Juliet Whitsett talks about fighting cancer, raising children, and attending graduate school at UT Austin
Wed. April 29, 2015
Juliet Whitsett is a graduate student in Art Education and is writing her thesis on the principles that guide and motivate those who direct the Public Programs at the Friends of the High Line in New York. She is investigating how the recognition of these principles contributes to understandings regarding the development of art education in a community.
Whitsett received a BA in Art Education and certificate in Art in Special Education from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is proud to call herself as a teacher, public program coordinator, community arts educator, Salsa and Texas Swing dance instructor, plant lover, traveler, cancer survivor, stepmother to 13-year-old Kai, and mother to 3-year-old twin girls, Fischer and Sequoia.
She answered questions from Professor Paul Bolin by email.
Paul Bolin: Tell us about your background and what led you to the Art Education program at UT Austin.
Juliet Whitsett: When I was finishing my bachelor’s degree in Art Education, I told myself "There's no way I am applying for a job as an art teacher after graduation. I want to have some more adventures first.” So that’s what I did.
I moved from Madison to Austin and became an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer teaching gardening to children. VISTA really shaped my life. I made contacts in the environmental education world, and I took a position as an Environmental Educator at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. I infused the arts into my entire curriculum, and I saw how they could be used to teach about the natural world.
After the Wildflower Center, I took a job as a guide with an international organization that leads trips for young adults to various parts of the world. Journeys focused on adventure travel, volunteerism, and language study. My work with them took me to the South Pacific and Central and South America. I landed in Mexico, where I lived for two years polishing up my Spanish and learning how to teach Salsa, and directing an art, dance, and Spanish camp for U.S. teens.
In 2009, I moved back to Austin. While working for a high-end landscape business, I discovered I had cancer. I spent six months in chemotherapy and one month undergoing radiation.
One day after a chemo session, I was listening to a piece on the radio about John Cage, and something about it made me reflect on creativity in a new and different way. I marveled at how he was so rewarded for his divergent thinking and how he followed so many visions. Hearing that flipped a switch and rekindled an interest in returning to my roots as an art educator. I took the GRE while undergoing radiation. A few months after I completed treatment, I began the Art Education program in the fall of 2010!
PB: What were the most challenging parts of the program, and conversely, the most rewarding?
JW: In the summer of 2011, I wanted to find an incredible internship. I wanted to work for the High Line in New York; however, the Public Programs Department of The Friends of the High Line did not have an internship program. I was fairly persistent and, recognizing that my experience with both art education and environmental education was the perfect fit, they accepted me as their first summer intern.
A few weeks before leaving for New York, I found out I was pregnant — with twins! Determined to fulfill my dream of living in New York for a summer, I spent the first three months of my pregnancy away from home, writing curriculum and executing public programs.
I encourage graduate students to find an internship that they really want. I learned so much and gained incredible contacts. I ended up working for Friends of the High Line the following year, writing some of their summer curriculum — Babies in Tote — from Austin. Eventually, the High Line's public programs became the subject of my thesis.
It is now 2015 and most of my classmates graduated in the spring of 2012. It has been a long haul. Writing a thesis while juggling sweet and inquisitive twins — now preschoolers — and a tween stepson, as well as working full-time and writing a thesis is challenging.
Now that I am in the throes of my final thesis edits and my last classes are wrapping up, it's starting to sink in that I really did this! I couldn't have done it without my loving husband's support or without the patience and confidence of you, my faculty adviser.
PB: Do you have plans once you finish the program?
JW: I’m going to do is celebrate my master's degree with my family and friends! I will continue to contribute to the world in a creative way, and right now, I’m enjoying teaching art and gardening at Austin Discovery School. In my younger years, I avoided Art Education in search of adventure. I'll be 40 this year and I have had my fair share of adventures, so I’m excited to embrace this next step.
Alumni Spotlight: Melissa Warak, PhD in Art History, 2014
Wed. April 22, 2015
Linda Dalrymple Henderson: Readers will be interested to hear about your interdisciplinary research focus. Can you talk about that and what led you to your interest in music and art, even before arriving at UT Austin?
Melissa Warak: I grew up in a musical household. My mother had trained as a classical pianist and we listened to classical music on the radio all the time when I was a child. In college, I worked in college radio and loved learning about experimental music, which tied nicely to my studies of art history and English. I found all of these great connections among artists, composers, and musicians that interested me enough to want to write about them.
LDH : How did the graduate program at UT Austin help you develop your interests in art history and other fields?
