One of the top newspapers in the United Kingdom, The Guardian, has called it “one of the most spectacular stained glass windows made in the past century.” President Matt Holland has dubbed it the most visual emblem to date of UVU’s commitment to engaged learning. And Utah Valley Magazine (right here, right now) is predicting that this will become the most well-known landmark in Utah County.
The 80-panel, 60,000-piece Roots of Knowledge glass installation on the western wall of the UVU library will be officially unveiled this month, but the seed was planted more than 12 years ago as artist Tom Holdman began growing an idea that he could capture the history of knowledge with an ancient art form.
Beginning with the tree of life — and ending with a torch-bearing tree of hope — the multimillion-dollar breathtaker has lit up hundreds of engaged community members. Twenty-six UVU scholars have consulted on historic faces that should be given a glassy nod, while 350 students have worked as artists, project managers and researchers. Many donors such as Ira Fulton, as well as Marc and Debbie Bingham (for whom the gallery is named), have made the illogical, world-glass project come to light.
Like a typical artist, Tom found it difficult to complete a project when more could be done to improve every pane. Just before we went to press with this article, Tom texted Utah Valley Magazine from London where he and President Holland were speaking and exhibiting finished panels at the annual Glaziers’ Art Fair at London Bridge.
“I’m standing on the London Bridge looking out over the River Thames to the Tower Bridge at 3:43 a.m., pondering humankind and hoping I did it justice,” Tom wrote. “On every panel I would love to add something. The seeds of greatness planted in us are immense and overwhelming.”
Another stop of his pre-installation stained glass exhibition tour took Tom to New York, where he saw the “Survivor Tree” at Ground Zero. Its roots were cut and hope was lost in 2001, but every year the tree continues to blossom with white flowers.
“All of the hardships have made it stronger, which means it is the perfect tree to begin our Roots of Knowledge story.” —Tom Holdman, Creator of Roots of Knowledge
“I decided to put it in the glass pane right before the final Tree of Hope window with a lady in a wheelchair reaching up for it — a layer of meaning as if touching the robe of another to be healed,” Tom describes. “I’m grateful I saw the Survivor Tree first-hand before the windows were complete. It was a powerful reminder to never give up.”
Tom’s journey has been marked by powerful breakthroughs and personal setbacks. The contrast in this Highland man’s life mirrors the colorful storyline he depicts in the 200-foot-long history book. But this world-class art all started with an unlikely idea from an Orem boy with an uncommon speech impediment.
The Root of Roots
When Tom first started mentioning this yet-unnamed project, his wife Gayle recalls, “It seemed extreme and grandiose — pie in the sky. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. He has always come up with ideas, but this was the biggest concept he had ever conceived.”
And then, she says, life moved on to their next appointment and deadline.
But Tom continued to envision the project and the purpose. Up until Roots, Tom’s greatest works had been installed in LDS temples, other houses of worship, the Orem Library, businesses and homes.
“The Roots window is an art piece anyone can understand whether they speak English or German or Chinese or if they are LDS, a Muslim or an atheist,” he says.
Tom’s motivation has never been to simply create beautiful art. He wants to make a difference, which is also the reason the Binghams chose to open their pocketbooks.
“The one thing nobody can take away from you is your education,” Marc says. “We were awestruck with what the windows can teach and inspire others to do.”
The idea for Roots inspired Tom and entered into every part of his soul, leaving him to wonder if he was up to the monumental task of documenting humanity.
“And I said to myself, maybe this is a job for another person who is smarter, stronger or quicker than I am,” he says.
Tom began to fill his mind, his time and his notebooks with research on the history of knowledge. He studied the oldest tree on earth, which is near Death Valley in a harsh environment.
“All of the hardships have made it stronger, which means it is the perfect tree to begin our Roots of Knowledge story,” Tom says.
The tree in Death Valley (which Tom drew full scale and has had on his two-story office wall for years) is more than 5,000 years old, which means it had been growing for 1,000 years when architects sketched the pyramids. The oldest tree shouldn’t logically be alive as it only gets nutrients a couple months out of the year. The tree resides in poor soil, and yet it defies science and hangs on.
Tom’s tree-themed inspiration began branching out.
Weight of World’s Windows
Tom, age 46, scurries about his art studio at Thanksgiving Point with both excitement and fury. The need to finish a documentation of humanity weighs as heavy on him as the glass panels themselves.
Tom, his wife, his son TJ, his artistic partner Cameron Oscarson, and hundreds of employees believe the deadlines and pressure to produce have fueled some of their most creative and accomplished work. A countdown calendar on the wall reminded the team of UVU’s date to unveil the windows as part of the university’s 75th birthday celebration.
