Making Art While Finding Meaning


Using her paintings as a way to heal, Wiley Holton ’19 makes connections that matter

Artist Wiley Holton ’19 works in her studio in Medford, Mass. Holton works with a protractor, ruler, and other mathematical instruments to create works in her Kaleidoscope series.
By Claire SykesPhotography by Gabe Souza
August 18, 2022

Concentric circles and netted triangles emerge from and seep into a nuanced background, all in grays and whites. In another painting, bright, blurry hues take shape and meld with calm fluidity.

There’s a lot to see in the artwork of Wiley Holton ’19. For this Boston-based artist, there’s a lot to feel while making it, too. Her large acrylic-and-graphite abstract paintings on wood express her own personal struggles with her mental health.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about artists from Colby who are making art imbued with personal meaning while facing the challenges of the pandemic. By necessity and instinct, they and many other artists have taken a more fluid, nimble, and innovative approach in their marketing and promotion. Other innovative artists in this series include Sam Onche ’22 (Aug. 25) and Matthew Russ ’96 (Sept. 1)

The tense geometrics of her Kaleidoscope series are “mostly a brain dump, a visual journal, seeing where thoughts take me as I’m painting. The work becomes a vessel for describing my ADHD and the depression and anxiety that stem from that,” she said. Her looser and more tranquil Topographical paintings “are about letting myself slow down and focus on just the transitions of colors. I don’t need to be thinking about anything else, sort of like doing meditation or yoga.”

All of it is healing for Holton—and for others, too. Since the pandemic, during a time of isolation and introspection, Holton has found success promoting and selling her paintings through social media, word of mouth, and connecting directly, one-on-one, with collectors and others who are interested in her work and creative process.

“During the worst of it, there was a need for connection,” she said. “One of the best bridges for that is art, especially abstract art because everyone can create their own meaning in the work, which makes for an even deeper connection with it.”

I’ve always thought of myself as an artist”

Holton was born with a gift for math and art—“one to express my anxiety and the other to ground me.” Growing up in Boston in the early 2000s, at age 6 she found herself wide awake in the middle of the night, heart and thoughts racing, listening to “invisible footsteps” on the creaky stairs. Her parents didn’t hear her cries, so she silently counted out multiples of two until she fell back to sleep. They did, however, nurture her interest in drawing. “Making art was so natural to me. I’ve always thought of myself as an artist,” she said.

By the time Holton got to Colby in 2015 as a studio art major, she was sure that “art was my one track that I was going down.” She minored in mathematics and brought geometry into her Kaleidoscope paintings. She used a compass and protractor to draw perfect circles and angles and rendered mathematically accurate kaleidoscopic imagery with its different shapes repeated and balanced.

“Painting them is very soothing to my brain. There’s some surety there,” she said.

In her junior year, Holton had her first solo art exhibit at a gallery in Dedham, Mass. In 2019 she won Colby’s President’s Purchase Prize for her painting Circumferences of the Void. The 6-by-6-foot work, her largest, was showcased at the Senior Capstone Exhibition and welcomed into Colby College Museum of Art’s permanent collection.

“Those were definitely my biggest moments at Colby. It told me that, ‘Yes, I can do this,’” she said.

Also significant were a couple of professors who pushed her. One was Bevin Engman, professor of art. “She was very strict about the fundamentals of painting and knew they would be important for us. She was also empathetic, giving us all the knowledge she had. If I hadn’t had someone push me like that, I wouldn’t have gotten this far.”

Amanda Lilleston, visiting assistant professor of art, was another. Holton took one semester of printmaking with Lilleston in her senior year. “She’d introduce a topic and encourage us to go our own ways with our interests. That was awesome. She also was a role model for me, of how someone closer to my age navigated being a professional artist and teaching.”

Holton graduated with distinction, urged by her professors to get representation with a brick-and-mortar gallery. She built a website and put her art up on Instagram to promote and sell it and to follow and build relationships with other artists. She got accepted into group shows at Verum Ultimum Art Gallery in Portland, Ore., and Mother Brook Arts and Community Center in Dedham, Mass. Displayed at the latter’s Winter Open Studios in December 2019, her No In Between I won third place and a cash prize.

That month, Holton moved from her parent’s house into an apartment in Medford near Boston, renting a second room as her studio. Then Covid-19 entered the picture. Happy with her “homebody” self and more time to paint, Holton did little else. She had commissions to carry her through the early months of the pandemic, and by year’s end had taken a part-time instructor job at Muse Paintbar in Lynnfield, Mass., a bar-restaurant chain with painting classes. 

The pandemic hurled Holton into online exhibitions and more commissions, which now account for 70 percent of her sales, spurred mainly by word of mouth. Her 12-inch-square August Blues I won the Juror’s Choice award in the Cambridge Art Association’s BLUE 2021, the biennial fall exhibition. She also was one of the organization’s five Artist of the Year Award winners for her 36-inch-square Only Time Will Tell from her Kaleidoscope series, celebrated at the 2022 Members Prize Show in March.

Whether it’s awards, exhibitions, her website, Instagram, or Facebook, “the biggest thing I’ve learned is to keep putting my work out there for the world to see, regardless of the results.”

Always evolving

She was pleasantly surprised when one of her partner’s coworkers asked if she painted wedding bouquets. She had never painted flowers, but because they were opposite from her abstract work they provided “a nice break.”

Meanwhile, Holton has started a new body of work, melding the fine-lined geometric details of her Kaleidoscope series with the flowing color transitions and meditative feel of her Topographical paintings. That she wants to integrate visual and emotional aspects of both onto one piece of wood, without painting over the pain, tells Holton she’s progressing with her healing.

Wiley Holton, Only Time Will Tell, 36 x 36 inches (courtesy of Wiley Holton)

Making art connects her more and more with herself, and with others.

“It’s the most natural way I know how,” she said. “I want them to get a glimpse into my thought processes and ask themselves if they can relate to them or feel seen by my pieces, to figure out something new about themselves.”