The Young Historians is a series exploring the lives of recent art history graduates with ties to the Chicago area. In this fourth installment, I spoke with Marcy Thomas, who was one of the earliest graduates to receive a degree from North Central College in art history, a major established in 2010. She is currently preparing to enter Northern Illinois University’s MFA program, focusing in fibers.
ZJ: To start off, what did your art history thesis focus on?
MT: North Central’s program does not require a thesis per se, yet I would say that the equivalent would be the opportunity to complete an upper level independent study. My self-proposed independent study focused on the relationship between art and craft, specifically the way in which craft materials became more commonly used by fine artists in the contemporary era. I was mostly interested in the way that artists began using these materials to communicate specific ideas or to identify theselves. Being that a lot of the artists that choose these methodologies are female, including Judy Chicago, Sheila Hicks, Ghada Amer, and Janine Antoni to name a few, the research findings began to take a more feminist spin.
The presentation of my research was somewhat nontraditional compared to that of most art history theses. Because I was a double major in studio arts I was able to come to an agreement with my instructor to respond to my findings partially through writing and partially through art making. The writings were mainly responses toward critical analyses that pertained to artists using craft methods. I also wrote a personal artist’s statement that related the body of work I was working on to my research. Finally, the artwork consisted of an artist’s book constructed of fabric, in which the text on the pages was embroidered. It had an embroidery sampler quality to it, in which it seemed feminine and playful, but also expressed an opinion.
ZJ: What do you view as the strengths of your art history program? What would you have changed?
MT: North Central’s Art History program is definitely small, yet it is up and coming. The college’s philosophy is actually to limit their class sizes, so it was really great during my advanced courses like Theory and Criticism because I had the opportunity to
participate in the discussion. Maybe it cannot offer some of the more specialty classes every year that a large university program can, but it does a great job coming up with unique topical classes for the upper level requirements. A unique course that the program has to boast about is Chicago Art and Architecture, in which the class meets in the city, viewing the art and buildings first hand. That particular course is offered in conjunction with Chicago History, which is really interesting to take alongside because then you get a real socio-historical context of what you are looking at.
However, if you feel like you cannot gain what you want to learn from a class that is offered, or if you want to expand on a particular topic, this can be achieved through participating in an independent study, as I did. The college’s program also gives you the opportunity to gain credit through studying abroad. I took advantage of a December term trip to Rome in 2010, and I hear that the Art History department is teaming up with the Classics department once again this coming December to visit both Athens and Rome.
It is very hard for me to say what I would change. For me, it was a good fit because I like the flexibility that the program offered me, and I focus better in a small environment. Yet, I suppose if one prefers to hide in the back of a giant lecture hall then it probably is not the program for them.
ZJ: What are you up to currently?
MT: I spent most of my time after I graduated getting together my applications for MFA programs, so that really wore me out. Now that I am through that process, I am just reading a lot and trying to ground myself. I try to go to museums whenever I visit the city, or to look for lectures close to home. I am up for anything that is culturally stimulating. This fall, I will be entering Northern Illinois University’s MFA program in Fiber, so in a sense I am mentally preparing for that.
ZJ: What area or areas of art history are you currently exploring or interested in?
MT: Since I am going into fibers, I want to further explore the focus of my independent study. I would also like to go back further back in order to understand the origins of craft. In general, I am into contemporary art as well and exploring these trends really helps me to see where my work fits in.
ZJ: How do you feel you use the knowledge and skills gained in your study of art history in your current life?
MT: Even though I am choosing the MFA route, I feel like I never would have been prepared had I not been an art history major. I am a believer that the artist and art history go hand in hand. I feel that it is really important to know the dialogue that your work carries with the past in order to know what your work is saying. Research and writing are a huge part of my process as well, so in a way the historian side of me is always present.
The next installment of The Young Historians will be published on April 23rd. To view past articles in the series, click here.