Fran Holland Explains His Paintings

September 05, 2013

     Fran Holland was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1964.  He is the second of four brothers.  His father Fran Sr. was likewise the second of four brothers.  His mother Mary Ellen was the second of four siblings as well.  

     He has always been caught in the web of numbers, series, and patterns.  They have been the oft-ruminated cud of his fancy, and he found them in the weave of his blankets,  the strange darkness of his closed eyes, the rhythm of stair-climbing, and the prismatic magic of his tears.  He makes things.

     Fran has worked as a carpenter, a museum exhibit designer, a musical instrument inventor and builder, and an elementary school teacher.  He cofounded and ran a community workshop called the Tinkers Workshop in Berkeley, California.  He currently works as an electrician.

      Fran first distinguished himself by failing at most forms of institutionally structured learning. Over time, chance encounters with informal teachers and old books catalyzed his suspicion that understanding was both possible and nourishing.  The modern “best practices” that inspired much of his formal schooling were perhaps not the best for him.  He has since been guided in his growth by developing alternative personal systems, often adapted from more ancient sources.  

     His visual art has grown out of systems that he has re-discovered and developed to visually represent and explore mathematics, and to understand, compose, and play music.

     Many of his paintings reflect his involvement with the mathematics practiced before numerals, when a particular number was represented by a quantity of counters, such as beans or rocks.  “1” can be represented by one counter, “10” by ten counters, etc.   In this manner, a number’s appearance, and its relations with other numbers, becomes more concrete, less hidden or abstract.  For example, 

“36” can be represented as thirty-six marks:


this quantity can be reshaped from a line, or a disordered collection, into a variety of possible shapes, including:

O   O   O   O   O   O   

O   O   O   O   O   O   

O   O   O   O   O   O   

O   O   O   O   O   O   

O   O   O   O   O   O   

O   O   O   O   O   O   


O   O   O   O   O   O   O   O

   O   O   O   O   O   O   O

      O   O   O   O   O   O

         O   O   O   O   O

            O   O   O   O

               O   O   O

                  O  O


These shapes reveal two different series or families that the quantity 36 is a member of: 

The square numbers: 

1,      4,           9,                 16,                     25,                            36,                               etc.

O      O   O      O   O   O      O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O   O      

         O   O      O   O   O      O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O   O

                        O   O   O      O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O   O

                                             O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O   O

                                                                        O   O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O   O

                                                                                                         O   O   O   O   O   O

The painting “Square with 699 Dots” is a member of this family.

The triangular numbers:

1,      3,           6,                 10,                     15,                            21,                                etc.

O      O   O      O   O   O      O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O   O      

            O            O   O            O   O   O            O   O   O   O            O   O   O   O   O

                              O                  O   O                  O   O   O                  O   O   O   O

                                                       O                       O   O                        O   O   O

                                                                                    O                               O  O


The two paintings “Natural Succession 33” and “Natural Succession 36” are members of this family.

Another number-family represented in this show is the oblong numbers:

2,           6,                  12,                     20,                           30,                                  etc.

O   O      O   O   O      O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O   O

               O   O   O      O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O   O

                                    O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O   O

                                                               O   O   O   O   O      O   O   O   O   O   O

                                                                                                O   O   O   O   O   O

The two paintings “Oblong With 16,257 Dots” and “Oblong With 3,783 Dots” are members of this family.

All three families were explored and named thousands of years ago, before Pythagoras.  These days they are often referred to as “figurate” numbers.   

     Other pieces result from explorations with a slightly more modern form, plane geometry, another mathematical world that can often be explored without numerals.  These particular pieces resulted from my fascination with the hexagonal star, also known as the Star of David. Creating one by superimposing two triangles was a soothing operation for me.  I set out to discover a method for achieving a similar aim with the septagonal, or “Sheriff’s” star.  

One solution to this challenge involved the creation of the two shapes explored in the pieces “Septagon With Four Stellations”, “Septagon with Three Stellations”, and “Star Parts”.

Other works:

Division By The Plus:  

the plane is divided into four by the plus.  Each resulting quadrant is likewise divided, and this process of division is continued until the rhythm of line and space feels balanced.  The resulting field of pluses illustrates the mathematical series of the successive powers of 4, so that

the drawing begins with one plus, which is 4 to the zero power

next, four plusses are added in the four quadrants created by the first plus, which is 4 to the first power, or 4x1

next, sixteen plusses are added in each of the four sub-quadrants in each quadrant, which is 4 to the second power, or 4x4

next, 64 plusses are added … which is 4 to the third power, or 4x4x4


“The plus sign will never fight against the minus sign”

                                                                                                       -Alfred Jarry


A Minor:

This painting has been made on the right sides of the 52 white key-levers of an upright piano, arrayed as a fan.  The black and white designs hint at the absurd complexity of tuning and temperament, reconciled to the mechanics of the piano, as expressed by the progressive displacement of the inset counterweights.  

     It has been named A minor as the low note of the piano is “A”, and the scale of the white notes played with “A” as the tonal center is A minor.

      My paintings and drawings have all begun as explorations of various mathematical visualizations.  The structures and concepts that I begin with engage my eye and mind in a way that both calms and provokes me. Each has been completed through a sequence of small and consistent adjustments and modifications, with a patience I do not possess in any other of my activities.  Each is done when my eye dances and rests at the same time.  


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