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Asmat, Faculty, Graduate Student, Presentations, Research, Research Travel, Students

Of Note

‘Of Note’ is a new series showcasing what members of the Department of Art History have been up to and will be published at the start of every semester. If you have something that you would like included in the next post, please send it to Marria Thompson.

Dr. Andy Barnes

This summer I undertook a driving tour of the lowland Maya region of Mexico. While crossing through the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas, my trip included stops at Tulum, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Merida, Campeche (city), Palenque, and Calakmul. Pictured here is the textile inspired façade of one of the structures in Uxmal’s grand Nunnery Complex (ca. AD 900) and Structure II, Calakmul (begun before AD 100 and enlarged considerably over the following seven centuries). Calakmul, in Campeche State, is one of the largest Maya sites, which flourished between AD 600-900.  Structure II, standing over 15 stories tall, is one of the largest pyramids in the Maya region (it is somewhat larger than the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan).

Dr. Craig Eliason

This summer I attended the Granshan Type Design Conference in Reading, England. The theme of the conference was “global design in practice,” and the program included a terrific presentation by Korean calligrapher Kang Byung-in. Then, that evening, the conference moved to the University’s typography department, where sheets of paper were set up for a giant-scale, joint calligraphy demonstration by Kang and English calligrapher Timothy Donaldson. The packed room watched as the two men went at it with all manner of pens and brushes, showing off both craft mastery and a little clownish rivalry. The demonstration ended with both artists dipping their hands directly in the ink, making handprints on the paper, and then shaking hands.

Calligraphy demonstration

Calligraphy demonstration

Dr. Eric Kjellgren

In August, I traveled to Australia at the invitation of the National Gallery of Australia and the Oceanic Art Society to give a presentation at the Art of the Sepik River Forum held in conjunction with a newly opened exhibition of art from the Sepik River in northeast New Guinea at the gallery in Australia’s capitol city of Canberra.  My paper Hidden “Hands”: Searching for the Artist in the Arts of the Sepik River explored the idea that works by individual artists can be identified within the arts of the Sepik River, something that has not previously been done for this art-rich region of New Guinea.

 Eric Kjellgren with Pacific Art Curator Crispin Howarth (left in navy blue blazer) and members of the Oceanic Art Society examining works at the National Gallery of Australia

Eric Kjellgren with Pacific Art Curator Crispin Howarth (left in navy blue blazer) and members of the Oceanic Art Society examining works at the National Gallery of Australia

Dr. Heather Shirey

This summer I presented a paper at the Transatlantic Dialogues conference in Liverpool. Liverpool’s Lord Mayor hosted a reception for attendees as a special event during the conference. This reception took place at Liverpool’s beautiful, 18th century Town Hall. By complete accident, I arrived at the reception a half an hour early, along with a friend I had made at the conference. After overcoming some initial suspicions due to our early arrival, the building director invited us to take advantage of the special opportunity to visit the building, which is only open to the public once a month.  Learning that we were art historians, he suggested that we wander through the ground floor rooms to see the city’s art collection. On our unguided wanderings, we first stumbled into the Council Chamber, where the Lord Mayor himself happened to be visiting with a few of his constituents. He very kindly invited us to try out the seat reserved for the mayor in the council room. I think a room like this would be just spectacular for our seminars!

Heather seated in the Liverpool Town Hall Council Room

Heather seated in the Liverpool Town Hall Council Room

Next we stumbled across a portrait of John Archer, said to be (although this is debated) Britain’s first mayor of African Descent. Born in Liverpool, Archer traveled to the United States and Canada before being elected Mayor of Battersea in 1913. The painting, by Paul Clarkson, incorporates references to African American intellectual and cultural movements: Archer rests his arm on a copy of The Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people, and a poster advertising the Fisk Jubilee Singers hangs behind his head. I am interested in the ways that Archer himself evoked symbols of the battle for civil rights in the United States in his own political career. I also want to learn more about the position of Archer in Liverpool’s contemporary interpretation of the city’s racial dynamics. The city of Liverpool and its many citizens amassed tremendous wealth during the eighteenth century due to the city’s important position as a port during the height of the transatlantic slave trade. Just down the road from the Town Hall is the International Slavery Museum, which grapples with this aspect of Liverpool’s history. It is worth noting that this painting was installed in the Town Hall only within the last decade. What does this current interest in John Archer tell us about Liverpool’s evolving understanding of its past?

