Yale commissions artist Barbara Earl Thomas for new pictorial window series

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Yale commissions artist Barbara Earl Thomas for new pictorial window series
John Calhoun, Witness History Past, paper cut image, 9” dia, 2020.

NEW HAVEN, CONN.- Artist Barbara Earl Thomas has accepted a commission to design a new set of windows for the dining hall of Yale’s Grace Hopper College that will confront and contextualize the history of the residential college’s name, which originally honored 19th-century statesman and notorious slavery advocate John C. Calhoun.

“My goal with this project is to depict the history of the college’s name in a way that is real, honorable, and in the spirit of our time,” said Thomas, a Seattle-based artist who was selected for the project by a university committee in the spring. “I want the images to tell the story of the renaming, addressing John C. Calhoun’s disturbing legacy while honoring the life of Grace Murray Hopper.”

Thomas, a widely exhibited artist whose work in various media, including glass, often emphasizes storytelling, will design five pictorial windows in the dining hall’s central bay. Two of the windows will directly address Calhoun’s legacy and the college’s renaming, according to preliminary designs. The new panes will be incorporated into the hall’s existing windows, which depict flora and fauna of the antebellum South and were part of a tableau glorifying a pastoral lifestyle that depended on the labor of enslaved people.

When the college opened in 1933, it was named after Calhoun 1804 B.A., 1822 LL.D., who had served the country as vice president, secretary of state, secretary of war, and as a prominent U.S. senator. In August 2016, President Peter Salovey established a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming to ensure that any decision about the college’s name was grounded in scholarship and on principle. Once the committee completed its work, an ad-hoc advisory group, composed of an alumnus of the residential college and two distinguished faculty members, applied its principles to the college’s name and determined that none weighed heavily against renaming.

In February 2017, Salovey and the Yale Corporation renamed the college after Hopper ’30 M.A. ’34 Ph.D., a trailblazing computer scientist and mathematician, concluding that Calhoun’s fierce advocacy of slavery and white supremacy form his principal legacy.

Thomas will also create a pair of metalwork portraits — one of Hopper, and the other of Roosevelt L. Thompson ’84 B.A., an African American former resident of the college and a Rhodes Scholar who died in a car accident during his senior year. The dining hall was named in Thompson’s honor in 2016. The portraits, in laser-cut steel, will occupy two wood niches flanking the dining hall’s last bay of windows. They will be backlit and face each other as if the two figures are engaged in conversation.

Anoka Faruqee ’94 B.A., who chaired the committee overseeing the project, explained that Thomas’s skill as a visual storyteller, distinctive and legible graphic style, experience with public commissions and the medium of glass, and her willingness to take on social issues, made her an ideal choice for the commission.

“Barbara confronts topics that people are often in denial about, such as systemic racism. We didn’t want this project to deny the site’s history,” said Faruqee, an artist and co-director of graduate studies in painting and printmaking at the Yale School of Art. “The committee was impressed with the way her preliminary design interweaves the contrasting legacies of Calhoun, Hopper, and Thompson. One of her strengths as an artist is her ability to examine disparate histories and show how they intersect and relate to one another.”

Thomas, the daughter of southerners, has exhibited her work professionally since the 1980s. She works in a variety of media, including egg tempera painting, glass, cut paper, sculpture, and linocut and woodblock prints. Her work has been exhibited in solo exhibitions at Tacoma Art Museum, Savannah Contemporary Art Museum, the Meadows Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the Evansville Museum of Art and Technology in Indiana.

The Seattle Art Museum will debut a solo Thomas exhibition in November. “Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence” draws from history, literature, folklore, and biblical stories to address “plagues of our day,” the artist said, including violence against Black men and youth, gun violence, and climate change, through narrative works in cut paper and glass.

Thomas has completed numerous public commissions, and is currently finishing a major project at the new 17-story Multnomah County Central Courthouse in Portland, Oregon that involves creating a series of cut-metal murals on the building’s exterior at street level.

The Hopper dining hall commission is the second of two projects involving windows in the college. Last summer, Yale commissioned artist Faith Ringgold to design windows to replace six stained-glass panels in the college’s common room commemorating Calhoun’s life. Both projects are on track to be unveiled in the fall of 2021, Faruqee said.

In June 2016, an employee working in the college used a broomstick to knock out a dining hall window that depicted enslaved people working in a cotton field. Following the incident, five windows in the dining hall’s central bay and the six in the common room were replaced with amber-tinted temporary panes. The removed windows are now housed at the Yale University Library’s Manuscripts & Archives Department, where they are available for research. The broken pane was displayed in an exhibition on American glass at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2019.

The Hopper College Window Commission Committee was formed in the spring of that year and charged with recommending an artist or artists to create new windows for the common room and dining hall. The 11-member committee, which includes four undergraduates from the college, compiled and reviewed a list of 50 nominees for the two commissions.

Julia Adams, the head of Hopper College and a member of the windows committee, said that Thomas took advantage of a trip to campus last fall to understand how students will experience the windows and the dining hall’s importance to the college’s daily life.

“Barbara is an incredibly gifted artist,” said Adams, a professor of sociology and international & area studies. “Her proposal stood out not just for its wonderful aesthetic qualities, but because it expresses a deep sense of history through graphic representation. Her work will be a vibrant and thought-provoking addition to the college’s community.”

One of the new windows will feature Calhoun, who in an 1837 speech in the U.S. Senate defended slavery as a “positive good,” being confronted by a formerly enslaved man, whose chains are broken, according to Thomas’s preliminary designs. Another window symbolizes the college’s name change by depicting a hummingbird moving a banner bearing Hopper’s name into the foreground while a robin carries a Calhoun banner into the background. A third will commemorate the 1969 advent of coeducation in Yale College. Thomas will seek further input from students and committee members before designing the remaining two panels, which will represent activities and ideas associated with campus life.

“I’m honored to be a part of this project, and I’m excited to pursue it with my hands, my voice, and my heart,” she said. “I believe in our ability as a nation to evolve and change; to forgive and embrace the change wrought from contentious debates. With input from the Yale community, I hope to produce work that celebrates change as we unflinchingly face our past.”

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