Artist, teacher, scholar, curator: Bill Holm throughout his career has been a leading figure in the world of Northwest Coast Indian Art.
Holm received a bachelor of arts degree in 1949 and a master of fine arts degree in 1951, both from the UW School of Art. After teaching at Seattle's Lincoln High School for 15 years, Holm returned to the UW in 1968 as curator of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum, and professor of art history with an adjunct appointment in anthropology. Over the years, Holm has curated many exhibits and has lectured and published extensively on Native American art. He received the Washington State Governor's Writer's Award five times (1966, '77, '81, '84, and '88), and in 1991, received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native American Art Studies Association (NAASA), an international interdisciplinary organization.
As an artist, Holm's works range from carving and painting to beading and quillwork. His carving projects carried out from 1969 to 1974 furnished the Burke Museum with the reproductions of four totem poles, two of which are on display outside the front of the Museum, and two inside the Museum in its central gallery. In addition, he created a reproduction of the Howkan killer whale monument, which is also displayed outside the facility. His drawing of this design has been adopted as the Museum's logo. He also made a set of masks and carvings of human heads which illustrate the stylistic features of the different tribal areas, and a Tlingit-style war helmet.
A project Holm undertook with Erna Gunther (see Erna Gunther and the Ethnography of Western Washington) in 1958 eventually led to a now classic book, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form, that many consider to be the "bible" of Northwest Coast Indian Art. The terms Holm coined to describe the art forms have become a standard part of the vocabulary in the field: formline, ovoid, U-form, among others.
In 1972, Holm worked on restoring the historic Edward Curtis film, "In the Land of the War Canoes." Holm arranged for a sound track to be recorded for it by a group of Kwakwaka'wakw singers, including three of the older members who had been actors in the film many decades before. The story of the original filming and later restoration was published in a book by Holm and Quimby, Edward S. Curtis: In the Land of the War Canoes.
During 1976-77, Holm traveled to the major museums of the U.S., Canada, and Europe to photograph Northwest Coast Indian Art objects. That effort produced the largest known collection of slides on the subject. The collection has become an invaluable resource for students, artists, museum professionals, and researchers. A laser disk of these images is being published by the Burke Museum with a grant from the Ford Foundation.
In 1983, three exhibits curated by Holm were on display in the Seattle area: "Prancing They Come: Plains and Plateau Indian Art" at the Burke Museum; "Box of Daylight: Northwest Coast Indian Art" at the Seattle Art Museum, and "Smoky-Top: The Art and Times of Willie Seaweed" at the Pacific Science Center.
As a teacher, Holm is known for his generosity in sharing his knowledge and resources with students and visitors. Robin K. Wright, one of Holm's former students, and assistant professor of art history at the UW, reflects on those qualities:
In the fall of 1969, when I first met Holm, his classes were still small enough to allow a feast of smoked salmon and soapberry froth after final exams. By 1974, his classes had grown in popularity and required the largest lecture room of the University to house them. Despite the size of his classes, he always managed to create an intimate atmosphere by sharing his own personal experiences and his infectious enthusiasm for the subjects he taught.
Holm retired in 1985, but has remained active, publishing and curating exhibits, in addition to pursuing his artwork. In the spring of 1992, the Burke Museum hosted an exhibit of Holm's recent paintings: Indians of the Plains, Plateau, and Northwest Coast: Paintings by Bill Holm (March 19-June 28, 1992). He was honored in 1994 with a Distinguished Achievement Award, given by the UW College of Arts and Sciences to recognize distinguished alumni whose lifetime achievements have brought them national stature in their fields of endeavor.