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An immigrant’s story of art: Hollis King 

Tatyana Bellamy-Walker | 4/17/2014, 2:57 p.m.
Raised on the island of Trinidad and Tobago, Caribbean Creative Art Director Hollis King grew up crafting carnival masks, designing ...
Hollis King

Raised on the island of Trinidad and Tobago, Caribbean Creative Art Director Hollis King grew up crafting carnival masks, designing spinning tops and creating his own kites. King’s imaginative play led to work as the former vice president and creative art director of Verve Music Group, the largest jazz record label in the world. King used his passion for art to redesign the set for the August Wilson “American Cycle” series at the Greene Space. 

Before cultivating the New York art scene, it was life lessons King learned from his grandmother in Trinidad that taught him not to value only work, but also himself. 

“My grandma was tough; and I always told her how much I loved her. She taught me never to look down because there’s nothing on the ground for you, always keep your head up, she said,” King recalled.

When King was 3 years old, he was diagnosed with polio and missed out on playing cricket and other childhood games with his friends. However, for King, it proved to be a disability worth overcoming. 

“There were times when it is mentally challenging, being different from others. But it was my greatest gift in a way,” King said. “I learned to stand on my own feet … literally.”

Despite King’s talent, drawing was challenging when he was young, and he copied drawings from a classmate who was better developed. After copying the classmate’s work, King’s artistic abilities began to grow.  

“I used to take money from recess time and pay him a quarter to draw in my book,” King said. “Drawings grow proportionally to your courage and commitment. It’s like a truth ceremony, it shows where you are.” said King 

After immigrating to Brooklyn, N.Y., at 16, King attended New York City Community College, beginning as a liberal arts major with hopes of becoming a lawyer. After taking a couple art classes, his classmates and professors saw that he had a natural talent for drawing.

“Art started off as something that I just did, then I found out I could make a living out of it. The teachers thought I was great,” said King.

Beginning in graphic advertising and moving to the company’s music department at Verve, King worked with legendary artists Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight. During his time at Verve, King shaped the look and feel of artists and portrayed them in a new light. 

“As a creative director, I get to come up with an idea in my head and actualize it. You get to shape and influence,” King stated. “Without good visual art, the product suffers.”

King won numerous achievement awards and citations from magazines, and the American Institute of Graphic Arts as well as five Grammy nominations from 1995-2005. King explains that the Grammys forced him to look inside himself and take the work more seriously. 

“I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t know that I was that worthy. I had to question how I could be more creative,” he said. “There was no more fooling around after the first nomination. I was scared to death, and it made me better.”

In recent years, King has launched the Laundromat Project, a nonprofit organization that allows creativity to transform communities. Since the fall of 2013, King worked both to renovate the Greene Space and raise funds to save the Coltrane House, a historic landmark in Dix Hills, the former home of jazz artist John Coltrane.