Portrait of John Archer

Portrait of John Archer


Margaret George, graduate student

Summer, travel, and art are intertwined in my vocabulary. As I prepared for this fall’s Contemporary Architecture class, I was excited to spend some time this summer in Buffalo, New York . The city has some wonderful architecture in its downtown including a pretty spectacular building by Louis Sullivan, the Prudential Guaranty Building, designed in 1894-85 (left image). The stone and detail on the building were just beautiful – almost exquisite. An architectural contrast was a Rem Koolhaas’ 21st century building (CCTV Headquarters) in Beijing that I also saw this summer (right image).  “Big Boxer Shorts” as the locals call it – you can figure out why.

Amanda Lesnikowski, graduate student

I never truly appreciated the saying “kill two birds with one stone” until I found myself in a masters program and a full-time job at the same time. This summer, while working under the direction of Dr. Heather Shirey, I completed an independent study that focused on the development of an African American Art Teacher Resource guide for elementary school teachers. I began by selecting five artworks from the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s permanent collection. I researched the artists and their artworks, then aligned state academic standards with a set of open-ended questions to create a resource guide that can be used by teachers across the state. It was an amazing feeling to watch my two ‘jobs’ become one.

Clementine Hunter, The Wash, 1950s, Oil on board, 18 x 24 in. (45.7 x 61.0 cm)

Clementine Hunter, The Wash, 1950s, Oil on board, 18 x 24 in. (45.7 x 61.0 cm)


Dakota Passariello, graduate student

This June I began an internship at the Thrivent Financial Collection of Religious Art. In the past few months I have been working with the collection and its curator, Joanna Lindell. Thus far, I have been exposed to and have learned a tremendous amount about the multifaceted world of curatorial work. Some of my tasks and experiences so far have included assisting the curator with planning an exhibition layout, writing and fabricating object labels and exhibition panels, and attending meetings related to upcoming events and plans for the gallery. Thrivent has a truly special collection that is globally recognized; yet I think the collection is largely overlooked by our own community. If you haven’t been, I highly recommend coming to check out the gallery! It’s free!


Asmat, Faculty

AMAA Celebrates National Museum Day

In honor of National Museum Day on September 27, I felt it would be appropriate to highlight St. Thomas’ own museum – the American Museum of Asmat Art (AMAA).  The AMAA is dedicated to the art and culture of the Asmat people, who live on the southwest coast of the island of New Guinea, which is directly north of Australia in the southwest Pacific Ocean. With more than 2000 works, the AMAA has the largest collection of Asmat art in the country. –Dr. Eric Kjellgren, Clinical Faculty in Art History and Director, American Museum of Asmat Art

The Asmat people have long been renowned as among the finest and most prolific wood sculptors in the Pacific Islands. In addition to wood, Asmat artists work in a rich variety of other materials, including fiber, feathers, bone, and shell, drawn from the rivers on whose banks they live and the tropical rainforests that surround their villages.

AMAA Gallery


Much of Asmat sculpture, like the towering ancestor poles (bis) and soul canoe (wuramon) on view in the Gallery in the Anderson Student Center, was originally created for use in religious ceremonies.  Many of these rites, in whole or in part, honored individuals in the community who had recently died and helped to send their spirits onward to safan, the land of the ancestors. Today, contemporary Asmat artists also create innovative forms of sculpture and other works for the global art market.

Man and a Dog in a Canoe, 2009

Man and Dog in a Canoe, 2009, Adam Saimas, Asmat people, Bismam region, Syuru village

Missionaries from the Crosier Fathers and Brothers, a Catholic religious Order, who worked in the Asmat region beginning in 1958, originally formed the AMAA’s collection.  The museum had two previous homes in Hastings, Nebraska and Shoreview, Minnesota.  In 2007, the Crosiers, wishing to place the collection in a setting where it would be used to educate students and the public about Asmat art and culture, gave it to the University of St. Thomas. The Gallery, located in the Anderson Student Center, opened in 2012 and presents items from the collection that are reflective of different aspects of Asmat art and culture. Today, the collection continues to grow and the AMAA forms an integral part of the university’s broader commitment to fostering respect and appreciation for cultural diversity and the artistic achievements of all of humanity and of the Department of Art History’s dedication to teaching global arts in context. The exhibitions regularly changed throughout the year, so be sure to check back often to experience new works from the AMAA collection.


The Gallery Hours

Monday-Wednesday: 10 am – 4 pm

Thursday: 10 am – 8 pm

Friday: 10 am – 2 pm

Saturday and Sunday: Noon – 4 pm


Please visit the AMAA website for more information.



