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The Young Historians: Miles Johnson

The Young Historians is a series exploring the lives of recent art history graduates with ties to the Chicago area. In this first installation, I spoke with Miles Johnson, my brother and a former contributor for Sixty Inches From Center. Miles graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Art History program in 2010.

Zachary Johnson (ZJ): To start off, where did you study Art History and what was the topic of your senior thesis?

Miles Johnson (MJ): I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) where I earned my BFA in Art History. My senior thesis was on works of art that depict cake and was called Let Them Art Cake. In it I looked at the works of Claes Oldenberg, Wayne Thiebaud, and Pat Lasch, all living artists. Wayne Thiebaud is a painter. Lasch and Oldenberg are sculptors, but they’ve all made works of art that depict cake.

ZJ: What lead you to pursue that topic?

MJ: It was pretty organic. I had written a paper about art and food, and the department encouraged us to build our thesis off of a paper we’d already written. I thought about it for a while and Claes Oldenberg was in my paper on art and food, so I knew I wanted to talk about him in my thesis. I also was becoming really interested in Wayne Theibaud, so I found cake as a commonality between them. I brought in Pat Lasch as my third artist to add more breadth and get another viewpoint on works of art that depict cake.

Claes Oldenburg. Wedding Souvenir, 1966. Cast plaster. 53⁄4 x 61⁄2 x 31⁄2". (Courtesy of Claes Oldenburg: Multiples in Retrospect)

I took the thesis in a very cultural, social direction, exploring how cake relates to traditions and what it says about gender roles and celebrations.

ZJ: What do you feel were the strengths of the program at SCAD? What would you have changed?

MJ: I think the art history program at SCAD is very unique because every single student has to take three, if not four, art history classes. It means that the department is possibly the largest in the country, as it has to serve 7,000 students, so it is able to have 30 faculty members. That size is a strength in that it allows the department to offer a greater breadth of classes with a lot of different perspectives because there are so many teachers with various backgrounds.

One of the drawbacks of [the program] is there’s not a lot of camaraderie within the art history program. I missed some of that because I tested out of all the French classes, so I wasn’t taking the foreign language courses which were full of mostly art history students. But there were times when in an art history class, I would be the only art history student. That happened a lot to me and the others in the program because we weren’t a very big major.

That was good and bad because in the art history classes at SCAD you got to meet people of all different majors and get their different perspectives, but at the same time, if it were all art history students in that class, your teacher could have made the course a lot harder and more intense. I had a teacher that dealt with that very well; he was the hardest art history teacher and that’s why I liked him. When I took Indian Art and Architecture with him, he gave the art history students, there were about six of us in the class, more work to do — which is how it should be. Our papers had to be longer. We had to write an extra paper, etc.

Overall, because you get to take your classes with all these different art school students from all these disciplines and with many different professors, I really thought a lot of the classes were valuable.

Also, they really tried to give us a lot of grounding in art history as a whole. As a major you take survey I, survey II, medieval art and architecture, a Renaissance class, a Greek and Roman art, an Eastern-focused course — those are all required. I think from their perspective, they’re trying to give you a base so you can go onto grad school and have that foundation.

Overall, I thought there were a lot of really good teachers in the program, and I thought the thesis program

Miles at The Fountain in Forsyth Park, Savannah, GA. January, 2008. (Photo credit Zachary Johnson)

especially was excellent. In it you get to choose two teachers to be on your thesis committee, and you meet out of class hours to work with them. One of them has to be an art history professor, but they don’t both have to be, so I chose an anthropology teacher as my second. I just thought having that committee was a really amazing experience- they pushed me really hard.

ZJ: As far as the courses that were offered and the professors’ approaches to teaching art history, did you feel like they did a good job? Were there subjects or approaches that you missed or would’ve liked?

