Clifton Cooper Olds (1935–2021)
To the Bowdoin community,
It is my sad duty to inform the campus community of the death of Edith Cleaves Barry Professor of the History and Criticism of Art Emeritus Clifton C. Olds. Clif died on Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Massachusetts. He was eighty-five years old.
Clif was born on December 3, 1935, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He graduated summa cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth in 1957, with a major in art history. While at Dartmouth, he played drums for a jazz group that appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York and Symphony Hall in Boston and made an appearance on Steve Allen's “Tonight Show.”
Clif earned his master’s degree (1960) and his doctorate (1966) at the University of Pennsylvania. He was assistant professor of art at San Diego State University from 1962 to 1964 before being hired at the University of Michigan. His scholarship and extraordinary gifts as an educator earned him the University of Michigan Class of 1923 Literary and Education Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1970. He was chair of the department there from 1973 to 1979, directed the University of Michigan/Sarah Lawrence Summer Program in Florence, Italy, in 1979, and was acting director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art in 1980–1981. He was a founding member of the Midwest Art History Society.
He came to Bowdoin in 1982 as the Edith Cleaves Barry Professor of the History and Criticism of Art. Clif brought his skills as an educator to classes that explored the worlds of art and artists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, images of death in medieval and Renaissance art, and the prints of Albrecht Dürer. He chaired the art department from 1985 to 1988 and was acting director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in 1987–1988. A growing interest in the art of Japan and China led him to create a digital archive of images of Japanese and Zen gardens taken on several trips. Clif was inspired to offer classes in the art of Japan and China, and to create a website that allowed others to tour the gardens. He was a pioneer at Bowdoin in seeking ways to use electronic resources to enliven the learning experience. It was his “spellbinding lectures” and his imagination that won him recognition from the College Art Association with the 1999 Award for Distinguished Teaching of Art History.
Clif retired in 2003 but was persuaded to return to teach again in the 2007–2008 year. His second “retirement” ended soon thereafter, as he agreed to serve as interim director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in 2008–2009. Throughout his time at Bowdoin, Clif represented the College in many ways, including as faculty advisor to the track and field team and as a popular lecturer beyond the campus. He leaves a legacy that will continue to inspire us for years to come.
Clif married Susan Weir in 1957; she predeceased him in January of this year. He is survived by a daughter, Elizabeth W. Olds of Massachusetts; his brother and sister-in-law, Robert and Nancy Olds; and four nieces and nephews. Memorial arrangements are pending and will be shared at a later date.
Julianne and I join Clif's colleagues, former students, and friends in extending condolences to his daughter and to his family as well as our gratitude for Clif’s long and distinguished service to Bowdoin.