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Laurel Holloman's Brush with the Abstract: Exclusive Interview

Laurel Holloman's Brush with the Abstract: Exclusive Interview

Most renowned for her iconic lesbian roles on "The L Word" and in "The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love," actress Laurel Holloman has been busy trying her hand at another form of artistic expression – large format abstract painting. SheWired chatted with Laurel about her passion and inspiration for painting, her influences, juggling parenting – she’s a mom to two young daughters – with creating art and acting, the art in Bette’s and Tina’s house and just what that whole painting on enormous canvases thing is about.


Renowned for her iconic lesbian roles on The L Word and in The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, actress Laurel Holloman has been busy trying her hand at another form of artistic expression – large format abstract painting.

Fresh off a four-month immersion into New York’s art world in Tribeca, virtually living, breathing and creating art, Laurel’s returned to Los Angeles passionate about a part of her that lay dormant for nearly two decades while she made her mark in dozens of films and on television.

With the successful launch of her art-related website, a success she attributes in part to her devoted L Word fans, who helped spread the word – Laurel, now 39, is garnering attention in this renewed expression of her creativity, selling work she’s already painted and landing commissions for new pieces, including for a yoga studio in India.

A seasoned actress who won the hearts of LGBT audiences with her charming and nuanced turn as the school’s outcast baby butch in 1995’s Incredibly True Adventures… Laurel honed her acting chops in the late nineties in films including Boogie Nights and The Myth of Fingerprints, until she landed a steady role on Angel and most famously, as Tina Kennard on The L Word.

While Laurel’s recently been focused on her painting, her fans can look forward to seeing her on the small screen in the Angela Robinson helmed TV show about celebrities’ kids, Gigantic, airing this October, in which Laurel plays a single mom.

SheWired chatted with Laurel about her passion and inspiration for painting, her influences, juggling parenting – she’s a mom to two young daughters – with creating art and acting, the art in Bette’s and Tina’s house and just what that whole painting on enormous canvases thing is about. 

I am eager to learn more about your art background. Can you tell me how you came to be such a prolific painter?

I did a double major in performance studies and art at Chapel Hill and then it kind of kept going from there. I also did sculpture at that time. But once I got cast in a bunch of plays, and once that sort of took off, it just kept taking over.

So the performance studies trumped the art at the time…

I think I really loved acting, and at that time I was trying to process how to start in my career. It just sort of kept going, and once I got to New York and got a lead in a movie and got a lead in a play, it happened really quickly. Within one year I was up at Sundance. I never even got to start painting, because when you’re doing a play or starring in a movie, there’s not really much time to focus on painting. Then my life was living on set a lot and that’s hard too because the biggest thing with oil painting is you need the space.

From looking at your paintings on your website, it looks as though you paint big!

I usually paint large format and you need the ceiling height, you need a sink, you need a place where you’re safely working with chemicals. It’s messy. 

And that is tough to do when you’re working on set.

My whole life was usually on location somewhere. I did about 30 films before I started doing TV.  I would do about five films a year and mostly just be in a hotel or house.

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So how did you really come to foster your passion for painting?

It was kind of the hiatuses between The L Word that brought it out, and then maybe a little bit before The L Word - when I was shooting Angel - I was painting a little bit then. My husband owned a set construction company and there was a huge space there. It was a place that allowed me to have those freedoms. It’s always just sort of been about how I can fit it in.

Literally fit it in and timewise… How did you begin to find the time to be as prolific as you’ve been over the past year or so?

It’s something that just sort of happened, where I started painting more and more. I have a studio set up in my house, and then when I got to New York and painted there that was a very different experience. I surrounded myself with an art community and had a lot people that were incredibly supportive. It was the first time I ever actually focused and painted 40 hours a week or more.

That sounds intense. You mentioned a studio here in LA - in your house?

I am in my house now, but I am hoping to set up something in Venice. There’s an art gallery space downtown that we might end up getting in. I am trying to get it more towards Venice because I feel like it’s harder for people to come downtown. It is hard to get people to do much in LA anyway. [Laughs]

Agreed. Downtown may as well be Fresno for most people in LA. How do you know what you want to paint or what might work?

This summer was sort of a time that was full of ideas and growth and creativity. It was full of a lot of challenges – many paintings that didn’t work, and aren’t on the site, and many paintings that did work and are being saved for later.

But it’s been exciting.  I feel lucky because most the people I  know who are buying paintings aren’t fans -- they are either collectors or just like the art. I think that the fans helped really spread the site. I feel that was the most amazing thing. I have gotten so much support. There’s something really fantastic about The L Word fan base.

Lesbians, once we love you, you’re in.  It’s a pretty die-hard fan base.

