Former Vice President and Creative Director, Verve Music Group

In his native Trinidad/Tobago, Hollis King says music and art were a significant part of his upbringing. He enjoyed art classes at school and found that he had a talent for art. Even as a youngster, he saw that his artwork surpassed that of his classmates and brought him a certain respect from others.

King moved to Brooklyn when he was 16, and attended New York City Community College, beginning as a liberal arts major on course to become a doctor in line with cultural and family aspirations. But a friend noticed the exceptional “doodles” he drew between classes and encouraged him to rethink his career goals. King switched to the advertising and design program, and later transferred to the School of Visual Arts, where he studied with legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser. Money was tight, so King worked in the shipping department of a toy factory by day and took classes at night. One of his teachers, veteran art and creative director Walter Kaprielian, recognized his talent and gave him an introduction to a job in the art world.

King worked at several design studios before entering the music industry as a graphic designer at GRP records. Five years later he joined the Verve Music Group, a division of Universal Music Company and the largest jazz record label in the world. As Vice President and Creative Director for 15 years, King created the vision, the look and the feel of the music that came from the company. He says, “I put skin and bones to the ideas.”

At Verve he worked with noted artists like Natalie Cole, Linda Rhonstadt and John Foley, and worked on historical music, like the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald. King’s work was acknowledged through numerous achievement awards and citations from Communication Arts, How magazine, Print magazine, AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) and the Society of Illustrators, as well as five Grammy nominations from 1995-2005.

An artist, photographer, music historian, businessman and role model, King says the Grammies forced him to look inside himself and take his work more seriously. The experience also strengthened his commitment to what he believed in, and gave him a sense of satisfaction that he had found his way on his own volition. Most of all, after the nominations his brother told him, “Mommy is proud of you.”

“My story is an immigrant’s story,” King humbly says. “It’s the story of everybody who comes to the United States with the ambition to be someone and try to make something of their lives.” The way to do that, he notes, is by developing a skill, getting the best education you can afford. He adds, “Access to education is a key because education gives you access.”

“I don’t take the freedoms I have here in America for granted,” says King. “I am the recipient of the sacrifice of others who stood up for our rights.” Mindful, too, that a man stretched out his hand to give him an opportunity for a job in the art and design industry, King always looked to give back to those coming up the ranks. While at Verve, he offered an internship program to persons of every nationality, race or color who applied; he also provided classes and seminars to students from the University of Maryland and University of Delaware—sharing his expertise with newcomers to the field.

As downloading music became common and the music industry shrank, King left Verve and started his own business, Hollis King Creative. Among his projects was a new CD package for R&B singer Will Downing. Currently, he’s working with pop singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke, and producing a video and creative packaging for Bob James.

Independently, King is creating his first documentary film, titled “Images of Dignity: Decent People’s Children.” The idea blossomed while he was having brunch at a café in Harlem, and became curious about the lives of the people, not only those who had lived there for a long time, but also those who are coming in. For 11 months, he has been inviting one person a week to meet with him in Harlem, tell his or her story, and be photographed for a portrait. In addition to the film, King intends to turn the project into a book and an exhibit.

Following his interest in Harlem, King applied for and received a grant for a residency with the Laundromat Project, which encourages artists to bring art to underserved communities in New York City and Philadelphia. The artists, who are usually outsiders to the community, are required to take a course that instructs them on selecting a site, usually a simple gathering place like a Laundromat, entering the social fabric of the community and creating art with the people. King was selected for a six-month photography project in Harlem, which he completed last fall and presented to the Project board members and guests at a Manhattan location. While participating in the project, he also created a 9-minute film and a 40-page book about the experience.

“Music and art are the connective tissue of life,” King ponders. “Knowledge of art rounds us out as human beings, makes us understand and navigate the world. Every sign you see, every piece you read, everything you buy at Christmas, they are all negotiated through art and design. It has a special function. It’s all around us.”

Calling himself a creative guy, he says he’s always thinking about the world and trying to make sense of it through art. “If you do art right, you can affect the outcome of people’s lives in a positive way,” adds King. “Affective art can speak up for communities and effect change.”

King is also trying his hand at the written word—he recently wrote a children’s book and hopes to see it published. Personally gripped by the sad history of the U.S. South, his story is about a young black girl, who is growing up on a farm with her grandparents and has a dream to become a singer. “It’s a very fantastical, magical, uplifting story,” says King. “The message is that you can do whatever you want to do.”

King has also shared his support, advice and images with New Paradigm Design, a group of architects and other creative people who come together to do specific projects created around different mediums. He regularly lectures at the Fashion Institute of Technology, School of Visual Arts, Art Directors Club and the Society of Illustrators.

A Uniondale, Long Island, resident, King attributes his success to discipline, hard work and commitment. He says, “I always look ahead, and the Harlem documentary film is my next excitement.”

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