In Conversation with: Holly Jolley - Ordinary Habit

In Conversation with: Holly Jolley

In Conversation with: Holly Jolley - Ordinary Habit
Secret Jungle Tea Party by Holly Jolley

Interview by Durga Chew-Bose


What is it about Holly Jolley’s work that makes us want to wear a hat? Or take a 2pm nap in a patch of sun? Or journey to the forest, just outside the city, where the stars make themselves known.

Jolley’s work, which often features cats, brings about the feeling of a cat. A cat’s energy in the room. How its gracefulness arrives with quirk, some attitude, solitude. Her characters are eccentric; up to something. They display a sense of comic regality. Who is that woman wearing extra large sunglasses? Where is she going in that extra large coat? Why are rosy cheeks and barrettes twin accessories? What is it about a fuzzy sweater that lets you know this woman writes letters to her friends? What is it about references like E.T., or school uniforms, or cereal boxes, that knock us free of adult panic—that remind us to find a book, a quiet spot, a windowsill. Jolley’s work seems to say, “Look up!” Seems to suggest the possibility of getting weird or resting one’s eyes, because the work will always be there, so for now, take a break. Enjoy the cat who’s wearing a crown—that cat is certainly enjoying his cup of tea.

Are there any vivid memories from your childhood that continue to influence your illustrations and designs?

I go back to my childhood a lot. I think my first memory is painting the ocean yellow in a drawing, next to my parents in the garden, on a really sunny day. I don't know how real that memory is, and I have no idea why the hell I was painting the ocean yellow – it's pretty obvious it’s blue, even for a little kid, so silly. I hope this is not somehow fabricated; I just can see myself so clearly, on the floor, erratic yellow paint on paper, somehow representing the sea.

I've always liked bright colours, and I didn't even know that was “right” until visiting an Andy Warhol Exhibition. I was little and had this idea about art being realistic and perfect, and I remember feeling so surprised to see orange and red and pink blobby images on the hall of a really serious looking museum. When I asked my dad, he said Andy Warhol was a genius because he didn't even need to paint his own art and had a bunch of students doing it for free in a factory while he was away on parties with lots of famous people. Even if I don't particularly love his work or have any interest in attending lots of parties (I always disappear from parties), that exhibition ended my perception of artists having to be serious and constrained to realism forever. I still have a fridge magnet from the museum gift shop somewhere, with bright orange Warhol flowers. Thanks Andy…

One final moment I'd like to talk about (this list could be really long but I'm sleepy, because I had way too many spring rolls) is when I accidentally watched bits of “The Royal Tenenbaums” by Wes Anderson. I was maybe 8, and stumbled into Margot doing ballet in the red room with zebra print from the introduction. It was so wonderful – that combination of pink, red, and mustard yellow. It stuck with me forever.

Years later as a teenager I watched it without knowing it was that “thing” I saw as a kid, and it felt like all of the pieces came together. That film is so important to me, not just because of colours but in a really personal way; it feels like the story of my own family. I also think there's a treatment of feelings that I like a lot – a certain way of dressing up sadness in beautiful bright coats and prints. I love the idea of melancholy escaping from the dark, more obvious places. I think there's something of that in my own work too.

I go back to the film a lot, especially to the green line bus scene, it's so comforting. When I am in New York I always go to the Tenenbaum House. I’d love to live there. Please someone buy me that house.

How in touch are you with your childhood? Your adolescence? Or are you someone far more compelled by the future and the unknown?

I've been analyzing memories, trying to remember even the tiniest sensations. I don't think I had enough child time. I’d love to take my past self to the park and get some ice cream. I was in constant alert mode, always worrying about something. I don’t remember feeling carefree as a kid.

My adolescence was a blurry thing. I didn't even do any rebellious stuff, so maybe I should get a bunch of bad tattoos and green hair now. I think everything was too fast. I don't know if it was my own choice or not, but at some point my inner old lady took command and never left, so that's why I'm so into tea, and coats, and garden parties.

About the future… hmm...

I like having goals, but I’m not a big planning person. I try to organize only the really important things, from point A to point B, with all the necessary steps in between, but I guess now I’m done thinking about that, even with things I care a lot about. It makes no sense anymore. I look forward to some things, but I can't even cook my lunch these days without thinking about the 10 possible ways in which the world could end before my soup is ready.

Also, I'm a big romantic person. I don't even think it's a good thing, too many novels and stuff from the sixties. I idealise the past and all of the cliché pretty things too much: trains, letters, wide hats, heavy eyeliner, baskets, long cigarettes, nice fields, love stories...

