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And now for a happy story: How love fuels this couple’s collaborative paintings

Artist couple Al-baseer Holly and Cristina Martinez
Artist couple Al-baseer Holly and Cristina Martinez have a gallery showing on Nov. 14, displaying both collaborative works and their independent paintings at the East Angel.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

It was something like fate, the way artists Cristina Martinez and Al-baseer Holly met almost two years ago.

They had been chosen to exhibit their work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and happened to be sharing a wall. Martinez, 33, often depicts women like flowers and honors her Black and Mexican heritage, and Holly, 41, a rapper and self-taught painter, creates street art-style interpretations of his childhood.

The exhibition was landing near the one-year mark of the car crash that killed Martinez’s close friends Leah LaBelle and Rasual Butler, and Martinez was still deep in mourning. But very quickly, she and Holly realized they had an uncanny connection.

It’s a story that went viral on the popular Humans of New York platform earlier this year: After overhearing Holly speaking, Martinez introduced herself. “This is going to sound crazy, but your voice sounds just like my friend who passed away,” she said. And Holly responded by saying: “Do you mean Rasual?”

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Martinez’s friends had been Holly’s friends for years, and he recognized her from the memorial service.

As Martinez thought about how to hang her work at the show, she turned to Holly for advice. One piece, a 60-by-60-inch painting, caught his eye.

“It was white, with these free-flowing women,” Holly recalled. “I just thought it was very powerful and colorful. I have a lot of sisters and I just grew up around a lot of women, so naturally felt some kind of energy from it.”

Artist couple Al-Baseer Holly and Cristina Martinez
Artist couple Al-baseer Holly and Cristina Martinez met at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland almost two years ago.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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From that instant connection, they fell in love and began navigating life together — their rising art careers, their children. And though Martinez lives in Seattle and Holly is based in L.A., it didn’t take long before they realized their art also could mesh.

“We both are drawn to a lot of colors,” Martinez said. “A lot of our work works together because of the way that we use color.”

In April 2019, Martinez traveled to L.A. to visit Holly, who was working on a commissioned fence painting. “He was nailing the fence together and it didn’t align perfectly,” Martinez said. He started over on a new fence but suggested that Martinez try out something on the discarded fence.

“I painted a self-portrait on one side of it. And when I left to fly back to Seattle, he painted himself on the other side,” Martinez said. “We called it a perfect fit.”

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They continued making collaborative paintings, like a two-sided self-portrait that began as a piece Martinez almost threw away.

Alone, Martinez works in fits and starts, sometimes taking more than a month to make a painting. “I definitely get in my head a lot when I create,” she said. Together, she takes on more of Holly’s creative practice — a hyper-focus on one painting until it’s done. “That part of me is pulled out more when I work with him.”

Creating art together is effortless, Holly said. “I’m not just saying it to be cliché,” he said. “But it just happens with us.”

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Their process varies piece by piece, but often Martinez and Holly paint collaborative works at the same time, side by side on the same canvas.

The works capture both male and female energy, which “allows our audiences to have more space to connect,” Martinez said. “To be able to tell those stories on the same painting, I feel like it’s just broadened the people that feel seen and heard and feel like they can relate to the artwork.”

Creative, hip and stylish, Martinez and Holly are the type of couple people gush over on Instagram.

Both have seen their work enter pop culture. Martinez studied fashion in college but left before she could graduate, realizing she was more passionate about painting. She continued to paint as she worked managing alterations at a Seattle bridal boutique, eventually leaving the job in 2018.

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Since then, Martinez has created art for singers H.E.R. and Ciara and worked with brands including Mattel’s Barbie, and this summer she painted a mural of her women in bloom on the 79th floor of 3 World Trade Center.

Al-baseer Holly and Cristina Martinez's collaborative work, "2 Sides to Every Story," made with acrylic and oil pastel.
(Bellevue Fine Art Reproduction)

In the early 2000s Holly began his artistic career by working with songwriter and producer Pharrell Williams as a recording artist. In 2017 he cofounded a fashion brand that’s described as a gallery of wearable art.

Their collaborative and individual work will be on view in their free L.A. show “2 Sides to Every Story” at the East Angel, an events space in Boyle Heights.

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Artist-couple shows are not common, Martinez said. “We both have never been to an art show where it’s two artists that we really respected and admired their work and they were in a relationship together. It’s just something very different.”

Martinez and Holly began planning the show before the pandemic postponed their original May date.

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During the pandemic, the two have stayed busy creating, estimating they’ve painted about 15 pieces individually and several collaborative works. In one abstract piece, the heaviness of 2020 is on full display.

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Martinez and Holly painted the work soon after George Floyd was brutally killed. Holly traveled to Seattle and tensions were a bit high in their relationship at the time. “We were arguing,” Martinez said. “We created this piece that is really special and we never even spoke to each other the whole time.”

Unlike their self-portraits, the abstract has no clear visual references and is instead an expression of energy.

Being in a relationship with another visual artist is a first for both Martinez and Holly.

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“We’re learning the beauty and the challenges of it all. We’re so used to communicating through our work and letting our work speak for us,” Martinez said. “Sometimes expressing my feelings verbally is hard and then being with another artist who also expresses themselves visually, I found that to be a challenge for me.”

But being in alignment — in art, in life — knowing “this is the person I’m supposed to be with and being able to make art and make memories and share experiences together, it’s just the best.”

The hardest part is “managing our passion individually because we’re one now,” Holly said. “Whatever is challenging about it, the good outweighs it by a thousand, so I don’t even put much stock into it.”

He summed up their couple goals: The two want to see their work in museums, collect more art and ultimately create a free museum, “and just share our story with the world so people know it’s a doable thing, young Black artists from America who had lofty goals and we’re knocking them down one by one.”

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'2 Sides to Every Story'

Where: The East Angel, 670 S. Anderson St., Los Angeles

When: Nov. 13 and 14

Tickets: Free, 30-minute timed entry, RSVP required

Info: museumthree.com


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