Led by Matthew Mayhew, Longitudinal Survey Will Look at Students’ Attitudes on Faith and Diversity

Incoming freshmen at more than 130 colleges and universities will take surveys this year about a vital but often overlooked aspect of campus life: how students with different worldviews and religious backgrounds live, learn, and work together.

It’s the first phase in a long-term study that will follow 100,000 students for four years, tracking changes in their attitudes and behaviors about faith and diversity through surveys at freshman orientation and during the sophomore and senior years of college.

IDEALS – short for Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey – is a collaboration of Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit that works with colleges and universities to foster religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation, and education researchers Alyssa Rockenbach of North Carolina State University and Matt Mayhew of New York University, who are building on five years of related work.

The new multimillion-dollar national study is funded by a non-religiously affiliated organization that supports initiatives to foster constructive dialogue across differences and has chosen to remain anonymous.

“We want to use a social science-based approach to inform decisions made on college campuses,” says Mayhew, an associate professor of higher education with NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “The long-term design of the study will help identify how we prepare students to be global citizens who understand other worldviews and are able to work productively across differences.”

Researchers hope to answer several key questions:

  • How do experiences with diversity affect students’ attitudes and behaviors?
  • Do students perceive their campus to be a safe and supportive place for those of differing religious and nonreligious beliefs to express themselves?
  • How do students interact with others who have different worldviews?

The 2015 survey for incoming freshmen includes questions about basic tenets of major religions and leaders from different faith traditions. In addition, students are asked about their participation in experiences such as attending worship services, studying with students of another faith, discussing beliefs, and taking part in volunteer service activities.
Each participating college or university will receive survey results for its campus at no cost, providing information about student perceptions and the value of educational and interfaith activities.

“We’re trying to determine which educational experiences help students grow in their appreciation of others with diverse worldviews,” says Rockenbach, an associate professor of higher education at NC State. “In a society with many perspectives and religions, we will need leaders with a pluralistic orientation that gives them an appreciation of not only differences but also values that people have in common.”

Participating institutions include both public and private universities, some with religious affiliations.

Data from the initial surveys will be available late this fall. For more information about the project, visit the IDEALS project at NYU SteinhardtNC State, and Interfaith Youth Core.


Endowed Chair in Physical Therapy Honors Steinhardt Professor Marilyn Moffat

The Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development has established the Marilyn Moffat Endowed Chair in Physical Therapy to support a faculty member dedicated to advancing physical therapy through research, teaching, and practice.

Established with a gift of $2 million, the endowed chair honors Marilyn Moffat, a professor of physical therapy at NYU Steinhardt and a recognized leader in the fields of physical therapy, exercise, and healthy aging.

Marilyn Moffat

“An endowed professorship is one of the highest honors in academia. Offering a master teacher and researcher a named chair – especially one honoring such an esteemed professor – enables us to recruit an immensely talented individual to the Department of Physical Therapy and the Steinhardt community,” said Dominic Brewer, Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of NYU Steinhardt.

The endowed chair – the first to be established in NYU’s Department of Physical Therapy – was funded by 426 donors, who were physical therapy alumni and other friends of the department.

“The new endowed chair reinforces our department’s commitment to innovative research and will help us to educate the next generation of practitioners and scholars,” said Mitchell Batavia, chair of the Department of Physical Therapy at NYU Steinhardt.

“We have always been fortunate to have Marilyn as part of our faculty, given her dedication to the field of physical therapy and to improving the lives of her students and patients, so we are exceedingly pleased to establish this position in her name.”

A professor of physical therapy at NYU, Moffat directs the doctor of physical therapy (DPT) program and the post-professional master’s degree program. She has served as the president of the World Confederation for Physical Therapy, the American Physical Therapy Association, and the New York Physical Therapy Association, and has authored several books on physical therapy, exercise, and aging. Moffat earned a bachelors degree from Queens College and a physical therapy certificate, M.A., and Ph.D. from NYU.

“I am grateful for our alumni and other friends of the Department of Physical Therapy for generously supporting this new position and the future of physical therapy at NYU,” said Moffat.

The endowed chair position will be held by a new hire, who will join the Department of Physical Therapy as an associate professor. The department will search for a candidate to fill this position in the coming year.


Occupational Therapy Department Study Finds Writing Workshop Gives Seniors a Sense of Purpose

A unique program combining a life review writing workshop with conversations between seniors and college students enhances the sense of meaning in life for older adults living independently, finds a new study by the Steinhardt School. The study is published in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Occupational Therapy.

Americans are living longer than ever. The majority of older adults in our aging population want to remain in their own home or “age in place,” as opposed to moving to housing for seniors or moving in with family members. Although physical function is important for community-dwelling seniors, mental health and well-being are also critical to their health and wellness.

Studies have shown that life review – a systematic review of life events from childhood to present day – has a positive effect on the mental health of older adults, especially when done in writing. Programs integrating younger generations with older adults have also been shown to be beneficial in enhancing seniors’ sense of well-being, increasing intergenerational understanding, and decreasing depressive symptoms.

“A sense of purpose and meaning in life can affect disability status, cognitive function, and mortality among seniors,” said study author Tracy Chippendale, assistant professor of occupational therapy at NYU Steinhardt. “Effective interventions that can influence something known to prevent cognitive loss and disability are important for helping people to age in place.”

Chippendale and her colleague studied the therapeutic benefits for community-dwelling seniors of the Living Legends program, which includes life review writing plus an interactive exchange between seniors and students, as compared with life review writing alone.

Thirty-nine seniors living at home were randomly assigned to a life review writing workshop or the workshop plus the intergenerational exchange. For eight weeks, Chippendale met weekly with seniors at senior centers and led them through the life review writing workshop, which included writing prompts, tips, and feedback.

After the workshop concluded, the older adults randomly selected to participate in the Living Legends program met with college students studying health sciences once a week for four weeks. In 90-minute sessions, the seniors read pieces of writing from the earlier workshop and took part in guided discussions with students about the content of their writing.

Using questionnaires and written responses, the researchers gathered information about the seniors and their sense of purpose before the writing workshop, after the workshop, and at the end of the Living Legends program.

The researchers observed a significant increase in the sense of purpose and meaning in life for seniors in the writing workshop plus the interactive exchange between students and seniors, but not for those in the writing workshop alone. The Living Legends program was particularly beneficial for older adults who had low initial scores for sense of purpose and meaning in life.

An analysis of the seniors’ written responses revealed additional benefits. The older adults found Living Legends to be a positive experience and felt that it promoted well-being, sharing, and learning. They also had positive views of the students, and valued the supportive environment provided by the program.

“Seniors expressed that the program gave them the opportunity to share their life adventures, create legacies, and inspire the next generation to examine their own lives. Their written responses shed light on the quantitative findings regarding enhanced sense of purpose and meaning in life,” said Chippendale.

Although life review writing had previously been shown to have therapeutic benefits for seniors, specifically a decrease in depressive symptoms, the addition of the exchange with students offered them an enhanced sense of purpose and meaning in life.

“Given that purpose and meaning in life is an important factor with regard to preventing cognitive decline, disability, and mortality, the Living Legends program appears to be an effective health intervention, and may in turn help older adults remain at home longer,” said Chippendale.

Marie Boltz of Boston College’s William F. Connell School of Nursing coauthored the study with Chippendale. The research was supported by a grant from the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation.


A Path to Leadership: An Interview with Kristie Patten Koenig

Kristie Patten Koenig, chair of Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy, is the principal investigator of NYU’s GIFTED Program and ASD Nest programs.  She teaches professional and post professional courses in the area of pediatric intervention, school based practice and sensory processing and regulation.

You had a whirlwind week with Ghanaian teachers at NYU in June.  Can you tell us about the Ghana Wins program?

As the culmination of our year long GIFTED program, we hosted ten teachers and two principals from local school districts in Ghana, and two lecturers from the University of Education at Winneba. GIFTED, which is short for the Ghanaian Institute for the Future of Teaching and Education, is an NYU program that works with our local faculty partners at UEW  in Ghana to empower teachers and principals to build on the strengths of their community.

Fellows travelled from Ghana to Washington Square.

When the women apply, we give priority to women that have not had any international travel. So it is quite amazing to experience New York City through their eyes and all the “firsts” they experience when they are in this great city.

