section we ask artists to talk about their workspaces, tools, and resources they need. We ask what their work day looks like. We also ask them to respond personally to the Sylvia Plath quote that gives this project its title: ‘I would live a life of conflict, of juggling children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes.’
I work in the spare room in my house. It’s just for me and my paint and computers, and I know I’m extremely lucky to have it.
I used to have a studio in Block T in Smithfield. I joined there in 2012, and it was great. It was a really interesting mix of artists and freelancers, film makers and designers and musicians. The building was closed in 2016, and knocked down recently. This is unfortunately the way it has gone with countless other artists’ spaces in Dublin. There is a dearth of studio spaces, and I feel badly for young artists who are looking for a space to start their careers.
My studio room is small, which is fine because any large pieces I do are outside or on sites anyway. I have shelves filled with spray paint, emulsions and enamel sign paint. I also have lots of paper and markers and brushes.
I work on an iMac, using Photoshop and Illustrator, and some animation programmes. I have a tilted drawing desk too, as I begin most projects with pencil and paper. I also have a Wacom Cintiq, which is like a huge iPad onto which you draw directly.
I started freelancing with a small laptop, then bought the equipment as I could afford it. It is important for me to always live and work within my means, as overhanging financial concerns make me stressed, which in turn corrode artistic impulses.
I veer between having loads of sketches and notes and paint samples on the wall, to tearing them down and having a totally clean “design-y” space. In fact, that probably sums up my whole approach to my work: for me, illustration is the space between fine art and design, between concept and aesthetic.
I try to start the day with a walk outside, mostly to peek at the world. Because I spend so much time on my own, it is reassuring to see the outer world.
I’m at my most verbose in the morning, so I try to do client correspondence or meetings before twelve. After lunch, I could be working on sketches for upcoming murals, illustrations for advertising, or admin – the dreaded admin! I work till about six or seven, although it can be later if I have a tight deadline, or am particularly engrossed.
The biggest learning curve in setting up a business was the actual business part. The painting of the murals, and the illustrating, are the fun parts, but they comprise only half of my workload. There is so much admin behind projects. Some of it is fun, like research. The rest is time consuming and slightly painful – applying for permits, hiring equipment, ordering paint, organising and paying assistants, contracts, providing quotes, figuring out licensing fees, accounting, meetings, applications for festivals, VAT returns, engagement on social media. But that is the job. The drab stuff makes the fun stuff possible.
On painting days, I try to start early. It’s physically demanding. You have to carry boxes of paint and the ladders, and you might be up and down ladders, scaffolding or scissors lifts all day. I try to bring a flask of tea and snacks, because I’ve learned from experience that you don’t want to be high up on scaff, and feel low in energy.
For the first three years of becoming a freelancer, I worked six to seven days a week. I checked emails all the time, and frequently worked weekends and holidays to get the job done. While this may seem excessive, I maintain that it was probably necessary to build a list of clients, sharpen my skills, and form a working, professional practice.
Nowadays, I’m much more strict about not working weekends. I’ve realised the wisdom of the phrase “shit in, shit out”. If I don’t have enough space where I’m not thinking about work or clients, my creative output suffers.
For the past five years, a good chunk of my time has been spent working. It’s not a bad place to be in, because I truly love what I do (most of the time), and the flexibility affords me many opportunities. I can go to the cinema on a Monday morning, and that is fine. I am usually too busy to do that, but the opportunity is there.
For me, the balance has been creating a life that is not centred around working or art. I think being an artist is so personal, whatever type of work you make, it’s an extension of you. A lot of artists grow their understanding of themselves through their work. It is difficult to separate themselves from their work. I felt that for a long time, if I was not creating, making, doing, then I was not existing. That can be a slippery path to be on, because it is not sustainable, and does not allow for other joys like friends and hobbies and doing things for the sheer fun of it.
I am very ambitious when it comes to work. I know what I am capable of, and what I could be capable of in the future. I have been around the block enough to know that becoming a really good artist does not just happen to you. It takes a lot of hard work, practice, thinking, and putting in the hours. I put my foot down hard on the pedal for the first couple of years, which was exhausting.
