Grad School, Then and Now, Part Three

In my previous post, I was talking about some of the ways in which I’ve changed between completing my Master’s and starting my PhD. I talked about the advantages of being older, having more experience, and the trials and tribulations of having a shorter attention span. I left out the biggest change though, which I’d like to talk about today.

To put it rather flippantly, I went to grad school the first time around because I liked school and didn’t want to get a job. Or, more accurately, I knew that a B.A. in art history wouldn’t get me the kind of job I’d like to have and that my chances were better if I had a Master’s. Throughout the program, I understood its value to my future career and studied a lot of interesting things. Yet I always felt my work lacked relevance, or at the very least, it didn’t resonate that deeply with me. I could get interested in just about any topic, but I didn’t know what my driving questions were. I would sign up for a class, write a paper relating to that topic, and move on to something else. Of course, the point of getting Master’s is to explore a variety of topics within your field of choice (as opposed to the Ph.D./dissertation, which is about specialty), so I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Yet if you had asked me what my primary research interests were, I might not have been able to give a clear answer.

Gerrit Dou, The Dentist, ca. 1630-1638, oil on panel, 32 x 26.5 cm. The Louvre. This was one of the paintings I wrote about for my Master’s qualifying paper on Dutch tooth-pulling scenes. I’ve done absolutely nothing with it since, but it makes for a great conversation topic.

More troubling for me, I couldn’t see the┬árelevance of my work to the rest of the world. Researching dental scenes was fine, but how did that relate to contemporary society (other than affirming a common fear of dentistry)? While I think that all research is important, I knew I personally wouldn’t be able to thrive in a Ph.D. program unless I knew my work had some resonance for nonacademics. This is one of the reasons why I left to work in museums for a while. Until I could see how my work could relate to nonspecialists, I didn’t see the point in continuing. More pragmatically, I had bills to pay and needed a job.

These days, however, I believe my work is very relevant. During the eight years I spent in museums, I reflected on my previous research and began to discover common themes running through it. Despite the variety in topics and time periods, I realized that travel and the transformation of ideas within various geographic and social contexts underpinned much of my research. Working in museums, I regularly had to think about outreach, accessibility, and making art approachable to different audiences. Community art centers like the Roswell Museum when it first opened in 1937, with their focus on travel and arts access, combine both of these interests effectively, making them an ideal project for my dissertation.

The Roswell Museum Federal Art Center, the place that helped me discover my core guiding questions. This is only the very beginning of a long investigation into arts access.

Yet my research isn’t just about one topic. Although I research community art centers now, what I’m thinking about more broadly is arts accessibility. How does art travel? Who gets to see it, and who doesn’t? Which works get to be seen, or not? Which art techniques are considered worthy of teaching? Which ones get left out? Travel plays into my work, but the idea of access, or lack of access, is equally important. At a time when arts programming continues to be regarded as optional, I believe it’s important to take a closer look at who gets to benefit from it, and who doesn’t.

This is ultimately why I’m so glad I waited to go back for my Ph.D. Taking the time to work and evaluate enabled me to look back on my old research with fresh eyes and finally identify some of the questions that had guided me all along.

Grad School, Then and Now, Part Two

Graduate school (and formal education, period) has changed a great deal in the eight years I spent out of school, as I mentioned in a previous post. I’ve also changed too, which is making my William and Mary experience quite different from my time at Williams. Today, I’ll highlight some of those changes.

