How painting helped blind artist see the light

For nearly 30 years Deborah Holder-Ross was a successful make-up artist to the stars of the small screen.

Holly Holder

For nearly 30 years Deborah Holder-Ross was a successful make-up artist to the stars of the small screen.

Working for the BBC she did the make up for actors in show such as EastEnders, The Village, Our Zoo, Munroe, Only Fools and Horses, and Band of Brothers to name but a few.

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She was well paid and enjoyed buzzing round London in her Jeep. She was married to Stephen who was also in the film industry and they had tow children. Life was good.

Holly Holder still uses some of her make up brushes to paint her pictures

But in 2000 Holly started to notice significant changes in her vision, which ultimately resulted in her being diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa.

“My father and quite a few members of my family suffer from the genetic condition. So when my night vision started to go I knew what was happening to me, but that didn’t make it any easier.”

She continued to work but just tried to make sure that she got day shifts and the lighting was good,.

But in 2009 she was registered partially sighted by Moorfields Eye Hospital, lost her driving licence and beloved Jeep, but more importantly to her, her independence.

“I was used to having my own income and being able to buy pretty much what I wanted then suddenly I couldn’t do that any more and it had a profound affect in me.”

In 2014, having realised her eyesight was not going to get better, she sold her makeup kit - but couldn’t let go of her brushes.

“It was one of the hardest things I have done, especially as my friends who bought my make up, which was worth thousands, were still working in the industry I had been forced to leave behind.” She also sold virtually all her jewellery.

“It wasn’t that my husband couldn’t support us, it was just that I was used to having my own income and I really struggled with the loss of independence.”

180816 'Shadow Poppies ' a painting by Holly Holderp

Having swapped her car and career for a white stick and bus pass she felt very low.

She thought a move to Harrogate would help, but all that changed was the place.

“I used to try to keep it from the children and from Stephen, I’d get up with them and then go back to bed when they left for school and work.

“I’d get up, have lunch watch Loose Women and go back to bed and then get up half an hour before they came home from school and then go back to bed at 9pm exhausted - being depressed is so exhausting. I went to some very dark places.”

Holly Holder still uses some of her make up brushes to paint her pictures

After a few years of depression and asking ‘why me’, the brushes were still there taunting her and in October 2015 she picked them up and started to paint.

“I was trying to think of a present I could give my brother in law who had been very kind to us and so I thought I’ll paint him a picture of Fife where he lives. I gave it to him for Christmas and everyone loved it and wanted me to paint them a picture.”

She also decided to change her name to Holly Holder.

“My dad had always wanted me to be called Holly as I was born at Christmas but my mum wouldn’t let him. I had started to associate the name Debbie with the depression I had been feeling and so I started to call myself Holly.” She even changed her name by deed poll.

“I started to feel a bit better. If I had a choice between being blind or depressed I think I would take being blind.”

Holly found that painting helped her come to terms with her sight loss and feel like her old self even if she had develop ways of recognising the paints such as getting her son to voice record

She found the perfect studio at Conyngham Hall, Knaresbrough.

“When I am in my studio painting I can almost forget I am blind.” Holly can see vague shapes in front of her but little else such is the progression of this cruel condition, In March this years she was registered blind, and therefore disabled.

“It was actually such a relief,” says Holly who says her family have also struggled to come to terms with her blindness.

To look at Holly you would have no idea of the severity of her condition. She does have dark glasses and white stick and an assistance dog, Dogger, but she doesn’t like to draw attention to her vulnerability. There are no visible signs that Holly has a disability.

“It is hard as I have had sight I can remember where certain things are and so when you ask for help some people think you are a fraud.”

Her son, who has just had his Alevel results has missed a lot of school looking after his mother as his dad works away a lot.

“He has had to grow up very quickly,” she says.

While she finds independence and self-confidence in her painting, Holly is impatient.

“I am not good at waiting for things to happen,” she admits. But it is only three months since she launched her website and she already has her first exhibition taking place on October 27 to November 25 at Art in the Mill, Knaresborough.

Out of the Dark is largely landscapes although it also highlights Holly’s emotional journey.

“The enjoyment and freedom I get from painting is fantastic. Not only am I really proud of the paintings I’m creating it’s a great mood lifter too,” she says,

“It was amazing, I literally have swapped my make-up pallet for paints, In fact I still paint with my make up brushes as they are the brushes I’m best at working with. The gouache paint also goes on much like make up so it’s been a really lovely transition.”

raising money through painting

Working from her studio in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, Holly’s work reflects both her experiences from her fully sighted days as well as her take on the world now.

​Her first exhibition out of the dark is at Art in the Mills from October 27 to November 25.

She will donate 10 per cent of all sales to RP Fighting Blindness, which supports medical research into Retinitis Pigmentosa to help find treatments or cures for the condition and provide information and support for people affected.

Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is the name given to a group of inherited conditions of the retina that all lead to a gradual progressive reduction in vision. Difficulties with night vision and peripheral vision are the first things that are noticed. Later, reading vision, colour vision, and central vision are affected. In approximately half of all cases there are other family members with RP.

180816 'Shadow Poppies ' a painting by Holly Holderp