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Vessel of Love

Gifted artist. Devoted educator. Cherished wife, mother, and friend.

When Debra Pinder Symonette ’78 died of endometrial cancer in 2009, her husband, Alan ’76, sought to memorialize her on Swarthmore’s campus, where the pair met as students through the Black Cultural Center. Rather than dedicating a tree or bench, Alan—the second director of the BCC—envisioned an artful tribute to his creative late wife, an art history major and trained architect with a talent for crafting.

This memorial was manifested through a ceramic pot marking the front of the Robinson House. Lovingly created by Professor of Studio Art Syd Carpenter, the Symonette Vessel aims to recognize the life and spirit of Debra, as well as the supportive family that is the BCC.

“Our best relationships came out of that community in particular and Swarthmore in general,” says Alan, who has since remarried. “This piece is my honor and memory to Debra, and it’s our honor to what that community represented to both of us.”

After Swarthmore, Debra earned a master’s in architecture from Rice University and worked at several Philadelphia-area firms. She later became a teacher in Friends schools, a return to the Quaker education of her youth.

Though it all, Debra crafted—drawing, knitting, crocheting, quilting, and generally working with her hands. She made shawls as part of a ministry program and taught crafts through her church-based Paper Crane Studio.

These details and others are highlighted in her memorial piece.

“In many African cultures, the ceramic pot has powerful symbolic meaning,” says Carpenter, who completed the artwork in 2011. “The handles are in the form of the lower half of a seated figure, as seen on an Egyptian statue. The absence of the upper body is evocative of a physical but not a spiritual absence.”

Debra is present in the form of the vessel—and in its embellishments, Carpenter adds: Carvings of folded paper cranes adorn the surface, representing good fortune and longevity.

It’s a fitting tribute to a matchbox love, and to the House where it all began.