[Laughs] I think it’s uniquely special.

I’m curious about your time in New York painting -- when did that occur and how did it come about?

That occurred in May and went all the way until four days ago. It was really hard because I was also single parenting and that was tricky, because my husband was in China (working) for the whole thing. It became a really big juggle, but it was something I wanted to try because it was also complicated to juggle filming with the girls, and not having the other partner to help with childcare.

Those hours you get off set, and sometimes you’ve worked a sixteen-hour day -- I wanted to be able to paint from early in the morning until I saw my kids at dinner. I know that everyone out there with kids gets what that is -- that balance of your career and parenting is a tricky balance. 

So, we won’t see an LA ex-pat, will we? Are you going to move back to New York?

I was hoping to make that work, but I just don’t know how to make it work right now with the ages that my kids are. So, I kind of feel like I would love to have a New York opening, and hopefully we will figure out a way to do that, or, I would easily entertain shooting a New York show. I’d be thrilled.

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You’ve acted a bit since The L Word’s finale. Can you tell me what you’ve worked on?

Right now I have Giganticcoming out in October. I shot four episodes of that. It was a really good experience because I reconnected with some great L Word writers and directors like Jamie Babbit and Angela Robinson -- who I just saw today. And Marti  Noxon, who was the producer on Angel. She’s the creator and she’s fabulous. I felt lucky. It was a very different part –  a single mom raising a teenage son -- very liberal. She used to be kind of a rock and roller and is struggling to keep her life together.

The show is about celebrities’ kids right?

It’s really about celebrity in Los Angeles --  the drug of celebrity, and these kids are all children of famous actors, except for my son. My character used to be a pop star, kind of a one hit wonder, and now she’s just a teacher. That part wasn’t really something that was very much explored though. It is more focused on their relationships and their children.

What I liked about it was that it showed a teenage son and a mother who had almost like a brother / sister relationship because the mother had had him so young, and because she’d been a victim of domestic violence and was basically raising her son by herself. So there were issues there that were interesting.

Also, the cast is great. Gia Mantegna, who is Joe Mantegna’s daughter, and Grace Gummer, who is Meryl Streep’s daughter, who is lovely and just so amazing, and Ryan Rottman, who played my son. I just felt like it was great. Also, Helen Slater is in it.

That’s sounds like it’s just my speed. I will definitely tune in. I have a new guilty pleasure right now -- watching Greek on Hulu.

Oh, then yeah I think you will like it. It’s great.

And you went to New York to concentrate on painting after shooting Gigantic? I’ve read interviews recently in which it seemed as though you were giving up the greasepaint (acting) for oil paint. Is that at all accurate?

Once I finished that (Gigantic) in the spring, it was pretty clear I was headed to New York.

And no, I am not quitting acting at all. I’ve read for many things in New York. I have been more selective I guess. There are just some things that if they don’t click and they don’t end up in the town I am living in with my children. When you’re on your own with your kids, there are a lot of choices you have to make that are going to be different.

What is it like working on commission? Does the pressure hamper your creativity or make the process less enjoyable?

I have been so lucky that everyone that asks for commission so far usually wants something that’s similar to a painting they’ve already seen. There are a couple of people that have bought already. I invited them into the studio and they saw the painting before they purchased, with the exception of She Burned My Eyes, which sold to someone in France. One of the commissions is for a yoga studio in India.

I read about that. It’s exciting to do an entire space!

Yeah! We are really in the early stages of everything with all of this. What it seems to be is kind of collaboration, which I think is wonderful and challenging. I love that people have really strong ideas about what colors they want.

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From what I’ve seen of your work it looks like a great fit for that sort of project. How do you assess what people are looking for?

Well, It’s abstract painting and very interior design friendly. It’s starting with colors and seeing the space that I am painting for, talking about what kind of feeling the client wants to see when they look at the painting everyday. I have a lot of art in my home and that is what art is about.

On the other end of the spectrum it can be about collection and investment, but I think that for most of the people I am painting for its about loving something and seeing it everyday and having it be really special. I kind of feel like, if you are going to have art in your house, you should see it and it should pull up something emotionally. That is, as much as you love your couch or your bed. It should also provoke something for your guests that come over, even a dialogue. I am just starting on the commission aspect of it and finding it challenging, but most everybody seems to want me to go free reign on it and just let my creativity go where it wants to go.

What can fans of your work do to get a piece of Laurel Holloman’s work if they don’t have the big budget?

