Nall Hollis, simply known as “Nall,” is living proof of Oscar Wilde’s notion that “life imitates art.” He has roamed the earth as boldly as a Fauvist and loved as passionately as an Impressionist. He has lived the quintessential bohemian lifestyle of many legendary artists of the 20th century. Now in a new century, Nall returned to his native Alabama nestling into downtown Fairhope. I went to his eclectic live-in studio/gallery where we talked about travel, psychedelic trips, and artistic temperament.
Is there any place you haven’t been yet that you want to spend time?
I would rather live somewhere than visit. That way you can really absorb the cuisine, know the surroundings, get to know the character of the people. You can make some friends and go to their homes and snoop around and see how they live. That’s more fun to me.
Any place in particular you fantasize about living?
I will eventually make it to Peru and I want to go live with the cannibals in the Amazon. I’ve just been dying to see what they’re like. But I don’t know if they accept people. Maybe in the pot, they do. End up in the stew.
Have you ever tried the ayahuasca ceremonies that they perform in the Amazon?
I haven’t there but I have with the Huichol Indians.
Oh yeah? Where was that?
Mexico. I’ve eaten the cactus buttons, two or three of those. Locals would stay upstairs in my thatched roof and bring all of their goodies. They would bring their little store with them in a big white sack with beaded bowls and serpents and things like that. They’d also bring some buttons and say, “We brought you these.”
Did you ever do them as part of a ceremony or just recreationally?
I would say that everything they do was a ceremony. When they leave it’s just recreational.
It’s very beautiful. In fact, that painting above there was inspired by doing the peyote buttons. See those dots everywhere? When you’re on it, those dots are moving around and the flames are fanning.
Did you have a new perspective on life after that?
Well, I think the first change of perspective of life was when I took LSD. But I did six hits-
At one time?
But I didn’t know it.
Oh My God.
These little pieces of paper, you’re supposed to divide them up into four pieces and take one. So I split one in two and then four, I gave one to my wife and I took one and then I said, yeah, I’ll take another one. And then there was a whole other sheet and I said, well, what the hell? So I pop that in and I was zooming.
Oh, I bet.
It was at the Atlanta Rock Festival. In 1968 or ‘69. I went up to a policeman on a horse and knocked on the horse’s nose. I was like, “Quick, you’ve got to get me to the OD tent. I’m tripping so bad.” It was a wonderful experience laying on this cot, they strap you down otherwise I would’ve broken through the tent walls and run. I had already peeled buck naked and climbed on top of my car and was crawling around on the top of it purring like a cat. Then the cat decided to go down and check out the horse-
How old were you at the time?
I don’t know, 18, 19. I think I had maybe just graduated from college. These are some of the high points of my experimenting with drugs. I haven’t done this stuff in 30 years. No need to, all I’ve got to do is just look around and I can trip.
It’s a skill you’ve mastered?
I think once you’re an artist you’re tripping anyway. You’re living in a different world and to come back to the normal is like going to Walmart. As an artist I’ve always seen things differently and had the good sense not to verbalize most of it.
So did you really need the drugs to see differently as an artist?
They totally blew away every bit of restraint and subtlety that I had. All of my education went out the window and the light of creation dawned on me. For the first time, I understood what the spiritual was and what the material was, and it was a clear separation. I think that’s what it did for me the most. And that was a relief with a banker father.
Did you make art before these revelations?
I’ve been doing art since my mother said I stabbed my way out of the womb. Her backyard continued into the city park and I was in the art pavilion every day, eating cookies that she made or a chocolate cake, and weaving baskets, weaving bracelets and going to the creek, getting mud, bringing it back, sculpting it, and cooking it in the oven.
Did you ever question yourself as an artist when you were growing up?
Did you ever have to work a day job to support yourself?
To respect and honor my father for putting me through college, I said, “Well, I will go and work for the bank for one year.” And the minute I got there, they said, “Do you enjoy being a bookkeeper?” I said, “Good heavens, no, I’ve already been a bookkeeper. I’ve been through the whole manager training department of my father’s bank.” They said, “Well, we’re looking for somebody to design new stationary and do some posters for the international convention.” I said, “That’s me. Hire me to do that but I will have to have a budget for art supplies and I will have to have my own studio because I can’t do this at the bank.” They created the art department at the bank. It was one person, me, and then they let me use one of the runners that was an artist. He was also a lover.
So they rented a studio for you somewhere offsite?
I had already rented it and I was using it to get away from my family life. My wife. That was my studio.
So you got married in college?
Yeah. I was 19 or 20 and she was the same. Everything was compartmentalized.
Did all the compartmentalization eventually breakdown?
No, they only had me for one year. Three months before that date, the president of the bank said, “Come to my office. We need to talk.” He said, “When I was your age, I wanted to be a writer. So I went to Paris to the Sorbonne. I stayed there for one year and I didn’t make it as a writer. So go, try it. if you are really leaving, leave now, I will pay you the three months you have left.”
You could just leave with the money?
Yes, so I tagged along with my sister who was going to Munich and immediately when we got up there, I left my wife in Germany to room with my sister and I moved to Paris. In Paris, I met Juliana, who was this Cleopatra type with coal eyes, wore Bedouin wedding dresses and moved by her own morality, which I did as well.
Yeah, it seems like it.
We made a great team. She also lived next door to the École des Beaux-Arts. Juliana eventually got a dream job selling books and traveling around Europe and I got my wish to live alone as a Bohemian across the street from the Beaux-Arts.
Did you study at the École des Beaux-Arts?
Yes. For two years I was enrolled as an official student. Somehow they transferred four drawing courses that I had taken but when I tried to take them again, the school said, “You’ve already taken them.” I said, “It’s a good course. I want to learn how to draw.” They said, “Well, you’re not going to get credit.” I said, “I’m not here for credit, I’m here to learn drawing. Do you have any objections?”
Did they let you take the class again?
They did. Then when it was time to give me my degree, they said, “Well, you lack so many courses in art history, you lack so many courses in this.” I said, “It doesn’t matter. I mean, drawing is the basis of all of the arts. And I have a PhD in drawing.”
What about your affinity for color? Where did you learn that?
I would jog to the Louvre everyday. I’ve always been a jogger and I would put on my shoes and when I got to the entrance of the Louvre, I’d jog all the way through and stop in front of the pieces that I liked. And you’d pick up people. Lovers. Models.
Actually in the labyrinth outside the Louvre. I’ve–
You’ve cruised there at night.
Yeah, I have.
Great place. The bridge, the Palm bazaar. Like throwing a net over and getting about 50 at one time. That was the Paris that I lived.
I don’t think you can jog through the Louvre anymore.
Well, jogging hadn’t started yet. Jogging really came in as a sport for the public, probably in the mid-seventies. Everybody jogs now, but then they didn’t. They were getting over hangovers and suffering.
Do you think a bohemian lifestyle is still available to artists who want it?
Anything’s available if you take it. Nobody says you can’t do this. You just do it. You go for it. If somebody says “No,” you just ignore them completely.
Well, that’s good. You still have hope.
You just do what you think needs to be done and 9 times out of 10, it’s against the rules. You do it anyway. You just don’t let people stop you from expressing yourself. It’s all just an experiment that the human being has not defined yet.
The Nall Art Foundation-Gallery is available by appointment at 414 Equality Ave, Fairhope, Alabama, 251-928-2729.