A room for purpose

Honoring the School of Art, Design and Art History, and shaping the future in the Lambert Conference Room with Cole Welter

School of Art Design and Art History

by Morgan Mowbray and Cameryn Norris ('22)


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Dr. Cole Welter in front of Duke Hall
Cole Welter in front of Duke Hall

Cole Welter, who served as director of the School of Art and Art History (now the School of Art, Design and Art History) from 1995 to 2004, may not have thought SADAH would be where it is now. He also did not know that as chair of the Department of Art at the University of Alaska Anchorage, he would soon be trading views of sparkling glaciers for the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains.   

He recalled the people early on in his life who influenced him, and if you asked his late mother where she thought Welter would be, or better — what he would be, she would say either a doctor in medicine or perhaps a priest. It was not until he started admiring his father’s commercial art drawings and soon learned of his talent early on in elementary school that he knew he was destined to be a painter.  

Fast forward to that day, a flyer came across his desk in Alaska from the National Association of Schools of Art Design, where he learned of the opening for the directorship at James Madison University’s School of Art and Art History. Days later, he was on his way through the Shenandoah Valley to interview with then-College of Arts and Letters Dean Richard F. Whitman and the rest is (art) history…  

Not really, however, Whitman did offer Welter the job, and if you asked Welter what drew him to JMU, he would tell you it was not the facilities or the location. It was the people. “Great faculty and the students … the quality of the students. Those two things you can build a program on. And so, I was happy to say yes, I came and made a lot of good trouble.”  

“John Lewis, the late great congressman [and] civil rights leader, said, Make good trouble, irritate a lot of people. But with every step forward, I was educating them, educating the senior administration, educating Dr. Carrier, educating the dean, educating everyone along the way because they didn't know what visual artists needed,” Welter said.  

Dr. Cole Welter and Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts Rubén Graciani cut the ribbon
(L-R): Cole Welter and Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts Rubén Graciani cut the ribbon to open the Lambert Conference Room.

Welter’s work and leadership continue to influence the path laid out for future students and graduates of SADAH. In thinking of how Welter wanted to be part of SADAH’s history and, more importantly, the future, he decided to dedicate a conference room named after his grandfather.  

“Family is special,” laments Welter as he recalls his family lineage. Welter is the grandson of Willis Lambert, for whom he named the Lambert Conference Room. Lambert “was a musician and an artist in his own right,” Welter said. Welter developed a connection to Lambert, his maternal grandfather. “This is scary, but when you meet your older relatives, and you find one of them is exactly like you ... yeah, and it’s kind of scary.” 

Being so similar, Lambert and Welter shared their passions, including creativity. “His visual expressions found form in photography; he was quite good,” Welter said. Lambert’s work ethic is evident in his career as a photographer for former Vice President of the United States Hubert Humphrey, and his career eventually led him to the National Archives, where he was a senior archivist.

Willis Lambert in front of The White House
Willis Lambert in front of the White House

“He’s got an interesting back story. He’s a good man,” Welter shared. The two shared a strong sense of pride and dedication to those in their careers and a deep family connection. “His genes ran in me, and I could tell we were very much alike.” The Lambert Conference Room symbolizes Willis Lambert’s legacy and impact. 

Newspaper article about the 1999 State of American Art Symposium
Article from The Breeze about the State of American Art Symposium

Like the rest of Duke Hall and SADAH’s other buildings, the conference room displays artifacts of its history. The 1999 Arts and Science “The State of American Art” poster hangs proudly on the far wall. Planned by Welter when he was the director, the symposium “was a big deal on this campus,” he recalled. Art scholars, including Peter Plagens, now a contributing art critic for The Wall Street Journal, “came from all over, and talked about their disciplines, about the state of American Art,” Welter said. 

On the adjacent wall hangs a large drawing by alumnus Seth Bauserman. Completed when he was in Professor Emeritus Ken Szmagaj’s Experimental Drawing class, the artwork is titled Missing Something. Welter eventually purchased this piece and presented it to Szmagaj upon his retirement, and now it hangs as the centerpiece of the Lambert Conference Room. These pieces from SADAH’s history are just some of the objects displayed in the conference room. A photo of Willis Lambert now joins these historical objects, reminding the SADAH community of its purpose.  

The Lambert Conference Room, representative of SADAH’s past, hope for the future and purpose, serves as a convening space for SADAH’s greatest asset: its faculty. “This conference room is a meeting place for faculty for certain special meetings we need,” Welter shared. Generous donations from benefactors like faculty emeritus Dr. Cole Welter are investments in the future. Students and faculty alike further their education and scholarship with funds from donors, furthering the School of Art, Design and Art History’s mission to “radically transform ourselves and our community through creative and scholarly work to evolve the new, navigate the unknown, build capacities, and dare.”  

Dr. Cole Welter in his office in 1995
Cole Welter in his office, 1995

Photo credits
  1. Cole Welter photographed by Morgan Mowbray, Aug. 31, 2023
  2. Cole Welter and Dean Rubén Gracini cut the ribbon to the conference room photographed by Cameryn Norris, Sept. 13, 2023
  3. Willis Lambert in front of The White House, courtesy of Cole Welter
  4. Article from about the State of American Art Symposium, The Breeze, Sept. 13, 1999, Page 15
  5. Cole Welter in his office, 1995. Courtesy of Cole Welter

Published: Monday, September 25, 2023

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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