This year our fellows visited PS 396 in the Bronx, which is one of our ASD Nest schools, to learn about alternative instructional methods. Dean Patricia Carey gave an inspirational message about leadership at our opening ceremonies and they attended a talk on sustainability and community engagement with Steinhardt faculty member Dana Burde.

We also discussed sex education in the Ghanaian context with Jon Zimmerman and got to hear Ohkee Lee share a very personal story about her path to being a woman leader.

You are an occupational therapist by training.  What is the link between your GIFTED work, your work with children with autism spectrum disorder and OT?  Or maybe I am asking simply: ‘what is occupational therapy?’

Paul Kotler and his mother were guests at a seminar on sensory processing challenges taught by Kristie Patten Koenig (at right) in January.

I am an occupational therapist by training with a doctorate in educational psychology. In my role as a practicing OT, I have worked in public schools to improve functional outcomes for children who are often marginalized. As a researcher, I have sought to study the effectiveness of interventions that work in the public schools.

In the case of autism, students often have poorer than expected postsecondary outcomes when compared to their peers with other disabilities.  NYU’s ASD Nest Program is a comprehensive program that targets their specific needs to improve these outcomes for students in the public schools.

Our GIFTED women know what their schools need and work with young girls, which are another marginalized group in Sub-Saharan Africa, in order to improve their long-term outcomes.  We help them to design clubs that can offer meaningful activities and occupations to achieve their results.  Some examples of these clubs are cultural dance, role-play, batik and tie dying, soap making, photography, and math and science skills. This use of activity is a core value of occupational therapy.

As a woman leader, I benefited early in my career from being a part of a fellowship program that chose fifteen leaders and engaged us in a year of goal-setting, mentoring circles, and interaction. This program, which was a joint collaboration between the American Occupational Therapy Association and the American Occupational Therapy Foundation, laid the groundwork for the perspective I have brought to the GIFTED program.

How do you bridge the difference between yourself and others?

At our first meeting with the faculty of education at the University of Winneba, my principal co-investigator, Rose Vukovic, and I made it clear that we did not know what schools in Ghana needed and that we wanted a true partnership.  Our approach has been to build on the wisdom of our partners and to facilitate the change that our GIFTED fellows would like to make in their schools and community. In practice this means that we listen a lot.  We let our GIFTED fellows be the experts of their own contexts, and we directly confront, as much as possible, our own assumptions about working in communities that are not our own.

This mutual respect — that I think pervades every aspect of the program — has helped bridge many of the obvious differences.




Technology is the Focus of Steinhardt’s 2015 Freshman Reading

The Circle by Dave Eggers has been chosen as required reading for all students entering the Steinhardt School this fall. The book will be discussed in the New Student Seminar, a course that offers students a way to explore their role in the community using the reading as a guide.

Set in the not-too-distant future, The Circle tells the story of Mae Holland who lands a job at the world’s largest Internet company. The novel chronicles the inner workings of The Circle, a firm modeled on a Silicon Valley conglomerate. Like George Orwell’s 1984, the book is a dystopian novel about transparency and surveillance.

“We thought The Circle would open up an interesting discussion about how we live now,” said Patricia Carey, associate dean for student affairs. “The book offers a sweeping view of a world where social connection is replaced by online connection and being a good citizen means conforming to societal expectation. The Circle gives us a way to talk about how our identities are shaped by technology.”

At the New Student Seminar, freshman and transfer students will be discussing the virtue of analog living, unplugging, and sharing personal data, as well as looking at how technological innovations can influence their art, professional lives, and personal narratives.  They will also be creating a project centered on the seminar’s theme, “Our Computers, Ourselves.”


The Tony Goes to Alumna Ruthie Ann Miles for “The King and I”

Steinhardt alumna Ruthie Ann Miles (MA ’07) has received a 2015 Tony Award for her performance as Madame Thiang in “The King and I.”  Miles won the best featured actress in a musical award at the 2015 Tony Awards Ceremony hosted by Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming at Radio City Music Hall.

In her acceptance speech, Miles gave a shout-out to the Broadway Green Alliance and thanked her vocal performance teacher, Brian Gill, music associate professor at NYU Steinhardt.

The American Theatre Wing’s Annual Antoinette Perry “Tony” Awards honor excellence on Broadway in twenty-four categories. The nominees are selected by an independent committee of  theatre professionals appointed by the Tony Awards Administration Committee.

