A series of symposiums dissects the history of art in the American West 

click to enlarge “Mandan Buffalo Dancer” by Karl Bodmer - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • “Mandan Buffalo Dancer” by Karl Bodmer

Years ago in Austin, Texas, Jackson Rushing went looking for a friend of his in a well-known hangout for artists. While scanning the place for his pal, he saw an intriguing flyer for an art history symposium in New York City tacked to a bulletin board. Rushing, a graduate student in art history at the University of Texas at the time, answered the call for papers. He found his friend and then, soon after, found himself speaking in front of an elite crowd of scholars, museum professionals and art historians at The Whitney Museum of American Art.

His paper on the influence of American Indian art on Jackson Pollock later became material for a chapter in his first book as a professional art historian.

“It’s pure serendipity,” Rushing said. “Had I not gone looking for this friend, I never would have known about this.”

Eight graduate students from institutes and universities around the U.S. and Canada will take a similar rite of passage as Rushing and others present papers on new research and development in Native American art history and the art of the American West. The presentations are a part of the first international symposium from the University of Oklahoma’s art history doctoral program.

Rushing, OU art history professor and Mary Lou Milner Carver Chair in Native American Art, and other faculty members juried the submissions on the criteria that students were doing innovative research either “rethinking” studied art and artists, “reimagining” solutions to art historical problems or delving into uncharted discussion.

“We wanted to see proposals that had a strong sense of methodology, that were making original claims, that seemed to have evidence to support that,” Rushing said. “We were looking for diversity in terms of subject matter, gender diversity, and we’ve been really pleased with the way it’s come together.”

With titles like “Columbia River Style Mountain Sheep Horn Bowls and Ladles,” “Crafting Modern Indian Art” and “OMG!! Did she just say NDN penis?” the symposium has a diverse lineup of lectures. In simpler terms, four talks will focus on exploration and exploitation of land and the other four will center on culture and identity.

“It’s a nice salt and pepper,” Rushing said.

Despite the lectures covering specific Native artists or issues and incorporating art-world jargon like “geographic essentialism,” “sovereign erotics” and “primitivism,” Rushing said the symposium should not deter everyday museum-goers or non-art students from attending.

“One of the things one has to learn to do, especially as a junior or emerging scholar, is to hit multiple audiences — to be able to speak to your peers and demonstrate that you’re doing something new and interesting but to reach out to a more general audience.”

Reaching out to unfamiliar or general audiences is also the reason no OU graduate students are presenting papers in this symposium. Like Rushing, who traveled to New York City from Austin to give his lecture, the eight students presenting are from outside institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Michigan and Carleton University in Ottawa, among others.

“We wanted to expose our students, who are generating new research and new content, to the work of their peers at other institutions,” Rushing said. “We think it’s, careerwise, better for them to go give conference papers somewhere else.”

OU students and the general public are encouraged to initiate discussion and network with the panelists following lectures.

The free, daylong symposium kicks off at 9 a.m. Friday at Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. A reception for the event will be held on Thursday with a keynote address given by Emily Neff, museum director and chief curator.

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