Health Advocacy Muralist Has Left Her Message on Many a Familiar Chevy Chase DC Wall
Interviewee: Regina Holliday
Date: May 19, 2020
Interviewees: Carl Lankowski and Cate Toups Atkinson
Location: Each at their respective homes via Zoom teleconferencing
Transcribed from Zoom: Carl Lankowski
CL: Let me start in welcoming Regina Holliday to HCCDC’s first-ever oral history interview by video conference. Though now residing in Grantsville, MD, Regina was our neighbor in Chevy Chase DC for many years and has a compelling story to tell. HCCDC vice-president Cate Atkinson and I are delighted to be the ones to hear from you after seeing your murals in our neighborhood, at least one of them, “73 cents,” covering the entire side of a building. Installed in 2009, its theme — problems in our healthcare system — was clearly prescient and particularly timely now, when our neighborhood, our city, the nation, and the international community are all struggling to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. In that sense, Regina, your story is a ‘glocal’ one.
HCCDC’s oral histories are all about the lives of those interviewed, especially as they relate to the neighborhood. We nearly always begin with references to origins. So, Regina, would you tell us where and when you were born and something about the family in which you grew up?
RH: I was born in Enid, OK, on May 10, 1972, at Bass Memorial Hospital. The family moved to Tulsa, OK, when I was six and I lived there until I was 21 years old. At that point I moved to Grantsville, MD, briefly, and then Washington, DC, in 1994.
CL: What brought you to Grantsville and from there to DC?
RH: The story starts with the scenic painting course that my future husband, Frederick Allan Holliday, was taking at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa. He was taking it as a graduate student, while I was enrolled in the same course as an undergraduate student. We both procrastinated to the point that we had to stay up the whole night to finish the class project, the painting. That’s how we fell in love—painting all night. We realized that we wanted to marry. Along the way, Fred discovered that he needed to change his direction from theater to film. So, I got him to apply to American University in Washington, DC. After his acceptance, we moved to DC and got married. But at first, he lived in a dorm, so I lived with my in-laws in Grantsville, MD. While there, I worked in a shirt factory. I did that for about six months, until we were able to move into a second-floor apartment in the Chevy Chase neighborhood. Our live-in landlord was a delightful older woman, Mary Lee Wollin. She had previously worked for the CIA and we were fascinated by her observations. (Mary B. Wallen, 81, an intelligence officer who retired from the Central Intelligence Agency in 1969, died Aug. 8, 1998 at the Carriage Hill nursing home in Bethesda of complications of a broken hip.)
CL: How did Fred get to Oklahoma?
RH: He had been a student at Frostburg State University (MD). The director of the theater department at Frostburg State was best friends and went to college with a fellow who worked at the Oklahoma State University theater department. The situation was like a funnel. Frostburg’s theater degree students would go to Oklahoma State for their graduate degree. There were a lot of them over the years. In Fred’s year, there were three other FSU students at OSU. I remember that when they arrived, they couldn’t believe how flat Oklahoma was. Up here in western Maryland, in the mountains, they are just not used to that and how hot it gets. That’s how he ended up there. I was also attending OSU at the time.
CL: What kind of experience was it for you to move away from Tulsa?
RH: Well, I was always told I spoke too fast in Oklahoma. The east coast was probably drawing me to it. I was just too speedy for the culture. I was a better fit; I felt natural here. I was able to tolerate DC’s hot summers, because I was used to even hotter ones in Oklahoma.
CL: You and Fred were employed by businesses next door to each other in Chevy Chase’s commercial blocks, right?
RH: Yes. While Fred pursued his degree, he was hired by the toy store, Child’s Play, in 1994. At the time, any new hire at Child’s Play had to attend game night. This was at the owner’s house. You had to play board games with him and his family and the other co-workers. The objective was to learn how to play it. I came along as a wife. As it turned out, I beat my husband’s boss at several of the games. He responded by suggesting that I should work at the toy store, too.
CL: Were you already employed elsewhere?
RH: Well, yes. I had been working at the Foreign Service Club in Foggy Bottom. It was a membership organization for Foreign Service Officers. I was the dessert girl. My job was to sell desserts to people at lunch time. It was a hard job, but I pulled it off.
CL: Let’s talk about your family background. What would you like to share with us about those roots?
RH: On my mother’s side, the history of the family is German-Lutheran. My mother, Bernice, spoke German in the home as a young person.