Tom’s strong belief that others would catch the vision ultimately came true, but he describes the past year as “a true test of my hope for humanity,” as he points to the Tree of Hope still being sketched on his office wall.
Gratefully, his team continued to bring hope and hands-on help. Cameron and Tom have dubbed themselves “Simon and Garfunkel,” and the famous duo’s album is depicted in the 1960s section of the Roots panels as a nod to their partnership.
Tom, Meet Matt
Shortly after President Holland got settled in his corner office as president of UVU in 2009, Tom scheduled an appointment.
“The minute he rolled out that scroll, I instantly loved the idea of taking this ancient art form and re-conceiving it in an appropriate way for a modern, secular environment,” President Holland says.
The original conception — and the first idea of placement in a corner of the computer lab — were both limiting.
“My first comment was, ‘I’m all in, but I think it should be more expansive and comprehensive.’ I asked Tom to come back with ideas and a plan for adding more dimension and scope,” President Holland says. “Be careful when you say that to a talented artist like Tom. Several months later he returned with an extraordinary rendering, which led us to completely rethink where this would reside on campus. Every time we’re together, Tom shares a new insight and a creative approach.”
President Holland, a scholar of American political thought and philosophy, enjoyed participating in the collaborative process with professors, students and the Holdman Studios team of artists. One of his favorite scenes depicted in Roots of Knowledge is the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Franklin is symbolically depicted in the chair at the Constitutional Convention, with the famous symbol of a rising sun.
“Tom has sought our feedback, including the 26 faculty members across disciplines for insights into the history of knowledge,” President Holland says. “His genius is his humility. Artists are not famous for collaboration, but Tom is unique in his ability to engage an entire community in this project, which has been essential to our mission as a university committed to engaged learning.”
As Tom and President Holland traveled together with some of the panels to exhibitions in New York and London, one of the enthralled visitors said to them, “Well, I guess we have to go to Utah now.”
“In 80 panels, stretching 10 feet high and 200 feet wide, thousands of historical figures, artifacts and events are captured in bright, brilliant mosaics. With 60,000 pieces of glass, this bold and large scale permanent installation will anchor the artistically undulating wall of windows at the entrance to the library.” —Matt Holland, UVU President
Tom’s unique challenges and talents have put him in a glass of his own. But he sees himself as one piece in the artwork of mankind.
“As I’ve researched aspects of history through the centuries, I’ve come to fully believe that no matter who you are or where you came from, everyone will have a moment of genius — the real test is what you do with it,” Tom says.
Those around him use the word “genius” synonymously with his name, but for Tom the process hasn’t been a straight-A, linear experience.
“When I first got the idea for this concept, I was scared to death,” he says. “Can we really do this and give it the justice it deserves and pay homage to the world’s acquisition of knowledge?”
Roots of Knowledge is Tom’s “Mount Everest,” and the climbing has been intense, but so has the view and the companionship. For years Tom worked on Roots only on a limited basis. Gradually, his team grew, including his partnership with Cameron and countless others.
Unlike other mediums that are simply a connection between the artist and his tools, stained glass is a three-way endeavor between the artist, the glass and the light.
“You have no idea until you hold it up to the light what it is going to look like,” Tom says. “When the light takes hold of it, stained glass touches your soul.”
These inspiring moments keep Tom going even when this unforgiving medium equals cracked pieces, dropped windows and do-overs. Even during his London trip just weeks before the unveiling, Tom realized one of the glass panels had a typo. “The old rule of ‘i-before-e-except-after-c’ got us,” he says.
The Stutter Struggle Is Real
“I struggled growing up, particularly with speaking,” Tom says.
He remembers playing Red Rover and hoping nobody would call on him to say a name while swinging his arms. Astute teachers along the way played into his artistic talents by asking him to draw a flag for the classroom wall, for example.
“I could speak through the international language of art,” Tom says. “I kept drawing and drawing to express myself.”
Even today, Tom is extremely frustrated with his stutter.
“I say to myself, ‘Tom, why don’t you just spit it out? What is wrong with you?’” Tom says. “Imagine going through a drive-thru window and my family says to me, ‘OK, I want a hamburger with lettuce, and let’s add pickles, but no mustard, on a wheat bun …’ and I have to say all that!”
For most of their marriage, Gayle has been the primary spokesperson for their family and their business.
“Part of our teamwork is that I can verbally express what he only wants to,” she says. “But I cannot be by his side 24/7, and he’s had to push himself in new ways with Roots of Knowledge, and I love it.”
Despite an early desire to help finish Tom’s sentences, Gayle has long let patience be her guiding principle.