MW: My graduate coursework in modern and contemporary art really helped me hone my interests in the 1960s and in sound art. I took courses in Music, Germanic Studies, History, and American Studies to develop my research skills in cultural histories and production. I found that my Art History professors encouraged my outside interests in music and metaphysical philosophy and even arranged introductions to faculty members across campus. I also learned that many other departments at UT Austin value the interdisciplinary research skills developed in the art history graduate program.
LDH: What role did your time as a Vivian Smith Fellow at the Menil Museum play in your graduate work?
MW: This fellowship allowed me to work firsthand with objects and archival material related to my dissertation. I was able to dive into my work completely. I proposed an exhibition (Takis: The Fourth Dimension, on view until July 2015) that was approved even after I finished the fellowship. I also had the opportunity to organize a two-day symposium on art and music, for which I invited prominent scholars in the field. My fellowship at the Menil Collection also allowed me to develop professional connections and relationships with artists, art historians, and other specialists across Texas, which has served me well in my present position at the University of Texas at El Paso.
LDH: How did the program at UT Austin prepare you for your current position at UT El Paso and your work as a liaison between the university and the Judd Foundation?
MW: I teach art from 1850 to the present at UTEP, so having access to a broad range of graduate classes in modernism, theory, and contemporary art has served me well. UT Austin has had several graduates write on Donald Judd, including Adrian Kohn and David Raskin, and of course, Dr. Richard Shiff is a wonderful source for any students investigating Judd's legacy in Marfa. One of the books featured front and center in Judd's library in Marfa is Dr. Linda Henderson's book on the fourth dimension and non-Euclidean geometry, so I have always felt that there are advantageous connections among scholars at UT Austin and Marfa.
Graduate students in Art History at UT Austin develop strong speaking agendas through conferences, symposia, and invited talks, so creating community becomes second nature to many of us. I also earned quite a bit of valuable teaching experience as a graduate student. As soon as I arrived at UTEP, I began to nurture the relationships between my department and the Chinati Foundation and Judd Foundation in Marfa. Given my relatively close proximity to Marfa (a three hour drive), I can take students every semester. My comfort in working with undergraduates allows me to get to know students so I may support their internship applications to the arts organizations in Marfa.
LDH: What advice would you give to students completing their graduate work at UT Austin?
MW: It feels so good to finish that thesis or dissertation and move forward. I loved teaching at UT Austin — it is an incredibly valuable experience — but it is also time-consuming to create courses and lectures. I was able to finish only through the support of outside fellowships that allowed me to write exclusively, so I would encourage graduate students to seek external funding. In applying for jobs, cast a wide net. In addition to seeking career advice from faculty members, graduate students should also take advantage of the wide network of Art History alumni.
Alumni Spotlight: Milady Casco, MA in Art Education, 2010
Wed. April 29, 2015
Paul Bolin: It's been a few years since you've graduated, what have you been up to?
Milady Casco: Since graduating in 2010, I have been living in Guatemala working as the on-site coordinator for Casa Herrera, UT Austin’s academic research facility in Antigua. Casa Herrera is operated by the Department of Art and Art History and serves as an extension of The Mesoamerica Center. After almost 4.5 years on the job, I have helped facilitate a number of study abroad programs, academic residencies, and conferences in the areas of archaeology, anthropology, education, and visual culture. Our programs keep growing every year! This summer 2015, we will be welcoming 50 study abroad students from UT Austin and other US academic institutions.
PB: Why were you interested in working in Guatemala at Casa Herrera? How did it fit into your past research?
MC: I initially arrived to Casa Herrera for the first time in 2009 as a student visiting researcher through Casa’s academic residency program. I lived in Casa Herrera for three months and dedicated my time writing my master’s thesis, which was a case study about art education and issues of cultural identity at the Museum of Art in El Salvador (MARTE). I never expected that this residency would be a turning point for me professionally.
During my time in Antigua, I was captivated by the city’s colonial charm, but more importantly I was drawn to learning about the indigenous communities and Mesoamerican history that form the basis of Guatemalan culture and society today. There were many parallels that I had made between the histories and art practice of El Salvador and Guatemala. The more I learned, the stronger I desired to return to Guatemala and continue exploring themes that I had researched in my thesis.
When the opportunity to work at Casa Herrera as a staff member came about, there was no doubt in my mind that this was the job for me. Not only did it give me the chance to work in Central America (which had always been a personal goal of mine), but also to interact with a dynamic group of anthropologists, archaeologists, artists, linguists, and historians working in Guatemala. The best part of my job has been sharing all that I have learned to help create new and exciting experiences for other UT students who participate in Casa Herrera programs.