MJ: The younger teachers had a different approach than the older ones and as you moved up and took your 300 and 400 level classes, it really depended on the teacher. I don’t like the kind of art history class where you have a teacher in front of you who just teaches from the book and shows you slides all class. I think those teachers are talented, and I liked the teachers that did that, but I think that class style isn’t as valuable as the several classes I had where you do all the reading at home and then you come in to the class and discuss what you read for the entire two-and-a-half hours.

I wish I’d had opportunities to take more classes like that. If the program had been more purely art history students rather than the full breadth of the school, probably more of those opportunities would have been there because we would have had smaller class sizes.

ZJ: In your life since college, is there any art historical topic that you are interested in, exploring, reading about, etc?

MJ: I haven’t been reading too much direct art history material, though I did read James Rosenquist’s auto-biography. It’s awesome to read an artist’s auto-biography because it’s a totally different perspective from reading a paragraph about them in a text book or reading a paper that tries to draw conclusions from their art. I think that an art history program should have you read at least one auto-biography by an artist.

[Other than that], I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction. Mostly what I’ve been drawn to since graduating, though, is about urban design and urban planning. I read Atlantic Cities regularly and and have read some books by Richard Florida. I’ve also gotten more interested in feminism through an entertainment or pop culture lens — like how women are represented in movies, commercials or advertisements. Also, I read Sociological Images, which analyzes advertisements and what they’re saying, among other things.

But also, I think a lot of post college for me has been getting out of that art history bubble and exploring what I always wanted to know at SCAD and what the art history department was trying to move towards. How does art history coincide with actual practicing artists? Where do those worlds meet? That’s something that I think Sixty Inches From Center thinks about a lot. We’re like, “We’re art historians, so it’s our job to learn about and publicize artists.”

I’m still not sure how much those worlds intersect. For me, if art history isn’t intersecting with art makers then it feels irrelevant. So, I’m always on the lookout for where that connection is happening and how artists are using art history. The department was always moving towards that at SCAD, as they had to educate all these fine art majors; They needed to serve them and serve their career, which is a really good mission to have as an art history department. They really wanted to be relevant. For me, [art history] needs to be relevant. That’s why I always think Sixty Inches From Center is, of course, extremely relevant.

Miles with friends in Minneapolis. October, 2011. (Photo Credit: Zachary Johnson)

ZJ: How do you feel the art history knowledge that you gained at school impacts your daily life?

MJ: I think I’ve definitely become a lot more critical of things in general. My thesis process in college forced me to be a lot more critical of my own thoughts: what I’m trying to say, if that argument is sound, what claims I’m making, etc. So I think I see a lot of things through that lens now and think, “What is this saying? Is this a sound claim?”

I like pop culture, but a lot of times [my criticality] comes out towards that. I had this giant thesis process, where what I said was rejected and I had to come back with something stronger. So, I feel like a lot of ideas out there in the world are half-baked and not thought through enough. My [tendency to think that way] probably comes from my entire art school education because everyone is so critical. You have put a piece on the wall for a critique, and you think you worked really hard on it, but maybe you didn’t “shade that bowl as awesomely as you could have”, or whatever the case.

ZJ: Lastly, what are you up to you in your life currently?

MJ: Well, I live in Minneapolis now, so I no longer write for SIFC, which is sad. But I recently became a board member of a gallery called Altered Esthetics Gallery, so I’m serving a three-year position as their Artist Relations Coordinator. I’m still learning about the position; it’s still new. It’s exciting to me that it’s a 3-year position at a gallery that I find really engaging.

Also, I am an Americorps member with a program called the Community Technology Empowerment Project (CTEP), which means that I serve at a non-profit, teaching computer literacy to low-income individuals, many of them ex-offenders. I’m also in an indoor soccer league and take French lessons and go to trivia every week.

Miles’s past work as a contributor for The Chicago Arts Archive can be found here. More of his writing can be found at Read My List, a comedy blog he runs with fellow SCAD graduate Jamie Fischer.

The next installment of The Young Historians will be published on March 26th and feature Matthew Vanderpoel, 2009 graduate of Wheaton College’s Art History program.

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