Helena Lyng-Olsen

On Thursday, the Yale Divinity School hosted an opening reception for its latest art exhibit, “Ten Commandments,” from local artist Bruce Gillespie.

Several members of the Divinity School and many of the artist’s relatives attended the exhibit’s celebratory reception. The artist himself, who has Down Syndrome, was unable to attend due to a minor accident. The exhibit features drawings that depict scenes related to each of the ten commandments.

“This is what he is happy at. It is beauty. He can express himself not through voice, but through drawing,” said Sam Goldenberg, Gillespie’s mentor, in a video shown to the audience.

When the reception was set to begin, the Divinity School received notice that Gillespie was in the emergency room because a dog brought into his nursing home had bit his hand. According to Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling, the school plans on honoring Gillespie privately in a ceremony next week.

Before showing a short documentary film about the artist’s life and work, Sterling spoke about the artist’s life and the meaning of his artwork. Sterling praised the insight in depicting the Tablets of Stone with musical notes, even as Gillespie “does not have the capacity to write words.”

“The bible neither appears nor is received in the same form,” Sterling summarized. “I see that in these paintings. They are an unfamiliar, enlightening depiction of the familiar.”

Though Gillespie was not able to join, Goldenberg, a retired special education teacher and the artist’s mentor, came to support his student. Goldenberg first met Gillespie in 1974, when Gillespie joined Goldenberg’s art school and work program for people with disabilities at the Danbury Regional Center in Danbury, Connecticut.

They lost touch in 1978, when Gillespie’s family moved to Florida, but reconnected in 2015 when a friend of Goldenberg’s told him she had seen Gillespie’s art. In an interview with the News, Goldenberg emphasized Gillespie’s talent and hard work.

“All he wants to do is draw,” Goldenberg said. “He draws images of Jazz musicians, bible scenes, and anything else he imagines. His art has very developed over the years and it has really been great working with him.”

Goldenberg recalled that when he interviewed Gillespie’s parents, they said that at Gillespie’s birth, the hospital identified his Down syndrome and told them they could leave the baby, a “non-entity,” at the hospital to be institutionalized. Instead, Gillespie’s parents took him home and nurtured his passion for art throughout his childhood and life.

The Divinity School hosts exhibits on its walls throughout the year. Campbell Brock Harmon, the associate director of communications for the Divinity School, said that he enjoys the exhibits as they give him a chance to see art that is local and different from what one could see in the Yale University Art Gallery.

“Our mission is to express the Divinity School’s values and tell our story on the walls,” said Tom Krattenmaker, director of communications and a member of the school’s Walls Committee. “Part of this is expressing the diversity that is such an essential part of our community. This exhibit represents an important form of diversity that is not often recognized.”

Gillespie’s exhibit will remain at the Yale Divinity School until June 14.

Helena Lyng-Olsen | helena.lyng-olsen@yale.edu