  • Attention Span: When I was an undergraduate, I could read and take notes for hours. Or at least I think I could. These days it’s a lot harder to do. Technology certainly doesn’t help, I can consult Google on whatever random question pops into my head while I’m reading (e.g. why do racehorses have such peculiar names?), or any other distraction that keeps me from my work. Eight years of bouncing back between projects have also affected my working habits. Over the course of a day at Roswell, I rarely got to research or write exclusively. I’d go to meetings, consult with artists, assist with gallery prep, answer phone calls, sometimes all within the course of a day. I suppose I got used to being interrupted, so now that I’m working alone again, I find myself creating artificial distractions. I’m working on changing this.
  • Age: Fresh out of college at 22, I was one of the youngest students in my class when I went to Williams. These days, I’m one of the oldest at 33 (okay, almost 34). Initially, I thought being several years older would feel awkward, but I’ve found it’s advantageous. When I entered Williams, I was very insecure about myself and my abilities. I knew how to go to school and that was it, so getting good grades and keeping them high was extremely important to me because that was how I measured my worth at the time. Coming to William and Mary, by contrast, I had eight years of curatorial experience, 5 of them as head of the Curatorial Department at Roswell. Beyond work experience, I also took up printmaking and ceramics, and even participated in an art fair. I was a member of the Roswell Flute Ensemble for four years, playing music for nursing homes, business socials, and even at the museum itself. I’ve lived in Wyoming, Texas, Vermont, and New Mexico, places that are all highly distinctly from one another yet interconnected. In short, I’ve simply been alive longer and been able to do more things, experiences that not only inform my academic work, but give me perspective on the whole graduate school experience itself. I still work hard, but I know that my life doesn’t depend on grades.
In Russia with my fellow first-year students, 2009. I was very insecure about myself then. Really this picture is just an excuse to show off the fabulous winter coat I had at the time.
  • Health: I’m not old by any means, but I’m much more appreciative of good healthcare. When I was at Williams, I almost never went to the dentist, and ended up having to get five fillings shortly after I graduated. These days, I make sure I regularly see the dentist and other doctors. I also make sure I get enough sleep, don’t skip meals, and get enough exercise. While I didn’t deliberately abuse my body at Williams, I took its youthfulness for granted. These days I recognize that you have to look after it to maintain it.
  • Priorities: When I was in graduate school the first time around, classes were my first and mostly only priority. Nowadays, I’m in a committed relationship and provide a home to two cats, in addition to the hobbies I’ve had most of my life. In short, schoolwork isn’t my whole life anymore. More importantly, I don’t want it to be. All the efforts I’m taking toward reducing distractions and procrastination give me more time for my family, not more schoolwork.
  • Acceptance: It’s cliche, but you really do start getting more comfortable with yourself as you get older. As a young student at Williams, I never felt like I was good enough. My writing wasn’t insightful enough, or my research wasn’t thorough enough. Being surrounded by fellow art historians, I worried my clothes weren’t fashionable or that I would be perceived as some uncultured yokel. Looking back, I can’t help but notice how much more comfortable I am with myself. The imposter syndrome never entirely goes away, it’s a lot easier to ignore now.
Giving an interview on Peter Hurd and Henriette Wyeth for the New Mexico PBS program, Colores! in 2018. Between my time at Williams and this feature, I’d gained a wealth of experience and become much more comfortable with myself.

In short, I’m not the person I was when I went to Williams, but I wouldn’t want to be. After all, I’m getting my Ph.D. at William and Mary, not Williams. It’s a different school with a different program, so why would I want to be the same person anyway?

Adventures in TAing: Art Colonies

At the beginning of the semester, Professor Donaldson, the instructor for Utopia in the Americas, invited me to give a short lecture on any topic relating to American utopias. While I’ve given plenty of gallery talks and lectures to museum audiences, I haven’t had as much experience in the college classroom, so I was eager for the opportunity to apply my skills to a new setting. Last week then, I gave a half-hour talk about art colonies, a topic I’ve been casually researching since at least my time in New Mexico.

Commonwealth Art Colony Students, Boothbay Harbor, 1915. Image courtesy of https://www.mainememory.net/artifact/98553

I chose art colonies because I saw a lot of parallels with intended utopian communities like Brook Farm. Art colonies are communities of artists, writers, and other creatives who come together with the intention of producing new work together in a supportive environment. Like utopian communities, they take issue with the world as it currently is and seek to improve it by providing a creatively stimulating environment. Art colonies were especially popular in Europe and the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before World War I. In the US, you could find them in New England, the Midwest, the West Coast, and everywhere in between.

