Meet Holly Sanders: Indigenous Artist and Educator

Stories from the past and a connection to the Country – land, sea and sky, are key energisers and drivers for contemporary, Indigenous artist, Holly Sanders. She is a classroom teacher who is passionate about Aboriginal education and leading advocate for her people and community.

Being an artist allows Holly to keep her cultural heritage alive and shared. For the first time she is collaborating with Nerida Hansen Fabrics and releasing a breathtaking collection of four designs for Nerida’s textiles. She recently spoke to our blog editor, Jacqui Taylor, about her fervour.

Hello Holly, could you start with telling me a bit about yourself such as where you grew up and where you live now?
My Name is Holly Sanders and I am a proud Aboriginal Bundjalung woman. Part of my childhood was spent growing up in the country on the NSW North Coast before moving down to Yuin Country, NSW South Coast. I am a classroom teacher and contemporary Aboriginal Artist, my art shares stories about culture and Country.

When did you fall in love with painting?
I have always loved painting, I was sick a lot during my childhood and I would always paint and sketch in hospital and at home in bed – I think it helped with my healing. Today, I feel painting keeps my culture strong, it is good for my health and wellbeing and it connects me back spiritually and historically to who I am. From a young age, I watched my mother paint and now I paint and think of her. I am hoping to pass this love of painting onto my daughters.What is your creative process? Talk me through it.
My biggest inspiration in my art is definitely Country. I always look to Country – the land, sky and the sea – and use these images, stories and memories to paint. The colours and patterns of Saltwater Country at different times of the day and year influence heavily in my art. I use my art to tell the story of my Country and ancestors because I want to be able to share and celebrate my culture in a contemporary way with everyone.What has changed for you due to COVID-19? And how have you adapted your work to manage during this time?
For me personally, this pandemic has had some silver lining to it. I felt like I had lost some of those real, genuine moments I had with my loved ones. It could have been the busy schedules, running around to make ends meet and rushing to make appointments or meetings. For me it was being able to spend quality time with my family, my new baby and plan my work and day better. As life slowed down during this time, I found ways to stay more connected with people, even if it was virtually.

Holly, when and how did you meet Nerida Hansen? Were you familiar with Nerida Hansen Fabrics?
I was so excited when Nerida Hansen first reached out to me. I know she is very respectful, passionate and committed to running a transparent business. She embraces minimal waste and sustainable practices, which is something that is very important to me. Her integrity is something I really admire. The fabric quality is also next level and I almost cried when I saw the fabric samples. It’s as if I hand painted my artwork onto the fabric myself! I am so eager to share and see what everyone thinks and creates!Tell me about your upcoming collection for Nerida Hansen Fabrics. What were your inspirations for this body of work?
The overall theme is about Country and sharing and acknowledging our history. It is about taking pride in and respecting the cultures that have cared for this land for thousands of years. We are a strong and resilient people and we are still here- the world’s oldest continuous living cultures. I wanted this to be acknowledged and celebrated.What is the meaning behind some of the symbols and patterns that you incorporate in your work?
The symbols and patterns used throughout my contemporary work are related to the Country, women and Women’s Business. First Nations art is so diverse and is not an art form that everyone can paint or be ‘inspired by’. It is intrinsically linked to the longest continuing culture, to preserve our cultures. Each dot, line, symbol and style has sacred meaning and it’s important to share that the storytelling and symbols used in this contemporary art collection does not represent all First Nation’s cultural groups or people.

Some meanings include:
‘U’ shaped symbols represent people and women.
Dots and circles represent bush berries and seeds on country.
Concentric circles represent meeting place areas on country.
Lines represent journey, travel or song lines.

Describe your typical day.
I am currently on part time maternity leave with my two young daughters. I also work part time as a classroom teacher, which I am also passionate about. At the moment, I create during nap and bed times or with my babies around my feet. So many busy fingers!What do you never leave home without?
At the moment, with a one year old, the nappy bag and baby wipes. Haha sorry not very interesting!

Who or what inspires you and why?
The patterns of Saltwater Country motivate and inspire me, as do stories from the past. Connection to Country is important for all Aboriginal people and it is something I enjoy painting and sharing. Country is more than a place. It is part of our lives in every aspect – spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially, and culturally. It links us to our culture, language, family, lore and identity. Who do you admire?
There are so many great women in my life that I admire. There are strong women everywhere and I take something from all of them. Our Aunties, our matriarchs and Aboriginal women I admire. They are pillars of our society, who fought and continue to fight, for justice, equal rights, our rights to country, for justice, access to education and employment. They often do so while caring and holding our families together. Women are a crucial part of First Nation’s success in not only today's society, but in our history immemorial. Our Aunties and Indigenous women are queens- powerful, strong and determined.

What is in the pipeline for you for 2021?
I cannot wait to share my website and print collection launching soon! I started sharing my art and culture with everyone over seven years ago and this marks a huge milestone for me. Never did I think that so many people would be enjoying my art and reading the cultural stories I share about each. You can check it out at www.hollysandersart.com.au.

Name three words that best describe your style of art.
Oh, this is hard as everyone sees something different in my work. I think it would be contemporary, engaging (the story telling) and detailed.What advice would you offer to those starting out as an artist?
For Aboriginal artists starting out, it is important to learn and yarn with our old people, our Elders, our Aunties and Uncles. They are our knowledge holders and it is important to know and respect art cultural protocols and styles.

What is the best advice you have received?
Never give up and never give in. I will never forget Elder, Aunty Gracie, yarning with me – she told me to be proud, be confident and never give up and never give in. Disappointments, failure, resistance, setbacks and criticism from others – I’ll go through all of it in my path to my dream. Continue sharing, educating, live and breathe culture for our ancestors. A long line of women are behind me and a long line of them are ahead. 

Shop Holly's breathtaking collection before it is too late at www.neridahansen.com.au.

Holly acknowledges the traditional owners of the land, waters and sky and pays her respects to the Elders past present and emerging.