Sean Hollins and Sonya Bernard-Hollins recognized for contributions to Kalamazoo and arts community

One has been doing work in the background making art that helps others look good. The other has been helping girls see the world and see possibilities within themselves. 

They also happen to be married to each other.

The Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo will present both Sean Hollins and Sonya Bernard-Hollins and nine others 2020 Community Arts Awards in the future. Due to the increasing COVID-19 infection rate, the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo (ACGK) has decided to postpone the Community Arts Awards celebration, which was originally scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020 at 5:30 p.m. at the Wellspring Theater. The event will be postponed until the Governor and CDC have deemed it safe to gather in groups.   

Hollins and his graphic arts business, Fortitude Graphic Design and Printing, won the Business Arts Award, and Bernard-Hollins' Merze Tate Travel Club gets the Gayle Hoogstraten Arts Leadership Award.

It was by chance -- almost -- that they both got awards. "It was funny because I nominated Sean," Bernard-Hollins says. "When Kristen (Chesak, ACGK director) called and told me that he won, she said, 'Oh, by the way, someone nominated you, too. So you're getting the award.' I said, 'What?!?'"

She says, "And he didn't nominate me, so it's not like we nominated each other." 

Sonya says she has always been impressed by Sean's ability to talk with clients and see their vision of what they want.Nominations are usually anonymous unless the nominator is a spouse who spills the beans. There were no hard feelings that her husband didn't return the favor. 

She nominated her husband because "he's been doing graphic design since even before we met. I've always been impressed by his ability to talk with clients and see their vision of what they want, either for their business cards or book covers or web sites," she says.

Sean Hollins is an example of the kind of working artist who rarely gets the spotlight. His goal is to "highlight the client and not himself," she says. 

He specializes in cover design -- Bernard-Hollins, a journalist and author, often has her husband's work on her book covers. 

"It's not like a statue or painting that people see, but the books that he does, in particular, are circulated all over. A lot of people just don't know that he helped that author bring that vision to life with his work," she says.

In 2010 the couple brought together their talents in graphic design and journalism to create books for local authors. Together, through their company Season Press Publishing, they have helped more than 100 people from across the country become self-published authors.

"We collaborated on our first book in 2002,"  says Bernard-Hollins. "'Here I Stand' was a book about the African American history of Battle Creek with a focus on local music history. While we were excited about it and locals supported it, we could not get past the local markets. We realized the design, layout, and editing hindered us from greater success. 

"Once we began to work to make it better, more people asked who published your book? The rest is history as we work to produce quality books for others at a price they can afford."

Sean Hollins has been doing graphic art for over 30 years and founded Fortitude 18 years ago. 

He has two goals for his book covers: "I try to grab the essence of what (authors) are speaking of," he says. And, "if I can get you to stop and look at the book, then I did my job as the designer of the cover."

What does he think of his wife's work?

"She's done so much in the community as far as helping young girls try to expand their horizons from what they normally see on a daily basis, to be able to think outside of their community and see opportunities and other areas of the world," Hollins says.

Her travel club is not only taking young women to see countries like France or Japan, it's helping them meet career women, and learn about their own possibilities. 

"They're actually seeing women who are doing phenomenal things across the globe," he says. One example was a "professional smeller," who works with perfume and other companies where a sensitive nose is needed. "Who would think that's a job? And she's making great money, flying all around these places smelling and helping people create smells? Those types of things, expanding young girls' minds, it's phenomenal."

Merze Tate is named after the first African-American woman to graduate from Western Michigan University. Tate became a teacher, and in the 1920s and '30s took her African-American students on educational trips around the country. Bernard-Hollins has written a book about Tate's life and wanted to create such a program for youth whose families might not have the means to travel.

"I grew up with an elementary school teacher who had taken me to Niagara Falls," Bernard-Hollins says. She remembers seeing the huge waterfall, which she had only seen in pictures, and was thrilled to see it up close.

That sort of excitement from a child seeing "something that they've only seen in pictures, is just unexplainable. Seeing girls see the Eiffel Tower for the first time, seeing girls riding gondolas, girls flying in planes around their community with the help of local pilots. To me, the reward is seeing these girls' eyes light up when they have these new adventures that they otherwise might not have ever experienced before."

She wanted to also show young women potential and possibilities. From Japan to southwest Michigan, they've met with career women in a variety of careers. Bernard-Hollins points out that they've visited Stryker, Kellogg and Whirlpool, to see professional women working "in their back yard. But  (outside Merze Tate) they've never had access to even go in and meet those people, to learn more about what happens there."

Sean Hollins paraphrases a quote he says he heard somewhere, "Once a mind has been expanded, it's hard to go back to where it was."

Bernard-Hollins says that they're both Kalamazoo natives, and "growing up in this community, being able to be recognized with this award is an honor."

Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo 2020 Community Arts Award Winners

Community Medal of Arts

Andrew Koehler, music director of the Kalamazoo Philharmonia, the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor of the West Michigan Symphony Orchestra.

Sandra Bremer, actress, choreographer and director. Her career goes back 40 years of local community theatre, has toured professionally and spent 15 years as a company member of the Derby Dinner Playhouse in Louisville, KY. She has worked with the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, Civic Youth Theater and Farmers Alley Theatre.

Dr. Thomas G. Evans, Kalamazoo College professor of music and director of bands who has overseen a long list of K bands including Symphonic, Jazz and Pep. He is also the conductor of the community band, the Kalamazoo Concert Band

Adam F. Carter Young Artist Award 

Shelby Alexander, actor and playwright, is currently a junior at Comstock High School and the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science center. She has been an active member of the Kalamazoo Civic Youth Theatre, was the first youth playwright for the 10th TK New Playfest, and a semifinalist for the Young Playwright's Festival at Blank Space Theatre.

Business Arts Award

Fortitude Graphic Design (see story)

Patron Award

Joy and Tim Light, whose generosity helped open the Joy Light Gallery of Asian Art at the Kalamazoo Institute of Art in 2010, and who have funded other exhibitions of East Asian art.

Epic Award

Crescendo Academy of Music, educating and training young musicians in the area for over 30 years.

Gayle Hoogstraten Arts Leadership Award

Michelle Stempien, KIA director of museum education who has built a docent corps for the KIA, reaching groups from preschool to senior citizens. She also created the High School Area Show, and programing and workshops including "Unreeled," "Art Break" and "Art Detective."

Sonya Bernard-Hollins (see story)

Arts Administrator

Kama Mitchel, co-founder and co-executive director of Rootead, which supports women of color, especially mothers, and offers healing arts and birthwork programs.

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see