Until I visited primitive artist Toby Hollinghead’s current exhibition, I was only acquainted with two “Mississippi Queen” steamboats. One was the late, lamented paddlewheeler on which I made several river cruises. Sadly, it was dismantled a couple years ago. The other, a wannabe, does harbor tours in Hamburg, Germany, its paddlewheel as fake as a street vendor’s Rolexes.
Now, I have a new “Mississippi Queen” to replace the void in my Steamboater’s heart: Hollinghead’s painting currently on display at the Crestview Public Library.
Hollinghead’s cheerful, vibrant canvas perfectly captures the romance of those halcyon days of the Great Steamboat Era. Riverfolk eagerly greet the elegant sidewheeler as she steams up to the landing. A couple roustabouts, one strumming a banjo, lounge around cotton bales to be loaded aboard the boat. You can almost hear the familiar riverman’s cry, “Steamboat a-comin’!”
Born north of Florida in McKenzie, Ala., Hollinghead’s family moved to Deerland, a community just east of Crestview, when she was 10. Life in both rural communities greatly influences her paintings. Locals will feel right at home among scenes of cotton harvesting and country life. A favorite is “Two Red Rakes,” depicting a couple raking and burning autumn leaves as their daughter plays nearby on a tree swing.
Though Hollinghead enjoyed sketching and playing guitar all her life, she never contemplated putting paint to canvas until her grown daughter, Raven, gave her an artist’s paint set for Christmas one year. Hollinghead has been painting ever since.
“It’s like music to me,” she said. “The colors have rhythm and flow, and can evoke tears and laughter. When I approach the canvas, the paint and brush take over and move of their own accord to create an emotion and an event I sometimes didn’t know was there.”
Some of Hollinghead’s works — including “Given Unto You,” a large Nativity painting that greets visitors at the exhibition’s beginning — reflect her deep faith.
“God has blessed me by giving me this special gift of joy and I hope to share it with others,” Hollinghead said.
Hollinghead has also included several winter scenes, some of them delightfully whimsical, that are also apropos to the season. I particularly liked the “Santa Bird,” as well as an untitled piece depicting four of the stocking-capped birds delivering presents to a cabin. My favorite, though, was “Pat of Encouragement,” showing a young boy completing a snowman as decorated fir trees bow in the background.
Hollinghead’s exhibit will remain through December during normal library hours, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Fridays; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays.