American art goes global: Art history seminar travels to D.C.

Nina Oleynik

Students prepare for the D.C. trip

“Global Labs allow faculty to engage students in important global issues through different pedagogical approaches combining academic and/or experiential learning; to connect on-campus courses with off-campus experiences and engagement; and to utilize new and existing partnerships to expand student opportunities for directed research and collaboration.” This is how the Office of the Dean of Global Engagement describes one of Colby’s newest academic initiatives. But in practice, what do these courses or the opportunities they provide look like?

American Art in a Global Context, taught by William R. Kenan, Jr. Associate Professor and Chair of the Art Department Tanya Sheehan is one of the first Global Labs of its kind at Colby. With only seven students in the class, it is an intimate and immersive learning experience. Ranging from sophomores to seniors, all of the students bring to the class a background in art history as majors, as well as various other disciplines. The course is designed, at its core, to question and reimagine what it means to study American art in a global context. The course itself is described as answering this question through “experiential learning at the Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Colby College Museum of Art.”

Students of AR458 got the unique opportunity, afforded to them by a grant from DavisConnects, to travel to Washington D.C. this past weekend and experience leading experts in the field engaging with American art at the global level. Not only was this trip practical in nature for students to explore possible career paths, but it also put their studies in conversation with scholars at every level.

Sheehan said of the trip, “It was wonderful to see Colby students interacting with doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, and curators at the Smithsonian. This is the kind of unique professional experience that we hope to offer more of at Colby, through DavisConnects and the new Lunder Institute for American Art.”

The first stop of the day was at The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Chinatown to meet with curator Carmen Ramos and view the show that she put together titled Tamayo: The New York Years. Prior to the trip, students had a chance to do a close reading of the catalogue entry that accompanied the show, written by Ramos herself. The essay outlined much of Mexican born artist Rufino Tamayo’s life and his formative years as an artist in New York City. Her essay raised questions of identity and influence — how can we view artists that are not born in America but spend time creating work here and thus change the artistic landscape as well as their identities themselves? Students had the chance to discuss questions like this with Ramos as they weaved through the exhibition, which was closing that weekend. Ramos offered a unique and critical perspective on Tamayo’s work and his place in American art as curator of Latino art. She recognized her important position in cultivating a more inclusive narrative of American art at SAAM — one that will hopefully be replicated at other institutions.

The next portion of the day included meeting with SAAM doctoral and postdoctoral fellows for presentations on their PhD dissertations. Each of the fellow’s work touched on issues of globalism in American art — navigating transnational borders, understanding globalism’s role in American art as well as reimagining common art historical narratives that aim to whitewash or exclude othered peoples from American art history. Each presentation gave fascinating approaches to studying American art in a global context and allowed students to see how scholars of art history are engaging with these challenges in real time.

Professor Sheehan then led the students a few blocks to the Archives of American Art to meet with Josh Franco, the National Collector there. Franco’s job at the Archives is to collect documents surrounding American art: anything from personal documents to letters, artist correspondents, doodles, lists and notes. His aim is to preserve these papers surrounding the history of American art so that others can use them as resources in the future. The space was jam-packed with a sheer amount of stuff — students toured the storage space of the Archives, which features over 6,000 documents. When discussing his role as collector, Franco clearly articulated his position as writer and protector of art history. He is readily aware of the responsibility he has to present the most full, accurate and diverse picture of American art for posterity, and it is not a job he takes lightly. To think about one person being responsible for writing art history is incredibly powerful, and all the more reason for students to be able to understand and contextualize American art in such a global context.

At the last stop of the day, students found themselves back at SAAM to experience Korean born artist Do Ho Suh’s interactive exhibition Do Ho Suh: Almost Home. This large-scale installation exhibit featured architectural structures constructed out of wire and hand woven from silk. These sculptures were exact copies of the homes Suh had lived in, in Seoul, Berlin and New York. These life-size recreations were colorful and see-through and allowed for visitors to walk through them. Experiencing and interacting with them was a fully immersive activity, inviting visitors to contemplate physical space and the idea of home.

Trips like this, largely made possible through DavisConnects and The Lunder Institute for American Art, are challenging the ways in which students at Colby experience learning and the world. It is through asking critical questions, remapping and reimaging commonly told histories and engaging with many different disciplines on a global scale that students better understand the place they come from and help shape and preserve it for future generations.

If you will be in D.C. over spring break, make sure to check out Do Ho Suh: Almost Home at SAAM, on view until Aug. 15, 2018.