Miles recently played Imelda Marcos in “Here Lies Love.” For that role she was awarded the 2013 Theatre World Award for outstanding debut in an-off Broadway performance.

Read an Interview With Ruthie Ann Miles




NYU Steinhardt Launches International Research Center Dedicated to Improving Children’s Lives in Vulnerable Regions

NYU Steinhardt has announced the creation of Global TIES for Children: Transforming Intervention Effectiveness and Scale, an international research center that designs, evaluates, and advises on programs and policies to improve the lives of children and youth in the most vulnerable regions across the globe.

“Promoting children’s development is key to ensuring global economic prosperity, peace, and sustainability. Yet all too often, poverty and violence undermine our children’s capacity to thrive,” said J. Lawrence Aber, the Willner Family Professor in Psychology and Public Policy at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and co-director of Global TIES.

Global TIES works with leading NGOs and governments in low-income and conflict-affected countries on developing and evaluating innovative approaches to promoting health, education, and social development of children in their communities. Together with strategic partners, Global TIES aims to:

  • Generate actionable evidence to promote child and youth development by evaluating strategies to transform social settings, such as classrooms, that are key drivers of children’s learning and well-being;
  • Communicate this evidence to inform program and policy decisions; and
  • Build capacity of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers through professional development and training activities.

“Governments and communities worldwide are identifying urgent needs, but many are limited in their capacities to affect change, given conflict, economic challenges, and other major issues facing these regions,” said Hirokazu Yoshikawa, the Courtney Sale Ross Professor of Globalization and Education at NYU Steinhardt and co-director of Global TIES. “They’re looking for innovative solutions that are politically viable, sustainable, and can reach a large segment of the population; we’ve created Global TIES to directly address these needs.”

In order to meet its goals, Global TIES currently has five strategic partners: the International Rescue Committee, Innovations for Poverty Action, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), Save the Children, and the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

A telling example of these efforts is the Global TIES collaboration with the International Recue Committee and the Ministry of Education of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Opportunities for Equitable Access to Quality Basic Education (OPEQ) cluster-randomized impact evaluation aims to estimate the impact of an integrated curriculum (Learning in Healing Classrooms) and an in-service teacher training system on teachers’ motivation and performance and student learning and social-emotional outcomes in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

NYU celebrated the launch of Global TIES with a symposium featuring a keynote address by David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. In his keynote address, Miliband placed the work of Global TIES in the context of the confluence of humanitarian crises around the world and will set out an ambitious agenda that the global community must pursue to make a difference for children.

“It would be easy for higher education in America to turn its back on children halfway around the globe. But NYU, the UN, the World Bank and other NGOs in this room are not doing so,” Miliband said.  ”I am heartened that all the strategic partners here constitute a community of practice working to better the lives of children affected by conflict.”

He noted that the true test of action will be measured in the impact of this Center on policy and practice around the world.

Global TIES is embedded within NYU’s Institute for Human Development and Social Change, and is supported by the University and the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute. Project-related support comes from funders (e.g., World Bank), international philanthropies, and other research organizations.

(Photo, left to right: J. Lawrence Aber, Dominic Brewer, David Miliband, and Hirokazu Yoshikawa.)


Summer Reading: An Interview with Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history, is the director of Steinhardt’s History of Education Program.  His most recent book is Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education (Princeton, 2015).

What are you reading?

I’m reading a book by Leon Burr Richardson called A Study of the Liberal Arts College, written in 1924. It’s for my new book project on the history of college teaching in the United States. Richardson was a professor of chemistry at Dartmouth during the era that many American academicians begain to prize research over teaching. But he was deeply ambivalent and critical of that shift, which threatened (Richardson believed) to destroy the moral purpose and character of undergraduate education.

Your last book was Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. What’s the path from researching the history global sex education to investigating college teaching?  Were you thinking about morality?

*All* education is moral, for reasons that Aristotle spelled out thousands of years ago; whether implicitly or explicitly, any educational choice or action reflects some kind of vision of a “good life.” In the sex ed book, I examined the ways that moral assumptions suffused sex education..which is precisely what has made it such a difficult and controversial subject, especially in our so-called age of “globalization.”