CL: Wow. When did she immigrate? Why did she speak German?
RH: She was born in 1932. She was the 10th child of 11 children. Her parents spoke German in the home; they spoke German at church. My mother’s grandparents immigrated from Germany. Her parents were born in this country. They were married in 1912. German immigrant culture supported speaking German—German at home, at school, and at church. You really didn’t get a lot of English until you got further along in school. For example, one of my youngest uncles got to go to high school. The family was in a rural area and most never made it to high school. They attended small, local, country grade schools, mostly through eighth grade. They all became farmers.
CL: What part of Germany were they from?
RH: They came from a region called Prussia. There were people in Enid, OK, that were from that branch of the family. The family name was Roggow, sometimes transliterated as Rossow. My grandparents were Roggows. Another branch of the Roggow family settled in Wisconsin. So, occasionally the family would drive with their Model T Ford to Wisconsin and visit family. Other family names were Schultz and Benz. A whole collection of farm families.
CL: What was your mom’s maiden name, then?
FH: Bernice Roggow.
CL: How and when did your mom and dad meet?
FH: My mom and my dad met while he was recovering from a motorcycle accident in the hospital. My mom was taking care of her dad who was in the hospital at the same time. Back then, everybody had shared rooms.
CL: How about your dad’s family?
FH: His was a Hatfield-McCoys type family. There were family legends about an ancestor having run away from a plantation during the Civil War into the no-man’s land in Oklahoma. There is a story about Great Grandpa marrying a squaw along the Red River. Eventually, they got property in Hennessey, OK. My grandfather’s brother, Frank, was killed in a gunfight. One of his sisters’ husband ran off with a Model T Ford.
The two families were quite different, so it was interesting that they intersected with my mom and dad. My mom is a straight-laced Lutheran German, a good girl. And my dad was a motorcycle guy who ran a bar.
CL: Tell us your dad’s name.
FH: Gilmer McCanless.
CL: The family was in America from time immemorial?
FH: We don’t really know. McCanless was a stolen name. Apparently, McCanless was the name of the owner of the plantation that he ran away from. He adopted that name. We don’t know what the name was before that.
CL: So, there is a strong Lutheran tradition in your family.
FH: Very much so.
CL: There’s a connection to your time in Chevy Chase—you were affiliated with St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Chevy Chase, right?
FH: Yes! I started attending St. Paul’s Lutheran Church back in 1994, when I first moved to the area. For a while, we lived in Aspin Hill in Silver Spring, MD. I would still go to St. Paul’s when we were there. That’s the church in which my younger son was baptized. I really love that church—a huge, amazing, older church, designed by the same architect who did the National Cathedral. It has got so many stories. It’s a huge space. In addition to the sanctuary, there is a basement and even a sub-basement. I used to run a haunted house in St. Paul’s at Halloween. I explained it to the pastor like this: We can do the scary parts of the Bible. “OK!” He said. He told me that back in the 1970s they actually did a haunted house in the sub-basement. I also did a lot of yard sales when I was there. We did it to raise money for the homeless shelter inside the church. There was also a food pantry and the yard sales supported that, too.
CL: Are your parents still alive?
RH: My mom is. My father passed away many years ago. She still lives in Enid, OK. I visit at least once a year. It’s a trip. If you drive fast, it’s 26 hours, but it usually takes longer.
CL: So, then, how did you get to Chevy Chase?
RH: When Fred started at American University he lived in a dorm. After that we were desperate to find a place to live. It was hard, because the high-rise apartment houses were expensive for a young couple. Fred saw Mary’s notice on a bulletin board at American University, so we went to have a look. Mary is a chain-smoker and drank a lot of vodka. She arranged for a weekly delivery from the local liquor store. She had an upstairs to her house that she called an apartment, because it had a kitchen. But there was no door; nothing separating our home from her home. So, pretty much all the books we had from that period of our lives are all yellow from the nicotine in the air. There was always so much smoke in that house. BUT it was only $600 a month to rent that apartment—so much cheaper than everything in that area.
CL: Where was the house located?
RH: Just down the street, really—about six blocks from the toy store. So I would walk to the toy store from there. It was on Huntington Street. About the same distance in the other direction, we had friends on Jenifer Street behind the Chevy Chase Pavillion. College students were always trying to find places to live in the Tenleytown-Friendship Heights-Chevy Chase area.
CL: How long were you on Huntington Street?
