“If you don’t take delight in the arts, you miss a major reason for their existence.” – Tom Rooney, Interview with Anna Williams at Catholic University of America in 2010.
Over the past few months, I’ve had a chance to speak with many people who knew Tom Rooney. Rooney was devoted to teaching and, although on the quieter side, he openly encouraged his students, colleagues, and friends to pursue their passions in the arts and to engage in local activism.
Thomas “Tom” Rooney was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1924. Rooney’s childhood was not an easy one. His father passed away on his 11th birthday, and then his mother passed when he was 22. At 18, he left home to serve in World War II for three years. After the war, he completed a four-year carpenter’s apprenticeship, and subsequently attended Catholic University of America (CUA) as an undergraduate student in 1951. At CUA, he met his wife, Angela, and the two resided in DC ever since. In his career as a sculptor, Rooney was most inspired by various, readily-available materials, such as wood and twigs around his home. Anyone familiar with his process commented on the barn in the backyard of his Brookland home, where he often worked on his sculptures using these and other materials.
With his students, Rooney was honest and straightforward. He challenged aspiring artists to push outside their comfort zones. As Judith Pratt, a former student of Tom’s, put it, “he didn’t make the class competitive, and didn’t pick favorites in the class. He worked with you individually and lifted and inspired you.” Mr. Rooney’s students sensed his intense passion and focus on the arts. He made it clear that when you stepped into his classroom, it was very much about the student and their personal journey with art. Judith Pratt, like many of his students, still feels the lasting influence of Rooney’s teachings. Some of Pratt’s latest work carries themes and techniques that she learned Rooney’s Design Course in 1965.
Not only did Rooney have a lasting influence on his students, but his pedagogy also impacted his colleagues at CUA and other fellow artists. I had a chance to catch up with Dr. John Winslow, who taught in the Art Department at CUA with Rooney. One of the things that most impressed Winslow was Rooney’s “academic approach to teaching formalist abstraction.” Rooney didn’t shy away from teaching formalist abstraction, which contrasted the more conservative and traditional approach to art at CUA. He was known for being open-minded, having an interest in all kinds of art, and being “hip to teaching new methods”, according to Dr. Winslow. Rooney wasn’t necessarily focused on promoting himself and his work, but rather on working with students, helping them carve their artistic paths, and thinking about art in new ways.
Aside from Tom’s academic career at CUA, he was also a very active member in the local community. Rooney was one of the founding members of the Washington Sculptors Group (WSG) in 1984. Duncan Tebow, another one of the founding members, fondly remembers Rooney as a “thoughtful, considerate and kind person.” When WSG first started, Rooney was the Exhibitions Committee Chair, helping select and organize the artists showcased in the Annual Members’ Image Show.
Rooney and his wife, Angela, were also known for their activism in the DC community. Rooney’s activism started in the 1960s when he joined the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis. As a member of this group, he fought a proposal to have a freeway go beneath the Lincoln Memorial. He also founded the Coalition for Community Control, which aimed to preserve neighborhoods and fight large developments that would adversely affect the area. Through his efforts in activist groups, it is easy to see how passionate he was about his local community and to preserve his adopted city for generations to come.
Rooney was a multi-dimensional man. He struck a perfect balance of staying true to his personal beliefs, while also being open to new, progressive ideas. Mr. Rooney’s impact and legacy will carry on in Washington DC through his students, colleagues, and friends.
The Washington Sculptors Group Annual Members’ Image Show will be on Saturday, April 14th from 7-9 pm at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies – House A, 3100 Whitehaven St NW, Washington DC 20008.
CUA is currently in the planning stages for a proposed summer show exhibiting works by artists who have received the Tom Rooney Award. Details will be posted online at East City Art.