Humanities Students Consider the Exhibit ‘Common Ground: A Dialog in Portraits’ with Guidance From Dr. Stephanie Sparling Williams, Guest Lecturer in Art History
Portrait group with historical portrait and student responses

Above, right: Portrait of Maria Birch Coffing with Jane W. Winslow, oil on canvas by Edwin White,1844. Top left: Portrait of My Mom, acrylic on canvas by Naima Johnson ’24; below left: Untitled, oil pastel on paper by Maya Robinson ’24.

A collaboration between Hotchkiss Special Collections and the Studio Art and Art History program, Common Ground: A Dialog in Portraits, is an exhibit installed in Main Building rotunda that includes historical portraits and student-created portraits hanging side by side. The student works were made by prep and lower mid Humanities students as part of an assignment that asked them to respond to the historical portraits, which come from Hotchkiss Special Collections, the Salisbury Historical Society, Litchfield Historical Society, and private collectors. The exhibit is installed through May 17 for the campus community and accessible anytime at a Flickr gallery via this link

In preparation for the assignment, students listened to a virtual lecture on the history of portraiture in America with Guest Lecturer in Art History and Mount Holyoke College Art Museum Associate Curator, Dr. Stephanie Sparling Williams, a Black feminist theorist whose scholarly work has a focus on American, African American, and African/Diasporic art and culture. In her talk, Dr. Sparling Williams explained that it is necessary to contextualize American portraiture by examining why portraits were made, recognizing what aspects of the sitter they were meant to convey, understanding the fact that traditional portraiture excluded a large majority of society, as well as observing the stylistic evolution of American portraiture over time. She went on to discuss how the advent of photography led to the democratization of portraiture in America because portraiture became more accessible to  previously marginalized populations. Sparling Williams also discussed contemporary Black artists Bisa Butler and Lorraine O’Grady as examples of artists who use the history of portraiture in their work “as a way to situate more diverse sitters and to convey more diverse historical narratives about the U.S. in particular.” Dr, Sparling Williams introduced a diverse group of artists to students in her subsequent virtual visits to classes. “There are countless others creating portraiture at the margins,” she explained, “Native Americans, Asian Americans, LatinX, and other BIPOC artists that are drawing upon these complex histories of representation in order to fashion portraits of their own.”

The impetus to invite Dr. Sparling Williams as guest lecturer arose from a past association with the studio art and art history program. “In 2017 my prep humanities classes worked closely with her at Yale University Art Gallery, engaging with the exhibition American History Revisited,” explained Brad Faus, program director for studio art and art history. “Her art historical expertise and substantial museum experience combined with quick-paced and direct interaction with our students yielded a memorable learning experience.”  

For Common Ground: A Dialog in Portraits, students were asked to carefully observe each portrait, considering a series of questions before committing to a response, which consisted of creating their own portrait and writing an artist statement. The questions included: What is the visible story? What is the human story? What is the world story? What is the new story? What is the untold story? The result is a thoughtful examination by each student of the power of portraits and the significance of choices including style and composition to convey meaning. Utilizing different artistic media and methodologies, including oil paint, pen and ink, pastel, and pencil, the student portraits work in concert with, and as contemporary antidote to, the historical portraits. 

One of the historical works in the exhibit is Portrait of Maria Birch Coffing with Jane E. Winslow (pictured above). Maria Coffing was a well-to-do White woman who lived in nearby Salisbury. Initially the portrait was thought to be only of her, however when it was cleaned, the figure of Jane Winslow standing behind the sitter became visible. Winslow, whose parents may have been enslaved in nearby Duchess county, NY, was adopted by the Coffing family in 1830.

Naima Johnson ’24 chose to respond to this portrait with her acrylic painting, Portrait of My Mom (also pictured above). Her statement reads, “This piece stood out to me because of the clear power dynamic displayed. The positioning of Coffing, who is presumed to be the adoptive mother of Winslow, puts her at the forefront and focus of the portrait. Her expression displays possession of power....The historical context of this portrait also suggests that race is an added layer to this power dynamic. As a Black female in the 1840s, Jane Winslow was already viewed as inferior in America and this portrait promotes this narrative. In my portrait, I wanted to reverse this narrative. I wanted my work to display a Black female figure where she is the sole focus of the portrait. This is why I decided to paint a portrait of my mom. Not only is she a reflection of me and who I am but I also felt that she serves as a good representation of the beauty of Black womanhood, a narrative that was not represented in the portrait of Jane Winslow,” she wrote.

Curator of Special Collections, Joan Baldwin, was pleased with the experience and the outcome. “In 2020, when we first talked about this project, it seemed like we had all the time in the world, but when February arrived, time seemed to evaporate. Nonetheless, students and faculty grappled with a complex assignment, engaging with individual portraits. Not a whole lot in life works out the way you hope it will. This project did.” 

“The student engagement was the driving force of the success of this show,” added Terri Moore, instructor in studio art.  

Student artists within each class first selected works before guest curators from the advanced studio art portfolio course selected the final pieces to hang in the rotunda. The LibGuide that was created for the assignment, which includes the introductory talk by Dr. Sparling Williams, is accessible at this link.


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