“I could try to guess what he’s going to say, but 80 percent of the time I’d be wrong,” she says.
At times, Gayle puts her hand on Tom’s back to convey her love and support and let him know everyone will wait while he puts words together.
“I know whatever he’s going to say will be valuable,” Gayle says. “Why is this his challenge? I don’t know. Everyone says Tom speaks through his art and that his stuttering helps him understand the human struggle. While it’s true he communicates most clearly through glass, his stutter still causes him great anxiety.”
Some of Gayle’s stress is depicted in her two appearances on the Roots of Knowledge windows. One shows her weeping in one of the first stage plays written in Europe.
“There’s no doubt she felt like that at times during this process,” Tom says.
Both Tom and Gayle’s mothers’ faces are identifiable in the art as women working toward the right to vote more than a century ago.
The Giving Tree
The two bookends of Roots of Knowledge are large vertical windows with four panels each, and in between are 24 columns of three horizontal panels (labeled A to Z, perfectly summing up the completeness of mankind’s story). Starting the tale is a true-to-scale representation of the world’s oldest tree, complete with sliced petrified wood included in the glass.
The roots of the Tree of Life wrap around the events chronicled in the windows as if the tree is the thumbprint of life. Throughout the 80 panels, the roots link to other trees of importance.
“The tree is formed of different races of the world from all of the continents, symbolizing that we are all in this as one — even from the very start of humanity and of this window,” Tom says.
“We have the Tree of Medicine in Row E, where they discover aspirin,” Tom says. “In Rows I and J, we have the tree of peace. Then we have the coconut tree, which has been used for many purposes. We have the tree of Liberty in Row Q, where we have 13 lanterns representing the original colonies. Row U has the Tree of Industry.”
Modern trees depicted in the windows are half-organic, and all of these roots grow toward the Tree of Hope, which is the final panel of Roots of Knowledge.
“The Tree of Hope is on fire and indicates we are holding a torch for the future,” Tom says.
Ultimately, Roots of Knowledge shows that each person is known in the universe.
“Everyone matters and is loved,” Gayle says. “We are tied together at our roots.”
“Everyone matters and is loved. We are tied together at our roots.” —Gayle Holdman
Tom recalls his late father telling the story several times of Plato teaching his student that you have to want something more than you want air to breathe.
“I came to the point where I had to cross that bridge,” Tom says. “How much did I believe this window needed to be introduced to the world? Did I want it more than I wanted air to breathe? I was about to find out.”
At the beginning of 2016, Tom’s dad was on his sixth year of fighting melanoma after being given one year to live.
“Nobody wants their dad to die, especially when he had been a driving force in my life,” Tom says. “He had shown me you don’t have to be a starving artist, and he could see the potential in my Roots project.”
The Dark Ages for Tom hit when his dad “literally died in my arms.” Other factors also contributed to Tom making poor choices that set him back personally and left him apologizing to those he loved. But the dark days were followed by light that began to creep back into the project and into Tom’s life.
“Wonderful people in Utah Valley came forward and supported me in ways I can’t explain through words,” he says.
School of Glass
The sidewalks of UVU will soon be dotted with more than backpack-wearing millennials. UVU and the Utah Education Network have partnered to create a K-12 companion curriculum associated with the Roots of Knowledge window, which will include field trips to campus for viewing of the 80 stained-glass panels.
Elementary-age and high school students will study the purpose of the art project as well as the history it depicts.
As the Sun Sets
The Holdmans can scarcely see past Nov. 18, when the windows will be unveiled. Tom and Gayle plan to take a nap and possibly a vacation. But first, Tom wants to sit still in front of the 80 panels.
“I want to be in the atrium and watch as the light takes hold of the window,” Tom says. “The visual arts have a way of captivating the mind and heart at the same time, and that is when you touch a soul.”
Gayle wants viewers of Roots to know that each person is known in the universe.
“I’m putting my part into this project with that intention — that people will feel inspired about what has happened in this world and what can yet happen,” Gayle says. “History tells us we do make a difference. I see each of us as pieces of a stained glass window. We are intended to work together to create a cohesive picture.”
Gayle sees this intention in Tom as well.
“For all the crazy artist that is in Tom, he wants to make a difference,” she says.
Both Tom and Gayle describe the project as humbling as they’ve desired to create peace and understanding in the world.
“As the future becomes individualized, angry and hopeless, we need to pull together as we are all part of the design,” Tom says. “The window shows we should be part of the ‘we’ generation instead of the ‘me’ generation. I hope Roots of Knowledge will be received with the love, awe and hope with which it was created.”