Asmat, Exhibitions, Graduate Student, Research, Students

Gretchen Burau: Among the Asmat: The Schneebaum Perspective

Gretchen Burau is the Curator for the exhibition “Among the Asmat: The Schneebaum Perspective,” on view in the Gallery of the Anderson Student Center from September 4 to December 20, 2013.  Mrs. Burau is the third graduate student to develop an exhibition for the American Museum of Asmat Art at the University of St. Thomas.



Before applying to St. Thomas I was unfamiliar with Asmat, having spent most of my academic career focused on Western art.  After learning about the AMAA@UST’s extensive collection of Asmat Art, I decided to enroll in Dr. Julie Risser’s “Presenting Pacific Collections” course in Spring 2012.  It was my first semester at St. Thomas and I was thrilled to be exposed not only to Asmat culture and art, but also individuals who aided in the preservation and commissioning of many objects now owned by the AMAA.

While researching for my final paper, I came across the work of artist and anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum, who first came to Asmat in summer 1973. It was during this time that he became involved with the Catholic mission and was introduced to Bishop Alphonse Sowada and Father Frank Trenkenschuh. Through this encounter, Schneebaum came to live and work in Asmat, eventually becoming the Assistant Curator of the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in Agats, Indonesia.  One of Schneebaum’s finest contributions to the museum can be found in the skillfully executed drawings he made for Asmat Images, published in 1985. His illustrations were among the first published documentations of Asmat art and were instrumental in making the objects accessible to interested individuals who might not have had direct access to the art.

Through these drawings, Schneebaum would gain a detailed understanding of repeated imagery and was eventually able to decipher specific symbols and their meanings. Consequentially, he formed connections that helped tie certain villages and specific artists to their art, which was carefully recorded for the museum. The importance of the images has increased with time, as many of the cataloged pieces were made for ceremonial purposes and were not designed to endure after fulfilling their ritualistic tasks. As the years passed, many of these artifacts have deteriorated due to insects and the harsh jungle climate. Thankfully, Schneebaum’s drawings remain to attest to a distinctive art style made by a culture that today is rapidly changing.


Tobias Schneebaum, Drawing of Spirit Mask

Tobias Schneebaum, Drawing of Spirit Mask


Beside drawings, Schneebaum wrote several books, including Where the Spirits Dwell, highlighting his time in Asmat.  His autobiographies were written with an artist’s sensibility, as shown in Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea, where Schneebaum recorded:

Asmat bewitches me.

I often feel possessed there, but what it is that possesses me is unclear. The forest churns up my insides when I am in the midst of immense trees in soggy soil, vines, and plant life that exude odors of decay. The forest continually draws me into conjuring up dreams of living naked, hunting wild boar and cassowary, birds and possum, and spending days in blinds awaiting whatever animal would come, killing it, skinning it, roasting it, eating it.

At times when traveling with no one but my paddlers, I sit in the canoe or lie down on my pandanus mat in the men’s house and allow my mind to wander at will. I am impressionable: I am a million miles or more away. I am on some star of Orion or perhaps it is Sirius, brightest of them all. Perhaps I become one of the daughters of Atlas in the cluster of the Pleiades, or I am in some distant nebula, hurling myself headlong into the Void, through the night sky, a meteorite of myself landing easily on a star.

Throughout my life, I have been searching for a way to connect with other human beings. Suddenly, I find myself in a forest among the Asmat, living in their world of spirits, where I lose my insecurities and am content.

What brought me to this stage in the history of my life? Where did I go right? How did I finally choose a path out of oblivion, the path itself so marvelous to behold? I would not change that path even if it were possible to do so. (1)

Because of his tireless efforts, many museums, including the American Museum of Asmat Art @ UST and The Metropolitan Museum of Art have more diverse Asmat collections, with rare objects not to be found elsewhere. While traveling, Schneebaum was careful to record pertinent information: “I wrote in my journal several times a day; I put down everything I could remember of the trip from Agats and began taking notes on whatever I saw in the house: the sago bowls of wood and leaf in the racks, the digging sticks, the drums and spears and bows and arrows. I recorded the way the house was constructed, the number of adults and children; I made a plan of the fireplaces, with the names of those who sat and slept there, and I tried to make out how the food was divided, a complex subject I was never able to understand.”(2)

Tobias Schneebaum, Biwar Laut, Sasco, 1973

Tobias Schneebaum, Biwar Laut, Sasco, 1973

As a practicing artist, I had a natural affinity for Schneebaum’s drawings and observations.  His work provided an avenue for me to access Asmat art and after completing Dr. Risser’s course, I was curious to learn more about the culture.  I applied for the Assistant Curator assistantship at the AMAA and was fortunate to receive the position, quickly going to work on the fall 2012 exhibition, “Building the Collection: Recent Gifts and Purchases.”  Having previously curated two-dimensional art exhibitions, this experience exposed me to sculptural objects and the challenges related to their mounting, transportation, and presentation.

