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Redefining Portraiture: The Real Faces of Davenport

John Witt sat across the cramped dining hall table from me in his regular, unassuming Saturday attire: a light blue Patagonia synthetic long sleeve, heavy, cargo-style olive green hiking pants, large sneakers, and thin, rimless glasses. Approachable, calm, and perhaps tired, the head of Davenport College waited for me to figure out the voice recording app on my phone. The crew boys sitting inches from us, or anyone in the crowded Davenport dining hall, for that matter, did not spare us their loud banter and occasional squeals. Witt answered my questions unfazed by the hubbub that surrounded.     

Davenport has only six paintings hanging on its walls. Four of them depict one person, in his most comfortable habitat: Admiral Gerald E. Thomas with a globe, a professor donning thick, dark robes, an academic posed with a single red hardcover. These paintings epitomize what newer members of the Yale community have tried to move past. The old portraits are reminders of the sterile, abrasive, and unrelenting nature of the Yale College administration of the decades, perhaps centuries, before that has only begun to evolve within our lifetimes. Two of the paintings, however, depart from the tradition of robed men glowering down at students eating dinner, instead portraying a lively, comforting scene. Unveiled last spring, the portraits show students, dining hall faculty, fellows, and custodians sharing the infamous Davenport brunch experience (lauded among Gnomes, the affectionate nickname given to Davenport students, for being one of the better meals that the college provides). These new paintings do not go unnoticed or unappreciated by those who dine in the hall; in the familiarity of the painting scenes lies their beauty, their representation of what a college is, what Davenport means to its Gnomes.

In Davenport, portraits are commissioned for Heads and formerly Masters who have served for ten years or more. The paintings usually depict the Head or master donning outfits and surrounded by symbols that represent his area of academic expertise. The austerity of portraits commissioned in years past reinforced the distance between students and college administrators. As Davenport’s first Head, Professor Schottenfeld felt that his portraits had to emphasize the community within Davenport.

The figures interact with each other, some looking at the other characters, their gestures and body language indicating comfort and dialogue. In the portrait to the left of the fireplace, Markus Jackson DC ’09 and Carolyn Haller, the former Davenport operations manager, sit at one of the dining hall’s oak tables with plates that hold the remnants of their brunch meal, while Schottenfeld and Joanne Ursine, a member of the Davenport dining staff, stand behind them, Joanne giving her “signature side-eye” to the former Head. The sister painting portrays Angelina Calderón DC ‘10, Professor of History and Davenport Fellow Paul Kennedy, seated, as Jarrad Aguirre DC ’09, Professor Kang-I Chang of East Asian Language and Literatures, and Glaston Dubois, a Davenport custodian stand, with no one pair of eyes fixated on the same place or thing.

The subtle details of each painting demonstrate the authenticity of the scenes. Angelina wears a MEChA de Yale – Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, a national organization of students of varying minority and ethnic groups dedicated to fighting injustice – jacket, Glaston a Davenport flat-cap. Schottenfeld engages in discussion, his hands held out as if he is recounting a recent scientific breakthrough; Haller’s gentle smile and slightly ruffled quarter-zip emanates the familiarity she was known for; Chang’s pensive gaze mellows Kennedy’s cross-armed stare to the onlooker. The artist, Brenda Zlamany, Schottenfeld, and Witt all worked together to evoke this exact sense of ease and closeness to conclude Dr. Schottenfeld’s tenure within Davenport.

     Residential colleges are manifestations of our larger Yale community. Each student belongs to one, lives in one, becomes a newer kind of themselves in one, cries in one, smiles in one, finds home in one. Each student interacts with their residential college peers, contributing to the greater sense of community. There is no question that one’s college leaves an indelible mark on its inhabitants. The Davenport portraits were commissioned to show what belonging to such a community looks like today.

     Richard S. Schottenfeld, a former professor of psychiatry and 1971 graduate of Davenport College, served as Davenport’s first Head of College from 2001 to 2017. Schottenfeld wanted to imprint on the college values of inclusion, sincerity, and attachment. That is why the portraits commemorating his nearly two decades of service to Davenport depart so starkly from the portraits celebrating the past “Masters” for their achievements. Schottenfeld embodied the inclusion and diversity illustrated in the portraits. The transformation in the name of the title was propelled into the Yale College administration’s lap by the students, who sought to motivate the University to make more deliberate steps towards addressing the historic tensions and conflicts that persisted into the twenty-first century, such as the name of Calhoun College.

     As Yale’s student body has become more diverse, the students themselves have organized to change the relationship between the college system and the students. But certain Yale conventions impeded the progress of this effort. The use of the title “Master,” evoked the racial hierarchies of Antebellum America. On April 28, 2016, the Yale Daily News published an article announcing the transition to the title “Head of College.” The majority of students attending Yale at the time of the announcement celebrated the change. The evolution of this role’s title marked a watershed in the movement towards a more comfortable and inclusive relationship between the students, the college system, and the people tasked with representing Yale College within the walls of each residential college. For many students who saw watched this metamorphosis happen, the renaming to “Heads” of colleges had the potential to catalyze the progress the students wanted, the progress towards an atmosphere of community in all parts of Yale.