RH: We lived there for a whole year. They were challenging times. Fred was studying film. Back then you still used real film to make movies. That was so expensive! Fred had to make student films and we had somehow to scrape together the money to buy another film reel. A reel cost a hundred bucks then.
CL: How did you manage?
RH: We worked a lot. Fred started at the toy store, but then moved next door to the video store—Potomac Video. He worked there for many years.
CL: I remember it well. There is a good chance I would have run into Fred there.
RH: Yes. I’m sure. It’s a very small neighborhood. People would say DC is so large. True, but the part I’m in is like a town.
CL: Remind us of the years you were in Chevy Chase the first time.
RH: We were there between 1994 and 1997. After that, we lived in Aspen Hill, but continued to work in Chevy Chase. In 1997, Fred was accepted by the Film Studies PhD program at the University of Kansas. So, we drove out to Kansas in our little Chevy Cavalier. We were loaded with all of our books and our television. At University of Kansas we had little more than a blanket to sleep on in student housing.
CL: What did you do there?
RH: I got hired by the Jayhawk Bookstore store. That is a private bookstore almost on the university campus. I was the store manager there from 1997 to 2001. In 2001 we moved back to Chevy Chase. I resumed my position as manager at Child’s Play and Fred was looking for a position at a university.
CL: I sense that we are getting close to your debut as a public artist in our neighborhood.
RH: Right. It was in the period 2001-2003 that I placed the first mural. It was on the back exterior wall of Child’s Play of a group of children reading a book.
CL: I am amazed that the work has held up so well under the elements since then.
RH: My boss had asked me to do it and I was pleased to oblige. Even before it was completed, I painted a dragon on the glass doors of the store. That would have been 2001. I did that because cardboard was stored in the space behind the doors and it bothered me that this was visible from outside.
CL: Had you done murals before that?
RH: Yes. I had been doing murals in Lawrence, KS. But years before, when Fred and I were in the painting class at Oklahoma State, I had already painted murals. When Fred and I first got married, I was in the Navy. While on Navy leave, I did a mural for the Navy at its recruiting office. Then I left the Navy and moved to Grantsville. I did not do any murals in Grantsville, but when I got to Lawrence, KS, I started doing murals there. I did one at an art store I opened. That was a big stained glass mural. Then I got back to DC I did the Child’s Play mural. Child’s Play opened another location in Rockville and I did a mural inside that store.
CL: What happened next?
RH: That was the point at which Jeff Gildenhorn asked me to paint giant heads from the 1930s to the 1950s.
When I asked what he had in mind, he said, “Well, you know, famous people.” So, we had to have the Rat Pack. Gildenhorn asked for ideas for others. Please recall that the Internet was not in 2001 what it is now. I had to source all these cultural icons from books. I was showing Jeff Gildenhorn book illustrations in our brainstorming. He finally made a selection and the huge heads alongside the American City Diner was the result. Rat Pack, Judy Garland, Elvis, Joan Crawford, and Marilyn Monroe is in there somewhere — that was in 2005.
CL: Wait. I’ve got to take you back a moment. To the Navy. The Navy? What made you join the Navy?
RH: There was this time when Fred and I were dating, deeply in love with each other, but he was off to American University and I was left asking myself what I was going to do. So I joined the Navy with a friend. A friend of mine wanted to join the Navy and we were best friends. So we entered the recruiting office together and they led us into separate rooms. While I filled out all the paperwork, my friend had changed her mind. (!) That aside, the thought was that with Fred at AU in a dorm room, I would join the Navy and send him money. I entered Navy boot camp the day after my 21st birthday in Orlando, FL. It was really hot. From May to July of 1993, I was in boot camp. I really hurt my knee while I was there. They make you do this thing called duck-walking. While waddling like a duck I pulled the ligaments out of my knee. Now, you have to run a mile and a half to get out of boot camp, so I ace-bandaged and Ben-Gayed my knee to the point where I could run a mile and a half. I did manage to get out of boot camp. They let you have two weeks leave between boot camp and technical school, so on leave I went to Grantsville, MD, spent time with Fred, and also went to the recruiting station to paint a mural. It was on the drywall inside the La Vale Country Club Mall. When the recruiting station relocated, they actually cut out the wall to move the mural with them. That was in 1993. And I got a Navy commendation for my mural work.
CL: Was that your first mural, then?
RH: Well, when you do scene painting, you often do mural work.
