Alumnae Bulletin
August 2010

First fine arts majors: three students break tradition

By Deborah Chadwick Clearman '72

I never set out to be a revolutionary. Spring of 1968: Washington, D.C. (my home town), was burning. Race riots. Beloved leaders were dying. Assassinations. The draft. Boys were going to Viet Nam. And I was graduating from high school, heading for Bryn Mawr. In my family's footsteps.

My grandmother and great aunt had graduated from Bryn Mawr at the beginning of the 20th century. They were suffragists, Mother M. Carey Thomas' chickens. I wanted to embrace their tradition at this most transitional moment in history. I also loved school, was a straight A student, probably the only living graduate of my modest public high school to have actually done all the homework (I thought you had to), staying up to the wee hours every night for three years. Academic excellence appealed to me.

I thought I'd be an anthropology major, because of a controversial book I'd read in high school, African Genesis. Author Robert Ardrey attributed the violence in human nature (in evidence all around me) to its evolutionary roots in early hominids, sparking my interest in early man research. I thought of myself as an intellectual. I arrived at Bryn Mawr in the fall of 1968 ardent, scared, and as green as it gets. By the end of my first semester, I was desperate. No matter how many hours I spent in the study smoker (imagine that!) I couldn't finish my reading lists. I was sure I would fail. I went to my dean (the legendary Dean McPherson, later president), and Mary Pat told me to relax and get involved in Freshman Show. She reassured me that I would get used to the workload. I remain truly grateful to her.

A remarkable transformation occurred in the semesters to follow. Haverford had just hired Charles Stegeman to inaugurate its fine arts program. I was sampling a little of everything, and thought I'd give it a try. I sailed through introductory drawing—oh joy! Something I was good at! I started painting. This is an uncolor, Stegeman would say, that is an uncolor. He taught me to mix colors that were clean and strong. I loved it. He taught the craft of painting—the building and stretching and priming of canvases. The layering of paint. Calligraphy and brushwork. He taught the mental and spiritual discipline of art, and encouraged me to become a disciple. He asked me to dedicate myself to art. In Fritz Janschka's delightful studio on the Bryn Mawr campus, under his sharp and twinkling eye, I learned the techniques of the Renaissance masters, and later on, the intriguing chemistry of printmaking. Chris Cairns taught me to think in the round in sculpture class. I created murals, stage sets, and large-scale, ambitious paintings. The end of sophomore year came, and I had to declare a major. I wanted to major in fine arts.

Bryn Mawr had no fine arts major. The College founders scorned the 19th-century finishing schools that taught women to play the piano and watercolor, activities that were considered ladylike. Bryn Mawr broke ground by offering women a rigorous man's education: academic, serious, not artsy. This served the College well, at first.

However, times were changing, and with them, ideas about what constituted a liberal arts education. Curricula were under evaluation everywhere. Fine arts was entering into more and more top colleges—including Haverford—so that artists could learn to exercise their minds as they learned their craft. As I understood the Bryn Mawr College policy, if you wanted to major in a field offered by Haverford and not Bryn Mawr, BMC would permit you to major at Haverford. It turned out, however, that meant astronomy, not fine arts. At repeated sessions with my dean (no longer Mary Pat) I made the case to allow me to major at Haverford. I was joined by two classmates: Tina Potter and Margaret Rossiter. Margaret had come to Bryn Mawr specifically to study with Stegeman and his wife, Françoise André, an artist in her own right, although not on the faculty. The three of us begged and supplicated, and our dean said, we're working on it, but change takes time. Time, on an academic scale, was longer than we, as a mere undergraduates, had. Just major in art history, the dean said. We'll try to make it work for you.

In order to make sure that it wouldn't work for me, I attempted to fail an art history course my first semester of junior year. I didn't turn in my final paper. I admit that this was an immature act. In my defense, I didn't want to leave Bryn Mawr, but I didn't want to stay if I couldn't follow my passion. The easiest course of action seemed, at the time, to be burning my bridges. If I flunked a course in my major, I'd have to go. My art history professor sabotaged my effort at self-sabotage by giving me an incomplete. Professor Marks sat me down, kindly, and convinced me to write a paper, anything to keep me from jettisoning my Bryn Mawr education. I wrote a paper on Le Corbusier, an artist I loved, passed the course, and at the eleventh hour, second semester of my junior year, Bryn Mawr and I reached a compromise. I could major in fine arts—under the auspices of the art history department. In lieu of writing a senior thesis, I could have a show of paintings.

For our last three semesters, Margaret, Tina, and I fulfilled the requirements of Haverford's fine arts major. It was a dizzying, exciting time. We became the first—unofficial—fine arts majors at Bryn Mawr, opening the door for future Mawrters, like the wonderful artist Deborah Masters who graduated two years after us (an official fine arts major!). Georgia O'Keefe came to visit Bryn Mawr—to receive the M. Carey Thomas Award—in our senior year. We met her and shook her hand, a hand that had changed the role of women in American art. We presented our senior thesis show of paintings in Erdman's gallery, where O'Keefe's cloud paintings had hung. My photo was on the cover of the Alumnae Bulletin.

Moreover, I was able to stay at Bryn Mawr, with the friends, teachers, and colleagues I had come to love, and pursue my dream at the same time. Bryn Mawr continued to enrich my education with intellectual challenges. I'll never forget an English literature course with Sandra Berwind, reading Woolf and Joyce and Eliot. Professor Berwind asked for more than just a technically flawless paper. It wasn't enough to grind out a synopsis and a few metaphors in perfect sentences and paragraphs. My papers kept coming back with Cs. She wanted us to come up with original ideas, ask critical questions, and wrestle with them. I'm still struggling to do that.

Tina, Margaret, and I graduated in the spring of 1972, left Bryn Mawr and went to New York to become artists. The three of us are still pursuing our vision. The intellectual discipline and perseverance we learned at Bryn Mawr have served us well through interesting and demanding careers. To this day, Tina and Margaret are making visual art. Margaret's paintings of landscapes, gardens, and still lifes in a naturalistic style reveal her intense and passionate response to the natural world. Tina's richly layered work investigates the intersection of abstraction and representation as she explores new technologies to create her images. I am now writing fiction, making art with words.