I’m still really ambitious, but I have tried to reframe my understanding of myself as a human, not just a working entity. I took up hobbies that are not directly related to work, that will not help directly with my practice. I started running, and reading more, and going for long walks, and gardening. I play music. This has helped with the tunnel vision, and is ultimately a more viable approach to working and living.
BEING IN THE WORLD
Publication, performance, recording, exhibiting. In this section we ask: how important is it to you that your work exists in a public space? Why do you think this is? And can you tell us about the time and effort you give to getting your work out in the world?
As a muralist, my work is mostly in the very public space. I choose to work there, because I want to make work that is outside galleries and museums, which can sometimes be seen as elitist, or codified spaces.
Painting a really big wall outside is what makes muralists’ brains tick. For me, it is about connecting with your environment, and creating an opportunity to change your relationship to it. Imagine you’re walking down a damp, dreary street in the rain. You suddenly come across a big gable end wall, filled with sunshine yellow, strawberry pink, sunset orange. Even if it’s only for a second, your relationship to the street changes. That is the magic of painting murals in the street.
I call myself a muralist, and not a street artist. This is a small distinction, but an important one. I paint big pictures on walls outside: I paint murals.
About half of my work is outside, so it’s once it’s done, it’s in the public sphere, and out of my control. My attitude is that you take a picture, then move on. The wonderful thing about working in the streets is the changing nature of the work. The weather will fade it eventually, the building may get ripped down. Someone will stick up a poster on it, or tag it. I love that murals and street art are like snapshots of a certain place and time.
In terms of getting eyes on your work, as much as social media can be exhausting, it was highly instrumental in allowing me to build a business. Up to recently, about 75% of my work came from posting on Instagram. That is a huge percentage. Social media also allowed me to connect with people who do the same or similar things as me. We form communities online, and then in real life, which is essential for freelancers. It is often a lonesome occupation – to have peers and colleagues, even the most informal, is a lifesaver.
BEING IN OURSELVES:
Many creative people speak of periods of self doubt. It seems that choosing to persist with our creative projects takes great courage at times. In this section we ask: How has self doubt affected you, if at all? What have you done to bring yourself through difficult times and allow yourself to keep going? What has helped you?
Like a lot of artists, I am no stranger to imposter syndrome. I definitely think that a good degree of self-criticism is absolutely necessary to force you to push your boundaries. But imposter syndrome doesn’t stem from that healthy, critical, dynamic point of view. I see it now as a kind of punishing deterrent, born out of learned attitudes and fear. Fear that you will not be good enough, so you stop yourself even trying.
What really helped me was getting older (sorry, younger self, sometimes it just takes time). It was a case of “if not now, when?”. Being ironic or self-deprecating about my work was an insult to all those hours of graft. It finally clicked that if I didn’t believe in the work, why on earth would anyone else?
My response to this thought was two-fold. If I didn’t believe the work was up to scratch, then what could I do about it? I took solid steps to increase my skill levels. I did tutorials online in programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects. I read articles and interviews with artists and designers I admired. I kept abreast of design trends and movements, and became more knowledgeable about design history and theory. There is such a wealth of free information available online, there is literally no excuse for not learning things that would improve your work. I applied for a grant and retrained in animation in college, which had an added bonus of verifying my skills within a formal setting.
I also scanned my language when I talked about my work. I cut out apologies and self-deprecation, and replaced those words with more assured ones. Slowly, my belief in my abilities started to build, and since I was putting in the hours learning and working, what I purported began to become true.
In summary, in order to lessen self-doubt, it took hard work and balls. I came to the realisation that nobody really cares what I do – I am just a voice in the canon. In the grand scheme of things, art is not rocket science. There are no hard and fast rules, and no one is going to die because you made a crappy painting. So when the pressure is off, there is freedom to make mistakes and learn. When I talk to younger students or artists about this, I always tell them to be serious about their work, but don’t take themselves too seriously.
I hate to see friends and colleagues stunted by self-doubt in their work. At the end of the day, it is such a waste of talent and work, of life. But perhaps that is why we have it. I realised that half the battle in being an artist was being able to believe in what you do. The self-belief is an integral part, indeed it is the hardest part of being an artist.