Painting the O.Henry Hotel

News & Record
By Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane

Chip Holton in Cloister Garden at O.Henry Hotel
Chip Holton in Cloister Garden at O.Henry Hotel

Steady rain creates a dreary afternoon outside the O. Henry Hotel.

No day for artist Chip Holton to paint an outdoor scene. But that doesn’t distract him from his quest.

Holton walks the lobby, contemplating nosegays of pink roses set up with afternoon tea service. Perhaps he will focus his painting on the roses.

“Wait,” he says. “What time is it?”

It’s 3 p.m. Chefs at the adjacent Green Valley Grill have begun dinner preparations. Holton’s mind turns to chickens roasting on a wood-fired rotisserie.

He rolls the large serving cart housing his art supplies from lobby to kitchen.

As kitchen noise and hustle envelop him, Holton rapidly sketches his scene’s shapes and perspectives in pencil on watercolor paper.

For the next two hours, his brush flits from palette to water to paper and back as he translates the kitchen scene to art. (See a photo gallery)

“Do you see what I mean?” hotel co-owner Dennis Quaintance says as he stops by to take a look. “Isn’t this a hoot?”

Painting No. 75 done. At least 56 more to go.

* * * *

Quaintance voices delight over the job that he has created for Holton, his longtime friend and collaborator.

The title: artist in residence at the O. Henry Hotel.

The charge: Paint a watercolor for each of its 131 guest rooms and suites, all depicting different scenes in the luxury hotel and its restaurant.

When that is finished, Quaintance also envisions Holton creating art for elevator lobbies and other areas. That might take Holton’s painting tally to 160.

“The idea of saying that every painting in this hotel is of this hotel — it gives me a childish glee,” Quaintance says.

“I can just see (guests) coming in and saying, ‘Look at this! That’s where we had tea this afternoon. That’s where we checked in. That’s the porter.'”

Holton has held the hotel artist-in-residence title before.

Two years ago, he and Quaintance forged a deal that gave new meaning to the phrase “hotel art.”

Quaintance hired him then to create nearly 500 pieces of original art for guest rooms and the lobby in the nearby Proximity Hotel — the latest project of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants & Hotels, which Quaintance runs with Mike Weaver.
The charcoal drawings on canvas and the lobby border fit perfectly in a hotel built as one of the country’s greenest, where solar panels heat the water and building materials and technology cut energy costs.

“I can’t imagine art in these rooms that I would prefer more,” Quaintance said then.

Other high-end hotels have bought or commissioned original art, but Quaintance saw potential for the artist-in-residence idea to become a model.

He wanted to bring Holton back to do it again.

Now, Holton drives daily from the Davidson County town of Midway to the hotel on Green Valley Road.

Since late August, he has typically turned out three or four paintings a day. One day, he painted five in 12 hours.

Each must be a horizontal scene on paper measuring 26 inches by 19 inches. That way, they can be displayed on guest room walls in existing oak frames that now hold photographs of old Greensboro.

Holton relishes the focus and the hourly pay that the work brings to his artistic life, especially in a sluggish economy.

“This is the O. Henry stimulus package for me,” he says.

At the hotel, he has found a surprising amount of fodder.

* The hotel’s red brick facade and window awnings.
* The lobby, paneled with honeyed pine, decorated with warm browns, greens and reds and a portrait of writer O. Henry, painted by Holton himself more than a decade ago.

* Its wide, arched window that looks onto the Don Rives cloister garden, named after the hotel’s beloved late designer.

* Guests relaxing in the lobby, gathering at the bar, dining indoors or out.

* Chefs preparing a meal and floral designers tending plants.

“This is an old-world hotel and reflects the style that I like to paint in anyway — realistic and impressionistic,” Holton says.

Sometimes he works in late night and early morning quiet, other times in daylight. That allows him to capture images in different lighting.

“I am constantly looking for a new view of some similar scene,” he says.

He paints a scene at a distance, then varies the perspective by zeroing in on a small portion up close. He can paint from different angles. He can add or subtract people.

“All I have to do is move 10 to 15 degrees, and I have another composition,” he says.

