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Portrait of a community: Holli Harmon's exhibit at the Elverhoj Museum in Solvang captures the human landscape of the Central Coast


Natural light poured through the large, windowed doors of the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art’s gallery space, illuminating the large, carefully cut paper quilt that hung against the panes. Artist Holli Harmon stood in the soft glow, explaining the various images she had shaped throughout the three-panel tapestry.

The intricate paper cutting was created specifically for the Elverhoj Museum’s space, and designed to tie together all of the subjects in her exhibit showing there, titled Revelations: Culture and the Human Landscape of the Central Coast. The show is a culmination of Harmon’s many years spent finding and painting portraits of local people of interest from communities throughout the Central Coast.  

In addition to the paper tapestry, the exhibit includes original portrait paintings, colorful monoprints, and an incredibly extensive multimedia element, including a constantly running video, a color booklet available for purchase, and an audio podcast supplement that includes interviews with the subjects. Visitors can literally spend hours of an afternoon soaking in Revelations, and it will be time well spent.

Holli Harmon’s exhibit, Revelations: Culture and the Human Landscape of the Central Coast, includes portraits, art prints, multimedia components, and a large paper cutting tapestry showing at the Elverhoj Museum in Solvang.

On the portraits there are members of local Chumash tribes, descendants of the Danish immigrants who first came to Solvang, vintners, ranchers, and even a Nobel Prize winning academic and inventor.

The paper tapestry, inspired by Danish “papir clip” paper cutting, includes homage to every subject and their shared heritage.

“We’ve got the cowboys, the sea life, the crane—which is one of the Danish symbols—and ships. So I was trying to borrow images that were totally tied to each specific culture,” she said. “Images hold information, and these are kind of standard, repeatable images for everybody.”

Found on the monoprints, the paper tapestries, and slyly dotted throughout the portraits are some recurring animals, which symbolize a theme of the show, Harmon explained.

“You’ll find bees, birds, and butterflies in the paper cut and the monoprints, and they represent that we are all pollinators,” she said. “We all cross pollinate and bring culture forward.”

Revelations: Culture and the Human Landscape of the Central Coast is an impressive look into the lives of remarkable locals and their history. The show was years in the making, and the payoff is finally here thanks to several collaborators, including the Elverhoj Museum in Solvang.

Spiral inspiration

Early on, Harmon decided to paint Mike and Mimi DeGruy, a Montecito couple that ended up having a profound influence on documentaries about the ocean, specifically in underwater filmmaking. They met for documentary work. At the time Mimi was working as a CNN documentarian and Mike was an established marine biologist. They went on to create award-winning films for PBS, BBC, and National Geographic as well as taking part in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival every year, Harmon explained in a booklet accompanying the exhibit.

Elverhoj Museum board member Erik Gregersen was included as a subject in Revelations. The portrait depicts Gregersen, his brother Hans, and their grandfather, one of the founders of Solvang.

The couple inspired the exhibit in many ways. Then in February 2012 tragedy struck.

“Unfortunately, when this was on my easel and I was painting it, Mike was on a photo shoot, he was in a helicopter accident, and passed away,” she said. “So he’s not with us, but it was a big reminder of how important people are, how fleeting our lives are, how short time is. And it kind of underscored some things that made me feel like I’m doing something valuable in capturing these stories because this was the last interview that he had done.”

The portrait, which depicts the DeGruys in a loving embrace, also holds an image that came to epitomize and inspire the entire exhibition. A nautilus shell envelopes much of the painting, as do simpler geometric depictions of the mathematical principle that grants the spiraling shell its shape. That principle is called the Fibonacci sequence.

Mike DeGruy had studied the nautilus early in his career as a marine biologist, Harmon said, and she initially wanted to include that in the painting to help tell their story. She didn’t foresee how the spiral would help inform the entire show.

“The nautilus, I use that motif, because of how time comes back and wraps around itself, that cultures repeat, and that it’s not a linear experience,” she said. “I wanted to imbed that in their story, but the Fibonacci sequence, the golden mean, it has come through these portraits several times.”

Revelations: Culture and the Human Landscape of the Central Coast includes portraits of people from different communities, including local Chumash tribes, and information about their family history and personal lives.

