Abigail Susik credits her interest in art history to an unquenchable curiosity

by University Communications,

When she’s not salsa dancing or kickboxing, Abigail Susik loves to research and write about Surrealism, photography and new media art.

The Florida native has never failed to maintain a variety of interests. She entered college intending to major in creative writing and theatre, and was pulled in another direction when she stumbled into a graduate lecture on art history.

“I remember my mind sparking,” Susik says. “I fell in love with the material and I was completely curious. I read everything on the syllabus and I became totally fascinated.”

That fascination propelled her through her education over the next decade, during which she earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in art history.

Now, Susik shares her enthusiasm with the Willamette community. She teaches, collaborates with students on research projects, curates art exhibitions at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art and organizes Hogue-Sponenburgh lectures with her department colleagues.

Susik says that teaching came naturally to her — plus it energized her love for researching and writing about art history.

Teaching at Willamette

Now in her fourth year at Willamette, Susik says it’s her favorite place to teach. Her courses focus on modern and contemporary studies, dating back to World War I and including art made in the 21st century.

“One of my favorite things about teaching is the way in which my students constantly teach me, showing me new things I have never noticed or encountered before,” Susik says. “My classroom is a kind of unpredictable laboratory in that sense.”

In return, Susik’s students say they find her excitement contagious.

“I get the impression that she’s not only motivated and really serious about her work, but that her passion drives her to be a really good professor,” says Pauline Douglass ’15, an art history major.

Emily Arnold ’16, another art history major, agrees, adding that Susik’s classes pose a rewarding challenge.

“She makes the environment really inviting,” Arnold says, “and I’ve learned from her that even though it seems really difficult, you can digest all these complicated theories and difficult theoreticians and ideas.

“She’s made the class really fun and interesting. I look forward to it even though it’s my hardest class this semester.”

Susik says Willamette students are especially inquisitive.

“Teaching here is a unique experience because our students are so amazing and engaged with the material and open to learning,” she says. “I’m constantly engaged by these conversations and mutual sharing.”

Reading, Writing and Curating

Along with teaching, Susik is working on several publications and curating an exhibit for Willamette University’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art.

The HFMA exhibit will feature modernist photographer Imogen Cunningham, who lived from 1883-1976. Cunningham is known for her outdoor nude photographs of men and women, which prominently feature the landscape of the Pacific Northwest.

The 40-piece exhibit represents Cunningham’s first solo museum show in Oregon since her youth. Susik has already traveled to the San Juan Islands to meet with the artist’s granddaughter and select pieces for the display.

“She’s famous in international photography circles, but she’s not as well-represented in Northwest collections,” Susik says.

“I want to address that and I want to think about the role of the body in her work as a Northwest American woman. I want to know more about why she felt able to be so frank about the body, sexuality and nudity in this era with photography.”

The show will be a departure from the Hallie Ford’s usual exhibitions and will debut in spring 2016, Susik says.

“It should create some conversations on campus that will be interesting. It’s not exactly erotic — some of it is, but it should be one of the more body-oriented shows that the Hallie Ford has featured,” she says.

Meanwhile, Susik is crafting pieces for an online catalog exhibition and a new Surrealism textbook. She’s converting her dissertation into her first monograph, titled “Dream Kitsch: Benjamin, Aragon, and Surrealism.”

The monograph explores what art historian Walter Benjamin calls “dream kitsch,” a category that includes objects that are “outmoded and obsolescent, kitschy, commercial and popular,” Susik says.

“During the 1920s, the notion of commodity obsolescence was forming for the very first time,” Susik says. “Benjamin wrote about the way artists who later came to be associated with Surrealism combined the cheap pop culture debris from the recent past into explosive works of art.”

Driven by Curiosity

Looking ahead, Susik wants to continue working with the HFMA. She has worked collaboratively with several students on research projects such as the Liberal Arts Research Collaborative (LARC) and Carson Undergraduate Research Grants — and she intends to build more of those synergetic relationships with students.

She plans to publish a second and third monograph in coming years and to teach a new media art history class. She also hopes to increase the awareness and historical study of new digital art practices that use technology — such as microcontrollers, computers, sensors and lasers — in ways that “exceed commercial and utilitarian goals.”

“I am interested in teaching and researching the history of new media art because it speaks so profoundly to the state of our current culture and the potential futures that await us,” she says. “It’s the direct correlate to science fiction in literature.”

Above all, though, Susik says she plans to continue learning.

“For me, teaching is forever tied to the task of learning,” she says. “An unquenchable curiosity drives both the intellectual question and its dizzying range of possible answers.”

Susik’s years of dedication and curiosity have paid off, and now, she says, she does what she loves every day: reading, research and writing.

Grinning, she says, “I have high job satisfaction, if you can’t tell.”

• Article by Emma Jonas ’15, creative writing major