Since this was an art history-focused discussion, I developed a PowerPoint presentation that let me share several images. I also provided an outline of my notes to the class so students could have a basic reference to follow. At the end of my notes, I included a brief list of book suggestions in case students wanted to read further.

As for the talk itself, I divided it into three parts, and clearly stated when I was moving on to a new topic. After defining art colonies, I described the historical context in which they developed. I highlighted the following interconnected trends:

Maria Bashkirtseva, In The Studio, 1881, oil on canvas, Dnipropetrovsk State Art Museum, Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine
  • Camaraderie: 19th-century American artists studying academic painting finished their training in Europe whenever possible, going to Paris especially after the Civil War. These American students often socialized together while abroad, and wanted to recapture that camaraderie when they returned.
Colonial Revival Room Design, 1924. Image courtesy of http://www.vintagedesigns.com/id/colrev/20thcent/sem/
  • Anxieties about change: The United States in the second half of the 19th century experienced a lot of rapid change in terms of immigration, industrialization, women’s rights, and so on. A lot of white, middle-class people in particular experienced anxiety over this, and responded through reactionary, nostalgia-driven movements such as Arts and Crafts, the Colonial Revival, and the City Beautiful Movements. All of these creative responses were intended to reintroduce a sense of order and human agency over the seeming chaos the defined rapid urbanization.
Anonymous, Bellows, ca. 1825-1835, paint and stenciling on wood. American Folk Art Museum.
  • Nationalism: During the late 19th century, nationalistic pride cropped up in both the United States and Europe as countries looked to their folk cultures for the roots of their identities. Over here, American artists took increasing interest in painting American landscapes or incorporating folk art into their work as a means of asserting an art that was distinct from European examples.

I emphasized the historical context because Professor Donaldson had already talked about it in previous lectures. I wanted to show students how this same context extended to art colonies while reviewing concepts we had already talked about through lectures and discussions. Once I sketched out this background, I then briefly talked about three different communities:

Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, NM
  • Taos/New Mexico: artists have been coming here since the late 19th century. During the early 20th century, various groups cropped up, many of them focused on seeking out exhibition opportunities. The first generations of artists were primarily European trained and applied their training to painting New Mexico’s landscapes and indigenous cultures. The most overtly utopian iteration is arguably the salon of Mabel Dodge Luhan, who invited leading Modernists such as Andrew Dasburg, George O’Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley to visit, not to mention writers such as D.H. Lawrence.
  1. Ogunquit, Maine: In 1898, painter Charles Woodbury began frequenting the Perkins Cove area of Ogunquit to set up a summer painting school focused on rendering the landscapes and peoples of the region. In 1911, artist Hamilton Easter Field bought a series of fishing shacks and began renting them out to artists. Whereas Woodbury focused primarily on landscape painting, Easter Field became more interested in Modernist abstraction, and sometimes decorated the shacks with folk art to inspire renters. In the 1950s, the Ogunquit Museum of American Art opened, highlighting the artistic activities of these two groups.
  1. Byrdcliffe, New York: This was the most overtly utopian of the groups I talked about. Founded by architect Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, artist Jane Byrd McCall, and artist Bolton Brown, it modeled itself on the Arts and Crafts Movement, with guild-like workshops underpinning its social structure. It continues to operate as an Artist-in-Residence program.

There were several other examples I could have discussed, but these were the ones I’m most familiar with. With Taos in particular, I wanted to get out of the Northeast and highlight what was happening in the Southwest, since the course has primarily concentrated on communities east of the Mississippi.

