This Chicago Artist Transforms Scraps Into Dramatic 3D Pieces


A woman with black curly hair and wearing a lime green shirt sewing a multi-color fabric.

“My process of working invites chance and an active engagement in the moment of creation,” says artist Holly Cahill.

Multimedia artist Holly Cahill spent her childhood exploring the landscape around her hilly corner of northern Kentucky. These days, Cahill lives in Hyde Park and works out of a studio in Pilsen, but her penchant for roaming remains. “I walk all times of the year and like to see the subtle shifts in the environment,” says the artist, whose strolls frequently take her to Promontory Point as well as Washington and Jackson Parks. “You feel like you’re in the wild, but you’re in the middle of this vast city,” she says.

A studio wall with colorful artworks on paper and fabric, and photos from the environment.

Cahill's is filled with artistic studies, works in progress and photos taken during her walks around the city

A delicate layering of colored paper that gives the impression of thorns.

Much of Cahill’s work, such as her “Study of Thorns” series, is an exploration of the environment

Scraps of colored paper put together to look like thorns, mounted on black velvet.

Another piece from Cahill's "Study of Thorns" series, this one mounted on black velvet.

A pile of different-colored paper scraps.

The works are made of scraps that Cahill has accumulated over the years, as well as elements sourced from other artists.

It stands to reason then that Cahill’s time spent in nature underpins her multimedia practice. Her interest in starlings and their murmurations (for the non-birders, these are the complex formations starlings create across the sky) ultimately sparked her “Avian Oracle” series, which considers the birds’ exercise of gaping, or poking their beaks underground to search for food. In the series, circular beaks merged with human forms are rendered in paint, ink and felt, set against lengths of stark black velvet—a material she favors for its ability to absorb light.

More recently, says Cahill, “My ‘Study of Thorns’ series came about because I was thinking of how thorns protect plants from harm.” The resulting pieces saw the artist turning from dense and compact collages to ones “that were more fragile and thinner” and speak to how birds and other animals mine their surroundings for materials. To underscore that vision, the works are made entirely of scraps, such as stencils, paper and fabric, that Cahill has accumulated over the years, as well as elements sourced from other artists.

Those fragments pushed her own creative vocabulary as they featured marks and colors she wouldn’t ordinarily use. And, while a self-described introvert, working with her peers’ scraps offered a critical point of connection during a time of profound isolation in the early days of the pandemic. “It felt like they were in the studio with me,” she recalls.

Regardless of what Cahill might be working on, she emphasizes flexibility in her practice. “I give myself permission to try different things,” she says. Some days she likens herself to a cat unwilling to get wet, while other days, she says she “gets messy.” “If I get too tight and controlling, that often doesn’t go well for me,” Cahill notes. “I’m navigating what I’m hoping to push forward and feeling my way through it.”