CL: What made you go into murals to begin with?
RH: I always painted as a child. When I was in high school we had a beautification project at an abandoned building. The art teacher got permission to take all the boarded windows and cover all of them with big window images. So I designed one of those images. My painting was based on imagining people who could be living on the other side of the window. I painted drapes, a kitty cat—full scale. The building is not abandoned anymore. That was probably my first really big piece. I loved painting big. I loved how it takes over space. It changes your feeling of space. So, that abandoned building that made you feel bad changed completely, because now it had art all over it. That project taught me that you can make an area feel vibrant by painting, and change people’s interaction with the area they are in because of painting.
CL: When was that?
RH: I graduated high school in 1991, so that must have been 1989.
CL: Sounds like from at least then you knew you were going to be an artist.
RH: I knew that I was either going to be an actress or an artist since I was a small child. But when I told my mom I wanted to be an actor, she said “No! Those are loose women.” So she encouraged art instead.
CL: Let’s return to Jeffrey Gildenhorn and the American Diner. Did the panel of the nurse with the inscription “we need more nurses” go up with the others?
RH: No. That was later. So, when Fred got sick, there were three murals I did during that time-frame. One of them was done at the end of May of 2009. It was in Pumpernickel’s Delikatessen [it closed in 2019, next door to the Parthenon restaurant-CL]. It was inside on the wall and I called it, “The Medical Facts Mural.” It depicted my husband’s medical charts. One inscription in it was “Why do you have more information on a box of Cherrios than in our medical record?” that was comparing a nutrition facts label – what a person should be to what a person can be if they are very sick. I took my husband’s medical chart and blew it up really large, around 6 feet of wall space alongside an anatomical sketch, a skeletal structure showing how compromised his bone and tissue mass were. This was in a visual format that a person could easily process. Pumpernickel’s let me put that up in May 2009; it was up there for many years. At least until 2014, when the owners were looking for a buyer.
CL: What was your experience with the management of Pumpernickel’s?
RH: They were great. They were good friends of Fred’s. I was a big fan of their home-made turkey sandwich. They cooked a turkey every day to make the turkey sandwiches. Fred would usually order a pizza. Rob would often give pizza to the video store guys after they closed for the night. Everyone got along. Everyone supported one another. Rob started The Spooktacular on the Avenue.
CL: Talking about your first murals, we were interested in “We need more nurses,” one of the panels, added later, at the American Diner.
RH: “Medical Facts” went up in Pumpernickel’s in the middle of May, 2009. Then John Connor, the owner of the BP service station at 5001 Connecticut Ave., gave me permission to paint the “73 cents” mural, using the entire wall of his building opposite the CVS store. It was when my husband was in Washington Home Hospice. I think it was on Upton Street. So, I designed “73 cents” there, at my husband’s bedside. Fred passed away on June 17th (2009). I began painting “73 cents” on June 23rd. As you know, that was a huge work and it took until September 30th to complete.
Once I finished “73 cents,” I went to Jeff and said “Jeff, you know the far end of the diner? We never painted a painting there. Can I paint a painting called “We need more nurses?” And Jeff said yes. It was done in the fall of 2009.
CL: I was first attracted to your work as a customer at Politics & Prose Bookstore, which is one door down from “73 cents.” I think I noticed it very early on, likely already in 2009. I brought my son Alex, an infectious diseases physician, to see it when he was visiting and it affected him, too. But I did not link you to the American Diner paintings (let alone the one on the rear wall of Child’s Play), until I noticed your signature on “We need more nurses” only earlier this year. I may be a good case-study on how people make the connections.
RH: Funny you should say that. There was a little girl named Stella, age four, at the toy store. She had seen the Child’s Play mural a lot, because they often parked their car behind the building. Her mom approached me and said she had been over near Politics & Prose and the little girl said “Mom, look! There’s another one!” “Oh yes, sweetie, another painting.” “No! It’s another painting by the same artist,” replied the little girl. She could tell at four years old. That was amazing. It shows that children are paying greater attention than we realize, compared to adults. We are focused on so many things, so many deadlines, so much to do, so many distractions, that we don’t necessarily notice the spaces we’re in as much as the young people do.
CA: I was curious about all the symbolism in “73 cents.”
