A gathering place for community reflection will be further enhanced with the installation of the symbolic vessel that will hold the fire central to Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved on the William & Mary campus.

The handcrafted vessel was installed March 18 and will be dedicated at a public ceremony on May 4 at 5:30 p.m. Annually, at one of the community events hosted at the memorial on ceremonial occasions throughout the year, the vessel will be illuminated in recognition of people whom the university enslaved over the course of 172 years.

“We have always imagined the Hearth with a cleansing and renewing fire, and with the installation of the vessel, that fire can be realized for special occasions,” said Jody Allen, assistant professor of history and Robert Francis Engs Director of The Lemon Project. “We can now experience the fullness of Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved. I am thrilled that we will be dedicating the vessel on April 1.”

The vessel is based on a concept conceived by the university community, designed by Baskervill architectural firm in Richmond and created by Richmond artist Charlie Ponticello.

“The culmination of this important building project is a dream come true,” said Chief Diversity Officer Chon Glover, who led the design selection process. “Every detail throughout this journey has been crafted with intentionality. Hearth honors those individuals who built and maintained this university for years and were invisible until the work of the Lemon Project began.

“For all time coming, we will tell our full and robust history as we share Hearth with our community and visitors to campus. It truly embodies the perseverance and faith of the individuals who are hidden no more.”

Worker using engraving tool etching name into plaque at brick memorial
A few days before the vessel was installed, engravers added names of individuals enslaved by the university on the Hearth memorial. The 13 new names will be read at the Hearth vessel dedication on April 1. (Photo by Grace Helmick)

Just as the memorial resembles a fireplace hearth and is meant to symbolize both a place of community and the center of domestic enslavement, the vessel within it invites visitors to come closer, gather and ponder.

“Now that the Hearth Memorial has been cemented within William & Mary’s broader landscape, we embraced the community connection, with the vessel further enhancing the visitor experience — as an artifact for reflection and meditation, or as a literal glowing beacon during special events,” said Burt Pinnock, principal architect and chairman of Baskervill.

Ideas for the vessel design were solicited when students in the new sculpture course Ceremonial Vessel Project organized workshops and entries for a campus-wide competition in fall 2021. Michael Gaynes, lecturer of art, taught the sculpture course and the competition was held in consultation with Glover, Allen, Project Manager Amber Hall with Facilities Management, officials from Baskervill and Hearth designer Will Sendor ’11.

“The idea of the Hearth — a gathering place for family, for kinship, fellowship, conversation — was reflected in the spirit of the class,” Gaynes said. “It’s left a lasting impression on each of us personally, and now a small tangible legacy to William & Mary and the Hearth memorial.”

The design chosen is based on the proposal submitted by Neil Norman, associate professor of anthropology, and his wife, daughter and son. Norman researches the global influences of 16th through 19th century material objects in West Africa.

“I try to think through how people who were forcibly removed from West Africa would recreate life for themselves over here,” Norman said. “What African styles, rhythms, aesthetics might be employed in the New World and how those connections work themselves out. The background for my entry was my 20 years of work in, particularly Benin, West Africa.”

He modeled his entry on a type of West African vessel called adajalazin in the Gbe language, and known as the unity vessel in Benin, that is still used today and of which archaeological examples have been found dating back to the 16th century. These ceramic containers with small perforations were used in domestic settings for cooking, in religious rituals and as a powerful symbol for the reigns of kings, according to Norman.

Gold colored round vessel with cutout rings all the way around
The one-of-a-kind vessel was handmade by artist Charlie Ponticello in Richmond. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

“The initial competition for the vessel provided an influx of inspiration and served as the genesis for the design,” Pinnock said. “Once artist Charlie Ponticello was brought on, we worked directly with him and William & Mary to consider the final design from every angle.”

It was critical to consider not only how the vessel will interact with the Hearth’s structure, but also how the community will interact with it and how it will be viewed and touched and weathered by the elements over time, according to Pinnock.

“The asymmetrical bowl shape is made of bronze rings and discs of various sizes — all of which were handmade by Charlie in his Richmond workshop, making each disc completely one-of-a-kind,” Pinnock said. “It’s smooth, touchable texture is meant to be a visual and tangible, tactile experience unique to each person who interacts with it. Like the history it aims to memorialize, there are endless perspectives and experiences to contemplate.”

, Communications Specialist