Visitors to the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. this year will learn about Connecticut history and UConn through 12 ornaments on the tree from the Nutmeg State that is part of the annual America Celebrates display on the Ellipse, between the White House and the Washington Monument.
The ornaments on the Connecticut tree were designed by six UConn students in a class led by Alison Paul, assistant professor of illustration and animation in the School of Fine Arts, and are part of the 2016 Ornaments from the Across the USA display program of the National Park Service and National Park Foundation.
The School of Fine Arts was recommended for the assignment by the office of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who was asked by the Park Service to assist in identifying artists in Connecticut to design the ornaments. Richard F. Kehoe, a 1980 UConn graduate who is director of the senator’s state office, suggested the UConn artists.
“These ornaments will adorn the National Christmas Tree in Washington, showcasing Connecticut’s iconic treasures and traditions,” says Sen. Blumenthal. “What better way to celebrate the creative talents of UConn students and the rich culture of our state this holiday season.”
Six seniors were selected to participate in the class because of the challenges of the assignment, which required creating designs that could be either two-dimensional or three-dimensional in form. While there was no required theme for the ornament designs, the students were tasked by Paul to develop their concepts based on Christmas, Connecticut, and UConn. The students in the class included Tessa Archambault, Ezra Blanchard, Paige Kibby, Renald Louissaint, Olivia Narciso, and Bruno Perosino. All of the students are in the illustration/graphic design concentrations of the Department of Art and Art History.
“These students all have a lot of experience working with clients, which is what they are going to do when they graduate,” Paul says of the student designers. “It was not unlike things they’ve done before, but of course we’re thinking of the audience. Who goes to events like this? You look for the common denominator in the audience. These are people who are in the Christmas spirit, in D.C., and feeling celebratory. They may not know much about Connecticut. These are all of the things we wanted to focus on.”
Each of the students created ornament designs on 5.5-inch clear plastic globes, with the option to use two-dimensional or three-dimensional images either inside the sphere, on the outside or both. The ornaments reflect research conducted by the students on various aspects of Connecticut’s history, notable residents, iconic symbols, and the University. The ornaments included:
- A portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe backed with her landmark Hartford home inside one globe, and another with a nuclear submarine on one side and a sperm whale, the state animal, on a globe painted blue, by Archambault.
- Longtime Connecticut resident Maurice Sendak is honored by painting some of his famous characters carrying holiday gifts on an ornament, and a UConn-themed Christmas sweater covers another globe, by Blanchard.
- Watercolor paintings of robins, the state bird, hanging inside the ornament, and a car bearing Connecticut license plates – the first state to use car plates – with an evergreen tree tied to the roof, by Kibby.
- Tiny basketballs inside the ornament with mobile portraits of basketball stars Ray Allen on one side and Diana Taurasi on the other, and a nutmeg plant inside another globe, by Louissaint.
- A cube inside the sphere with a holiday design using the style and color palette of Hartford artist Sol LeWitt, and a diorama-like scene of evergreen trees covered in snow, by Narciso.
- The base of the storied Charter Oak, with the 1662 Royal Charter inside, and a bust of Mark Twain with a quote from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” in the background, by Perosino.
The students say researching new aspects of Connecticut to consider for the designs was challenging, as well as “entertaining.”
“All the Connecticut fact resources have the same 10 facts,” Archambault says. “I was trying to find out more about famous people from Connecticut, and one [online source] said Marilyn Monroe was from Connecticut. I knew that was not true, so I had to cross-check everything. It turns out she lived here for a brief period of time.”
“Part of the fun of the challenge was finding something that is connected to Christmas, UConn, or Connecticut that you didn’t necessarily know,” says Narciso. “That’s why historical figures like Harriet Beecher Stowe were attractive. My ornament is based on the artist Sol LeWitt, who was part of the modernist movement and the minimalist movement for art. He was a major figure in graphic design as well. It was interesting to explore a person who could bring something different to Connecticut.”
Adds Perosino: “There are facts and history of Connecticut that are iconic. I thought it best to draw inspiration from things like that, stories that have to do with the history of Connecticut. They represent what this state is.”
The National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony, which began in 1923 with President Calvin Coolidge, will take place on Thursday, Dec. 1 at the Ellipse in President’s Park. The event will be televised on Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. on the Hallmark Channel. The walkway surrounding the National Christmas Tree and the 75 state and territory trees, known as the Pathway of Peace, is open to the public free of charge from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in December.