Spotlight on Alumni: Jessica Lanier

Jessica Lanier (MA 2004, MPhil 2009) is a PhD candidate at the BGC where she is completing her dissertation on Martha Coffin Derby (1783-1832).   In February she delivered a talk on “Captains to Cabin Boys: Porcelain Ownership in Federal America” at the annual College Art Association conference. Her review of Objectifying China, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America by Caroline Frank (Chicago, 2011)  will appear this year in the journal Ceramics in America.  Since 2009, she has been a visiting instructor in art and design at Salem State University.

You received your MA from the BGC, and are currently working on your PhD here. What attracted you to the program?
I received my bachelor’s degree in art history from Swarthmore College but was always frustrated by the emphasis on the so-called "fine arts" and the exclusive white, male canon. After college, I worked in New York City as a theater tech and eventually as a set decorator in the film industry. Around the time the BGC was founded, I received an unsolicited mailing about the program and thought immediately that this was for me. It took a few years, but eventually I was ready to make a career change.

In the film industry, I was bored with solving the same problems over and over—you can only decorate so many police stations and hospital rooms with any enthusiasm— and period films, the type of work I really wanted to do, were few and far between. While I spent the last three years working for Woody Allen under designer Santo Loquasto, who are as good as it gets in the industry, I was intellectually dissatisfied. It was clear to me that it was time to move on. I entered the MA program without a very clear idea of where it would lead, but I loved it. It seemed a natural thing to continue onto the PhD program, because I felt I still had so much I wanted to study and learn.

What is your focus of study and how did you find yourself involved with it?
Initially I planned to concentrate on eighteenth-century France, but as I moved through the program, my love of primary research drew me closer to home. I live near Salem, MA, which has several major cultural institutions and repositories. I did my master’s internship in the Asian Export Art department of the Peabody Essex Museum and became interested in the early years of the United States and the development of American trade. My master’s thesis was on Salem's ceramics trade specifically, but my research took note of the trade in decorative arts generally. It also introduced me to the Derby family of Salem, prime movers in the early republic. Tired of counting tea cups and reading business records, I stumbled onto a series of letters and a diary written by Martha Coffin Derby, who had married Richard C. Derby. They made a grand tour of Europe in the first years of the nineteenth century, very early for an American woman. Broadly, my early interest in travel and cross-cultural exchange has carried through from my thesis, but I am now focused on the role of women such as Martha in the promotion of art and culture in the early republic, as well as the role of travel in the cosmopolitan outlook of elite Americans like the Derbys and their circle.

What are you currently working on?
I have been teaching at Salem State University for five years, which has slowed my dissertation progress. I am taking a leave of absence from SSU this coming fall in order to finish it. I met Patricia Johnston, a long-time art history professor at Salem, at a conference when we shared a panel on the American-China trade. Pat has been a terrific mentor. I began working with her in developing content and curriculum for a few NEH projects she was involved in. Together we developed an NEH Summer Institute for K-12 teachers, "Picturing Early America: People, Places, and Events 1770-1870." (2009, 2010). We also co-authored "The Chinese Presence in Early American Visual Culture" for Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation (Guggenheim Museum and the National Art Museum of China, Beijing, 2007). The exhibition traveled to China and the catalog was translated into Chinese. Pat hired me to teach Art 100 at SSU in 2009. This is the entire history of art in one semester, and I had no idea what I was doing pedagogically, but you learn by doing. While it was a steep learning curve, I now teach two of the required art history surveys for art majors.

I am currently finishing an essay based on my master’s thesis for a book on visual culture in the early Republic that Pat is co-editing with Caroline Frank. This is also the subject of the paper I delivered at this year’s College Art Association conference on class and the meaning of porcelain ownership in New England during the opening years of direct Chinese-American trade. Pat’s book is in turn based on a conference we organized, "Visual Arts & Global Trade in the Early American Republic" (Nov. 19-20, 2010), which was sponsored by the Terra Foundation for American Art and hosted by Salem State University, in partnership with the Salem Athenaeum, the National Park Service, and the Peabody Essex Museum. I also have a book review coming out in Chipstone's journal, Ceramics in America.   Currently, aside from some major family responsibilities, I plan to concentrate solely on finishing the dissertation.

What ultimately is your goal once you've finished?
My hope is to get a post-doc fellowship to develop my dissertation into a book. I am especially keen on the McNeil Center for Early American Studies in Philadelphia. I plan to have Martha Coffin Derby's travel diaries and letters published in their entirety. I have them transcribed and annotated, and I think it is likely that the Massachusetts Historical Society will commit to this project. In the more distant future, I will continue working in the biographical genre. There are several intriguing women I have encountered in my research: for instance Louisa Davis Minot, who was instrumental in developing public art education in Massachusetts.

On the teaching front, I would like to develop a history of graphic design class for SSU. The majority of my students are graphic design majors and no such class has been offered there in many years.

 

 


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Jessica Lanier (left) at the Peabody Essex Museum Library.