Riley Holloway assumed someone was pulling his leg. Early this year, he began receiving attention from an Instagram account that appeared to belong to rap producer Kasseem Dean, better known as Swizz Beatz.
“I was like, ‘Swizz Beatz?’ Yeah, right,” the Dallas-based painter tells the Observer.
But Holloway isn’t skeptical anymore. Last week his painting “We Got Next” was loaded onto a truck headed to New Jersey, where it will join a contemporary art collection owned by Dean and his wife, singer-songwriter Alicia Keys.
Dean got his start in New York in the mid-’90s. When he was just a teenager, he began working with DMX at record label Ruff Ryders Entertainment, owned by Dean’s uncles and aunt.
Dean eventually started his own label, Full Surface Records, which signed Eve and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, among others. He’s also released two of his own albums and produced a number of hit singles.
Dean’s new art venture with Keys is focused on supporting living artists, and this year it gave 20 artists around the globe grants of $5,000 to put on solo exhibits where they could sell their art and keep the profits.
Holloway’s social media-savvy wife, Kelsey, had messaged Dean a few times to try to get him interested in her husband. But it was still a surprise when Dean became a champion of Holloway’s, “liking” several paintings on social media and even sharing one to his own Instagram page.
Then, in February, Dean sent Holloway a screengrab of “We Got Next” and asked if it was available for purchase. The portrait that caught Dean’s eye is of San Francisco artist Christopher Martin. He’s holding a basketball and making a serious face, which contrasts with a whimsical background of tropical plants and polka dots.
The painting is based on a photograph that Martin — whom Holloway knows through frequent collaborator Joonbug — had posted to his own Instagram.
“I saw it and I said, ‘I have to paint that. I have to,’” Holloway says.
To him the image expressed the ambition he was feeling as an artist.
“He was just calmly holding this basketball. And the first thing that came to me was ‘We got next,’” he says. “My feeling at the time was, ‘I have next.’”
Like most of Holloway’s portraits, “We Got Next” was done with oil paints on wood panel, but in many respects it marked a change from his past work.
“I took some liberties in that piece that I don’t normally do,” Holloway says. “Like I toned the background this sort of pink color. I did this polka dot thing at the bottom. All of these different design elements I played with in that piece made it different from the rest of the pieces I had in the studio at the time.”
Holloway had so much fun playing with color while making “We Got Next” that it sparked a whole new body of work, which is on display now at Fort Worth art gallery Fort Works Art. Riley Holloway: Spectrum will be up through Aug. 25.
The fact that this new colorful direction now has the endorsement of a major art collector is just extra encouragement for Holloway, who has two kids and paints full time.
“As you go along, you’re trying to grab and hold on to whatever you can to continue, to justify going into the studio every day and painting instead of working a 9 to 5,” he says.
Dean has also become a valuable resource for Holloway. After he bought “We Got Next,” they had a long phone conversation about whether Holloway should sign to a gallery or stay independent.
“One of the things he was saying is, ‘Don’t isolate yourself,’” he recalls. “He brought up how Ruff Ryders [Entertainment] was started and how ... he waited until he was in a position of power to actually do something [independent].”
Holloway was born in Los Angeles and moved to Arlington with his family when he was 4 years old. He briefly pursued a degree at the Art Institute of Dallas but dropped out in his second year to study art on his own.
“I went to go find artists who weren’t starving like I was always told, who were actually making it,” he says. “And you find that they’re making it in a lot of ways.”
Today Holloway counts acclaimed Texas artists such as Sedrick Huckaby and Trenton Doyle Hancock as mentors.
During this period of exploration, Holloway traveled to Italy, where he spent three months studying human anatomy at the Florence Academy of Art. When he returned to Dallas in 2013, he was offered the position of artist-in-residence at the Fairmont Hotel, and Holloway credits his months there with kick-starting his career.
The Fairmont is where Holloway had his first solo exhibit; where he sold his first large piece; and where he met Kelsey, his right-hand woman in his art business. He learned a lot by trial-and-error in those days.
“I remember it was $1,500,” he says of his first major sale. “A lot of people were from out of town because it’s a hotel. The guy was from New Orleans and I grossly underestimated the cost of shipping [the painting]. I only factored in $100. I had no clue what I was doing.”
Another useful thing he learned was how to build his own frames for stretching canvas, a skill Fairmont gallerist Zach Saucedo taught him. These days Holloway works mainly with wood panels, but he still builds his own.
His style has evolved a lot since the Fairmont residency. Holloway is a self-professed people-person and has always drawn inspiration from the people he meets; he likes to tell their stories in his art. But back then he was doing a lot of mixed media in addition to portraits.
“During the residency I had some pieces that were just cluttered in writing. There was no drawing or painting in some of them,” he says. “I felt I had a lot to say so I literally said it on a lot of the pieces.”