What troubles me about undergraduate teaching — and what lured me to the subject — was the way that older languages of morality have fallen away. It used to be a given that we taught college students in order to improve their “character,” that is, to make them into more thoughtful, reasonable, and decent human beings. Now, what is the purpose?  Most of our contemporary answers have to do with preparing students for the workplace, which reflects a very different kind of moral project — with, I suspect, very different implications for the classroom. I want to investigate how college teaching changed, as its focus shifted from the fate of students’ souls–especially in the world to come — and their job prospects in this one.

What did you take out of the library today?

I’m in the very early stages of the project, so I’m reading memoirs and other contemporary published accounts before I turn to more hard-to-get archival sources. Teaching turns out to be an extremely difficult thing to document, especially in retrospect. How do you know what happened inside of a classroom? The published material — accessed easily via Bobst Library’s excellent catalogue — will only take me so far, which is why I’ll be relying on letters, diaries, and student evaluations (which date back to the 1920s, I’ve discovered!).

I was also taking out a few books in service of my other ongoing project, as an oped columnist and radio commentator. Every week or so, I write a piece that examines a contemporary issue in historical perspective; I do the same in my twice-a-month radio spot on WHYY, Philadelphia’s National Public Radio affiliate. So this morning I took out books on the history of transgenderism, the vice-presidency, and American fatherhood…in preparation for possible pieces on Caitlyn Jenner, Joe Biden, and Father’s Day.



Study by Doctoral Student Drew Allen Evaluates Remedial Pathways for Community College Students

Academic programs that provide alternatives to traditional remedial education help students succeed at community colleges, but different programs result in a range of outcomes for various sub-populations of students. Drew Allen, an NYU Steinhardt doctoral student and director of the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Program Support at the City University of New York (CUNY), devoted his doctoral research to the evaluation of three current programmatic approaches at CUNY community colleges.

Entering community college students are often required to take remedial, non-credit courses to meet college-readiness standards. Nationwide, previous studies have shown that approximately 58 percent of students who entered community colleges took at least one developmental or remedial course. However, remedial courses often increase the cost and time required to obtain a degree.

For many students entering community colleges, remedial or developmental education courses represent the first steps on the pathway toward a degree. Allen notes, “If educators are able to improve students’ progress through developmental education or implement new alternatives to traditional remedial coursework, the overall outcomes for community college students could be dramatically improved.”

Allen recently presented his findings at the Association for Institutional Research’s 2015 Forum in Denver. His research was funded by a dissertation grant from the Association for Institutional Research, which is supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative.

Allen’s study examined remedial pathways available to students at New York City community colleges within the CUNY system, where eight in 10 students who began as first-time freshmen in fall 2013 needed some type of remedial education. The large size and significant diversity of the CUNY student population provided a unique opportunity to compare the outcomes of remedial pathways across multiple underrepresented populations within higher education, including low-income students, students of different ages, non-native English speakers, and students of color.

“Despite the proliferation of developmental education models, colleges and universities across the country have often developed them through a ‘one size fits all’ approach, giving little thought to the differences within and across groups of students,” Allen said.

Using longitudinal data from six CUNY community colleges, Allen tracked students enrolling in different alternative developmental educational pathways, comparing them to students who immediately enrolled in associate degree programs, and conducted in-depth interviews with community college administrators and faculty. The study focused on the following three pathways:

  • Summer Immersion – Students can enroll in remedial coursework in the summer before starting a CUNY degree program (or winter intersession for students entering in the spring). Results suggested that students who enrolled in summer immersion prior to matriculation experienced significant and positive effects on several outcomes, including a 74 percent increase in the odds of earning 20 credits by the end of the first year. Interestingly, younger students benefited more from summer immersion than those who applied to CUNY at the age of 25 or older, who experienced a more modest benefit. Summer immersion was not as effective for students whose native language was not English.
  • English Language Immersion – Students identified by CUNY as needing additional support in speaking and writing in English can delay enrollment and instead enroll in the CUNY Language Immersion Program (CLIP). The program was also shown to have positive effects, including increasing the odds of passing the first college-level English course by 31 percent. Enrollment in this program delays matriculation thus invariably resulting in longer time to degree attainment. For students who ultimately enrolled in CUNY degree programs after participating in CLIP, likelihood of college completion was found to be significantly higher than comparable students who had no prior CLIP experience. Similar to summer immersion, outcomes of language immersion were found to be relatively more effective for younger students.
  • CUNY Start – Students with developmental needs in reading, writing, and/or math can enroll in this intensive 15- to 18-week program designed to build students’ academic skills and minimize the amount of developmental coursework they must take when they matriculate. In this study, CUNY Start was associated with positive and significant outcomes in completing remedial requirements, passing college-level English and math gateway courses, and completing a degree. While the program slows credit accumulation in the first year, delaying enrollment in a degree program for a semester ultimately did not appear to hurt medium and longer-term outcomes.