RH: Yeah, there’s a lot in that painting. I explained much of it in a blog post. I realized folks could use some help in taking in the rich imagery. Let me convey some of the main points. The dimensions of “73 cents” are 17 feet by 70 feet—a large painting angled on the back wall of a gas station. It is set on the theatrical stage. There is a stage curtain on both sides and the top. The background of the stage is very dark. That is meant to reflect the fact that my husband and I met on a stage during a painting class. It was also because in 2009 as I was painting this work, the national healthcare debate began, taking center stage of the nation’s policy agenda. In the center of this painting, my husband is posed like David’s “Death of Marat.” Point blank: anyone who is an art historian will know right away that this is going to be a political painting, based on what I did. My husband is holding a note that says, “Go after them, Regina.” He was trying to get better care. I am posed in the painting right beside him, like the lady in Picasso’s “Guernica.” People familiar with that piece will see some symbolism there as well. This is a political painting, trying to wake people up to a tragedy happening all around them.
I am posed in such a way that I have three faces. There is a beautiful Halloween mask face that I am wearing towards my husband. Behind my head is a crone face, looking at a nurse behind me. Then there is my real face beneath that mask, my mother face. So I am the archetype of womanhood itself. Behind me is a nurse trying to give me information, behind the doctor’s back, as it were. There is a doctor in the painting, literally the doctor who treated my husband very badly during his hospitalization. In the painting itself there is a pictographic to tell people who that doctor is. Only a couple of people have figured that one out.
Further down in the painting there is an EMT pushing a Styker gurney. He is crying, as this is very sad. The “medical facts” mural is actually on that gurney. It is laying on it. That’s to remind people that this is the second painting in this series.
I am in the painting a second time as the little girl dressed as an American flag. I have welts on my legs from being beaten with a switch as a child. And I am holding a caduceus. People usually associate this with the symbol of medicine, but it’s actually not. It’s a symbol of the god of war, deeply ironic, of course.
Moving further, you will see a medical professional on the right hand side standing in medical waste, her hands tied behind her back.
There is a window that is open, the only natural light in the entire painting. Up in the tree there is a Twitter bird, representing the power of social media and the unified voice of the people.
There is also a friend of ours in the picture. He visited Fred in every medical facility he was in. He met Fred in college. They taught classes together and became dear friends.
If you go to the far left hand space of this piece, you will see a film reel. This is a reference to my husband’s life unreeling.
Alongside that there is an element that happened during the national debates on healthcare—see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. So I’ve got references to the medical business industry, the pharma industry, the insurance industry and how they are part of this entire paradigm.
Closer in the painting to my husband is the figure of my mother. She (as in real life) was the hospital house-keeper displaying warnings about the floor being slippery, but it says “slippery slope”—another reference to resistance to reform. She is wearing that white hospital uniform that people had to wear back in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Above the entire painting are quotes from people of literature, telling folks that they need to take a stand. You need to do what is right. Not necessarily what is easy.
And the idea of putting all those playbills up there was that some people don’t read imagery very well. If that is the case, they can always read the words, so there will be no question for anybody that what I am doing here is a call to action.
In the very front center of the painting, literally 73 cents are depicted. That is how much you paid per page for your medical records in the state of Maryland at the time. And there are still some facilities charging those fees.
My son Isaac is in the painting: he’s the small child in the front holding building blocks.
There is a reference to the discussion that summer about inter-operability of medical records.
My older son is in the painting in the door crack. He is just an eye in the door crack, because he has autism and was not made to feel welcome in the hospital environment.
There is a nurse who is trying to give my husband a blood transfusion. Her art history counterpart is the light-bringer from Guernica.
There is also a hornet above the door that is open. There was a hornet in the room when my husband was in rehab that week.
There is just so much going on in that painting!
CA: Was Fred in any condition at the time to have input into the design of the painting?
RH: Oh yes! I was at his bedside working on the design sketch. He gave me lots of guidance. The only things that were added after he passed away that he didn’t get to give his feedback on was the film reel and the “see-no-evil” element about industry. That was about it. The painting began to change organically during that summer. As I was painting it, people came up to me and commented. Some elements were added based on the dialogue I was having with individuals as we were trying to pass this piece of legislation called The Affordable Care Act. But Fred was instrumental in the design of this piece.
CA: How did the Twitter element find its way into the design?
RH: I used Twitter to help find help for Fred when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. I went on Twitter on May 4th. I was trying to find Dave Debronkart because he survived kidney cancer. I was able to connect with him within one day because of Twitter. I was able to talk to his doctor at Harvard that same day.