I got so much great response from the site, and that felt really, really great. I had a lot of people helping me with that and I think the main thing I am going to try to do is --  I paint such large, large paintings, and they take so long to complete, and there’s so many layers of paint, and so much going on, and those sizes in the art world can be fairly pricey – so I am trying to create a nice lithograph or a nice print in a size where you can make a poster and get it framed and it would be very reasonable, and of course it would be signed, and provide that for people.

I love that idea. And having them signed by you is just a bonus. I saw a few of your paintings that would look amazing in my place.

There have  always been pieces of art that I wanted and I was like, “You know what – I’ll just get the poster to hang up.” I hope to have that. That’s been in the works for a while, but I am being very careful with the printers. I want the quality to be nice.

I hope that as I manage as a single parent I am able to balance all three – the single parenting, the painting and the acting. It sometimes feels like there are days where I have 100 balls in the air, especially now that I am busy with the commissions. 

I don’t know how you parents do it. I have a cat that I can barely manage. So my hat’s off to you.

[Laughs] The beauty of it is that my children love to get paintbrushes out and paint side by side with me. We even put an easel up, if they are at home. I just encourage them to just get messy and have fun.

That’s a great visual.  Is there a specific art movement or artist that you emulate?

Yeah, mainly a lot of just female artists, but not necessarily a specific medium. Marlene Dumas, a South African painter who is just phenomenal. Kiki Smith for all the obvious reasons. Louise Bourgeois, who has this amazing sculpture at the Tate -- right when you first walk in. Lee Krasner. Ashley Collins, who’s in Venice, who paints these beautiful horses. For me its not necessarily one medium that I am drawn to, its just how I feel when I see that piece of art or what inspires me to go “wow, I just want to keep going.”

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Are you finding it difficult to adjust to your place in the art world after having been in the entertainment industry for so long?

Because my focus has been on acting and I’m so much in the early stages of something, I’m sure it will take, as it did in acting, time to sort of find what my creative voice is in it, and what it is that I want to express.

It’s also this time that’s kind of like music and iTunes --  the Internet is changing how you can market yourself in the art world so you’re not dependent on a gallery. I still want to do exhibitions, but you can control this in a way where you can keep expressing yourself. When you’re at the Hamburg Gallery, they can pick or not pick a painting – it’s a different world.

Coming from television that’s one of the things I am so drawn to. I have complete creative control over something. I have control over a character the way I build her and how I show her and what I want to express, but ultimately it’s a collaboration and it changes in the writing and editing and all those things. I love that part of my job. But I really love painting for the privacy I get from it, and also being able to control everything about it.

I was reading your statement of purpose on your website, and it says that your paintings can become an ‘unexpected self-portrait.’ As they are abstract paintings that statement isn’t literal. Do you mean that any work you create is a reflection of what is happening in your life and ultimately of you?

That’s an interesting way to put it. I think I came to that with a couple of the paintings because I think there was a lot of change and growth, things that I was coming towards while I was painting in Tribeca.

I see it in She Burns My Eyes. I see it in Hard to get to the Center of Things, in I Walk Alone. That painting is very spiritual. Close up there’s a journey with that whole painting. There’s no photo-authenticity in most of my paintings because I am not interested in that, I am interested in hidden imagery, hidden messages, abstract expressionism.

Tell me a little bit about how you get to that expression in your work.

Some of it is a combination of colors -- and I worked a lot with linseed oil this summer in different ways, and glazes and things like that. She Burns My Eyes comes from a model - she's not me. When I later stood back from the painting and looked at it -- there were different processes of glazes to get that look -- there were places where her body sort of melted back into the canvas. 

And her one hand around her breast – in that I thought that there was so much self-love. There was someone just kind of rising up… I felt like there was a birth almost in that painting, and a strength in that woman. It’s nothing I can say literally. It’s just what’s going on inside me, and it gets manifested visually. 

But it usually always starts with models and some of it comes from photography, some from pictures I have taken myself – my own photography. I am surrounded by great photographers, my ex-co-star (Jennifer Beals) included. I am more comfortable painting, but I photographed a lot of things this summer, and maybe I’ll explore more mixed medium type of pieces that incorporate photography. Most of my photography is to get the image first of the subject. So, I think they are abstract self-portraits.

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I come from a film theory background, and there is that saying that every documentary is work of fiction and every work of fiction is documentary. So your statement of purpose really struck me.

Do you know Cindy Sherman’s work?

I love Cindy Sherman, especially her Untitled Film Stills series.

I think she is so fascinating. I love all of her stuff. And Cathy Opie…

But for me, it’s interesting coming from the film world. I feel that I don’t want anything that I am working on to actually – and maybe this will change – to look like me literally in any kind of authentic way.