PB: What advice would you give to the newest graduates from the program?
MC: Be open to every opportunity and task that presents itself. Sometimes the most challenging situations can turn out to be the most transformative experiences.
Laurel Shear presents work in juried exhibition
Wed. April 22, 2015
Work by Laurel Shear (MFA in Studio Art, 2015) was selected for a juried exhibition, Cultural Conversations, at the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The exhibition will be on view May 8 – May 29, 2015.
Visual Arts Center Director Jade Walker interviews alumnus Jared Steffensen, featured in Torque and Axis at The Courtyard Gallery
Thu. April 30, 2015
Jared Steffensen was born in Fairfax, Virginia. He earned a BFA in Intermedia Sculpture from the University of Utah in 2002 and an MFA from The University of Texas at Austin in 2006. Steffensen seemingly joins disparate realms through geometric abstraction. He was a recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA Grant in 2006. His work has been exhibited throughout the US, as well as in Mexico, Germany, and The Netherlands. He is currently the Curator of Education at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City, Utah.
He recently answered questions from Jade Walker, director of the Visual Arts Center, by email.
Jade Walker: After graduating, what did you do and what informed your decisions in the studio?
Jared Steffensen: I moved to Providence, Rhode Island to work for a furniture designer/cabinetmaker for a year after leaving Austin, then moved back to Salt Lake to teach at the University of Utah. I eventually started working at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in the education department.
I still had some things to resolve with the work I was making during school, so I focused on that until around 2011. Much of that work was centered on my relationship to place — specifically Salt Lake City and how to better understand what my relationship to the city was.
In 2011, I shifted from thinking about place in a geographic sense to place as it relates to architecture. I’d say skateboarding influenced that shift. The way in which skateboarding teaches you to see and interact with your surroundings based on how you move through or use them and the endless possibilities provided by that act. I also re-examined the objects and obstacles created to facilitate that movement. In a way, I think that I’ve always approached art making in this manner, but now I’m open to the connection to skateboarding.
JW: How do you negotiate/combine your formal ideas about art with your life-long passion for skateboarding?
JS: I think there is a fair amount of cross over between the two. I see similarities in their cyclical nature, the specific language developed to describe aspects of each community, how that language may not always be understood by people outside that community, and the learning from failure.
For me, it’s about finding the places where they overlap and using those overlaps to inform my work. Whether its constructing architectural forms that have a relationship to both skateboarding and minimalism, recording indexical marks created by skateboarders interacting with those forms, how the body informs and responds to that interaction, or repurposing found objects used for skateboarding.
JW: Much of your past work focused on geographical places. How is the work you have created for Torque and Axis similar or different?
JS: It’s a mix of both, but geography — in a straight forward sense — is less important now or better yet, less noticeable. It’s hard to get away from it, though. I think living in the mountain west; the mountains were always looming over you, always in your field of vision. They act as walls that can keep things out and keep things in and that informs the culture and the people that exist within it.
By moving back to Salt Lake City and reconnecting with old friends that also continue to skateboard into their 30’s and 40’s, my work became focused on that all aspects of that community. It’s a community shaped by the Wasatch and Oquirrh Mountains, both physically and psychologically. The community has intense local pride and a pride in the connection to previous generations of skateboarding (some of them, including myself, are pushing 30 years on a skateboard). That connection to the past and its reemergence in the present is what the new work for Torque and Axis examines.
JW: You are a curator and an educator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City. Can you talk about how your day job and your studio practice intersect?
JS: This may be a short and simple answer, but my museum education experience influences my studio practice which, in turn, influences my curatorial practice. I see crossovers in many aspects of my “separate” art careers.
JW: You're about to open Torque and Axis at the Courtyard Gallery, what other upcoming/recent projects do you have?
JS: Back in March, I had some photographs at the Spring/Break Art Show during Armory Arts Week and I collaborated with another Salt Lake artist, Christopher Kelly, on a project called It’s Going To Take Some Getting Used To. At the end of May, I’ll be in a two-person exhibition at the Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah with Svavar Jónatansson.
JW: What advice would you give to graduating MFA candidates?
JS: Keep making. Find a community (whatever that means to you) and actively be part of it.
Torque and Axis opens May 7, 2015 at The Courtyard Gallery. The exhibition will be on view May 7 – September 26, 2015.