Finding fun and escape in the fantastical and whimsical

Taking his art beyond the enthusiast stage, Elmira’s Dan Holt exhibits work at the KPL

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Dan Holt at the opening of his art exhibit Aug. 2. His works will be on display at the Kitchener Public Library throughout the month of August. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]

‘Whimsical’ is perhaps the best word, or maybe ‘fantastical,’ for the collection of works adorning the walls of the Kitchener Public Library. The creations of Elmira artist Dan Holt, on exhibit at the library this month, are a vibrant splash of the fantastical and the absurd, with colourful images of fairies and gremlins and musical bullfrogs and dragons thrown in the mix.

The intended result, says Holt, is to make people smile.

“Let me put it this way. I greatly appreciate realism and realistic artwork; I’ve done some. But I have a camera, and it’s easier to take a picture. But the things that I like to do are things that I hope will bring a smile,” says Holt of his work.

“Like the frog series and some of the dragons and stuff like that. Actually, it’s to stimulate a person to be able to go into their own mind’s eye and see the whimsy and fantasy and the fantastical, and to enjoy their own imagination.”

Walking through the exhibit, he points to some of his works. A fairy tends to a court of myth-like forest creatures; an ostrich buries its head into the ground to discover a fantasy world below; a pod of frogs form a band of misshapen, nonsensical musical instruments, and seem to have a good time doing it.

The ostrich, notes Holt, was one of his favourites.

“I love the ostrich,” he says. “I don’t know. I’ve always heard about ostriches sticking their heads in the dirt. And I kept thinking, ‘Well, why would they do that? Maybe they see something down there that we don’t see.’”

So Holt decided to fill in the gaps, painting a rich, chromatic scenery with a glowing sunset and a castle, hidden just beneath the Earth’s surface. He admits, though, that he’s not actually sure what the animal sees down there that’s so fascinating.

“I don’t think they see much of anything. A lot of people say they don’t even stick their head in the dirt, which they may not. I don’t know. But I’ve stuck my head in the dirt 20 times and I can’t find that place. I keep trying.”

The high-concept fantasy of the art might, at first glance, seem at odds with the other parts of Holt’s diverse résumé. His background in politics, for instance.

Most people wouldn’t associate fantasy with being a politician – or at least, not in that way. But residents living in the Elmira area may recognize Holt from the 2014 municipal election, when he ran for political office as a Woolwich Township councillor. More recently, Holt lent his support to the recently created Consensus Ontario political party during the provincial elections, earlier this summer.

Before his foray into local politics, Holt, a PhD. in psychology and education, was a professor at Penn State University. He immigrated to Elmira 10 years ago with his wife, a fellow professor, after she was offered the position of dean at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Now retired from teaching, Holt has more time to devote towards his art, though he’s resistant to using the label of an artist.

“I really have never classified myself as an artist. It’s something that I’ve done for fun, and the feeling of accomplishment,” he says.

Maybe a doodle-enthusiast, Holt nonetheless sells copies of his artwork through his website at www.danholtart.com. He does note, however, that he has the benefit of a stable income to support his artwork, and he advises anyone else hoping to become an artist to find the same.

“I’d probably say have a source of income first. But in terms of the art, you have to have fun,” he maintains.

“And I think the key element with anybody, but especially when you’re starting out, is don’t let everything become precious. And by that I mean if you start sketching and drawing something and you find that it’s not going exactly as you wanted … sometimes you need to wad it up and throw it away.”

As well as creating bright, colourful works, Holt has enjoyed teaching kids to do the same, even authoring a book on the subject, “Cartoon Thinking.”

“It was based on teaching kids how to do cartooning, and it’s nine two-hour lesson plans on the basics, the very fundamentals of cartooning, and also on how to come with an idea of what to cartoon. Because I think cartooning is a concise expression of a complex idea,” he explains, adding that he is more than happy to come by schools to teach his subject for free as well.

But those hoping to view Holt’s cartoonish creations rather than create their own can visit the Kitchener Public Library, where Holt’s works will be on display for the rest of the month.