E. Martin Hennings, Passing By, ca. 1924, oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts Houston

I wrapped up with a brief conclusion. I argued that while limited funding or clashing personalities often prevented art colonies from becoming long-term, autonomous communities, we still benefit from art colonies in the form of artist-in-residence programs. I described these as permanent communities of temporary residents, places where artists can focus on their work, bond with their fellow residents, and return to their regular lives to share their new work.

From left to right: Vivian Bevans, Fall Tree, watercolor on paper; Zulma Steele-Parker, Drop-Front Desk with Three Iris Panels, 1904, oil paint and green stain on cherry wood; Ralph and Jane Whitehead, selection of White Pines Pottery with textile created at Byrdcliffe Colony, c. 1915-1926, Ceramic; Zulma Steele-Parker, Byrdcliffe, No. 4, c. 1914, oil on board.

This talk was a lot of fun. When I was a curator, I always liked giving gallery tours and brown bag lunch talks, so I enjoyed having a chance to talk about art history again in an educational setting. Public speaking has always been one of my strengths, so I’m always eager to put those skills to use when the opportunity comes up. Professor Donaldson also enjoyed the lecture so much that she recommended I consider developing it into an undergraduate seminar. I’d definitely like to teach a class at William and Mary in the future, so it’s certainly an option I’ll keep in mind moving forward.

Charles Woodbury, High Tide, Narrow Cove, Ogunquit, Maine, 1939, watercolor on paper. Vose Galleries, Boston.

Grad School, Then and Now, Part One

I don’t actually take any classes here, but the Wren building is one William and Mary’s more iconic edifices.

Eight years passed between the completion of my Master’s in 2010, and the beginning of my Ph.D. in 2018. During those eight years, I worked several different museum jobs and matured significantly as a person. I wasn’t the only one who changed, though. Graduate school has evolved a lot since I was last here, so today, I’d like to point out some of my observations.

  1. Technology: The prominence of technology in academia isn’t new. I used bibliographic programs like Zotero at Williams, communicated primarily through email, and distracted myself with stupid videos like this one. That said, there are some major differences. Systems like Blackboard, for instance, are used much more extensively than they were when I was last in grad school. At Williams, we bought hard-copy prints of articles and other readings for classes, all bound into one volume. These days, professors upload the readings online. I also used to print out hard copies of all my papers. These days, I email them. There are also lots of new writing tools out there, like Grammarly. I’ve been especially appreciative of this one, as it checks grammatical errors as well as spelling. It doesn’t catch everything, but it sure helps.

2. Mental Health: This is another huge change I’ve noticed. When I was at Williams, the most I remember about mental health was being shown the counseling building during an orientation tour. While I can’t speak for all campuses, William and Mary seems much more keen about assessing mental health by regularly offering workshops, counseling, and other resources. Although most of these activities focus on undergraduates, a few workshops do address graduate students specifically.

3. Student Voices: I don’t remember students talking very much about the stress of graduate school itself when I was at Williams. Admittedly I kept to myself, but from what I can remember, these discussions usually only occurred at parties or other social gatherings. These days, students seem much more frank about their experiences, whether it’s the coursework, teaching load, or stipends. And it’s not just at William and Mary. I follow quite a few Ph.D.-related accounts on Instagram, for instance, and they’re not afraid to confront the mental and emotional challenges of graduate work. That’s a good thing. As I’ve learned from personal experience, bottling things up doesn’t help anybody. If you want to change your circumstances, you have to be able to identify them.

4. Privilege Awareness: Being in an American Studies program, it’s not surprising that my cohorts and I spend a lot of time discussing how we challenge or reinforce the social, economic, and racial frameworks of American society. We rarely talked about this at Williams though. I don’t remember anyone remarking that we were almost exclusively white, or that our work focused primarily on white, Eurocentric artists (mine certainly did). I imagine that’s changed by now. At William and Mary it’s a perennial discussion topic.

Those are my main observations, and they’re definitely interconnected. Of course, academia still needs to be better at addressing mental health, racial and social homogeneity, and other issues, but the changes I’ve observed within the last eight years are encouraging.