Colleagues and Friends Gather to Celebrate the Life of Professor Denyse Thomasos

“This evening is less concerned with the pain of separation and loss than it is with honoring and celebrating a colleague who was an immensely gifted artist and teacher.”

With those words, the chair of the Arts, Culture and Media Department at Rutgers-Newark, Ian Watson, graciously welcomed an audience of about 80 people to a special memorial service held on Wednesday (March 13) for former Professor Denyse Thomasos, who died last July at age 47.

The event, held in Bradley Hall, brought together family, friends, colleagues and students to share stories, laughs and a few tears in memory of one of Rutgers-Newark’s most dynamic faculty members, who left a powerful and lasting legacy in her internationally acclaimed work and the countless students she challenged, and nurtured, on campus.

Those attending included Rutgers-Newark’s Interim Chancellor Philip Yeagle and Acting NCAS Dean Jan Lewis.

“Denyse visited me soon after I became NCAS dean several years ago and showed me her work,” said Yeagle, speaking first at the service, which was held in Bradley Hall. “Her compendium stayed on the table in my office the entire time I was dean. I had a very real, immediate and emotional reaction to her work, which is bold, provocative and speaks beautifully to people across disciplinary boundaries.”

A Life of Fierceness and Commitment

Lewis followed by emphasizing Thomasos’ fierceness and determination in advocating for her students and taking on difficult issues in her work such as slavery and incarceration. She also noted what many in the room were feeling, that this supremely talented painter, whose outsize personality was matched only by the scale of her works, had left this earth too soon.

“I was proud to have her as a colleague,” Lewis said.

Thomasos, who was born in Trinidad in 1964, moved with her family to Canada in 1970. She grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, and earned her bachelor’s degree in painting and art history from the University of Toronto. In 1989, she graduated from Yale University with a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting and sculpture.

She arrived at Rutgers-Newark in 1995 to teach painting, drawing and print-making, after having taught for five years at Temple University in Philadelphia. She was an internationally recognized artist whose striking large-scale paintings contained vivid colors and interlocking architectural structures that spoke to the psychological legacy of slavery and incarceration on people of color.

Her works garnered attention from prestigious publications such as ArtForum, Art in America, Canadian Art, The Globe and Mail and The New York Times. Over her too-short career she won more than 40 awards and numerous grants, including the Joan Mitchell Award; fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts and PEW; Bellagio, Yaddo and MacDowell Colony residencies; and a number of Canada Council project grants. Just prior to her death, she was awarded an art residency at the internationally renowned Bogliasco in Genoa, Italy.

In 2011, Thomasos was promoted to full professor in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media. She also served on the board of the Paul Robeson Campus Center Galleries.

A former resident of New York City, she is survived by her husband Samein Priester and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Syann; her mother, Jennie Thomasos; and her sisters, Gail Thomasos Luciano and Lisa Thomasos.

Striving to Be Better

Priester, Thomasos’ husband, was one of nine speakers to share stories of her life during the memorial service, and perhaps the most moving. Like many speakers before him, he remarked on his wife’s indomitable spirit and ambition, which drove her to keep reaching higher as she pushed those around her, especially her students, to do the same.

Continuing in this vein, he said that many of his friends used to groan that Thomasos thought she was better than everyone else. He begged to differ.

“No, it wasn’t a competition for Denyse. Far from it. She might have been disappointed that you couldn’t see how great you were. And just because you couldn’t see it, she wasn’t going to slow down and wait for you to catch up,” said Priester. “She’d continue to be the best she could be, and nothing was going to stop her. She got me to see that my life was great, and that enabled me to do things I wouldn’t have done without her.”