Dan Renzetti

Over the summer, the Hopper College Window Commission Committee officially announced the commission of famed artist Faith Ringgold to redesign Grace Hopper College’s common room windows.

Ringgold is also well known for her narrative quilts and her many contributions to children’s literature, including the 1991 book “Tar Beach,” which received both the Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King awards for best-illustrated children’s book.

In the 1960s, Ringgold — a painter, mixed media sculptor, performance artist, writer, teacher and lecturer — used oil paintings and posters to demonstrate support for the civil rights movement. These works also became instrumental within the politics of the art world, when Ringgold directed activist efforts against the exclusion of black and female artists by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Since then, Ringgold has amassed more than 80 awards and received 23 honorary doctorates. Her art, including her well-known narrative quilts, have appeared in the collections of museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Since 2016, her 1967 painting “The American People Series #20: Die, 1967” has been on permanent display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“In her long and distinguished career as an artist and activist, Faith Ringgold has demonstrated a commitment to visual storytelling as a means to reflect on our shared history and community,” said Anoka Faruqee ’94 — the Yale School of Art’s director of graduate studies in painting and printmaking and chair of the Window Commission Committee — in the Yale News press release on July 9. “The committee was impressed by Ringgold’s ability to integrate symbolism and specificity, as well as the clarity of her subject matter, color, and compositions.”

The commission process to pick the artists for the window’s redesign began in spring 2017 with the formation of the 11-member Window Commission Committee, which included four undergraduates in Hopper College. The committee’s tasks comprised selecting two artists, including one to redesign the college’s common room windows and one to redesign the dining hall windows. In February 2018, the Hopper committee recommended that Ringgold receive the common room commission. Three finalists have been selected for the separate dining hall window commission. According to Head of College Julia Adams, these candidates will visit Yale’s campus in the fall.

The redesign of the six common room windows, which are scheduled to be completed before the end of the academic year, is the product of a decadeslong debate about whether to rename Hopper College, which originally carried the name of South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun, a fervent supporter of slavery. In response to student and community activism, the University announced in February 2017 the renaming of then-Calhoun College after Grace Hopper GRD ’34, a United States Navy Rear Admiral and prominent computer scientist.

Members of the Yale and New Haven communities also criticized the stained glass windows throughout the college, which depicted scenes involving slavery. In response to student complaints, the University removed glass window panes illustrating a slave kneeling in 1992. In spring 2016, three portraits of Calhoun were removed from the dining hall and head of college house. After Corey Menafee, a dining hall employee, broke a window illustrating slaves working in a field that following summer, other windows that hearkened back to the college’s original namesake were removed and replaced with unadorned amber panes.

“The present moment in the college may be less dramatic than the lead-up to the 2017 name change, but it has its own excitement and challenges, including bringing together the broader college community while not losing sight of our history,” Adams said.

According to John Stuart Gordon, curator of American decorative arts at the Yale University Art Gallery and a member of the Window Commission Committee, Ringgold’s preliminary designs portray various images of student life. He called the redesign a “subtle” yet important “recalibration” in which “the focus of the room’s decoration will turn inwards and celebrate the inhabitants of the college, much like the windows in medieval churches reflected the religious beliefs of those who prayed there.”

Hopper College students interviewed by the News echoed Gordon’s sentiments. Charlie Foster ’21 noted that using stained glass to depict images of student life felt like an act of reclamation. While the old windows drew from Calhoun’s life and legacy, Foster added that the proposed windows would allow students to “see through” and “be reflected in” the college’s institutional imagery.

Foster said he hopes that the new windows and other art on view will help continue to foster crucial conversations about the college’s past, present and future.

“These transitional moments aren’t stripping us of our history — they’re overlaying, building present over past,” Foster said. “I think it’s important to live with this antithesis in mind. I don’t want people to forget what we’re fighting against.”

Janis Jin ’19 said that although many people “make arguments against historical revisionism that are ill-intended,” she does value “interplay between the unethical history and the existing efforts to rewrite it.”

Both Foster and Jin noted that implementing informational plaques near the windows could serve to remind students of why they had to be changed in the first place, perpetuating crucial conversations about activists’ efforts to change the college’s name. Jin also considered the commissioning of artists such as Titus Kaphar ART ’06, an artist whose paintings and sculptures investigate the power of rewritten history, and an exhibition of art by black Hopper students.

Lauren Gatta ’21, an art major in Hopper College, said it is an honor to have Ringgold design the common room’s windows and that she expects the designs will honor the past while looking to a “more beautiful future.”

“She focuses a lot on narratives and people’s stories in her works, which makes sense given that stained glass windows are often sequential and depict stories,” Gatta said. “She is also an activist and a person of color, so she brings a lot of nuance into the conversation of whose art we want to see in institutions that have primarily been white and male-centric.”

Ringgold is currently a professor emeritus of art at the University of California, San Diego.

Rianna Turner | rianna.turner@yale.edu