Hollis Sigler

Teaching Page

Click images to enlarge | Jump to Content
Hollis Sigler, You Worry About Its Success, 1987, oil on canvas, 65 1/2 x 89 1/2 inches. Collection of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Purchase, through funds bequested by Elizabeth Harris. © Estate of Hollis Sigler.

This teaching page provides analysis of the work of art, background information on the artists, key ideas, discussion questions, and online resources for additional learning. You can download a PDF of this teaching page and a large image of You Worry About Its Success.

This work is on view in BIG from November 4, 2017 through May 6, 2018.

The Art

Hollis Sigler is a storyteller. In this painting she has set the stage and positioned the props. We know where we are. We know the time of day and the time of year. We see a table with two glasses and plates, a chocolate cake, a bottle of wine, and two chairs. A third chair faces away from us, turned toward the moon. We see a row of glowing lanterns strung across the yard, as well as an open screen door. A clump of flowering plants, sharp blades of grass, a group of trees, and a chain-link fence frame the scene.

Like any good storyteller Hollis Sigler piques our curiosity with tantalizing details. But this is a story we must finish ourselves. We do not know who has hung the lanterns or brought out the table and chairs. We do not know why this evening was planned or who was invited. It looks like a celebration with wine and cake, but can we be sure?

As in all of Sigler’s work, the actors are missing, their presence suggested by the backyard furnishings. Their absence leaves us suspended in time, pondering what might be going on here. Has someone just gone back inside the house leaving the door ajar? Did the telephone ring? Is the guest at the front door? We cannot know if something has already happened or is about to happen. We stand outside the yard. We are observers seeing only a part of the drama.

Hollis Sigler uses a stage-like composition to tell her story. Two large trees and the row of plants occupy the foreground and seem to both restrict entry into the image and focus attention on center stage. In the background the moon is above the horizon, still yellow as it rises in the sky. The planet Saturn peaks mysteriously from behind a tree. The phrase “You Worry About Its Success” is written across the top, offering up a possible storyline.

Strong contrasts of value and color, like the composition, enhance the story. The moon looks far way but hovers over the table like a spotlight. Its yellow light seems to ring the table while the lanterns cast an amber glow that is reflected on the door, fence, and trees. The rest of the scene is in darkness. Just as the light shifts from white at the center to near-black at the edges, the color moves dramatically from warm yellows, oranges, and reds to cool greens and dark blues. Energetic brushwork adds texture and movement to the image, and heightens its sense of drama.

The Artist

Hollis Sigler was born in 1948 and received a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in l973. As a young artist she developed a highly polished and accomplished photo-realist style. In 1976, she completely changed her methods to better serve the ideas she wished to explore.

In an interview years later, Sigler remembers drawing for hours at her grandmother’s art table. There was no television in the house, but lots of paper and crayons, and she was free to do whatever she liked. It was that sense of unbounded creativity, she says, that she was trying to recapture as an adult. Her new paintings were done in a style that appeared untutored, with richly applied paint in short descriptive brush strokes. The subject matter reflected her life, her relationships, and her anxieties, without being specific. She wrote, “Although I wanted emotions in my art, I was determined to be silent about their cause...I wanted the viewers to have a dialogue with the art, to be able to put themselves in the picture...The works should touch us in our shared emotional space.”

In 1985, at the age of thirty-seven, Hollis Sigler was diagnosed with breast cancer. You Worry About Its Success was painted during this period when Sigler still felt she might win her battle with the disease. In 1991 the cancer reappeared and, despite further treatments, metastasized in her bones a year later. This time, instead of remaining silent about her ordeal, she began the work that would become Hollis Sigler’s Breast Cancer Journal.

The first paintings she made explored her reactions to what was happening in her body using the same expressive style and vocabulary of images she had developed since l976. But the meaning was now explicit. Until her death in 2001, Sigler concentrated on making paintings that used both images and words to describe a disease that has isolated women with silence and dread. Although the series began as personal catharsis, it became an eloquent forum for raising awareness of this increasingly wide-spread disease.

Key Ideas

  • Commonplace subject matter as a metaphor for human relationships
  • Visual storytelling to record or explore experience
  • Art that raises awareness and conveys messages of hope and perserverance

Discussion Questions

1. Hollis Sigler has set the stage in You Worry About Its Success. Where are you standing as the viewer of this scene? Are you part of this gathering or an observer? How has Sigler established this relationship?

2. What visual design elements predominate in the painting? How has Sigler used color, form, and proportion to create perspective or a sense of space within the picture plane? What areas has she emphasized and how has this been accomplished? How do these creative decisions contribute to the development of a potential storyline?

3. Does this seem to be a celebration, or something else? What aspects of the painting influence your interpretation?

4. Do the words Sigler wrote at the top of the painting help you understand what you see or do they add another level of mystery? After looking carefully at You Worry About Its Success have your first impressions changed or been reinforced? Why?


On the artist
Carl Hammer Gallery, Hollis Sigler
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Hollis Sigler artist profile
Sigler, Hollis. Hollis Sigler’s Breast Cancer Journal. Hudson Hills Press, NY, 1999.

NYTimes Article: Living with Cancer: Cursings and Blessings