Nall Fred Nall Hollis (1948- ), known simply as Nall, is an internationally recognized surrealist painter/engraver who is also recognized for his work in portraiture, sculpture, and mosaics. Of note, his expansive resume includes mentoring students and significant promotion of other artists. Nall has spearheaded a number of important exhibitions that featured Alabama artists in the United States and abroad.
Fred Nall Hollis was born in the Wiregrass town of Troy, Pike County, on April 21, 1948, the only son of Joe Frost Hollis and Mary Winfred Nall Hollis. His father was a bank executive whose work moved the family to Birmingham, Jefferson County, and ultimately to Arab, a small town in Marshall County in northeast Alabama. Mary was a traditional southern mother who consistently supported her son’s ambition to be a great artist, contrary to Joe, who believed there was no professional future in the arts.
From an early age, Nall demonstrated unusual talent in the arts and seemed destined to a creative calling. Throughout his childhood and teenage years, Nall was different from other boys in his community, who were focused on sports, hunting, fishing, and girls. Nall found himself frustrated by a conservative southern culture ill-suited to his interests and preferred lifestyle.
Violata Pax Dove After graduating from high school in Arab, Nall enrolled at the University of Alabama (UA) with the intent to sharpen his proficiency in the arts, particularly highly detailed drawing. During the mid-1960s, the emphasis by his art professors was on abstract expressionism and commercial design. This instructional focus proved to be another source of frustration for the restless young man, who sought a different direction for his professional career.
Hollis graduated from UA with a degree in Fine Arts in 1970 and headed for New York City, which he viewed as a necessary place for starting a professional arts career. The experience proved to be disappointing. The New York scene was dominated by the likes of pop artist Andy Warhol and abstract expressionists Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock. Nall was much more interested in the work of realist painters Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth, and Alberto Vargas. He found the commercialism, superficial modernism, and pop culture of New York City dull and uninspiring. His relatively short time in New York City convinced him that the famous meccas of Europe would give him the exposure he needed to move forward in his career in the arts.
Lewis Carroll as Alice In 1971, he was accepted into the famous École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, from which he graduated first in his class. Nall’s early years in Europe included an internship with Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí and the formation of a close relationship with famous African American writer James Baldwin. He began establishing relationships with important patrons and began refining a style highly influenced by French artist Gustav-Adolph Mossa. In the mid-1970s, Nall traveled to the Middle East, North Africa, India, and Mexico, and the art and design he viewed in these places also shaped the direction of his paintings and drawings. By the end of the 1970s, Nall had earned critical acclaim in Europe in large part owing to two challenging and important works, The Last Supper and the 32-piece “Alice in Wonderland” series. The technical skill and depth of subject matter reflected in these works brought attention to not only Nall’s unique style but the emergence of an important new artist on the European cultural landscape.
As he gained access to significant centers of the artworld and elite European social circles, Nall attracted more high-profile patrons, and related portraiture of celebrities became an important extension of his work. Commissioned portraits of Prince Albert of Monaco, French film star Catherine Deneuve, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, and his actress wife Barbara Bach were but a few of his clients. Nall’s unusually creative approach to portraits, while unique, stayed true to Dalí’s rule—”always draw from life”—and his mentor’s haunting spirit of Surrealism. Nall’s portrait work moved his notoriety in Europe to a much higher level.
His growing friendship with Prince Albert earned Nall a major public art commission: the monumental ceramic wall hangings at the Grimaldi Forum, Monaco’s primary performing arts center. The two large-scale pieces, known as Sunrise Pensée and Sunset Pensée, received rave reviews. He gained additional commissions and exhibited major pieces of public art for the Monaco Cathedral, in Italy at the Pisa Airport, the Monastery of St. Frances of Assisi, and Pietrasanta, and in Menton, France.
Nall’s success allowed him to purchase and renovate the twelfth-century former studio of Jean Dubuffet, founder of the Art Brut movement, in Vence, France, just northwest of Nice. The site became Nall’s home, studio, gallery, gathering spot for other artists, and an educational center for young interns. The compound came to be known as the Nall Art Association. Of particular significance, Nall invited numerous students and artists from Alabama to come to his studio/home to work, learn, and broaden their cultural awareness.
Jimmy Lee Sudduth Portrait In the 1990s, Nall started making more frequent trips home to Alabama to visit family and strengthen ties with a broader range of Alabama artists. During these visits, his appreciation for their work inspired an idea to curate and launch a major exhibition called Alabama Art 2000. With help from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, the exhibition opened at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts with much critical acclaim and large numbers of supportive visitors. The success of the exhibition led to its restaging in various locations in the south of France, with Alabama governor Don Siegelman and Prince Albert of Monaco endorsing a breakthrough cultural exchange. The exhibition featured the work of 12 artists, including Alabamians Frank Fleming, William Christenberry, Clifton Pearson, Kathryn Tucker Windham, Charlie Lucas, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, and Yvonne Wells.
Nall continued to garner fame and additional recognition in the 2000s both at home in the United States and abroad. He opened the doors for cultural exchange between Alabama and Italy with the creation and donation of his large-scale multimedia work Peace Frame to Pietrasanta, arguably the sculpture capitol of the world. Also in Italy, he was hired to design the sets and costumes for two productions of the world-renowned Puccini Opera Festival and create the design for two new tableware lines for Haviland China. In Alabama, Nall established a relationship with David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama that led to the installation of original Alabama artworks in the resort chain being developed for the state in partnership with Marriot International in the 1990s.
Perhaps Nall’s most ambitious and challenging project of his career came in 2006 with the launch of the exhibition Violata Pax (Latin for “wounded peace”), or Stations of the Cross of Humanity, a collaboration with the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, and the Franciscan Order in Assisi. The multi-location, multimedia works included paintings, sculpture, weaving, and decorative furniture that all contributed to the theme of addressing the historical conflicts that plague humanity. The main site for the exhibition was the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most sacred sites in all of Europe, annually visited by millions of pilgrims worldwide. Components of the exhibition were also shown in Pietrasanta, Italy, Menton, France, the Principality of Monaco, and in Alabama at the Mobile Museum of Art.
Acknowledging a slowing of creative energy, in 2016 Nall had established permanent residence in Fairhope, Baldwin County, and purchased spaces for a studio, gallery, and warehouse for storing an extensive collection of his work and that of other artists. With thoughts of leaving his artistic legacy to an appropriate location in Alabama, Troy University offered Nall a role in planning a new International Arts Center that would include the Nall Museum. On November 6, 2016, Troy dedicated the Center and Nall Museum in the Janice Hawkins Cultural Park on the Troy campus. In his childhood home of Troy, this tribute to Fred Nall Hollis is open to the public and successfully captures the magnitude, significance, and excellence of a truly outstanding Alabama artist.
Cobb, Mark Hughes. “The Artist Known Simply as Nall.” Tuscaloosa News, April 10, 2006.
Forneris, Jean. Nall-Mossa/Eros & Agapa. Vence, France: Musée de la N.A.L.L. Art Association, 1997.
Nall, ed. Alabama Art Montgomery, Ala.: Black Belt Press, 2000.
Scarbi, Vittorio, and Fred Nall Hollis. Nall Violata Pax Ferite dell’Umanita: Immagini per una Liturgia Barocca. Vence, France: Musée de la N.A.L.L. Art Association, 2006.
Touche, Hugues de la. Nall Alchemy. Vence, France: Musée de la N.A.L.L. Art Association, 2006.