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October 2015

Graduate Student, Presentations, Research, Students

Art and Contemplation Graduate Student Research Symposium

By Sam Wisneski, graduate student

After months of planning and preparation, the sixth annual University of St. Thomas graduate student research symposium went off without a hitch. Wearing the hat of both presenter and symposium co-chair, I had some jitters and excitement about both my paper and the symposium overall, and how it would reflect on the Department of Art History. I’ve always been impressed with the collegiality and the warm, welcoming atmosphere of our department, and I truly think we showcase those qualities best in settings like the annual symposium – and this year was no different.

The symposium kicked off with a keynote lecture about Pieter Bruegel’s Resurrection from Dr. Walter Melion of the Emory University Department of Art History. In the words of Dr. Craig Eliason, the lecture was a “thrill ride.” Who said art history can’t be an adrenaline rush? If you missed the keynote or you enjoyed it as much as Craig, you can (re-)watch it here.

The evening continued with a reception where graduate student presenters, professors and UST graduate students got a chance to mingle and enjoy a spread of some of the very best offerings – I quite enjoy those little caprese kabobs, though they are a little awkward to eat and the dessert bars, oh my!

Saturday started bright and early, with the presenters arriving at 7:45 a.m. and the first paper presented at 8:30 a.m. to a full house. The rest of the day went very smoothly. From the morning sessions, to the gallery talk in the American Museum of Asmat Art gallery, to the afternoon sessions, I think we showed off the very best of the Department of Art History at St. Thomas. The student presenters were incredibly professional and gave some wonderful presentations. As symposium co-chair, this wasn’t all that surprising based on the many excellent abstracts we received following the Call for Papers – but a strong abstract doesn’t guarantee a great presentation. This time around, it was the case that both the abstracts and the presentations were quite strong. Not only that, the range and breadth of topics was impressive too. This year’s paper titles can be found here.

2015 Symposium Presenters with Dr. Walter Melion

2015 Symposium Presenters with Dr. Walter Melion

Following each presentation, our audience, packed into Room 341, offered some insightful questions to our presenters. As usual, it was a warm atmosphere for collegial banter – both literally and figuratively; the room was smaller than past symposium locations so it was a little toasty at times. My fellow graduate student presenters handled their questions graciously and with enthusiasm.

The absolute highlight and nightmare scenario for me though, was the feedback offered by our keynote lecturer. Dr. Melion carefully read the presenters’ papers and crafted several incisive questions for each of us – some even down to the granular level of semantics. He then called upon us to respond to each question. Easier said than done. We all furiously scribbled and captured mere portions of each of his questions.

Sam presenting her paper

Sam presenting her paper, ‘Soul Food as Sacrament: Social Practice Artist Meditations on Nourishment’

I felt a bit like I was on an episode of the Food Network series Chopped. I had served up my paper to the judges, and now I was ready to be grilled. Publicly defending your work is a delicate task – especially when scholarship can be so personal. You’ve spent lots of time with your topic, and even the slightest criticism can sting. You have to achieve a balance somewhere between defensiveness and concession – standing up for your paper but acknowledging that your scholarship is never really done.

Though difficult, opportunities to present and defend your work are formative. As scholars, we aren’t producing work in a vacuum, so outside insights are critical and I very much valued the thoughtful responses Dr. Melion provided for each of us. I think my fellow graduate student presenters, overall, felt the same way. In hearing feedback from presenters, I think we achieved both a welcoming and critical environment to consider this year’s symposium theme, Art and Contemplation.

I’d like to offer a special thanks to everyone who made this year’s symposium a success – while it didn’t quite take a village, it certainly took lots of support from our department as a whole: graduate student volunteers, the faculty co-chairs, Dr. Heather Shirey and Dr. Craig Eliason, and my co-chair Dakota Passariello, as well as the generous support of those in attendance. Thank you!


Graduate Student, Research, Research Travel, Students

Uncovering Joshua Johnson’s Baltimore

Alex Kermes is an art history graduate student completing his qualifying paper on the 19th century painter, Joshua Johnson. He was awarded the Art History Department Graduate Research Grant to help make this project possible. Alex will be presenting his qualifying paper research at the Art History Graduate Forum on December 18.

Joshua Johnson, the topic of study for my Qualifying Paper, is an enigmatic figure since so much of his life is unknown. Few details have trickled down from decades of scholarship on Johnson, who is considered the first African American portraitist in the U.S. I experienced this enigma firsthand while conducting research on him, and felt the department’s travel grant would help me uncover a great deal more.

Johnson lived and worked in Baltimore, actively painting portraits of middle and upper class clientele from the late-1790s to mid-1820s. Although he owed much to the influence of painters around him, he devised a style all his own. His paintings are characterized by thin layering of oil paint, minimal shading on his subjects (often children), and frequent use of props.

The third largest city in the U.S. during this period, Baltimore had an active African American population, both slave and free. Citizens interacted with a diverse population, and my research has focused on how Johnson responded to such diversity – in spite of the limited sources. The travel grant helped me understand Johnson as a person, living and working as an artisan in a time defined by slave and free status.

The reality of slavery sunk in while I dug deep into the sources in the Maryland Historical Society’s (MHS) library archives. While there, I read a manifest from the 1780s containing all sorts of transactions in Baltimore, including the legal documentation that set Johnson free from slavery. On one hand, it was an important record to look at closely as it assigned the conditions for which Johnson would become free, while on the other hand, these same pages contained transactions for horses, livestock, and ships in the harbor. This provided a disheartening reminder about a significant segment of America’s history.

Still, the MHS provided me with a wealth of details that helped me piece together a personal history of Johnson’s life. I looked at newspaper advertisements of other artisans and city directories that listed Johnson’s various residences throughout his life in the 1800s.

As an art historian, it was important that I see his work in person and up close, and there are far more of his paintings in Baltimore than the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. The Maryland Historical Society is home to a few, though they have a strict photography policy, and other can be found at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I spent time at both to examine Johnson’s works, and simply because both are quite fabulous museums.

While drafting the prospectus for my qualifying paper, one of the major comments I received stressed the importance of bringing his works forward in my discussion. My focus had drifted too far into Johnson’s context that his actual paintings took on a seemingly secondary role. Studying his works in person changed that remarkably. The subtle ways he handled his paint differ throughout the periods of his career, making it possible to identify a Johnson work from 1804 versus one from 1814. This spoke a great deal to me about the work he received during this period and how he was able to hone his craft.

Joshua Johnson, James McCormick Family, 1804-5, 50 x 69 in., Maryland Historical Society, oil on canvas (left); Joshua Johnson, Rebecca Myring Everette and her children, 1818, 55 x 58 in., Maryland Historical Society, oil on canvas (right)

Of course, Baltimore is culturally and historically significant, which meant on my free evenings (the MHS is open only until 5:00), I saw the U.S.S. Constellation parked in the harbor, poked my head in the Walters Art Museum which was located next to the MHS, and wandered the Baltimore Museum of Art’s galleries.

I certainly could have completed my Qualifying Paper without this research travel grant. Yet, studying Joshua Johnson’s Baltimore in person has given me tremendous insight into his life and what his career in painting was all about. Walking along High Street, close to the harbor, I could almost sense where Johnson might have lived and worked in the first decade of the 19th century. I truly built a personal connection to Johnson and his work by studying him on my Baltimore trip, and it increased my quality of research. My Qualifying Paper has already greatly benefited from every additional page of notes I took while in the archives and viewing his paintings and digging through the Maryland Historical Society’s archives – progress that I could not have made without the travel grant. Visiting Baltimore has made him much less the enigma he was when I began my research.