Who brings you joy?

  • My friends
  • Family
  • Hamlet, my cat
  • Martin
  • My plants
  • Delivery people at my door (my absolute heroes)
  • Myself from the past sending chocolate to my present self

What was the last item you found at a flea market?

A bright yellow watering can with a super weird shape that I don't know how to describe.

Can you name a song that you return to whenever you need to reconnect with your inner voice?

When I need to reconnect with my inner voice I stay silent and I do the dishes.

(I love silence)

But if you're looking for moody song recommendations I always go back to Reckoner by Radiohead, pretty much the whole In Rainbows album is perfect for staring at the ceiling and being all existential.

Also Aldous Harding: Designer album, Zoo Eyes.

Super uplifting bonus: "Male Prima Donna" by Erin and Kelly from The Office.

What is your relationship to humor?

I like being a little ridiculous. Some people think I'm funny.

In what ways has your work provided a sense of calm in isolation?

I live alone, and I was really used to spending a lot of time by myself, so I think it wasn’t really hard for me in that way. We freelance illustrators are trained for isolation and many types of post Apocalyptic worlds. It started late March here (in Chile) and just until last week I had to ask for special police permits to go out, only for groceries, twice a week max.

That sounds awful, but I really appreciate the opportunity to calm down. I'm not used to resting; I’m always at max speed. Staying in, while exploring myself, and experimenting without expecting a certain outcome and without the burden of productivity helped me discover new softer dimensions of myself. I questioned my own style a lot, I think I'm a little more conscious about why I do things now.

Without much external input my subjects shifted more strongly into inner worlds, all about enjoying breakfast, all the vivid dreams I’m having, and the books I’ve been into, making tea for myself, far more intimate and atmospheric. Sometimes I literally paint images of how I think my heart looks, I don’t even care if that's really corny.

I’ve been calmer and nicer to myself, and my recent softer work is a reflection of that. If I try to describe it it feels like being wrapped in a nice blanket. That's the consolation I seek when I'm drawing now.

What's the deal with animals in your work?

I admire animals in general because they're beautiful, and also because they don't seem to care about stupid things in the way humans do. They stay in the present, they don't care about the stock market, deodorant and the future. They somehow perfectly achieved ataraxia without even trying.

I do have a really obvious thing for cats and everything feline. This subject can be divided into many layers, but essentially it all started because I've always lived with them: Lenny, Georgina Grey, Benito, Simon, Hamlet just to name some.

I've been absorbing their ways for years, becoming sort of a feline person myself, reserved and sleepy. Cats are complex creatures with distinctive traits and personalities. They represent so many things and have been present through art history in so many ways. To me they are the perfect symbol of intimacy and a sense of beauty in domestic life. Just like Cocteau said, they become the living soul of a home. To a house cat nothing is more exciting than a soft pillow, a window, a little piece of string or a teaspoon to play with. I mean do we even need something else in life? God I love a good pillow.

Perhaps what I most admire from cats is how they don't even need you, but choose to love you and stay by your side. I think people should aim for the same. I like to think I’m like that, I don't want to stay because I need someone, I’d rather love someone.

In what ways do you feel misunderstood?

Even if I talk a lot, I don't engage easily with others on a deeper level, which sometimes leads to people thinking I’m arrogant and distant. But it’s more about being secretly shy, even if I seem like the opposite from a superficial point of view.


How do you deal with that scary Sunday evening feeling?

Since we all live in a endless Sunday evening now I've figured out some options:

  • I bake things and then give most of them away because CARBS.
  • I read and take little notes for possible illustration ideas.
  • I embrace the scary Sunday evening feeling, and I lie down, and I think about what makes me sad and scared for a while, and I’m ok with it.
  • I stare at the window and I think about how other people also probably look like Edward Hopper paintings and that makes me feel better instantly.
  • I pair socks.
  • I make lists.

Describe your ideal chair.

Tall, comforting, cozy, soft but also structured enough, also great at hugs, almost like a boyfriend, but better (Ideal chairs > men).

Something like Wegner’s “Papa Bear Chair”... maybe in soft pink or mustard yellow.

This edition includes a flat part on the arm rest for my cup of tea.

Also, my ideal chair is designed with AI so it knows how to help me out with taxes, does the laundry and makes amazing porridge for breakfast.

View Secret Jungle Tea Party by Holly Jolley


Photos by Mila Belén