Barbara Earl Thomas contextualizes Grace Hopper’s new windows in talk on campus
Barbara Earl Thomas returns to New Haven to discuss her recent commission with Painter and Printmaker Christopher Paul Jordan, ART ’23
Michael Garman, Staff Photographer
Renowned visual artist, writer and arts administrator Barbara Earl Thomas will engage in a conversation with Christopher Paul Jordan ART ’23 to discuss the commission of Grace Hopper College’s new stained windows.
On Nov. 14, the two will convene at the Ives Main Library to further contextualize the history of Grace Hopper’s name change, as reflected in the series of 12 new windows displayed in the residential college’s dining hall and common room. The windows were designed by Thomas and fellow artist Faith Ringgold — both of whom are Black women — replacing windows that paid homage to the college’s former namesake, pro-slavery statesman John C. Calhoun, and depicted aspects of the antebellum South.
“My job was to talk about the name change and address the complexities it encompassed, and as much as that pulls from Grace Hopper’s life, I wanted to ensure that the gravity of the situation was honored,” commented Thomas in her interview with the News.
For Thomas, respecting the history of both the University and the students who passed through it remained of the utmost importance as she began her artistic process, allowing the past to be observed but not painfully experienced. Transferring animosity and stigma into art did not serve as an adequate approach for Thomas as she began the early drafts of her work.
She never considered erasing Hopper’s past. The college’s name was changed in 2017 following years of student uproar around Calhoun, a racist statesman and active proponent of slavery. There was something about Calhoun that existed in relation to the building, and this fact could not be ignored, Thomas explained. She felt the community would best be served instead by the acknowledgement of progress.
“I included the depiction of a robin moving a banner with John Calhoun’s name to the background as a hummingbird brought the name of Grace Hopper to the foreground, which to me indicates light, movement and the way things progress,” Thomas said.
Both within her work on the Hopper commission and in her career at large, Thomas seeks to be straightforward, making her messages identifiable and relatable. Thomas emphasized the obligation she felt towards the community to accurately and conscientiously represent the story of the name change. Using this pressure, Thomas kept her audience at the front of her mind at all times.
Yale students acknowledge Thomas’ effort to aid in the transformation of Grace Hopper college, commenting on the constructive presence the windows have had.
“It’s nice to see Hopper working through this ongoing process to rebuild the college’s image, and although I acknowledge the fact there remains much to do to improve the situation, I really appreciated the steps that have been made,” said Hopper student Hannah Riordan ’25.
Thomas’ goal was not simply to reconstruct an architectural element of the college, but also to properly narrate the story in visual form.
To blend the old and the new, Thomas selected a vivid color palette that was in keeping with the pre-existing spirit, while still bright enough to signify that something different and important was transpiring.
“The images were in a way literary because they needed to be read linguistically, but they also had to encompass beauty, transition, and change,” Thomas said.
Similar sentiments resonate with Jordan, the other participant in the conversation, as he shares a deep interest in the study of windows and the ways in which they delineate between spaces while simultaneously serving as a point of entry.
Both artists commented upon their inspirations and motivations, mentioning the approachability they hoped to bring to their work. The task of channeling hope into a piece is not easy, but one which occupies great personal interest for both Thomas and Jordan.
“Thomas has the ability to not just show the audience something physically, but also to relocate them into an experience within their imagination from the first person,” Jordan told the News. “I would love to know more about how she accomplishes this.”
Monday’s event is a collaboration between the Yale School of Art, New Haven Free Public Library, Yale University Art Gallery and Yale University’s Office of the President.
The upcoming conversation will take place from 4:30-5:30 p.m. in the Community Program Room of Ives Main Library.