Mary Holmes, 91; Taught Eccentric Theories of Art


She viewed women's makeup as a mask of conformity, unisex trends as rendering men and women like puppies in a litter and the modern rage for skinniness as indicative of world woes.

And she kept few of those views private. She endeared herself to students, colleagues, friends and the curious public by lecturing regularly on such subjects inside and outside the classroom.

Mary A. Holmes, a painter and instructor in art history at UCLA and later UC Santa Cruz, where she was on the founding faculty, has died. She was 91.

Holmes, who taught at UCLA for more than a decade before going to Santa Cruz in 1965 to teach there until 1977, died Jan. 21 in a Santa Cruz hospital after a brief illness.

"I have a funny way of teaching art," she told The Times in 1969. "I teach art as an illumination of life. It sounds very pretentious, but almost anything is capable of giving an illuminating experience, and art is particularly good because it doesn't do anything else."

To illustrate her theory about what fuels the diet industry, for example, Holmes presented color slides of work by German painter Lucas Cranach, who died in 1553.

"During gloomy periods, people are always very skinny," she would say. "During the late Gothic period, they had Black Death, and a third of the people died. It was like the atomic bomb. Cranach did the skinniest, most worried-looking ladies. They would make a Vogue model look fat."

By contrast, she would continue, after Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, Europe became euphoric and "ladies got monstrously fat. [Peter Paul] Rubens' ladies, you just want to poke them."

As for her painting, Holmes said she tried to portray such Christian virtues as fortitude, using biblical and mythical figures and faces from her imagination.

But she was adamant that her classroom topic be art history, once commenting that it was "very dangerous for anybody who wants to paint to teach painting" and that she had seen the twin role "destroy I don't know how many people."

Holmes earned a philosophy degree from the all-women's Hollins College in Virginia, which she once told The Times she loved because: "It was full of loony old ladies, outrageous lunatics of marvelous dimension and charm who belonged to the old feminist movement."

"You can't learn anything except from eccentrics, you know," she said. "It has something to do with their getting your attention in the first place."

Holmes earned a master's in art from the University of Iowa, and studied at the University of Berlin, the Academie Collorossi in Paris, Johns Hopkins University and the Art Students League in New York. Then she set out to emulate those eccentric educators she so admired.

After a brief marriage that produced her only son, Holmes settled into teaching at UCLA and in 1953 hosted an innovative educational television program called "Art 5A" based on her university lectures.

She also moved into a concrete block "castle" a mile beyond paved streets overlooking Agoura. It was the house in which Maxwell Anderson wrote "The Bad Seed."

Holmes lined the walls of the castle with her canvases and populated the 8-acre grounds with peafowl, Plymouth rock chickens, two dogs, two horses and, she claimed, "49 million cats, all wild."

After moving north, she duplicated her bucolic fortress near Santa Cruz, where her late sister, architectural historian Sara Boutelle, was researching her biography of Hearst Castle designer Julia Morgan.

"I have to live in the country because I'm too difficult to live around people," Holmes told her amused audience at an Assistance League lecture in Santa Monica in 1968.

"I love people, but my dogs, horses, cats, two hawks and a crippled hen just don't fit into the tract concept of life."

Settled on her Santa Cruz mountaintop, Holmes described her menagerie there to a Times writer in 1969 as: "Three horses, an appaloosa pony just to look at, a billy goat, chickens, three dogs [one vicious] and all kinds of things to keep me out of decent society."

In Santa Cruz, Holmes helped colleagues form Penny University, which met at local coffeehouses and was modeled loosely on 18th century English gatherings where people would pay a penny for a cup of coffee and spend the day reading newspapers and conversing. She attended faithfully for more than 20 years.

Likening the informal discussions among campus and non-campus attendees to a radio talk show, Holmes once told the San Jose Mercury News: "We talk about whatever's interesting to us. I can't think of anything we wouldn't discuss."

Holmes is survived by her son, Michael Adams Holmes O'Malley of Berkeley; three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial is planned Feb. 3 at 2 p.m. in the Calvary Episcopal Church, 532 Center St., Santa Cruz.

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