Patrick Ewing. “The Exorcist.” Booth 133 at The Tombs. They all have one thing in common: Emeritus art department professor Clifford Chieffo. Chieffo taught Ewing painting, served as a liaison and location scout to Warner Bros. when the company filmed on campus and has been to The Tombs so many times that the restaurant dedicated a booth to him and his wife.
Chieffo’s influence spreads far beyond Georgetown. He has shared ideas with distinguished artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Josef Albers and Andy Warhol. He even served as a personal assistant for Naum Gabo, a prominent Russian sculptor of the constructivism movement, in the ’60s.
For students at Georgetown, particularly art students, Chieffo has served an even more significant role. In 1967, he spearheaded the establishment of the department of art, music and theater. It has since evolved into the department of art and art history and department of performing arts, which together instruct 300 undergraduates each semester. As the art department celebrates its bicentennial this year, it also pays tribute to the artist who created it.
Origins of the Art Department
In 1966, at just 29 years of age, Chieffo was recruited by Fr. Royden Davis, S.J., the dean of Georgetown College from 1966 to 1989, to set up an academic department for art, art history, music history and theater. Chieffo left his job at the University of Maryland to come to Georgetown with the goal of improving the university’s arts programs.
“I show up in September. No classrooms. No faculty. Nothing. No curriculum,” Chieffo said. “And I go on like, ‘Where is everybody? You don’t have anybody.’”
Besides a few clubs — the Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society and the Georgetown Glee Club — as well as a few adjunct professors, Chieffo had to start from scratch. Three years later, the department of art, music and theater was graduating majors.
Initially, Chieffo taught a variety of classes in painting and drawing, but he needed assistance, as the arts program was understaffed.
“I went through all of the Smithsonian curators for all different art history periods, and it took off,” Chieffo said. “I like to say, ‘The students here were multitasking before the word.’ That meant that there were enough students out there with what I call ‘green hair’ that found a home that was nonjudgmental and all based on creativity.”
All of this learning took place in Riggs Library, where there were studio classes, faculty offices and even concerts. The open space allowed for unrestricted expression.
It was not all smooth sailing. In 1973, approximately 50 percent of the Georgetown student body took part in a “lemonstration,” and placed around 6,000 lemons against the door to the suite of offices, while the board of directors met inside. The purpose of the protest was to argue against the university’s proposed increases in tuition and rising enrollments.
Chieffo and his students took part in the protests to argue that there needed to be more accessibility to course enrollment, as well as spaces for artistic expression on campus and recognition for the arts community. He and his students held signs reading, “Equal Rights for the Arts.”
The students then leaned the lemons up against the door of the president’s office, and when it opened the fruits fell at the feet of the board members. Although the board failed to listen to the student’s protests against rising tuition, Chieffo and his students’ message on artistic expression was clear; within the next week, Chieffo was offered a tenured position.
Chieffo: The Master of his Craft
Chieffo’s creativity extends beyond activism and the classroom: He himself is a successful artist.
One of the most frequently painted subjects in his art is his wife, Patricia Chieffo, whom Chieffo calls his muse. The two met as college students at Southern Connecticut State University and went on to work together at Georgetown. When Chieffo served as the art curator for Georgetown from 1967 to 1999, she was the associate curator. The couple celebrated 58 years of marriage this year.Their positions in the Office of Curator included inspecting restorations of buildings and statues on campus.
It was Patricia who encouraged Chieffo to publish his book on silk-screen printing in 1967. Silk-screen printing is an artistic technique that involves printing ink through stencils that are supported by a stretched fabric mesh, or screen. In 1967, Chieffo published a book explaining this technique, “Silk-Screen as a Fine Art: A Handbook of Contemporary Silk-Screen Printing.” It was for artists by an artist, and it was the first book of its kind on the subject. The book ended up being adopted in various institutions across the country.
Chieffo’s own artistic work can be described as the product of a stream of consciousness.
“I start with an idea, like if it is just a regular painting,” Chieffo said. “I have something on the canvas that I have to put something else to balance. For printmaking, it was just filling the space, and it is all linked.” What ends up on Chieffo’s canvas is a variety of objects and people that are all connected in some way to tell a story. One of his abstract screenprints, “A Head in the Hand Is Worth Two,” has been purchased by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, although it is not currently on display.
Leaving Behind a Legacy
After 32 years, Chieffo retired as curator in 1999, and LuLen Walker took his place. She remains there today, and she works with the university’s art collection held in the Booth Family Center for Special Collections on the fifth floor of Lauinger Library, which reopened in 2015 after renovations, and contains three scholarly collections in addition to artwork: archives, rare books and manuscripts. Walker said she looks to emulate Chieffo’s commitment to faculty and students.
“We are very committed to working with the faculty,” Walker said. “We help students who are doing research papers on artworks in the collection. When we get requests from professors, we always have them come in and bring their students. The collection is totally here for the students.”
Part of the celebration of the art department’s 50th anniversary and Chieffo includes an exhibition located in the Fairchild Gallery on the fifth floor of Lau titled. Curated by Chieffo himself, the exhibit includes memorabilia, photographs of students and faculty over the years and his own artwork.
The 50 years captured within the exhibit tell the story of a man who is dedicated to the arts, his students and his family. It runs from Oct. 6, 2017, to Jan. 21, 2018.
Chieffo has taught students as diverse as Walter Egan (COL ’70) and Ewing (COL ’85), and he continues to teach painting and drawing as an emeritus professor. Most importantly, he created a space that, over the past 50 years, has given thousands of students the tools and space necessary to create and express themselves.