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Stephen E. Coit ’71 gained’t inform you which of the over two dozen portraits he’s painted for Harvard is his favourite.
“I would never answer that because my paintings are like my children,” he stated.
Coit, a 69-year-old enterprise capitalist and entrepreneur, serves because the official Harvard Foundation Portraiture Artist. In 2003, the Foundation’s Portraiture Committee commissioned him to color portraits of outstanding University associates of African American, Asian American, Latino American, and Native American descent and have served Harvard in some capability for no less than 25 years.
But Coit additionally paints portraits for different Harvard teams together with the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study. To date, he has daubed 27 footage of a variety of people spanning University directors, well-known alumni, and outstanding authorities staffers.
Coit has painted figures like University President Drew G. Faust, former Treasurer of the United States Rosa G. Rios ’87, and longtime College admissions officer David L. Evans.
Coit and Foundation officers say his work have brought about Harvard’s expansive portrait assortment—comprising greater than 750 oil portraits, in accordance with a 2002 stock—to extra precisely mirror the varsity’s variety. But Coit stated his portraits could also be beneath menace as Harvard’s 12 residential Houses—the place lots of his footage grasp—bear renovations. Further complicating the photographs’ future, the Foundation is navigating a transitional interval after former director S. Allen Counter died in July 2017, leaving the group leaderless.
Coit stated he takes the hazard posed to his portraits personally—he treats his work like individuals and thinks of them as pals.
“I try to make sure they have good homes and I visit them. I visit them because I live with these paintings in my studio for months,” Coit stated. “I remember when [the painting of Sociology Professor] Orlando Patterson left my studio, I missed him.”
Coit stated he typically researches the topic of a portray for months earlier than setting brush to canvas. An intense give attention to a topic’s private life and character is a vital a part of the method, Coit stated. For instance, his portrait of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the primary Native American to graduate from the College, took 9 months of analysis.
Coit’s portray of Cheeshahteaumuck hangs in Annenberg Hall, the freshman eating corridor.
Sandra Naddaff, the chair of the Foundation’s portraiture challenge, referred to as the period of time Coit spends researching his topics “quite wonderful.”
“That understanding of the people he is painting and what they contributed to the College are…things that he comes to understand on a very deep level and then is able to embed in the portrait itself,” Naddaff stated.
Coit stated he believes intense engagement with a topic is important for his compositions.
“Having the ability to have a conversation with a painting, to me, is part of my artistic mission,” Coit stated.
He stated he hopes college students who encounter his work will participate on this dialog. Coit’s work are at present displayed in a number of places on campus together with numerous Houses, eating halls, administrative and educational buildings, and libraries.
Coit stated he first significantly tried portray—not counting the watercolors he produced in highschool—when he determined to take a sabbatical from enterprise capital in 1992. Soon after, he “caught a bug” and determined to go away his place to start portray full time, he stated.
He began taking night time artwork courses and touring to Italy to attend graduate oil portray programs. Coit stated he sought to good his method by drawing at each attainable second.
“When I thought I could see my way financially—not some grand one percent piece of the pie, but enough to be a responsible husband and parent—I approached my venture capital fund and said, ‘I can’t be this,’” Coit stated.
He formally stepped away from enterprise capital in 1996, and stated he has by no means seemed again. Today, along with takings commissions, he sometimes teaches portray programs at Lowell House. Carol A. “Kitty” Pechet, an artist who participated in one among Coit’s courses, stated she admires Coit’s course of and the small print he consists of in his work.
“He seems to be able to put the character of somebody into vision. That’s not so easy,” Pechet stated. “He has a dimensional understanding of them. That’s why the paintings aren’t empty or flat.”
When Coit, who’s white, was being interviewed for the place of official portraitist for the Foundation, he stated Foundation committee members like Reverend Peter J. Gomes quizzed him about his capacity to symbolize individuals of shade faithfully.
