Samson Lane Faison, Jr., Williams College Class of 1929, is something of an icon in the world of Williams Art History. A member of the Williams College Art Department from 1936 up until his retirement in 1976, chair of the department from 1940 to 1970, and Director of the Williams College Museum of Art from 1948 to 1976, Faison was part of what was known as the Holy Trinity, which consisted of himself, William Pierson, and Whitney Stoddard. He played an instrumental role in the shaping of an Art department at Williams which would go on to produce what is referred to as the Williams Art Mafia, a select group of Williams graduates from the ?60s and ?70s who make up a disproportionately large part of the nation?s art powers?art historians, curators, and museum directors. Many attribute this stronghold on the art scene to the inspired and inspiring teaching of Faison.
Faison was born November 16, 1907 into a military family. He had an itinerant childhood, living in Washington D.C. at his maternal grandfather?s home during his family?s frequent changing of military stations. Faison never stayed in one school for more than two years until his father?s retirement in 1922, when the family settled down on Governor?s Island in New York, where he attended the Poly Prep Country Day School. It was here that he made his first Williams connection, as the school sent many of its students to Williams College. His father had wanted Faison to enter West Point as he himself had done, and his mother had made use of her connections to Princeton to arrange his matriculation there. He ruled out West Point as a possibility because of his unmilitary temperament. After receiving dissatisfied, disgruntled letters from a classmate who went on to Princeton in contrast to enthusiastic, animated ones from a classmate who went to Williams, Faison decided to attend Williams instead, even though he?d never set foot in the place before. He was able to obtain his mother?s approval after she learned that the president of the College, Harry Garfield, had a brother who lived on the same block as they had in Washington D.C.
Due to his father?s worsening arthritis, the family spent a year in Switzerland after Faison graduated from high school so that Faison, Sr. could undergo intensive spa treatments. During this time, Emmett Routt, a Spanish teacher from Poly Prep with whom Faison had become friends despite never having been in any of his classes, was vacationing in Paris and invited Faison to spend some time with him in France. During this time, Routt took the young Faison to Chartres, which he had never heard of, and it was here that the art historian-to-be had his Damascus conversion. Astounded and awed by his experience of the cathedral, this literally eye-opening incident set off what would prove to be a deep engagement and commitment to looking. Hungry for more, once at Williams, thanks to his persistence, he took one of Karl Weston?s art courses as a sophomore. This was unprecedented as that course, one of only two art courses offered, was open only to juniors and seniors. Weston was immensely popular and both classes had prerequisites put up to maintain a manageable number of enrolled students.
As Williams did not offer an art major at that time, Faison graduated as a Philosophy major but went on to study Art History at Harvard, where he got his M.A. after a year?s study. Dissatisfied with Harvard, he transferred to Princeton to get his M.F.A. (which at that time and place would lead to a PhD upon publication of a book). His move was influenced in some part by Frank J. Mather (Class of 1889) who was a renowned and distinguished Art History professor at Princeton. Faison was able to meet Mather at an alumni reunion, both having been members of the fraternity Delta Psi (St. Anthony Hall). Upon receiving his M.F.A., Faison taught at Yale in the graduate program for four years as a Medieval Art specialist but left to accept a position teaching at his alma mater. He had a deep desire to teach undergraduates, an opportunity offered him by Williams, one which Yale would not provide.
Faison taught at Williams for forty years, save during World War II, when he enlisted in the Navy along with both Pierson and Stoddard. He transferred later to the Office of Strategic Services to join James Plaut and Theodore Russeau in the task of reconstructing and writing the history of what had happened to art works during the war. During his long tenure at the College, Faison helped establish the Art History major and create an actual Art department. He was an innovative instructor, instrumental in Williams? unprecedented move of incorporating studio experience into the major, ?on the argument that learning by doing was essential.? He was dedicated to undergraduate teaching and also to the College Museum. His professorship went hand in hand with his directorship of the museum (an unsalaried position) as he envisioned WCMA as a teaching museum, enabling students to learn not just from slides, but from real art works, an indispensable part of an art history education.
First and foremost, Faison was dedicated to teaching, to instilling in his students a love of looking and an enthusiasm for observation, but also found time to spend on his own projects. He had his own book review column in The Nation and The Saturday Evening Review, contributed to various magazines and journals, wrote regularly for The Berkshire Eagle, published books for both the layman and the scholar, and served as a consultant, helping other colleges and universities set up and organize their art programs. His is a life where there is no clear distinction between his professional and personal lives as his enthusiasm for art was uncontainable, informing all aspects of his person.
Professor Faison has been recognized for his contributions, seeing the rotunda in WCMA named after him, receiving a Williams College Bicentennial Medal (which honors "distinguished achievement in any field of endeavor?) and the Rogerson Cup Award (symbolizing outstanding loyalty, achievement, and service in the name of Williams College). Perhaps his greatest contribution, though, is leaving behind a legacy of influential art historians and ?awakening a generation? of students to art.
He currently resides at the Sweetwood Retirement Community in South Williamstown, the widower of Virginia Gordon (?Jodie?) Faison, and the father of four sons: Gordon, George, Christopher, and Samson Lane III.