Joseph Holston: Color in Freedom, Journey along the Underground Railroad

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Joseph Holston, After Harriett, 2008, mixed media

Joseph Holston, After Harriett, 2008, mixed media


With every stroke of Joseph Holston’s paintbrush, every choice of color, subject and even canvas size — he takes the viewer on a journey of slavery from somber darkness to the bright light of hope.

In Color in Freedom, Joseph Holston: Journey Along the Underground Railroad, Holston leads his audience through four movements that deepen our understanding of America’s Black enslaved people’s experience. Visitors to Washington County Museum of Fine Arts can see the artist’s thought-evoking exhibition from September 24, 2022, to January 14, 2023.

The exhibition features more than 50 paintings, etchings, and drawings by Maryland-born Holston, which were created to enhance viewers’ understanding of the condition of slavery, and the powerful instinct toward freedom.

Color in Freedom captures the essence of the enormous courage and perseverance required to both survive under and escape from slavery. This exhibition is one artist’s visual representation and expression of a range of human experiences and emotions within the framework of this period in American history


Joseph Holston

Joseph Holston

American artist Joseph Holston (b. April 6, 1946) is known for a body of work that highlights the African American experience through his use of vivid colors exaggerated and simplified forms, powerful lines, and rhythmic compositions.

With a career that spans more than half a century, Holston expresses himself through a variety of media – oil painting, etching, silkscreen and collage.

Holston grew up in a rural Black community outside of Chevy Chase, Maryland, before moving in 1960 to Washington, D.C. There, Holston was accepted into the commercial art program at Chamberlain Vocational High School.

From 1964 to 1970, Holston worked as a commercial artist and illustrator and studied with portraitist Marcos Blahove (1928-2012). In 1971, he studied in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with portraitist, landscape and still-life painter Richard Vernon Goetz (1915-1991). Months later, Holston resigned from his job in Washington, D.C., and began a full-time career in painting.

Today, his widely acclaimed work is included in private and public collections such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum; The Phillips Collection; the Baltimore Museum of Art; the U. S. Federal Reserve Fine Art Collection; the Library of Congress Fine Print Collection; the Yale University Art Gallery; the DuSable Museum of African American History; the Butler Institute of American Art; the Georgia Museum of Art; the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design; the Amarillo Museum of Art; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York; the University of Maryland University College; the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland; the Lyndon B. Johnson Library at the University of Texas; Howard University, and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, where his canvas Jazz at Tacoma Station is a visitor favorite.


Joseph Holston, The Quarters, mixed media

Joseph Holston, The Quarters, mixed media

Holston’s sensitivity to all forms of artistic expression includes an appreciation of music. His understanding of musical composition informs a natural translation of the Color in Freedom themes to the parallels in movement and rhythm of classical symphonic pieces or the thematic approach of jazz long-form compositions.

This exhibition embraces that parallel in four “movements” that track the journeys of those who traveled along the Underground Railroad: 1. The Unknown World, 2. Living in Bondage, 3. The Journey of Escape, 4. Color in Freedom.

Subjugation is part of the first movement, The Unknown World. Subjugation emphasizes the physical restraint and confinement of the captives. Here, after surviving the horrors of the voyage from Africa to the Americas, they find themselves bound together in a composition that expresses the forced debasement and humiliation imposed on a whole race.

Despite the physical closeness, the figures are turned away from one another; in a composition that emphasizes their separation from community and isolation, a grave relinquishing of their individual freedom.

The Quarters, on the other hand, portrays the enslaved person’s primary environment for family life, socializing, developing cultural identity, and maintaining Black solidarity.” In The Quarters (from The Second Movement, Living in Bondage—Life on the Plantation), Holston’s representation of plantation housing for slaves shows an eerily quiet and somber scene, devoid of people. The cabins are bound together by intertwining lines that reach up and attempt to lasso the moon, an element that conveys a sense of fundamental connection between the individual cabins and the glowing moon, as it provides a guiding light through darkness and adversity. Similarly, the illuminated windows suggest life within, and the tenuous haven the cabins provide despite captivity and oppression.

In After Harriet from The Third Movement, Journey of Escape, Holston references Harriet Tubman, celebrating the renowned figure of the Underground Railroad, and the heroic contributions she and others made in helping enslaved persons escape from bondage. Employing bright, joyful colors that express hope and the drive to freedom, the artist creates a tremendous sense of movement through the undulating forms in the sky that complement the actions and curves of the figures below. Their forward progress feels inevitable.

In the diptych Freedom Realized from The Fourth Movement, Color in Freedom, Holston captured the essence of the promise of freedom and the responsibility that came with it.

At the same time, the painter reminds viewers of how sober and serious the task of creating new lives and assuming leadership roles within the new community will be. Most notably, Holston portrayed the group of young people thoughtfully pausing on their way toward the bright light (symbolic of hope) that has guided them on their journey. Freedom Realized alludes to a connecting or rejoining of formerly separated lives—all of which will experience new beginnings, generations, families, unions, and future successes.

Color in Freedom has toured nationally and internationally, including an exhibition at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The 18 etchings from Color in Freedom are included in the collection of the Library of Congress.

The Hagerstown presentation of Joseph Holston: Color in Freedom, Journey Along the Underground Railroad is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, a certified heritage area of the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, and the generosity of Bob & Mary Helen Strauch.