Last February, Adrian Green Holmes commemorated Black History Month at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. As creator of I am my sister dolls, she was selected to participate in the organization’s African American Doll Making and Puppetry event. She’s also been well received as a vendor at numerous other D.C. shows.
Holmes’ iconic one-of-a-kind folk-art creations were celebrated in her adopted hometown of Cambridge, with a September 2020 show at the Dorchester County Center for the Arts front gallery, an event both rewarding and inspiring.
“Seeing the sister dolls together in the gallery brought this incredible energy,” Holmes noted. “They represented women of all colors, not just Black women, bearing the essence of this feminine beauty we bring, denoting this strength that can be soft and hard but also direct, where you don’t challenge it,” Holmes added. With a warm laugh, she recalled the cherished memory of both her indomitable grandmothers in church, always digging in their purses for gloves, handkerchiefs, and, of course, peppermints they’d supply while giving you “the eye”, silently sending the ironclad message to sit back and be on your best behavior.
This pioneering self-proclaimed “artivist” has contributed to enriching the local cultural landscape in other meaningful ways.
As founder and program director of nonprofit community cultural arts organization, Alpha Genesis Community Development Corporation (www.alphagenesisdc.org), Holmes played a pivotal role partnering with the Arts Center to lay the groundwork for local artist Michael Rosato’s Harriet Tubman Mural in downtown Cambridge.
The Philadelphia native’s 15-year Air Force career afforded Holmes two tours of duty in Italy, which profoundly inspired her concept of art as a vital form of living history, a driving force throughout her life. Unlike the dry textbooks she dreaded during college art history classes, viewing masterful works in person made a powerful impact.
Originally, her décor business A. Renee Designs LLC offered novel flourishes to architectural accents and finishes. At Liv Again Gallery, whose Art Bar became an intellectual and artistic salon of sorts, Holmes, along with co-owner Jermaine Anderson, showcased and sold chic refurbished home furnishings. The two also led workshops helping others master the craft of repurposing personal pieces.
In what she regards as a “natural creative progression” from her A. Renee Design work, Holmes describes her distinctive doll line as embodying “the spirit of our mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts, daughters and goddaughters. They “let us know we do not walk this journey alone…each doll reflects a life well-traveled and well-lived, is handmade and individually ‘dressed’, no two are alike,” Holmes noted.
The story behind the dolls’ evolution is rooted in Holmes’ own formative years.
Since sewing her first apron in junior high home economics class, using fabric as a visible, tactile means of telling a story has been a revelation for Holmes.
Growing up in Philadelphia, in a pastor’s family of limited means (but unlimited love), Holmes’ rose above her yearning for pricey designer label jeans by successfully stitching her own distinctive wardrobe. As a middle child bookended by two standout siblings, sewing her own clothing also helped her weave a distinctive identity within the family tapestry. Fashioning with fabric helped her find a “voice”; discovering an artistic haven within helped provide emotional sanctuary as well as creative outlet.
Holmes had a front row seat to style personified thanks to her mother, Mary, aka “the first lady” of the Baptist church where her dad preached each Sunday. With a closet stocked full of 40 to 50 hats, her mom never wore an outfit more than two or three times, she affectionately recalled.
Holmes’ Aunt Daisy, Mary’s sister, kept in touch with young Adrian throughout her 30-year career as a missionary in Africa’s Ivory Coast, sending eagerly awaited airmail letters adorned with exotic stamps, and packages containing swatches of fabric, bringing that distant land of service enticingly within reach of her niece’s fertile imagination.
At each stage of life, her creative gifts found a rewarding outlet. Seeking meaningful and affordable Christmas presents, she fashioned angel dolls out of raffia, which became cherished holiday décor for recipients. Holmes’ sister, a social worker remaining in Philly, enjoyed drumming up sales for Holmes’ heavenly creations on the side, prodding her to keep fulfilling the demand.
Eventually her supply of raffia and remaining angels dwindled, but requests for the figurines continued. Over the years she pondered how to resume production, without success. Then, in 2011, her beloved mother passed away at the age of 72 (“a very young 72,” according to Holmes), a life changing event which would inspire a second act of sorts.
Adamant that her mom’s funeral be a celebration of her life and spirit, rather than a sorrow filled ceremony dominated by “doom and gloom,” Holmes lovingly built a display of Mary Green’s many hats, modeled by nieces and other family members during an impromptu processional, vividly capturing her essence in ways words alone could not express, paying it forward for the next generation.
Holmes poignantly remembered admiring her mother’s fashionable wardrobe all her life. Sharing the same size, she envisioned wearing the clothing one day. But after inheriting and trying several pieces on, she realized that it wasn’t the attire she been drawn to, but the way it had showcased her mom’s proud, elegant persona.
Grieving while dutifully sorting through the boxes of clothing, jewelry, and accessories in the wake of her mom’s passing, Holmes heard within herself a calling to creatively transform the inert pieces into a doll honoring her mother’s spirit. Of course, she fashioned a hat, and added other adornments. Most of all, she worked tirelessly to perfect the definitively regal self-assured stance emblazoned into her memory.
After commemorating her mom, Holmes later created a doll inspired by her late Aunt Daisy, the Ivory Coast missionary, a breast cancer victim.
Aside from these two role models, she also had two “original sister dolls” to hone her fashion creation skills on–daughters Chaniece and Misha, born 18 months apart.
“I made everything for them, and had so much fun dressing them, until they got to kindergarten or first grade.” Holmes recalled. At that point, the girls voiced opposition to wearing the charming but more vintage fashioned costumes. “There was this one Easter dress—with pinafores, and pearls, and it was all poofy– I loved it! But, when we got to church, they wouldn’t even take their coats off!” Holmes recalled with a laugh.
Respecting their wishes, Holmes instead channeled her creative flair into each custom ordered doll, imparting to every mini masterpiece not only the highest standard of workmanship but the greatest reverence.
“I did one order for a young lady, who brought me a bag full of her mom’s stuff, telling me that she was glam, she was glitzy.” Inspired, Holmes added a tiny silvery purse into the doll’s hand to complete her outfit. “Oh, my gosh, I cannot believe it, you got my mom to a T!” the grateful client cried.
Currently on her plate is a project honoring her cousin’s ex-husband who passed suddenly at the age of 51, leaving 7 children behind. Her cousin’s special request: that a beautiful African garment he wore for ceremonial occasions be incorporated into a doll for each youngster.
“Getting those memories out of the attic and the closet, to where you can see them every day, and they can make you smile, I think that brings me the most joy,” she stated. Translating inspirational lives into works of art, for Holmes, provides a meaningful intersection where history is brought to life, on a highly personal level, reaching out to posterity.
“While there are many negative narratives in history, the essence of who you are, made up of so many threads, can change it. In my own life, I had the opportunity to be mentored and loved by Mary Green, Daisy Whaley, and Chaniece and Misha Holmes, culminating, too, in all the amazing women in my church that wore hats, and jewelry, and purses, and gloves. They all deposited something so beautiful in my life, and I get to honor that,” Holmes stated.
For more information, call 410-220-6010 or visit https://Iammysisterdolls.com, A.Renee Designs LLC@IAMMYSISTERDOLLS on Facebook and Iammysisterdolls on Instagram.
Debra Messick is a retired Dorchester County Public Library associate and lifelong freelance writer. A transplanted native Philadelphian, she has enjoyed residing in Cambridge MD since 1995.