Now Holloway is more confident as an artist and believes in the virtue of saying more with less.
“Now it’s this way of suggesting things,” he says. He’s also become more interested in exploring all the possibilities of oil as a medium — a process that has led to his new use of color.
Holloway’s career is in the middle of a sea change. Until last year he had been under contract as a featured artist at Fort Works Art, a position he held for four years. But with the blessing of co-founder Lauren Childs, Holloway has dissolved that relationship so he can focus on turning his art into a family business.
“It wasn’t until [Kelsey and I] put together our first spreadsheet and realized how many pieces we had sold and we were like, ‘Oh OK, we actually have a business right here,’” he says. He has two local patrons who own multiple pieces, and they have introduced him to other collectors.
Holloway’s practice has also undergone a major shift now that he and Kelsey have children. He’s always painted out of his living space, but when the paint fumes started to overwhelm their home, he rented a studio at the Cedars Union.
The first thing he did when he moved into the studio was cover every inch of white wall space with his work.
“That took a lot of adjustment to figure out how to make the space my own where I felt most creative, ” he says. “My first go-to is what can I put on the wall. 'Cause then I’m surrounded by my past work, current work and it helps me get sort of judgment on where I’m at.”
Holloway is a former night owl who was once accustomed to finishing paintings in one sitting. But now he works at the studio every day from 9 to 4. He believes this new schedule has taught him how to maximize his time and has made the art better.
“I think it added a patience to the work,” he says. “I used to have this thing where I didn’t want to touch a piece a second time. Or I didn’t want to continue to paint on a piece that was dry. Now I don’t have a choice. I gotta adapt.”
When Holloway paints, he has the home in mind, and if he thinks a painting is finished, he takes it home and hangs it up, to see how it lives in the space. In his own home he likes to hang art that feels calm and comfortable — nothing too “forward, exciting or angry” — so he evaluates the art he makes by the same criteria.
“I know that a lot of artists, they think you don’t have to consider those things. You just make what you want,” he says. “But I like to consider where it will be, and I like to have whoever will own it in consideration as well.”
In more ways than one, Holloway takes a practical approach to developing his career. He recalls that when he was 19, he would visit Dallas galleries and take notes on which canvas sizes were popular, and what was selling.
“The whole business is there in front of you,” he says.
Holloway speaks clearly when he explains what the viewer’s takeaway should be from “We Got Next."
“Confidence," he says. "To have confidence in what you’re doing. But to understand that that confidence has to be earned.
“I feel that,” he continues. “And there’s no competition between other artists and myself. But just the idea of being next up. And it’s like, ‘Next up to what, exactly?’ I don’t know. But I always have this feeling when I’m close to being a part of something cool.”
Holloway can think of at least one thing he hopes is in his near future: showing out of state.
“That’s something I still haven’t done yet,” he says. “And that was something me and my wife wrote down in our plans today.”
He’s hoping to create a traveling exhibit of work titled Made in America that would depict scenes in American history.
Potential notoriety from being in a celebrity art collection could help him toward that goal, but Holloway isn’t thinking about it that way.
“I try not to get too caught up in what something could bring me," he says. "'Cause there’s been plenty of times where I’ve been sort of let down by experiences. Where you think, ‘Oh, I’m going to this art fair,’ and then you sell nothing. But it’s confirmation that what you’re doing is going on the right track.”
When Dean bought “We Got Next,” it was hanging at the Capital One building in Plano as part of a Black History Month exhibit, so Dean had to wait a few months for it to come available for pickup. And it was a couple of months after that before the truck actually showed up.
“They really do have a large collection,” Holloway says. “They had a carrier who was picking something up in Austin, I think Oklahoma too, so it was more so waiting for him to make that trip to Austin, here and then all the way back to New Jersey.”
Holloway says he’s not exactly sure how “We Got Next” will be displayed, but Dean told him it would ultimately live at a location in Arizona. Holloway wasn’t sentimental about seeing it go.
“For me the experience is in making the work and people being able to see the work,” he says.
The only time Holloway is uncomfortable selling a painting is when the gallery won’t let him meet the client. He prefers to have a personal relationship with the owner, as he does with his Dallas clients, who invite him over and send photos.
“If we had the money to refuse that sale unless we met the client, I would totally do that,” Holloway says.
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But he acknowledges that sometimes that’s not realistic and the money or establishing a relationship with the gallery is more important.
In the case of “We Got Next,” however, Holloway has nothing but good feelings.
“I asked if I could see it when it was hung … he said yeah.”
Riley Holloway: Spectrum, Fort Works Art, 2100 Montgomery St., Fort Worth, free, through Aug. 25, fortworksart.com