As the academic year progressed, I assisted with Rachel Simmon’s exhibition “Wowipitsj: Man, Myth, Legend.”  While working on these two shows, I continued to research Tobias Schneebaum and discovered that the University of Minnesota’s Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection houses his personal papers.  Purchased from Schneebaum by University Libraries in 2004, the collection contains 33 boxes of personal correspondence, illustrations, and other materials related to various aspects of Asmat Art.  Most notably, the collection contains a drawing Schneebaum made of Amandos Amonos, the main carver of the wuramon or soulship owned by the AMAA@UST.


Drawing of Amandos Amonos by Tobias Schneebaum

Drawing of Amandos Amonos by Tobias Schneebaum


Wuramon/Soulship - AMAA@UST

Wuramon/Soulship – AMAA@UST


These curatorial experiences combined with academic research led me to propose an exhibition of AMAA@UST art objects, illustrations, text, and video related to Schneebaum’s time in Asmat.  “Among the Asmat: The Schneebaum Perspective” is a comprehensive showing of AMAA@UST art related to the work of Tobias Schneebaum. Arguably the most ambitious Asmat exhibition to be shown in the Gallery, it features twelve shields, two large carved crocodiles and many other objects that have not previously been on view at the University of St. Thomas.

I plan to use the Asmat-related information and experiences I have acquired over the past two years to prepare for my final qualifying paper in the M.A. program.  Recently I contacted the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a Schneebaum archive that includes his personal documents and art objects.   I hope to travel to New York during the next academic year to do research for my final research project and to provide the AMAA@UST with additional materials related to the Asmat.


(1) Tobias Schneebaum, Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 3.

(2) Tobias Schneebaum, Where the Spirits Dwell (New York: Grove Press, 1988), 39.


Asmat, Conference Presentations, Exhibitions, Graduate Student

Rachel Simmons: Curating Wowipitsj: Creating your own Opportunities

Rachel Simmons is the Curator for the exhibition “Wowipitsj: Man, Myth, Legend,” on view in the Gallery of the Anderson Student Center from Feb. 4 to Aug. 4, 2013.  Ms. Simmons is the second graduate student to develop an exhibition for the American Museum of Asmat Art at the University of St. Thomas.


The experience I gained through developing this exhibition has been invaluable. Having been an assistant to Julie Risser, Director of the AMAA@UST, for two years and a student in two of her classes prepared me for the challenges it takes to curate an exhibition.  Some of the challenges included picking objects and writing their labels, developing material for the brochure, deciding on just the right piece for the marketing materials and then the correct angle to photograph the piece so that it will catch peoples’ attention.  All of this might sound minor or tedious, but it demonstrates how much thought literally goes into every aspect of an exhibition.  While I knew going into this project that I would face those challenges, there are really two things I learned that I think others in the program will also find helpful.

1) Co-writing is hard, so it helps to have someone you know well.  Luckily I have worked side by side with Julie for so long that as we were developing the text for the brochure we could literally finish each other’s sentences.  When one of us was stuck and just could not find the right words and we were left to resort to odd hand gestures to get our point across, the other would take over the keyboard and finish.  Others around us as we were writing frequently heard, “Yes! That’s it, that’s exactly what I wanted it to say!”

2) Opportunity doesn’t always knock and sometimes you have to chase it down and tackle it.  For example, this exhibition is a part of an internship I did over the fall semester.  While it is not uncommon for students in our program to take internships, this was the first time there was an internship within the department.  Even though the path was somewhat unconventional, I knew this was something I really wanted to do since I did not think I would get this kind of curatorial experience at a larger museum.  Thankfully, Julie was on board and the department was able to award me a Patricia Jaffray Scholarship to help pay for the internship credits.

Dr. Risser had wanted to have an exhibition about myth.  Fortunately, I had already completed a paper about myth in one of her classes the year before.  I combined that paper with one I presented at the Midwest Art History Society Conference annual meeting last year about contemporary Asmat carving.  This exhibition came out of both of those papers.  “Wowipitsj: Man, Myth, Legend” not only explores myth and carvings, but also how carvers are preserving the oral traditions in their art forms.  Doing this exhibition allowed me to really explore this topic both in words and in objects.

My final word of advice for my peers is DO NOT be afraid to ask for something you want, because there are a lot of really great people here that can help you accomplish it, even if the task sounds daunting and even if it has never been done before.