While the three remedial pathways overall led to better academic outcomes, the differences between student populations reveal opportunities to maximize the benefits of these programs.

“Summer immersion was found to be more effective for younger students. Based on this study, educators and policymakers could focus attention and resources on students in need of remediation who enter community college right out of high school,”  Allen said.

This finding supports prior research on the benefits of maintaining academic momentum for students during the summer between high school and college.

Allen’s research contributes to the conversation on simplifying and streamlining progress through community college, which can be unnecessarily difficult for students to navigate. His study also sets the stage for future research, including comparative cost-benefit studies of these remedial pathways and analyses to highlight how these pathways connect to other types of student support strategies like CUNY’s ASAP (Accelerated Studies in Associate Programs).


At Steinhardt’s 80WSE Gallery: The Devil and His Blues

Untitled 1987 (11.5" height). Unfired clay, artificial hair, sunglasses, wire, aluminum foil, beads, glass marbles, paint. Courtesy of William S. Arnett Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues, an exhibition of work of the renowned Delta blues musician and artist James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas, will be on view at 80 Washington Square East Gallery from June 9 to August 7, 2015. Taking its title from folklorist William Ferris’s seminal text on Thomas’s work, The Devil and His Blues will be the first major institutional solo presentation of James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas’s sculpture to take place since the artist’s death in 1993.

The exhibition will include 100 of his unfired clay objects in addition to two documentary films on his work: ‘Sonny Ford:’ Delta Artist, made by William Ferris in Leland, Mississippi in 1969 and JAMES ‘SON FORD’ THOMAS: ARTIST made by filmmakers Jeffrey Wolf and Zach Wolf, using footage shot of Thomas in 1982 while exhibiting his work as part of the seminal touring exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, which has been edited on the occasion of this exhibition.

Widely celebrated as a major figure in the evolution of the Delta style of blues music, James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas was born near Eden Mississippi in 1926, later moving to Leland, Mississippi, where he lived with his wife and children from 1961-1993. His formative years were spent frequenting the rural house parties known as ‘jook joints,’ where locals would spend their weekends listening to blues music, dancing, drinking, and gambling. The traveling musicians he was exposed to as a teenager, notably Elmore James and his bottleneck’ style of guitar playing, contributed greatly to his pursuit of music and the evolution of his unprecedented approach to songwriting and singing, which chronicled life in the Delta.

Untitled Date unknown (7.5 x 5.5 x 4.5"). Unfired clay, aluminum foil, human teeth. Photograph by Marie Catalano; Courtesy of Thomas E. Scanlin Collection

Thomas’s uncle Joe Cooper taught him to play guitar beginning at the age of eight and also taught him to sculpt the local ‘gumbo’ clay, from which Thomas initially made his own toys, resembling dogs, horses, and the numerous Ford model tractors that earned him the local nickname ‘Ford.’ He chose to keep this name throughout his professional career as homage to the place from which he came.

Thomas made sculptures regularly throughout his adult life, creating hundreds of unfired clay pieces from a repertoire of subjects, many of which date back to his youth. His birds, snakes, squirrels, and fish are all representative of Delta wildlife in addition to holding symbolic significance in the African-American folk spirituality known as ‘hoodoo,’ in which he believed.

The skulls for which Thomas became known were first made as a mischievous ten-year-old, with the purpose of scaring his grandfather. After a ten-year period working as a gravedigger, from 1961-71, Thomas began making skulls again, this time with the aim of accurately representing the dead, often using real human teeth or dentures and a dull white paint he created to simulate the look of bones. He deemed these works inappropriate for children, yet also intended that they be used as utilitarian objects including pencil holders and ashtrays. After his time working as a gravedigger, while reflecting on his sculpture and the topic of death, Thomas stated, ‘We all end up in the clay.’