Occasionally, Quaintance, hotel designer Bradshaw Orrell and design team manager Angie Kenny offer scene suggestions.

Sometimes, people in his scenes come and go; the weather and light change. One morning, a surprise rain shower sent him scrambling inside from the cloister garden.

So, he captures the image in his mind’s eye to be finished as he remembers it.

He doesn’t record every detail. That would increase time spent on each painting. And he takes artistic license: In his kitchen scene, chef de cuisine Jesse Mitchell appears twice, once with his back to the artist.

“I am not about painting every single vine or leaf,” Holton says. “I try to get the effects of the light and form and shape.

“It’s more impressions of the moment that I try to capture very rapidly.”

His presence sparks lots of guest comments and conversation:

“How long have you been doing this? Are you here all the time?”

“Do you sleep here?” (Sometimes, he does.)

“I do watercolors. That’s the hardest thing to do.”

“What a neat idea, to actually have an artist in a hotel!”

His work even brought him a commission. A man asked him to paint a picture of a friend playing the lobby piano as a gift. Holton took mental notes on her clothing, posture and hair and painted it the next day from memory.

And a designer from Cannes discussed the possibility of having him work with her in France for a few weeks.

“I am sort of an art ambassador for the hotel,” Holton says.

The exposure to a new audience has taught him lessons in artistic commerce. “I wouldn’t have run into them if I were shut up in a studio.”

* * * *

Now 60, Frank P. “Chip” Holton III thought he might become an architect when he entered N.C. State in 1966. But math wasn’t his strong suit, so he studied philosophy instead.

A senior trip to see Italy’s artistic treasures prompted him to follow his talent and his muse.

Earning a master’s degree in art at UNCG got him jobs designing exhibits at the North Carolina Zoo and commissions for paintings, murals and sculptures.

He met Dennis and Nancy Quaintance 20 years ago when the couple prepared to open Lucky 32 restaurant. Holton painted its first mural.

He went on to create art for other Quaintance-Weaver projects: writer O. Henry’s portrait for the O. Henry, the massive still life of food in Green Valley Grill, the local history scene in Lucky 32.

Then, in 2007, came the job as artist in residence at the Proximity.

As the O. Henry celebrated its 10th anniversary, Quaintance and Orrell contemplated updating it with Holton’s art.

But what? How? And how could they keep costs in check?

They considered having him create paintings for eighth-floor suites. But they knew that wouldn’t keep him employed for long. Holton got busy on murals in South Carolina and at Davidson County Community College.

He returned to design a decorative frieze for Lucky 32. But as attractive as it was, all agreed, it didn’t fit the space.

Holton showed Quaintance his quick watercolor sketch of a bike race. He painted an O. Henry lobby scene, and the idea took off.

Sometimes, they pull him away to sketch design ideas for other projects.

To make the O. Henry project work, Holton must see possibilities that others don’t.

At a loss for a scene one evening, he walked through the event kitchen and noticed a bunch of wilted flowers.

“I grabbed a table linen, put it on a cart, put the flowers on top,” he says. Voila, a painting he entitled “O. Henry’s Dead Soldiers.”

At Quaintance’s suggestion, he even painted a picture of himself painting a painting. That ranks among Quaintance’s and Orrell’s favorites.

To Holton, the greatest challenge lies not in finding more than 100 different scenes: “It’s keeping things interesting and at a certain level of quality.”

When Quaintance looks through them, “About 10 percent, I think, ‘Wow, that is really great.’ About 80 percent of the rest, I say, ‘Those are nice.’ And then some, I say, ‘They’re OK.’ If anything is below OK, we won’t use them.”

He plans to turn many images into giclée prints, notecards and calendars to sell. Customers also can commission Holton to paint a scene just for them.

As of early last week, Holton had finished 90 of the paintings.

Quaintance hopes to have all originals hung by Christmas. They will retain some framed old Greensboro photos in rooms, as well.

One original might not make it to a guest room. Holton painted it looking up from the pool to the lush cloister garden and its vine-covered pergola.

Quaintance admires it so much, he might take it home.

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