Noe Valley Voice November 1999

Florence's Family Album: When Leo and I First Clicked

By Florence Holub

Often when I am introduced to someone new, they ask if I am related to the photographer Leo Holub. (As many of my Voice readers know, Leo is famous for his photos of Stanford University, modern American artists, and the cityscapes of San Francisco.) After I tell them that he is my husband, they rarely discuss photography but instead ask me how Leo and I happened to meet. I just say we met in art school.

Women, being more sentimental, usually go on to ask whether it was love at first sight. No, it wasn't, I reply, because at the time I wasn't thinking about love. When I met Leo -- at the ripe old age of 19 -- I was sure I'd never marry. Instead, I planned to "be an old maid" and devote my life to art.

This was because most of the boys I knew in my teens had shown a complete lack of interest in my favorite subject (art). I recall one young man in the late 1930s who accompanied me to an exhibition of the acclaimed paintings of Vincent van Gogh. He remarked that he thought van Gogh's thick oil paint looked like wads of chewing gum found on the underside of a cafeteria table. Needless to say, that friendship had a short life span.

In the years after high school, there didn't seem to be anyone with whom I could share the rich bounty of the Bay Area art world.

However, when I enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts on Chestnut Street (now the San Francisco Art Institute), I discovered that there were many dedicated and talented students to associate with. In 1939, the school was an exciting environment for learning, with each class taught by a prominent artist. Covering one entire wall of the school's exhibition hall was a monumental fresco depicting the building of our city, painted by the great Mexican artist Diego Rivera.

All students received a solid training in the fine arts -- classes in art history, anatomy, painting, sculpture, lithography, and printmaking. Students who wished to become art teachers in the public schools then went on for further training at U.C. Berkeley.

Those of us who chose not to take that path, who wanted to create something by our own hands but still earn a living, pursued more specialized commercial classes such as magazine or book design. (I had an interest in fashion illustration, and found that I was good at drawing children.)

Some of these courses were conducted by an exceptionally fine practitioner of the graphic arts, Paul Q. Forster. He quickly became a favorite with the students, for inspiring us with his talent -- his illustrations and lettering were superb -- for sharing his broad knowledge of the field, and for generously giving of his time. We all considered him a friend, so we took the liberty of affectionately calling him by his initials, "P.Q."

One day when we came to class, we learned that P.Q. had been hospitalized, to have surgery. We were so concerned that we decided to visit him on the following Saturday, agreeing to meet one another downtown at 1 p.m.

When I arrived at the designated corner, only one other person was there. The two of us waited until it was clear that the others would not show. Then we boarded the Geary streetcar and rode to the old French Hospital (now Kaiser) on the corner of Sixth Avenue.

We strode into the building and into our teacher's sickroom, announcing that we'd come to cheer him up. We instantly saw that he was recovered and delighted with our arrival. He even offered us a drink from his bottle of schnapps! We chatted happily all afternoon -- until the nurses shooed us out.

Since it was getting dark outside, the other student offered to walk me home. During the way, I found out more about him: He was two years older. He had a job, working at night for a decorator who was designing frescoes for the San Francisco World's Fair. And he had already spent two years at the Art Institute in Chicago. So he knew a considerable amount about art.

The walk proved to be such an enjoyable journey that we decided to make it a regular Saturday-night habit. Before long, Leo and I were a familiar twosome around town. We often went out with our pencils and pads and sketched the city's landscapes -- we even painted horses grazing on Diamond Heights. As one of our colleagues put it, "In any museum or gallery, these two art lovers can be seen peering at paintings and holding hands!"

Since neither of us was very demonstrative, holding hands was about it. But Leo sometimes called me "Hon." I took this to be a term of endearment until I learned that he spelled it with a u, as in Attila the Hun. I guess as a proud descendant of the pillaging Vikings, I couldn't very well object.

Although I enjoyed his sense of humor and found him to be excellent company, as the months went by I began to feel uneasy, remembering my determination to remain single. So I told him that it might be wise for us to sever the relationship before it became too serious.

After thinking it over for a few days, Leo came back and expressed his feelings on the subject. It seemed to him that we were meant for each other. "Most people spend their life searching for the person with whom to spend their life, and sometimes it never happens," he pointed out.

Leo's moving statement, sad but true, completely destroyed my earlier aim of spinsterhood. But from then on, I looked at the bright side: Together we would pursue a life of art!

With that mutual understanding, we tied the knot on July 3, 1941. Our teacher P.Q. danced at our wedding, and throughout our lives he remained our valued mentor and treasured friend. After he too got married -- to an elegant doctor from Holland, Else Cabos -- the four of us often went out to dinner and entertained at each another's houses. Else enhanced our relationship greatly and, as our family pediatrician, gently cared for our three sons as each was brought into the world.

The years passed and we all grew older, and, sadly, P.Q. had a fatal stroke about five years ago. His devastated bride went back to Holland to live, but we continued to stay in touch.

This September, Leo and I returned to the Art Institute to celebrate the renovation of the lecture hall, a project that had been financed by the "Take a Seat" campaign. In return for making a gift, donors could name a chair for their own personal hero. Leo and I had chosen to name a seat in honor of the man we regarded so highly and to whom we owed so much, P.Q.

When we arrived at the hall, we located and sat in the chair that bore the name Paul Quentin Forster engraved on a bronze plate. Then we noticed that the seat next to it bore the name of one of his most promising students, Leo Holub!

Unbeknownst to us, Paul's widow, Else Forster, had named a chair for my man Leo. How good to see them so close together again. (I told Else that I hoped she didn't mind I'd sat in "Paul's lap"!)

And how nice to reflect upon our student days. Back in the '30s, photography was not yet considered an art, and there were no courses in it. But one young man could be observed carrying around a big Graflex D camera, clicking away at the architecture, at his favorite teachers (like P.Q.), and of course at all the pretty young girls.

Sixty years later, Leo is still clicking. In fact, we're still clicking too!