Numerous busts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were made in part for their general popularity and subsequent sales and yet they also speak to the history of slavery and its residual oppressive policies, which Thomas faced throughout his lifetime. The cotton wigs that he created for each Washington bust reflect Thomas’s own history with cotton, which he picked with his grandfather to earn a living as a young man. As an adult, Thomas grew cotton as a sharecropper, requiring that he rent the land and buy overpriced supplies from its white owner, incurring tremendous debt that made earning a living impossible. Thomas’s sculpted quails reference the local ban that was placed on the right of African Americans to hunt them. Due to their high meat content, quails were reserved as a delicacy for hunting and consumption by white people only.

The bust portraits, which constitute the majority of Thomas’s creative output, portray numerous members of his community as well as imagined faces, often incorporating marbles as eyes, wigs, real human hair, found sunglasses, and jewelry that he fashioned as he became increasingly interested in the use of embellishments. Thomas also created a small number of miniature clay dioramas, often depicting full figures chopping wood, eating watermelon, playing music, or posed dead in coffins. These works reflect the scenes of daily life and death, which he observed.

Paradoxes of meaning and function are central to Thomas’s intent, imagination, and intuitive approach; the quotidian and the abject, beauty and ugliness, excess and austerity, significance and meaninglessness, commercial viability and histories of oppression, and documentation and spirituality often co-exist simultaneously in a given piece.

In 1968, Thomas met folklorist and scholar, Dr. William R. Ferris, with whom he made his first musical recordings. The two formed a close professional and personal relationship, collaborating on numerous projects over the twenty-five years that followed. The greater exposure and widespread recognition that came with the circulation of these recordings and Ferris’s scholarship led to numerous subsequent albums and live performances outside of Mississippi; these became profitable for Thomas and allowed him to tour internationally throughout the 1970’s. While Thomas was known for his music and not his visual art, from a young age he quickly became aware of the monetary value that could be placed on his sculpture. He first sold pieces in order to pay for school supplies and later, throughout his adult life, he traded with friends and eventually consistently sold pieces to tourists and collectors as a lucrative source of supplemental income.

During the 1960’s and 70’s, the work of self-taught artists became increasingly visible, aided by the formation of the Museum of American Folk Art in 1961, a growing interest amongst art historians in expanding the canon, the formation of commercial galleries that focused exclusively on presenting self-taught artists and a devoted group of collectors. In 1981 Thomas’s work was included in the exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, which was organized by Jane Livingston and John Beardsley at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. and later toured to venues throughout the United States. The exhibition was the first time that an American museum had given major recognition to the work of 20th-century self-taught African-American artists, and it contributed greatly to establishing the prominence and historical significance of artists such as Bill Traylor, Sister Gertrude Morgan, William Edmondson, and James Hampton. Despite a subsequent first solo exhibition at the New Mexico State University Art Gallery in 1985, Thomas’s sculpture remains widely unknown today.

James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues seeks to consider the entirety of Thomas’s output in music and visual art as a remarkable document of American history: an epic autobiographical narrative, connecting mortality, nature, community, spirituality, and the culture of the region in which he lived.

James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues is organized by Jonathan Berger, Mary Beth Brown, and Jessica Iannuzzi Garcia, in collaboration with NYU curatorial praxis students Jason Chau, Chia-Yin Chen, Alexandra Goullier, Marion Guiraud, and Jaclyn Levy. The exhibition is made possible through the support of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and the generous collaboration of Amy Adams, Nathaniel Allen, Velma Allen, James and Elizabeth Arient, Matthew Arient, William S. Arnett, Ross Browne, Scott Browning, Caroline Cargo, William Ferris, Harriet Finkelstein, John Ollman, Thomas Scanlin, Ronald and June Shelp, and Jeffrey and Zach Wolf.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated publication designed by Julian Bittiner, including contributions from Thomas’s sister Velma Allen, folklorist William Ferris, curator Thomas Lax, and historian David Serlin.

80WSE Gallery is located at 80 Washington Square East, between West 4th Street and Washington Street. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 10:30AM-6PM. For more information about the exhibition, please contact the gallery at 212-998-5751 or email 80wsefrontdesk@nyu.edu.