Elizabeth P. Williams insists that her middle initial be included whenever her name appears in print. There’s another custodial worker also named Elizabeth Williams, and she doesn’t want there to be any mix-ups. But most of the time there is no confusion at all, because around Pierson and Davenport colleges and in a new photography exhibit by Julie Brown Harwood, she is lovingly referred to as simply “Mama.”
Williams is one of the individuals featured in the 25 portraits that make up “Close to Our Hearts,” a new photography exhibit by Julie Brown Harwood focusing on the custodial and dining hall staff of Pierson and Davenport. The exhibit, on display in the Davenport Gallery, is a continuation of a show last year that featured only dining hall workers. For this incarnation, which is on display until April 7, all of the staff members were asked to bring a person or object “close to their hearts” to appear in the photo with them.
Short statements culled from informal discussions about why the particular person or object was chosen are featured beneath each portrait.
“I wanted to get to know them better,” said Brown Harwood, a freelance photographer and the wife of Davenport Dean Craig Harwood. “I wanted to know the people beyond their normal working conditions, to get to know them as human beings. And I wanted to share that, what I found, with my community. It’s a nice way to honor them, to show that we care about them.”
In Williams’ portrait, she holds a picture of herself that was taken in Jamaica before she came to Yale four decades ago. She worked in the Trumbull Master’s House before moving to Pierson as a custodial worker 30 years ago.
“I was 30 years old,” she said in the statement attached to the photograph. “When I come up from Jamaica I come straight to Yale … Students started calling me mama just because I’m nice to them, I talk to them, and clean up their place and teach them how to clean. They’ve been calling me mama a long time, oooh a long time!”
In addition to “Mama,” there are 24 other portraits, with stories behind each one: Curtis used to be the quarterback at Wilbur Cross High School; Thedosia’s friends call her the “Salad Queen;” Justin has a three-year-old daughter named Zharia.
These brief insights into people’s lives create the exhibit’s most powerful effect.
“The photos really capture who people are and the glints in their eyes,” Davenport College Master Richard Schottenfeld said. “Often, when we’re all really busy, when we interact with those around us we don’t really get a sense of who people are, whether they were the quarterback of their high school football team or really love playing basketball or if they originally came from Jamaica, so this really brings those faces, stories and things that people care about out into the open and part of the conversation.”
Davenport freshman Mariel Novas ’10 said she feels the exhibit has increased an awareness of the staff as part of the community. “It’s really important for students to get to see a part of the world outside of their own perimeters,” she said. “The exhibit really makes you appreciate the people that are working around you every day.”
Curtis Boomer, a custodial worker at Davenport, said the exhibit is improving the sense of community in the colleges.
“Some students are coming up to me and asking ‘So you used to play football?’” he said. “I see the same students every day, and now they get to know us better. It’s nice.”
In the context of this community, the title of the exhibit “Close to Our Hearts” takes on a double meaning. It is not only about the people and objects close to the hearts of the staff, but also about the community formed between students and the workers.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Rob Daly, Davenport’s Buildings Supervisor and an avid bowler. “Students may know all our faces, but now they can learn who we are, what our likes are and what’s important to us. That’s how you get to know people.”