CL: Was Fred at home during this saga?
RH: No. He was in five different facilities when he was sick. Five transfers were required. It was the first facility that caused me to paint “73 cents,” because it was so horrifically bad. I was appalled at his treatment. He got transferred and it wasn’t as bad, though there were bad aspects of the second facility, too. I was dumbfounded. Until we got to Washington Home Hospice, we had a very bad experience. Fred ended up spending his last few weeks in hospitalization care in Washington Home Hospice. His final week was at home. We were very pleased with Washington Home Hospice. It was a beautiful place. I actually thought we should go there at the end because Art Buchwald wrote a series when he was working for the Washington Post and accomplished that from the hospice. I remembered reading it back in the 1990s.
CA: You have had several other projects since then. I know about the walking gallery.
RH: Right! After I did all these big paintings, a friend of mine on Twitter actually reached out to me wanting me to paint the back of her jacket. The background is that she was going to a medical conference where no patients were invited. So I painted three jackets: on the back of her jacket, Fred’s and my story. On another one I painted for someone who worked for Google-Health, and a third for someone who founded a company called Careticker. They all had my story as well as what they cared about in healthcare.
Then a friend of mine showed me the Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health. That’s downtown (DC) and opened in 2011. When that place opened I said we should have a gallery show here. But they said their smart walls would not support an installation. That’s when I proclaimed that we were not going to put the art on the walls: People will be wearing it on the backs of jackets. It would be our own lives and tell healthcare stories. It was amazing. We’re like WOW! We’re going to do this. So I and 13 other artists got together and painted 56 jackets in about a month. We then had a gathering in that beautiful space.
From there it has grown. At this point, we’re in 16 different countries around the world wearing business suit jackets with healthcare stories on the back. When we link arms or stand side-by-side, we form a wall. So the “73 cents” wall and the walking gallery wall are both walls. The point is that through these walls, bearing art, we can change healthcare policy.
CA: More than a decade has passed since Fred died and the issues are still with us, no?
RH: Yes. It has been very challenging. Most of the legislation I have worked on over those years was defanged. What I learned is that you can work really hard on legislation for years, but all it takes is a new administration and if they remove the enforcement arm of that legislation, it basically ceases to exist.
CA: Can you comment on the present administration and its healthcare policies?
RH: I am very concerned about the current administration. I do feel like we have gone backwards with respect to the really hard work that we did. That’s especially the case for transparency in government, better communication, and interoperability. One of the things I fought for with “73 cents” was that you should be able to get your medical record. Here we are 11 years later and we still don’t have real-time access to our medical record. And here, in a pandemic crisis, people still cannot get information transferred easily from facility to facility using technology. The one good thing, I guess, about this pandemic is that it has opened people’s eyes to the fact that it is really dangerous to depend on physically handing CDs to couriers to carry from facility to facility…when you could have done all of this using technology. You could have uploaded a file. You could have sent it. There had always been so much worry about privacy to the point of not having interoperability. I do hope that through the present crisis people have opened up their eyes to this. I hope that there will be increasing demand to enforce the legislation that has already been created and make it so that the patient can get to the medical records in a timely fashion, that there are only incremental charges for access to information, and that information transfer happens quickly.
CA: Have you done a mural recently about healthcare?
RH: Right now I am working on a jacket for a person who wants to express something about COVID. The last mural I did was the one in the store in Grantsville. That was in 2014. It is a really big painting.
I have done a lot of installation projects since then. Also paintings on canvases, paintings on jackets. Between the jackets and the canvases I painted, since 2009 I have painted over 700 pieces.
Murals are physically very large and they are actually physically very hard on your body. So I don’t do them all the time, because they really do hurt you. You are working for long stretches and carrying all the supplies up ladders. The arch of your feet suffer after ten hours on a ladder. It isn’t pleasant. So, when I do a mural, it’s very much a work of passion.
CA: Do you continue to get feedback from “73 cents”?
RH: I get feedback all the time. People from all over the world have seen and visited that painting. I am so honored that John, the gas station owner, has defended it and made sure it stayed up all these years. Even to the point where—you know he lived in an area where real estate is very valuable. The fact that it’s still there, when I know that there are people who speculate on real estate all the time in that area. It is just a beautiful thing. Then there’s this: As a mural artist, you have to be OK with the eventuality that your work is going to be gone. It is very rare that a mural gets cut out of a wall or kept in some way. It is a public, ephemeral piece of beauty, right? It will be there as long as it can be there.