I want it to be something where people see themselves in it. Its kind of like I want to turn the camera around. I have always been in front of that camera; I want to shine a light on a blank canvas and express something that is coming from some emotion, expressing something that’s not turning the spotlight back on me.

There was such a desire to paint everyday because it was so awesome to be projecting it out, without feeling that thing you feel when you're about to be creative, and then the camera is rolling. I wanted to switch that. I wanted to feel that my creativity was going and it was not about what I look like or the character that I had molded. I wanted to mold something else, and also I just wanted it to be more tactile for me.

Because you have this art background, and your character on The L Word was married to someone who was an art aficionado,  were you ever sitting on set between takes and thinking you wanted to change the paintings in Bette and Tina’s house?

No, I was always inspired by them. I mean, they could afford really beautiful art, and always got really unique painters. Sometimes, between takes, Jennifer and I would talk about the different paintings, and be like “Oh, I like this one,” or “I don’t like this one so much.” It was kind of like a little on-going gallery.

Jennifer is an art history major, and very involved in that way. I just sort of sat back and listened. I think I split down the middle. I am a Gemini, so when I am acting, I am acting. I’m not ever thinking or talking about art. When I am painting, I am painting. Like what this summer was -- I painting for five months straight, non-stop, until four in the morning sometimes. I don’t overlap them. I am almost afraid to get a new show because I am afraid of how I am going to incorporate the painting. But I am also not, because I am ready, and I feel like I am trying to create balance between the two.

I imagine it takes a certain kind of energy to balance both artistic expressions at once.

Leisha (Hailey) would paint in her trailer every once in a while. She’s a great painter, an amazing painter.

She must have been using smaller canvases than you for them to fit in her trailer.

She is. Yeah. That’s another reason. You can’t get any of the untitled -- or any of the other works that are up on the site now  -- to fit through my trailer door. [Laughs] When people would ask why I didn’t paint on set, I’d be like “because I don’t paint small.” I really don’t, never have. I paint really large.

I have these paintings that are very big, and are on these brackets. I have to turn them and get on the ladder to work on the corners. So much of what I do is crazy messy. I have also worked with resins and varnishes, so it would have been impossible. I would have destroyed the trailer.

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You know, you could have, and then a wealthy art-loving L Word fan could have bought it and put in her front yard.

[Laughs] Yeah.

But, I am going to start painting a series of smaller things on these wooden 12x12s. It’ll be an amazing series on these 12 12x12s, but that is being shipped here now. I am saving that because I still might use it for the opening. But it’s harder for me to bring it down. I don’t know what that’s about.

I was wondering about that.

You know what Julian Schnabel said for when you’re feeling like you’re getting lost? “Paint large, and paint red.” Paint as large as you can. He’s an amazing film director.

Getting back to your acting a little -- you’re forever in the annals of lesbian film and television history because of your work on The L Word and, of course, in The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love.  Does that ever resonate for you that you are a part of LGBT pop culture history?

I don’t know! I guess I don’t think of it that way. I just feel so lucky. The fan base is so cool. They are just the coolest fans. You know, Angel had its own sort of fan base -- very uniquely different and they’re very loyal, too.

So I went from one show right on to another one where there was this fan loyalty that I had never really experienced before. I really just came from this independent film background where I would be so proud of these films that I would do that would just go to Sundance and never get a buyer. I would be like “yes, I did this great film with Laura Linney. Its amazing, we play sisters,” but no one’s seen it.

I don’t know, though. I just look at it like maybe it will lead to another part in a lesbian film or TV show, and I would get that gift again. And it would be a really great, strong wonderful character. That’s what I see – that I was given the blessing of Randy Dean and the blessing of Tina Kennard, and those characters would have never been each other. So I like to look at it like there was a lot of range in there.

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Tracy E. Gilchrist

Tracy E. Gilchrist is the VP, Executive Producer of Entertainment for the Advocate Channel. A media veteran, she writes about the intersections of LGBTQ+ equality and pop culture. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of The Advocate and the first feminism editor for the 55-year-old brand. In 2017, she launched the company's first podcast, The Advocates. She is an experienced broadcast interviewer, panel moderator, and public speaker who has delivered her talk, "Pandora's Box to Pose: Game-changing Visibility in Film and TV," at universities throughout the country.

Tracy E. Gilchrist is the VP, Executive Producer of Entertainment for the Advocate Channel. A media veteran, she writes about the intersections of LGBTQ+ equality and pop culture. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of The Advocate and the first feminism editor for the 55-year-old brand. In 2017, she launched the company's first podcast, The Advocates. She is an experienced broadcast interviewer, panel moderator, and public speaker who has delivered her talk, "Pandora's Box to Pose: Game-changing Visibility in Film and TV," at universities throughout the country.