A New Kind of Hotel Art
News & Record - November 11, 2007
by Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane
GREENSBORO -- Dennis Quaintance needed art. Lots of it.
His new Proximity Hotel would open in a few months.
And this wasn't just any hotel:
It would rise as one of the country's greenest.
Solar panels would heat the water.
Energy consumption would be cut by more than half that of a conventional hotel.
And whenever possible, materials and resources would be bought locally.
Now Quaintance and his design team sought wall art to complement earth-toned decor in 147 guest rooms.
Framed imported prints? Reproductions?
"We said, 'We know we need art in the rooms, that it needs to be big and needs to work with the palette,' " he recalls.
" 'So, how do we get there?' "
His quest would end with hundreds of pieces of original art, so unique that guests might want to take it home more than soaps and towels.
For that, Quaintance turned to one man: his longtime friend and collaborator, Lexington artist Chip Holton.
* * *
Holton needed work. Lots of it.
At 59 and a father of two teens, he needed to feed his desire to create — and pay the bills.
He and Quaintance would forge an arrangement that gives new meaning to the phrase "hotel art."
Holton would become Proximity's artist-in-residence. That's right. For a hotel.
Over four-plus months, he would turn out nearly 500 pieces of original work for each guest room and the lobby.
And it would cost Proximity about the same as reproduction art.
While other high-end hotels have bought or commissioned original art, Quaintance sees potential for the artist-in-residence idea to become a model.
"It was one of the coolest things that happened in my life this year," Quaintance says. "It happened through collaboration, arguing and all focused on the same end.
"I can't imagine art in these rooms that I would prefer more."
Davidson County artist Jim Moon, Holton's mentor, calls it "perhaps the most important work in North Carolina art at the moment because of the huge amount, the short time he did it in and the great quality of the work."
As the Proximity marked its "soft opening" in late October, Holton put the finishing touches on his decorative border encircling the lobby, a mural of gold tree branches and cherry blossoms against a background of browns.
Seven floors above, his charcoal drawings — naturalistic, abstract, figurative and cubist forms — were being hung in each room.
"I look at this hotel," Holton says, "as my single largest one-man show."
* * *
Frank P. "Chip" Holton III didn't aim to be an artist when, as a youngster, he drew figures on walls in his family's home.
He thought he might become an architect, but math wasn't his strong suit. So he studied philosophy at N.C. State.
A senior trip to see Italy and its artistic treasures set his career path. "I began to realize I should pursue my natural inclination to be an artist," he says.
He earned his master's degree in art, "never thinking about how I would make a living out of it," he admits.
But it did get him jobs designing exhibits at the North Carolina Zoo and painting murals at Gastonia's natural history museum.
Mural, painting and sculpture commissions let him strike out on his own.
He met Dennis and Nancy Quaintance 18 years ago as the couple prepared to open Lucky 32 restaurant. Holton painted its first mural.
He went on to create art for other Quaintance-related projects: writer O. Henry's portrait in the O. Henry Hotel, the food mural in Green Valley Grill, the playful local history scene in Lucky 32.
As Quaintance planned
his new Proximity Hotel on Green Valley Road, he hired Holton to create design sketches.
He expected to commission Holton to paint a lobby mural. Gradually, talk turned to guest room art.
" 'Chip, we don't know what we want,' " Quaintance recalls saying. " 'Why don't we just put you on salary and you can help us figure it out?' "
They gave him nearby studio space and paid expenses.
Then Holton went to work with a focus Quaintance had not seen before.
* * *
When Holton creates, he works quickly. Getting started is another story.
"Maybe in the past, I hadn't been the perfect paradigm of the work ethic," he admits. "Sometimes I work in fits and starts."
Quaintance knew that.
"Chip is bright, energetic, fun, completely alive, but most
often, he lacked focus," he says.
But with this project, Holton found, "You don't have the luxury of waiting for the muse to strike."
Holton considered painting in color. But through talk and trial, he, Quaintance and the design team developed another concept: charcoal sketches on canvas.
Each night, Holton sketched drawings in notebooks. Then he would translate them on canvases 4 feet by 5 feet or
7 feet by 8 feet — sometimes up to two an hour.
Some have names:
"Crossing the threshold."
"Once I did 20 or 30," Holton says, "I got the feel of it."
He didn't do it alone.
Craftsman Kris Kohanowich worked alongside, stretching, varnishing and framing canvases, installing security hardware — something art in another hotel might not warrant — and hanging them as Holton turned out sketches.
A few canvases didn't make the cut. Holton points to a pile of 12, their drawings portraying couples perhaps a little too, er, realistically.
"More abstract," Quaintance and designers suggested.
Guest rooms needed another artistic touch: groupings of small sketches above credenzas. Holton returned to the drawing board, turning out 300 — 140 of them in one night alone.
Such productivity had an unusual side benefit.
Before the Proximity project, a woman often appeared in Holton's dreams, urging him
to focus, to be more productive.
The more he worked, the less she visited.
* * *
Quaintance walks quickly from room to room showing off Holton's art.
"Every one has a different whisper," Quaintance says.
In one room, a drawing depicts shapes reminiscent of pussy willows Quaintance saw during his teen years in Montana.
"This raises my spirits when I come in here," he says.
He opens another door.
"This is one of my least favorite," he admits. "It looks like a ceiling fan."
Holton chuckles. "It IS a ceiling fan," he says.
The Proximity project has given Holton more focus, Quaintance notices.
The experience, Holton says, gained him more than a paycheck.
"It allowed me to take a direction that my art wouldn't have taken," he says.
When he does leave, Holton agrees, it will be with inspiration to create art more consistently.
"I will have to be my own Dennis, my own motivator," he says.
But Quaintance wants Holton to stick around awhile. There's talk of him creating art for a conference room, perhaps doing more at the O. Henry or Lucky 32.
As for the guest who can't resist Holton's hotel art?
No need trying to smuggle it out along with the soap and towels. The Proximity will likely sell it to you.