“What she taught herself and the base of knowledge she acquired she expressed visually, articulating the majesty of the natural world in the urban public spaces we all share,” Ms. Dixon wrote in an email. “Her learning and discovery became the basis for the lyrical, pragmatic, accessible public artworks she created.”
Credit Rob Wilson
Phyllis Anna Holup was born on April 2, 1937, in San Diego. Her father, Henry, was in the Navy, and the family moved often during and after World War II, eventually settling in the Dallas area. Her mother, Ilean Hill, was a homemaker.
Her unusual name (pronounced wo-PO HOLL-up) was something of a lark and something of an accident.
“She liked to say there was a short and a long explanation of the Wopo name,” Mr. Brown said. “The short one: California (Bay Area) 1960s. The longer: Neighbors, Wendy and Vern, Bodega, Sonoma County, were members of the Miwok tribe.” They wanted to initiate their friend Phyllis into the tribe and staged a ceremony with tribe members gathered in a circle around a fire. The chief asked her to say her Indian name, which she had rehearsed.
“Phyllis said, ‘I am Wopo,’ ” her husband said. “Wherein all the old women cracked up.” He added, “After the ceremony Wopo asked Vern and Wendy what the laughter was all about. The answer: She had mispronounced her new name.” It was supposed to be “Woho,” meaning, “beautiful maiden running through fields of wildflowers,” he said. “Wopo” meant “old man.”
Ms. Holup graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1965 and received a master of fine arts degree from Mills College in Oakland, Calif., in 1967. Mr. Brown said that in the mid-1970s she met the installation artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude as they were working on their “Running Fence” project in Northern California, and that they urged her to move to New York, which she did.
Credit David Lubarsky
One of her earliest public art commissions, in 1988, was also one of her most challenging: She was asked to create a work for the Joseph Kohn Training Center in New Brunswick, N.J., which is for blind and visually impaired people. She came up with “Triumph of Pegasus,” a 43-foot-long bas-relief sculpture relating the Pegasus myth that is intended to be touched.
“Have you every seen a Van Gogh and wanted to touch it but you knew you couldn’t?” she said in an interview with The New York Times in 1988. “That’s one of the reasons I found this project such a wonderful challenge. Because with this I knew there would be human contact.”
Ms. Holup’s best-known work may be “River That Flows Two Ways,” completed in 2000. The 37 cast-iron panels depict historical moments and images from nature. It is an artwork that is designed to be both looked at and looked through: From the park promenade, the waters off Manhattan are the backdrop, but seen from a ship, the people and activity of the island are. The panels, Ms. Holup said, are intended to invoke centuries of life and activity, both human and prehuman.
“My inspiration was: What might anybody who stood on that point have seen over eons?” she said.
“The ‘river’ panels at Battery Park were special to her,” her husband said, “because their content embraces so much of the city she loved.”
Another waterway was central to Ms. Holup’s 2007 work for the Shoal Creek patrol station and police academy in Kansas City. The piece, “The River,” depicts the Missouri River from St. Louis to Kansas City, rendering it in bronze where it is set into the floor of the academy’s patio and lobby but then in limestone once the thread of the river meanders outside onto the grounds. The work also includes sculptures of eagles, representative both of the natural world and of the police department, whose badge included an eagle.
“By doing that, she’s metaphorically interweaving the academy and patrol station back into the natural surroundings,” Porter Arneill, director of Kansas City’s Municipal Art Commission, said at the time.
Ms. Holup also used nature as an allegory for “Common Ground,” a bas-relief mural at a Northern Boulevard underpass of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in Queens. It depicts, among other things, grasses from throughout the world.
“These grasses really are a metaphor for the people of Queens, who come from every place on Earth,” Ms. Holup told The Daily News in 2005.
Ms. Holup’s first marriage, in 1954 to Jack Brannon, ended in divorce in 1966. Her second, to William Morehouse in 1968, ended in divorce in 1978. In addition to her husband, of 33 years, she is survived by her sons Matt and Mark Brannon and three grandchildren.
One of the works she was most pleased with was public art that is no longer visible. It was “The Gold Star Project,” a temporary installation outside Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan created with the church’s New Beginners seniors’ group to mourn those who had died in conflicts in the Middle East. Over three weeks, she and volunteers put stars in gold leaf on the entryway to the church, the earliest ones representing American soldiers who had died. But then came a layer to represent uncounted Iraqis and other dead, until the walkway became a solid sheet of gold. After three weeks the work was power-washed away, symbolic of something valuable that had been lost.
One of Ms. Holup’s most recent works was for the light-rail system in Denver. Thirteen artists were commissioned to create works for 13 stations on a new southeast line, which was completed in 2006. Ms. Holup did the Orchard station, placing stainless-steel birds atop fencing and apple-leaf patterns in a concrete walkway to symbolize a long-gone orchard industry. “The work is about memory and observation,” the project description says.
Mr. Brown said Ms. Holup loved the complexity of public art projects, which required her to work with review boards, architects, construction crews and others.
“She saw the whole process as equally creative,” he said.
In 2013, a reporter for Westword, a Denver alternative weekly, asked Ms. Holup what her favorite public-art project was.
“The Statue of Liberty,” she said.