This theme of folding time is found in almost every one of Harmon’s portraits if you look closely enough. Some are more obvious, like a three-panel portrait of brothers Erik and Hans Gregersen, whose grandfather was a Danish immigrant and pastor who helped found Solvang and established the town’s first Lutheran church.

The two outer panels of the piece include the smiling brothers, and between them are sepia-tone images of their grandfather and city co-founders overlooking the landscape of untouched Solvang. The siblings went abroad for much of their lives, but both have returned to Solvang and now live on the remaining land passed down by their forefathers.

Erik Gregersen also serves on the board of the Elverhoj Museum—he was suggested as a subject for the show by museum Executive Director Esther Jacobsen Bates—and said that a historically themed exhibit with a focus on locals is a perfect fit for the museum.

“I think we have such a wide variety of people on the Central Coast here who are interesting and their histories are very relevant to why we are what we are today,” Gregersen said. “That’s why I think this is a great exhibit, and there’s a lot of background to go with the paintings; it’s really well done.”

Celebrating culture

The Elverhoj Museum of History and Art has been dedicated to sharing the history of Solvang’s cultural roots since 1988, after the home of artists Viggo Brandt-Erichsen and his wife, Martha Mott, was renovated and donated for the purpose of sharing art.

The museum’s executive director, Jacobsen Bates, explained that the museum itself was intended for creativity in the way it was built, even when it was a private residence.


“What we do here in the art gallery continues the actual intent of the building,” she said. “For instance, those glass doors were built tall like that because Viggo was a sculptor, and he had a pulley system and he could bring in big slabs of material here, his studio.”

The studio was also a teaching space, she explained, and the Elverhoj perpetuates that spirit as well. As part of Revelations, the museum will host several Culture Club events, which include talks and presentations on topics led by some of the portrait subjects and one program by Harmon. This will include a discussion on local agriculture, preservation of native languages, and even a Danish heritage program.

The scope of Revelations was appealing to the Elverhoj Museum’s staff because it matched the museum’s mission statement in that it included such a wide range of Central Coast residents, Jacobsen Bates explained. She also helped connect Harmon with important figures in Solvang last year to help complete and localize the show for the Elverhoj.

“I loved the concept of Holli’s project, and being able to celebrate the cultural diversity of the area fits perfectly with what we do,” she said. “I think it’s really rewarding to be able to focus on our local community and learn more about the members and what they do to enrich our lives here.”

“And I think too, what’s interesting about our community here in Solvang—and it’s the same throughout California—is it’s a community built by immigrants. Pretty much everybody comes from an immigrant background,” she continued. “And certainly the Chumash were here first, but even the Chumash aren’t full-blooded Chumash, so we all share that immigrant background.”

The subjects in Revelations include descendents of immigrants to the area as well as those who came in their lifetime from places far off. There is Mexican immigrant Genoveva Gonzalez who lives in Goleta and has worked as a housekeeper in Santa Barbara and Goleta. 

Revelations features an incredible multimedia element collected by Harmon and her creative team including video interviews, audio podcast accompaniment, and a full-color booklet available to purchase.

There is also Dr. Shuji Nakamura, the scientist and inventor who helped create the blue LED light while living in his native Japan. Nakamura moved to Santa Barbara to study and later founded a business. The quote that hangs on the placard next to his portrait reads, “I like to think.” Harmon’s portrait of Nakamura was made before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2014.

Another immigrant to the area is ElseMarie Petersen, who is Danish born, and first visited Solvang in her youth. She eventually met Aaron Petersen in Solvang, they married, and she moved to Solvang permanently in the late 1980s. 

Petersen is a Danish cultural advocate and teaches her native language at the Elverhoj Museum along with other cultural programs about Denmark and Danish culture. She will be part of the last Culture Club event before the show closes, titled Home Plate: How the Danes Do It, which will include Danish food and hospitality. 

Petersen was happy to be featured in Revelations and said she views it as a celebration of the very feeling that made her want to stay when she first came to Solvang.

“I think because people come from all over the world—and in California we have people that have grown up in other countries that gather here—it’s a great place for people,” she said. “You can be who you are and it’s OK. That’s what makes California, and the United States as a country, really special.” 

Contact Arts Editor Joe Payne at

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