The Yale Daily News article stressed the fear some members of the community had towards the acceptance of the new term; Mary Lui, Head of Timothy Dwight College, advocated that students call her whatever they please, but that “Head of College” was “clunky.” However, the Heads of Colleges and students alike welcomed it, so much so that two years after the decision, students say “head of college” without hesitation or tripping over it. There is something to be said for a sense of familiarity students feel because our college firgureheads are our Heads, not our Masters.

To many in Davenport, Schottenfeld symbolized this evolution during his tenure. An advisor, mentor, and friendly face, Schottenfeld exhibited a desire to be connected to students and their concerns. John Witt, the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law and Davenport’s current Head, recognized Schottenfeld’s soulful generosity. He recalled, “Richard was an amazing person, he is such a nice guy; there isn’t an arrogant bone in his body and he didn’t really want a big portrait of himself.” Situated on either side of a dark, wood-cladded fireplace in Davenport’s dining hall, the paintings depict nine figures in total, traversing age, gender, race, and role within the college. Both works are staged within the dining hall; intricately-painted, they include the familiar, comfortable motifs of the Sunday brunch egg sandwiches and grapefruits and precise depictions of the curtains, chairs and tables. These portraits are a physical manifestation of the way in which subtle structural and administrative changes have shifted the tide of the college system ethos.

Markus Jackson, a mentee of the former Davenport Head, remembers the dedicated support Schottenfeld offered him, even as an alumnus who is nearing his tenth reunion. “Initially, I was unsure because I have never been asked to be a part of anything like this,” he recalled, in an interview with The Politic. “But because Dr. Schottenfeld has meant so much to me in my life, I was willing to do it because this is what he wanted. It was kind of a combination of uncertainty, but I felt the need to do it, more so for Dr. Schottenfeld than anything else.”

Markus’s choice of career hinged in part on his relationship with Schottenfeld, remarking that his pursuit of medical school and current residency are the result of his mentor’s influential direction and encouragement. Throughout our conversation, Markus spoke of the gratitude he had for his relationship with the professor and how deeply it had shaped who he is. It was this thankfulness that eventually resolved Markus’s initial “uncertainty” in being included in the series.

After we finished our conversation, Markus elaborated, “When you allow someone to photograph you and paint you, they can paint you in whatever way they see fit. And once the final product is finished, you really have limited to no control over that depiction anymore.” For Markus, Schottenfeld was reason enough to look past the potential for misrepresentation and manipulation of his image.

For Markus and Angelina, another Davenport alumnus and advisee of Schottenfeld who shared a close friendship with him, their Head’s message of inclusivity and warmth deeply impacted their experience in and perception of Davenport. In an interview with The Politic, Angelina highlighted how the new portraits are more reflective of Davenport itself, that “the people in the paintings are Davenport.” She wanted the portraits’ audience to feel welcome upon seeing “a Latina girl from LA on the walls of the Davenport dining hall.”

Markus, too, remarked that Schottenfeld’s attachment to everyone in the college shone through in the series. “I think it is powerful that [at] one of the premier institutions in the country, one of the leaders of one of the premier colleges of that institution, felt that it was important to have people from all different walks of life come together and represent his final image at Davenport.” Throughout their time in Davenport, Markus and Angelina both felt the deep regard their Head had for them; Markus noted that, “In isolation, I’m not that big of a person, I’m not that important of a person, Glaston is not necessarily that big of a person, but the combination of us all was important enough to Dr. Schottenfeld.”

A name-change does not alter the intrinsic value of an object, position, or role; calling a television a shirt would not change the fact that this shirt plays moving images. It does, however, have the power to change the onlooker’s perspective of it. Perhaps that is what has actually happened, and thus what these portraits represent. It is entirely possible that we, the students, simply have a new conception of what our Heads mean to us in our lives within our colleges. These portraits, and indeed Dr. Schottenfeld’s relationship with Davenport, are an apt metaphor for how our perception of our colleges’ administrative body works for and with the students, not us for them. Schottenfeld submerged himself in Davenport; he was not above the loud, crowded dining hall, nor was he too busy to offer guidance and support to Gnomes. The people in these paintings, as Markus said in his interview with The Politic, meant something to Schottenfeld. This is not to say that Masters before him did not feel the same; I only make the point that perhaps we, the students, the faculty, the staff, know that we mean something to our Heads now that they are not our Masters. The trajectory of the evolution from “Master” to “Head” could be the democratization of who has claim to a college, who makes it what it is. These portraits make the case that a given college is what it is because of every person who steps inside each compound’s gates, not just the individual who enjoys his or her tenure from the comfortable leather chair of the College Office. On the walls of the Davenport dining hall reside two paintings of momentous historic value, as they demonstrate that every person at all associated with a residential college, in many ways, becomes it.