Story by Sarah Gonzales
Holly Gittlein's Wasilla home is a testament to her "three passions" in life: art, biology and traveling the world with Rotary International to do humanitarian work. Her home's interior is adorned with a colorful mix of her own wildlife sculptures and art from her travels to the South Pacific, South America and all points in between. Formally trained as a biologist, Gittlein's love of animal life is the greatest inspiration behind her metal artwork.
Gittlein's workshop, just a few steps from her home, welcomes visitors with a whimsically painted concrete floor depicting octopus, halibut and sea life. The shop is filled with sheets of copper, brass, steel and glass, welding and respiratory equipment, a huge metal workbench crafted from an old floor at the Anchorage Daily News, and another work table that looks like a giant barbecue. She built the workshop with the help of her friends and family, completing it late last year following a car accident that confined her to a wheelchair and prevented her from working for five months. Fully recovered now, she fires up a torch and demonstrates metal brazing, a technique she uses in her artwork that can only be described as painting with liquid metal – the result is both delicate and sturdy, much like Gittlein herself.
"Everything in life is about change and metal is transitional," she says. "It's rusting or moving. It pops when it gets hot and it cracks when it's cold. It's dynamic and I'm a dynamic person." Indeed, Gittlein hails from a long line of hearty and resourceful folks.
She grew up in Colorado, spending summers in Alaska, working with metal alongside her machinist father and uncles, while her mother and aunt taught her painting, ceramics and crafts.
Almost by accident, she says, she discovered her knack for "messing with metal." In 2002 she "had to make a mannequin to display some tee shirts," she says, explaining that a mechanic friend helped her to put it together. "I just sort of knew," she states, realizing then that she'd found her calling. It was only months later that she sold her first piece of art, one of her (now) signature metal and glass fish sculptures, to Town Square Art Gallery where the owner, Janet St. George, immediately identified the artist in the biologist. "She wanted everything that I had," Gittlein remembers.
But even before that, Gittlein was welding her love of nature to art. As an exchange student to Costa Rica she met an artist/biologist who was identifying bird species. "He taught me how to paint birds accurately," she recalls. "And we painted a field guide to all the birds that we caught."
Anatomical accuracy remains a high priority in Gittlein's artwork, and her attention to detail is readily evident in the sculptures of fish, birds and mammals that she creates for private sale, and for the many commissions for schools, hospitals, post offices and the military that keep her busy. "I get a lot of my inspiration from nature and more specifically from water. I have an addiction to water," she says.
For the past three years, Gittlein has traveled on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to Fiji where she employs her training as a biologist to assist the developing country gain access to clean water. Today, Gittlein spends six to nine months a year in Alaska working on her art, and also writing grants for the clean water and eco-conservation projects that she will spend the remainder of the year putting into action abroad as a Rotary Scholar.
In every sense, Gittlein is the kind of person who is not afraid to get her hands dirty trying new things and it has paid off. In eight short years she has become the rare artist who is able to make a living from selling art, and as a result she is able to travel the world helping to preserve the very nature that inspires her artwork.