Sunday, December 5, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Portrait

Bill Holm: In life and art, a native son

NOT FOR NOTHING do some call Bill Holm "Plenty of Everything." For if a name can capture a man's essence, that name, gifted to him by Indian friends, just might say it as well as any.

Internationally recognized as an artist, scholar, author and expert in Northwest Coast native art history, now his life is being honored with the naming of the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art, at the University of Washington's Burke Museum.

Holm, 79, joined the UW faculty in 1968 as curator of Northwest Coast Indian art at the Burke, a lecturer in art history and adjunct lecturer in anthropology. He quickly became known for wowing his students with masks he'd don in class, and putting on a mean smoked-salmon feast.

How a white kid from Montana got hooked on Indian art:

As a 9-year-old, reading a book called "Two Little Savages, Being the Adventures of Two Boys Who Lived as Indians and What They Learned."

What's in his studio:

A life-size human figure, named Super Ken, that Holm uses to pose for paintings or fit with his handmade, traditional Indian regalia.

What's in his freezer:

A bighorn sheep's hide and cow brains ready to mix with water to tan it. "I use a blender. Looks just like a strawberry milkshake."

Among his biggest thrills:

Being allowed, while still in high school, to go to the Swinomish and Lummi reservations to attend winter dances and other ceremonies, and using an old machine powered with car batteries to record the songs in the longhouse. "It's the middle of the night and the drums are going, and with the sparks and smoke of the fire, well, it was very exciting to me, and I feel pretty privileged to have had that experience."

Among his biggest coups:

Getting a full professorship in art history and an adjunct professorship in anthropology at the UW, without earning a doctorate. But after all, Holm says, "Who would have asked me the questions?"

On why he doesn't sell his work commercially:

"There is nothing ethically wrong with it, and the best artists are real tolerant of the good, non-native artists. They know it's not something that comes through your genes, it's learned and studied. But I wanted to keep on the good side of as many people as I can."

His rules:

If you want to know how something is made, how it functions, there is no substitute for making it yourself. "A lot of things, you just can't know unless you do them."

Oddest acquisition:

500 pounds of salvage buttons. "I gave away buttons I paid my rent with buttons. Old ladies were coming up to me on the street and asking if I had buttons."

Mixing career and family:

His wife of 50 years, Marty, accompanied Holm on many trips, sometimes taking their two daughters along in strollers, their feet in plastic bags to weather winter downpours. They traveled to tribes in British Columbia in a double kayak and reached remote communities by boat.

An accomplishment that surprised even him:

Writing a term paper that became a book. Regarded as the first codification of the Northwest Indian art form, "Northwest Coast Indian Art, an Analysis of Form" was first published by the UW in 1965; it's in its 17th printing.

Greatest relief upon retirement in 1985:

Never having to grade another paper. "I don't like to judge people."

Lynda V. Mapes is a Seattle Times staff writer. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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