Three connected earthenware vases sit serenely in the dark, surrounded by the hushed murmur of voices. Suddenly, whoosh, the cloth is lifted off. Sunlight gleams on the face adorning each vase, casting shadows in the words atop each one: UNITY. EQUALITY. HUMANITY. A mallet strikes a resonant sliver bowl, letting out a single note. The crowd, assembled in the lobby of the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, bursts into thunderous applause.

In the Sept. 20 ceremony, “Unity” was officially unveiled in its new home at the Wellness Center. Created by internationally renowned ceramicist Michelle Erickson ’82, “Unity” commemorates the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was commissioned by the President’s Office and is part of the President’s Collection of Art. Staff from William & Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art helped coordinate the project and install the ceramic.

W&M President Katherine Rowe, Michelle Erickson ’82, Pamela J. “Pam” Penny ’77 and James D. “Jim” Penny J.D. ’83 (not pictured) remove the cloth from “Unity” at the ceremony (photo by Stephen Salpukas)

The unveiling coincides with the Year of the Arts, a yearlong celebration to amplify the crucial importance of arts education in the 21st century and highlight the vital role that the arts play in all facets of W&M’s educational experience. The year will feature a variety of performances, exhibitions and other events open to both the campus and local communities.

“I was interested in having a work of art that commemorated the experience of pandemic so that we remember what it means to be able to connect,” said President Katherine Rowe. “Art is particularly important in the work of memorialization and commemoration, to allow us to think deeply about what it means to collect, treasure, communicate and share moments from the past and present for the future.” 

James D. “Jim” Penny J.D. ’83 and Pamela J. “Pam” Penny ’77, HON J.D. ’16 recommended Erickson to President Rowe as the artist for this piece. They have collected more than 150 pieces of her work over more than two decades and have followed her career as she has been featured in museums around the world. They first learned about Erickson through an article about her in the Fall 1999 W&M Alumni Magazine

“When the president described a desire to create a lasting memorial to commemorate the trails and triumphs faced by faculty, students and staff during COVID-19, Pam and I knew that the perfect partner to bring President Rowe’s vision to life was master artist and ceramist Michelle Erickson,” said Jim Penny. “We knew she’d bring the same dedication and creativity to this project as she has done so many times before.”

Erickson with the completed “Unity” ceramic (Photo by Robert Hunter M.A. 87)

The Pennys provided a gift to support the commission. Funding for the project was also provided by the President’s Fund for Excellence, which is supported through private giving.

In her remarks, President Rowe described how ceramic was an ideal medium for the piece — its malleability reflecting the changes brought by the pandemic and its durability representing William & Mary’s consistent mission, vision and values in the face of adversity. 

Erickson shared how she was inspired by the history of William & Mary’s campus and the people who shaped this place and this institution over the centuries. “Unity” contains clay from the campus, and students, staff and alumni contributed their handprints to the surface of the vases. The three vases are connected, so that liquid poured into one fills all to the same level, reflecting how events like the pandemic affect all of us as a community. 

A QR code on the base of the sculpture links to a W&M Alumni Magazine article with more information about the inspiration and process behind “Unity.”

“I hope everyone who comes here to engage in healing and wellness will make use of this piece and bring new life and new meanings to it all the time,” said Erickson. “It is always important to remember what is underneath your feet in the place where you’re walking. There’s so much known and unknown history, and hopefully this piece will expose some of the untold stories of this place and its beauty.”

Five people pose for a photo by a sculpture in a glass case
Director of William & Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art David Brashear, Rowe, Erickson and the Pennys at the ceremony (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)