Donna Hollen Bolmgren, an artist who was mentor to many and faced death with stoic grace, died at her Shadyside home Tuesday three years after having been diagnosed with uterine cancer. She was 77.
"She's been like a sister, a mother -- a friend and a mentor," said Ellen Chisdes Neuberg, owner of Gallerie Chiz in Shadyside, who met Ms. Hollen Bolmgren in 1970.
"She's been remarkable through this whole ordeal. She was growing and learning and participating [in her hospice care] with such dignity. Admirable and dignified and a little stubborn in a way, thank God. People learned a lot from her and her experience. She welcomed friends and strangers to visit her. She was a private person and she opened to so many during hospice, sharing this experience of dying. And she'll be with me forever."
Ms. Chisdes Neuberg exhibited Ms. Hollen Bolmgren's paintings last summer at Gallerie Chiz in "Journey ... Most Recent Works," wanting to hold the show while her friend was alive and could enjoy it. Several of the works explored universal questions Ms. Hollen Bolmgren had been pondering for years, including those made after a long period of care giving for her friend and companion artist Jerry Caplan and those made in the waning months of her own life.
Caplan, who was a Chatham College emeritus professor of art when he died in 2004, included Ms. Hollen Bolmgren's image in a public art work he sculpted in 1985 for the pocket park at 228 Boulevard of the Allies. The earlier paintings in the summer show were culled from an exhibition of Ms. Hollen Bolmgren's paintings held at Chatham in 2006 that spanned her care giving and subsequent mourning.
The more recent paintings were done as she studied varied religious beliefs of the afterlife. The artist had lost the strength to paint by the time the show opened, but she told a Post-Gazette reporter during the exhibition, with a smile, that while creating the works she was "amused, elated, joyful, hopeful."
"Her work amazed me. She could use such happy colors with such dark messages," Ms. Chisdes Neuberg said of the woman who gave her her first painting lesson and encouraged her to open a gallery, "for which I thank or blame her, I'm not sure which."
Ms. Hollen Bolmgren was teacher and mentor to fellow artist and friend Donnie Day Pomeroy as well. "She would very gently tell me that she didn't want me to paint pretty pictures. She wanted me to paint what I was thinking about. Painting was about what was going on inside you," Ms. Pomeroy said.
Ms. Hollen Bolmgren was born in Willmar, Minn., and earned a bachelor's degree in art education from the University of Minnesota. She moved to Pittsburgh over half a century ago and continued her education at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. She was married to Charles Bolmgren, who died in 1994.
She exhibited her paintings and also sculpture made of handmade paper with the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, the Craftsmen's Guild of Pittsburgh and The Pittsburgh Group; served on the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts board for seven years and on the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh board; and instigated programs that enriched the larger community. In 1991 she organized an exhibition for the Jewish Community Center Fine/Perlow and Weis Galleries, Squirrel Hill, to recognize artists "70+ and Working."
Ms. Hollen Bolmgren was a founder of the "Master Visual Artists: Preserving the Legacy" project that named its first honorees in 1991. She helped to establish the archive of Western Pennsylvania artists, an offshoot of the masters project, at the Senator John Heinz History Center. In 1996 she was chosen as master visual artist. On that occasion, she said, "My art is evolving into matters of the spirit and soul. ... I'm searching within the human condition."
Her work has been exhibited in Europe and in Canada. She also taught, over three decades, drawing, design, painting and papermaking to grades 1 through college and at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
She had many friends with her when she passed away, Ms. Chisdes Neuberg said. "She died at home in her bed, as she wanted. She refused to use the hospital bed [offered for home use]."
Ms. Hollen Bolmgren said she didn't know what she had done to deserve all the kindness and attention she was receiving.
"It was because she gave all her life," Ms. Chisdes Neuberg said.
Ms. Hollen Bolmgren is survived by three nephews, a niece, and several grandnephews and grandnieces, all of whom live out of state.
Friends will be received from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at John A. Freyvogel Sons Inc., 4900 Centre Ave., Shadyside. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday in the chapel of Homewood Cemetery. Memorial contributions may be made to "Master Visual Arts: Preserving the Legacy" at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Pittsburgh 15232, specifying support for the MVA exhibition.
Correction, posted March 13, 2013: When this obituary appeared March 10, the first name of fellow artist and friend Donnie Day Pomeroy was omitted.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925. First Published March 10, 2013 5:00 AM