Gail Holliday's iconic posters return for Columbia's 50th birthday

More than 50 years ago, Gail Holliday left her home state of California for a job in Maryland. Fresh out of college, the young artist had been hired by Jim Rouse to capture his vision, in art, of his new city, Columbia.

Fast forward to the present and Holliday has again traveled across the country, though this time from her home in Arizona, to Columbia, to help preserve an aspect of her work that once greeted visitors to Columbia's exhibit center — five metal pole "trees" that featured Holliday's images of Columbia on 25 metal "leaves."


"Gail had done them very early in Columbia's history," said Barbara Kellner, director of the Columbia Archives. "The neighborhood prints had been done on silk screens and at some point painted on these metal pieces and hung. For the better part of 25 years, they were in front of the old exhibition center."

With the closure of the exhibition center in 1989, the lawn was plowed over for a parking lot and the pole trees taken down. The posters were put in storage.


"We were thinking of all kinds of things to celebrate Columbia's 50th and these posters just kept coming up," Kellner said. She thought "it would be a great idea to have them refurbished and hung. There was no question Gail had to do this. She had done them originally."

With the support of the Columbia Association, Kellner called Holliday with the idea. Expenses were discussed and Holliday left Arizona in March to work on the project for a month.

"It's something I wanted to do," Holliday said, who is in her 70s. "It will probably be the last large project I'll do."

Now, Holliday spends her days sitting on a stool in a back room of the Columbia Art Center, surrounded by the heady smell of paints, carefully repainting the pop/folk-art images that so many associate with Columbia.


"It's been tedious," said Holliday, on a recent morning. "It took me at least a week to clean the surfaces."

Each of the thin, metal posters depicts a neighborhood in Columbia, Holliday said. Some she did literally, like white birches for the Birches neighborhood, and others whimsically. All are done in the bold colors and lettering that reflect Holliday's art noveau-style at the time.

"Rouse gave me total freedom," Holliday said. "We discussed general ideas for things, content ideas, but I could do anything. Working for a company where you are given carte blanche is unheard of these days. Now, there are a lot of restraints in what you can and cannot do. There is an old philosophy 'the more freedom given, the harder you work.'"

"From the very beginning, art was important to Columbia," Kellner said. "Planning Columbia there was so much talk about building a city takes houses, banks, stores, etc. What else makes it a city people want to connect to?"

Holliday produced more than 50 prints for the Rouse Co. while an employee and later as a contractor. Her images, originally designed for marketing purposes, are now collectibles.

"A lot of the pioneers in Columbia, people who stayed here, they mean a lot to those folks," Tina Sinclair Smith said of the posters. Smith, whose father, Clarence Smith, was an employee of Rouse who spearheaded Columbia's religious facility, found several of Holliday's prints, including some originals, stored in her parents' home when they were downsizing.

"My father loved art and he collected them," said Smith, who met with Holliday to correctly put the prints in sequence.

Many of Holliday's original posters are currently featured in an exhibit at Slayton House, in Wilde Lake Village Center. "Portraying Columbia, Gail Holliday: The Early Years" runs through June 13.

"Gail Holliday's early work makes people happy," Kellner said. "They're happy pieces. Theyr'e colorful. They harken back to that time."

Holliday hopes to complete the posters by mid-May, when she will head back to Arizona with her traveling companion Henry, 12, a purebred Puli, whom Holliday has shown in obedience classes over the years to much acclaim.

"He has quite a few titles," Holliday said, proudly. "He's been a great dog."

Once completed, the posters will be planted in Kennedy Gardens along Lake Kittamaqundi.

"As you're walking along the lake, it gives another element," Kellner said. "It reminds people of the history, if they know it. If not, it is something to think about or inquire about."

Sorting through the remaining works, Holliday took mental notes of what needed to be done. Some looked "fairly easy" to do while others would be "a huge amount of work."

"It is fun doing it again," Holliday said. "It is fairly labor intensive. Four or five a week is what I can expect to do."

After owning a professional sign shop for years, Holliday downsized and moved to Arizona over a year ago. She now does commission work and paints for pleasure. Her recent subjects were farm animals, but she sees her topic shifting in Arizona, where she lives in a double-wide trailer.

"I haven't done anything related to the Southwest yet," Holliday said. "I would like people to know my work out there ... but I'm not obsessing about it. I'd rather do fun things for consignment for people. Pet portraits. Little signs."

She is very thankful for the opportunity Rouse gave her so long ago.

"It sounded like an exciting career opportunity. That's why I took it," Holliday said. "Otherwise, I would have ended up in the L.A. school system as an art teacher. I'm glad I took this path."

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