An artist, curator, and teacher who changed lives, Bill Holm died in his sleep Dec. 16. He was 95.

Born Oscar William Holm Jr. on March 24, 1925, in the small town of Roundup, Montana, Holm was, from boyhood, insatiably curious about the cultures of Native American people.

His family moved when he was still a boy from Montana to Seattle — where he quickly immersed himself in the collections at the Washington State Museum — now the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. It was the beginning of his long association with the museum and the University of Washington, where he would touch the lives of artists all over the Northwest.

“He was a national treasure, and an international one,” said Nuu-chah-nulth artist Joe David, and friend of Holm’s for more than 50 years. When David’s family came to cook and perform at Tillicum Village on Blake Island during the World’s Fair in 1962, he met Holm, who was then teaching Northwest Coast art at the UW.

“He said if you would like to come and sit in, you are welcome, and I was there in a second,” David said. “I learned a whole lot really fast because of his intelligence and expertise and generosity.

“I am lucky to have lived in the time of Bill Holm.”


Like many, David said he benefited from Holm’s book “Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form,” first published in 1965. One of the bestselling books ever published by the University of Washington Press, the book has sold more than 120,000 copies. “Every Indian artist I know of, they call it the bible,” David said.

Artist Calvin Hunt, of the Fort Rupert Band of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, knew Holm since Hunt was a boy. It was his parents, aunts and uncles who were at the heart of one of Holm’s most enduring contributions: Camp Nor’wester, where Holm first became a camp counselor in 1942. There, first on Lopez Island and later on Johns Island, where the camp was relocated, generations of campers got to experience Northwest Native culture up close, as Holm’s friends from the Kwakwaka’wakw community visited to “play potlatch,” as Hunt put it.

The family came down every summer to share their songs and dances with Holm and his family and the campers.

“Bill had a long relationship with our people, going back,” Hunt said. “He had knowledge our elders shared with him, and our younger people would seek out Bill and ask him questions. Part of the reason our elders gave him that knowledge was so he could share it.”

For instance, it was Holm who in the 1960s showed the Tlingit master carver Nathan Jackson surfacing and texturing techniques with an adze. “I managed to inquire from Bill Holm, how did they do that,” Jackson remembered. Holm showed Jackson, using his own adze that he had made from yew wood, with a thin handle that flexed. “There was a certain amount of resiliency that made the texturing, I thought, ‘Wow that is what I had been missing,’ ” Jackson remembered. “That is the way things were done a long time ago.”

During WWII, Holm was inducted into the army and assigned to a field artillery observation battalion. He served on the front lines in France, earning the rank of master sergeant. He returned to Seattle and enrolled at the University of Washington, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in painting. He earned his masters of fine arts in painting from the UW in 1951, according to a essay by Jim Kershner.


Although Holm was not a member of a tribe, Native artists acknowledged his deep expertise and his sincerity and respect for Native art and traditions. It was Holm’s passion for detail, and deep curiosity, not only in Northwest Coast art but how it was made, that set him so apart as an artist and a teacher.

Haida artist and weaver Evelyn Vanderhoop remembered when Holm sought instruction in the details of how spruce roots were gathered and prepared to seam the edge of a bentwood box. “He wants to know everything,” Vanderhoop said. “It wasn’t enough to just get the spruce root from somebody; he wanted the hands-on experience, how the roots were gathered, how they were prepared, it wasn’t just about reading in books or looking at objects.”

She knew his generosity firsthand, first dropping by as a shy student at the UW, and later as an artist, seeking help in making her first robe.

Explaining to Holm she needed help laying out the pattern, he told her to come back in two hours. He then presented her with sheets of paper that fit together like a puzzle: her pattern. As she worked on the robe for nearly three years, he kept asking her about it and cheering her on in the work.

“His help was such an encouragement.”

Holm’s devotion to authenticity spilled into the Shoreline home he shared with his wife Martha (Marty) Mueller, whom he married in 1953. Their daughter Karen Holm of Bend, Oregon, remembered her teenage mortification as her dad staked out a buffalo hide on their suburban lawn, boiled brains on the woodstove for tanning leather and stuffed dead porcupines in the freezer, for quills in art-making.

She also remembered a father who taught his daughters to immerse themselves in the world around them with zeal and curiosity. “He was interested and had compassion, and he had a good ear and eye,” Holm said. “People appreciated that and were drawn to that, and he taught that to us.”


They traveled as a family all over the Northwest to potlatches and feasts and Camp Nor’wester.

“He was a team with Marty, they did everything together,” said Robin Wright, former curator of Native American Art at the Burke, and emerita director of the Bill Holm Center, a nonprofit created at the Burke in 2003 to provide scholarships and resources for visiting artists.

It was Holm who kindled Wright’s interest in Coast Salish art when she took his classes at the UW, where he was a professor of art history and adjunct professor of anthropology.

Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American Art at the Seattle Art Museum, also found her calling in Holm’s classes. She remembered not only a brilliant instructor, but also how Holm amassed a collection of thousands of photos of artworks by Northwest Native artists in museums around the world. He generously shared them, coaxing a duplicating machine along to give copies of the photos to anyone who wanted them at a time before the internet existed and when there were few books that could be consulted for study.

For all his fascination with learning traditional techniques in making Northwest Coast, Plains and Plateau Indian art, Holm was just as interested in new techniques and technologies, said Puyallup artist Shaun Peterson. “He wasn’t afraid of innovation,” Peterson said.

Holm crossed traditions and cultures with grace. He never sold his own Northwest Coast style artworks to avoid competing with Native artists. And he respected what cultural knowledge to share and what should remain private — while also understanding much would remain unknown, even to close friends, Brotherton said.


His spirit of teaching anyone who came to learn imbued the Burke in the tradition it carries on today, said Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, curator of Northwest Native Art at the Burke and director of the Bill Holm Center. “That is something that will live on forever.”

It was an elder who, to Peterson, put best what Holm means to so many.

 “She said Bill was one of those who helped preserve those things that otherwise might be lost.”

In addition to his spouse and daughter Karen, Holm is survived by daughter Carla Holm in Brussels, Belgium, and three grandchildren.

Memorial gifts to the Bill Holm Center may be sent to the Burke Museum at Box 353010, Seattle, WA 98195 or made online at, or to Camp Nor’wester at PO Box 1055, Edmonds, WA 98020 or online at