In that vein, we are blessed that we have the Internet now. So, in its digital form it will always be there. So much mural work of the past decade doesn’t exist anywhere. It’s gone, completely. We are blessed to have the channels of information we do.
CL: May I ask about another issue having to do with the reception of your work in the different universes of art and medicine?
RH: I am what is called an outsider artist. Even though I have been close to university and have taken a painting course there, I am pretty much considered self-taught. I never got a degree. I just paint because I like to. A lot of people consider my work primitive, especially if they are focused on realism or the aesthetics of art. The other thing that challenges people in the arts world is that I use art as a tool toward activism. When I am painting, I am trying to convey a message and tell a story and I am utilizing art in that way. Sometimes that’s very hard in the world of art to accept. So I have experienced some push-back from artists for that—especially with concepts like the walking gallery. I don’t charge to do the paintings on the jacket. Many folks consider art on a jacket devaluing your work. Moreover, I did not get paid to paint “73 cents” or the nurses painting, or the “medical facts” mural. These are all works of passion that I did to try to change policy. That really bothers some folks.
In the world of healthcare what I found was an amazing impulse to embrace my works of art. When I started painting on jackets and doing canvases at conferences, painting next to really important people in the medical world, risking getting their expensive suits splattered with my paint as I worked directly behind them, they embraced me, they loved it. They loved art in this space, they love the interaction of art with medicine. So I found the world of healthcare and the world of data completely embraced art. That has been a beautiful, beautiful thing.
I was not expecting to have the push-back I was having from the art world. I continue to this day to try my best to communicate with the art world and participate. I am actually on a board of a local arts organization, Spruce Forest Artisans Village, a local arts group that has been here for over 30 years. On that board I am always advocating for the outsider artist.
So there is hope, right? I have been here for, golly, seven years. I am finally becoming more accepted as an artist. But it’s a long haul.
CL: You were in Chevy Chase until 2013. You have been away for seven years. What led you to relocate?
RH: Really, it just got to be so expensive. I am a single parent. Without having a dual income and just trying to raise two boys in Chevy Chase DC, I just got to the point where I couldn’t afford it. I realized that I was spending 70 per cent of my income on rent. I couldn’t continue along that path. That was part of it. My apartment was $2,300 per month. On top of that, my father-in-law had had a heart attack in Grantsville, MD. My mother-in-law had a long drive to visit us. It is a three-hour drive between Grantsville and DC. She tried to do that once a month. Thinking it over, I concluded that I should move back to Grantsville. I would be near my in-laws; I would be able to help them; and rents are far cheaper there.
CL: What is the lay of the land for your life now? What does a typical day look like?
RH: When I arrived in 2013, I started volunteering at a local thrift shop. It is a non-profit dedicated to helping the poor and needy in rural Appalachia. After many years of that work, in July of 2018, the manager of the store announced she needed to quit. As a consequence, the shop would probably have to close. My immediate reaction: “No it’s not! It is helping too many people.” So I stepped in and for several months worked there constantly, without pay, just to try to keep the place going. After a couple of months I told the institution’s board that I just could not afford to continue to work without pay. That led them to hire me as the store manager. My caveat was the understanding that I would still need to interrupt work occasionally to fly around the country to give speeches and do paintings. They had to be comfortable with the fact that I would leave to do those things. Those were my terms. So, since July of 2018, I have been managing a non-profit as well as flying around the country giving speeches and painting paintings. As it happened, this turned out for the best. When COVID hit, I still had an income from the store. All my speeches and painting assignments were cancelled because of the pandemic. At the moment, I have only one on-site painting planned. It is in Boston on September 29th. We are hopeful that this will happen. So that’s my business life: art, speaking, and painting, as well as managing a store.
And then, I also started taking classes at seminary.
CL: Really!? Marvelous!
RH: Yeah. So, now I am in my second semester at seminary as well. It is a three-year program. I am attending United Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, PA. It is a university in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Hopefully, at the end of three years, I will go in the vicarage and on to ordination.
CL: That’s wonderful!
RH: Yes! One of the aspects in “73 cents” is the religious symbolism. I do feel that God puts us upon the path of our life and what we need to do is to discern and fulfill what God is asking us to do to serve His creation.
CA: How are your boys doing?