“I said that there are no two people that have the same color skin and that achieving the proper color of skin to me is easier than painting the color of pink granite in Maine in the morning fog,” Coit stated.
Coit stated he believes each individual, state of affairs, and lighting setup is totally different. He added “acute observation” is important, particularly when looking for to symbolize individuals from numerous racial backgrounds. Harvard college students and officers say variety on the College is growing—and declare Coit’s portraits are extra essential now than ever.
Lowell House Faculty Dean Diana L. Eck, who stated she has labored at Harvard because the 1970s, stated she thinks the College has made nice progress on growing variety. According to The Crimson’s survey of the incoming class of 2021, the category is majority feminine and boasts a big improve within the variety of college students of colour from earlier years.
“Now we have all of this diversity and it’s an enriching thing for Harvard College,” Eck stated. “It’s important for our education, for our intellectual life and for our life with one another. Not to have that displayed in some meaningful way on our walls is a mistake.”
Coit painted Rios, the primary Latina treasurer of the United States, in 2015. Her portrait now hangs within the Junior Common Room at Winthrop House.
In an interview Thursday, Rios stated Coit’s portraits are inspirational to undergraduates.
“I’m a big believer in this next generation of leadership having inspirations in order to have aspirations,” Rios stated. “These types of opportunities to showcase and highlight examples of people who kind of walked through the fire, if you will, and took those strategic risks are important.”
Devontae A. Freeland ’19, an intern on the Harvard Foundation, stated he sees comparable worth in displaying portraits of numerous figures at Harvard. He stated he thinks what a potential scholar possible noticed on Harvard’s partitions 20 years in the past differs extensively from what college students see at the moment.
“I think that those symbols actually make a difference and that can make a real impact on Harvard’s recruitment, on our bringing in the best and brightest talent and not having people be discouraged because they feel Harvard doesn’t value or represent their particular race or identity or gender,” Freeland stated.
After the passing of former Foundation director Counter this summer time, some say the group’s portraiture undertaking faces an unsure future—notably as Harvard seeks to overhaul and renew every of its 12 undergraduate Houses.
Coit stated he’s frightened House renovations might imply his portraits shall be moved to much less seen places, one thing he considers opposite to the mission of the undertaking as an entire. Lowell House, house to at the very least two of his portraits, will stay beneath development till the autumn of 2019—and Adams House, which boasts at the very least one in every of his footage, will start present process renovations in June 2019.
Apart from considerations over portrait relocation, Coit stated he thinks the newly reworked Houses might not present the suitable aesthetic backdrop for his work.
“Just because it looks modern and sleek and it’s made of glass and you can see through it and it’s got a metal frame and the light is cool, doesn’t mean it’s teaching you anything about who went before you and what your job is here,” Coit stated.
Naddaff, the chair of the portraiture venture, acknowledged the significance of displaying the portraits in places the place they’re seen to undergraduates. But she stated different places could also be extra priceless than the Houses. In specific, she talked about hanging portraits in Annenberg, Lamont Library, and University Hall.
“I think, for most us, the Houses are where we think the students are, but certainly students are in many different buildings,” Naddaff stated.
The venture’s future may additionally be unsure on account of Counter’s passing, in response to Florence C. Ladd, novelist and former director of Radcliffe’s now-dissolved Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute.
“Dr. Alan Counter was instrumental in heading the project. Now that he has passed away, I don’t know where the initiative to continue the work rests,” Ladd stated.
Asked whether or not the group would proceed its work regardless of Counter’s dying, Naddaff stated she believed it will.
“I have no reason to believe that it will not be sustained as a commitment,” she stated.
Regardless of the portraiture venture’s destiny, Coit stated he thinks the portraits he has already painted depart a legacy that may final for many years.
“I have always believed that, in a way, my business is to grant a bit of immortality to people,” he stated. “I owe it to them to deliver the message they want to deliver to Harvard that will go on beyond.”