December 11, 2012

Feature obituary: Thomas Cornell, talented artist, taught 50 years at Bowdoin

Mr. Cornell, a nationally known artist, died Friday after a long battle with cancer. He was 75.

By Melanie Creamer
Staff Writer

BRUNSWICK – Thomas Cornell, a nationally known artist and a longtime art professor at Bowdoin College, died Friday after a long battle with cancer. He was 75.

click image to enlarge

Thomas Cornell, pictured soon after joining the Bowdoin faculty, “lived his art,” said his wife, Christa.

Family photo


Each day the newsroom selects one obituary and seeks to learn more about the life of a person who has lived and worked in Maine. We look for a person who has made a mark on the community or the person's family and friends in lasting ways.

Mr. Cornell joined the Bowdoin faculty in 1962 to establish a visual arts program. He served as an assistant professor and associate professor, then was named a full professor in 1975.

In 2001, he became the Richard E. Steele professor of studio art. He was named the Richard E. Steele artist-in-residence in 2008.

He retired in June.

In a joint letter posted on Bowdoin's website, President Barry Mills and Dean for Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd remembered Mr. Cornell as an accomplished artist and inspiring teacher and mentor to many young artists.

"Throughout his career, Tom infused his art with optimism and with the belief that meaningful interaction with nature and the environment may provoke positive changes in humanity," Mills and Collins Judd said in the letter. "We are grateful for Tom's artistic legacy -- one that will continue to enrich and challenge us for years to come."

Christa Cornell, his wife of 37 years, spoke Monday about his passions for art and teaching, and his love of family.

"He loved sharing," his wife said.

"He was so full of ideas and passion and he wanted his students to have the same. He used to say, 'Figure out what you love to do, then figure out how to get paid for it.'"

Mr. Cornell's artwork was featured in about 30 solo exhibitions and more than 100 group exhibitions throughout his career.

In his early years, he was known for his drawings and prints, including a series of 21 portraits of prominent figures in the French Revolution for Gahenna Press' "The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf."

Also noted on Bowdoin's website were his images of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

Mr. Cornell turned his focus to painting in the 1970s.

He was described Monday as a passionate advocate for art who focused on themes of social justice and people interacting in nature.

"He lived his art. He was his art," said his wife.

Mr. Cornell's work received critical acclaim through the years, including a full-page review in The New York Times. His art is featured in museums that include the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of American Art, the Biblioth?e Nationale in Paris, and art museums at Harvard and Princeton universities.

He also had a passion for the community. He was a regular presence and a strong competitor on Bowdoin's squash courts. 

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:


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