RH: My oldest boy is Freddie and has autism and has his struggles. He works with doctors trying to find ways to make his life better. He has a good on-line community that supports him. He does a lot of creative writing on the computer. But he doesn’t necessarily participate in society in person. He finds it much easier to interact on-line.
My younger son, Isaac, is 14. He is currently enrolled at Bishop Walsh, a local Catholic school in Cumberland, MD. He has been drawn in to all the political debates of the last few years. Where we live in Garrett County, MD, it is 98 percent white. I sent my son to Catholic school because it’s far more diverse. He is able to get experience with many cultures there. There are kids from China, as well as from different ethnicities, and different perspectives on the world. It has been really great for him.
They are quite different. I home-schooled my older one. My younger son was in both public school and private school. I believe that parents should use whatever educational system supports the child the best. That will be different for every child. You need to look at your children as unique individuals and figure out, with them, what’s the best path for them to follow. Both of mine went to school at CCBC, Chevy Chase Bethesda Children’s Center right there on Chevy Chase Circle. After that, they were matriculated in Murch Elementary School while we were in DC.
CL: Where were you living when you returned to DC?
RH: I was living in the Connecticut Heights apartment building. It is right behind Murch School. We were very attentive to school boundaries. You really had to live within three blocks of the school to guarantee assignment to that school and we chose that address for that reason. We wanted to make sure my older son attended Murch because their Kindergarten had two recesses. In light of his autism, high energy, that was an important consideration. During their time at Murch I did a lot of work for the PTA, including some mural work in that school, as well. But it is all gone now.
CL: Gee. I hope there are pictures of the work.
RH: I have pictures. While I was putting up my mural, I found old murals underneath. I found an old mural near the gymnasium that dated from the school’s earliest years.
For many years, Murch was struggling. Parents were called upon to make up for deficiencies. They did everything. They were called on to fix the plumbing. There was no money to fix anything at Murch. When there was a meeting to fix the school, most schools would hire someone externally. At Murch, we just went in and did it. We worked on replacing or repairing bulletin boards. Behind one of them, I discovered a mural. So, I did take pictures of my work. At some point it was decided to whitewash the room and my mural disappeared behind a coat of white paint. In any event, the whole building has been renovated and it has a fresh look. FINALLY, there was funding to fix Murch. But for many years it was a very challenging school environment.
CL: Regina, how would you characterize the evolution of the outlook on your work? And where do you think it is going?
RH: You know, I don’t know where God is leading me. I do know that art is part of my ministry always. One of the things I do a lot is live-paint. That means that I don’t know what the painting is going to be until I am finished. That has been wonderfully liberating. When I was a young artist, I used to sketch before I would paint. Now I just paint. No sketch, I just go straight to painting. That is an evolution to being free and letting the spirit take you wherever it will. That is something that has happened to me as I have aged. That is in contrast to “73 cents.” I sketched that one, because I wanted Fred’s input. It is really rare to sketch at all, ever, now. I just go with a vision. Oftentimes the vision presents itself within my mind and I begin. Then, as I am working the painting develops organically based on other people talking to me. That has been really beautiful, letting that happen; it requires opening yourself up sufficiently to allow that to happen. Amazing things have occurred while I have been doing that. I call them God-moments, because I will paint things I don’t understand, but the person talking next to me discerns the meaning. They would relate to an image that was important to them. That has been powerful. There have been a lot of those moments. The experience is communal, bringing people to realize we are all on the same path toward our future. We are interacting together on that path. I read a lot of Stephen King and the world of the Dark Towers, they call this ka-tet. There are people who you are meant to meet and affect your life. It is beautiful watching that happen. Like you were meant to read the bottom of my painting and call me.
CL: Will you become a Lutheran minister?
RH: Yes. I will take the path of Lutheran ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Sometimes the “evangelical” designation raises eyebrows. But this refers to the original sense of the word.
CL: Indeed. As you well know, the title of Germany’s largest church federation is the Lutheran-inspired Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland.
RH: Yes. When I was working on “73 cents” passersby would approach. One of them asked, “By any chance are you a Lutheran?” After all, there is this tradition of people putting things on walls and doors. I guess God is demanding access to information and I am putting it on a wall. Yes, I am very Lutheran.
CL: Let me say for both of us that we are delighted to have caught up with you after having been inspired by the imagery you have shared with our neighborhood over the years. We consider it to be in the best tradition of public service and thank you for it.
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