A scholar with a strong background in a variety of subjects, Associate Professor of Art Lisa Collins strives to analyze the crossroads of different identities.
“I am interested in the intersection between African-American history and creativity and imagination,” she said. “So I like to look at the stories of African-American history and what people have created and made with their hands and minds.”
Collins has focused on the study of African-American Art because it combines both her interests in African-American history and art. At Vassar, in order to better study the intersection, Collins does interdisciplinary scholarship in Art History, Africana Studies, American Culture Studies and Women’s Studies.
She received her Bachelor of Arts in Art History at Dartmouth College and became interested in African art initially because it features extensive variety.
Though during her time there, her eventual interest was not a prevalent part of the curriculum, she managed to take advantage of the courses that the university did have to offer. “We didn’t have African American Art at Dartmouth in the 80s, but I took a couple of classes that I really enjoyed in African Art,” said Collins. “And what I liked about those classes is that, again, it was a very expansive idea of what art is,” she added.
She found that these art forms are very diverse.“The art could be a move, could be a mask, could be a dance, could be the way they do the hair.” Collins said.
Later in her academic studies, Collins turned her focus on African-American Art.“I think what I learned from studying African Art at that time was just how broad the concept of art is and could be,” Collins said.
“I like that approach, so I think in some ways I took the African approach that I so admired and applied it to studying an African-American context.”
In her Art History classes, she seeks to employ different media. “In my class, the art is not just painting and sculpture, but I am also interested in baskets, pottery and quilts,” she said.
In the fall, Collins taught the course “Politics of Art/Art of Politic”, a Freshmen Writing Seminar cross-listed between Art History and American Culture Studies. In this class, she tried to convey the broad definition of art and conceptualize it through words.
“We looked at photographs. We looked at quilts,” she said. “We also did a lot of writing. We drafted and we wrote and we thought about what sentences worked. We thought about the craft of writing.”
This year, Collins is one of the two coordinators of Art 105-106, “Introduction to the History of Art”. The course, which features a rotating roster of professors matched by expertise to a given lecture, will have Collins introduce African-American Art after spring break.
She gives lectures on the visual and material culture of slavery, the Jazz Age Harlem Renaissance, and the art and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States.
Collins is interested not only in African-American art itself, but also its influences.
“There are definitely places where you can see the links between African Art and African-American Art, but there are places that probably are not links,” Collins said.
“So one of the interesting questions to explore is what are the sources, what are the influences. Do they come from Europe? Do they come from Africa? Are they indigenous to the US? Do they come from Native America? Do they come from living in a city? Do they come from the rural South? These questions are interesting because African-American Art is very synthetical.”
At the University of Minnesota, Collins received her Ph.D. in American Studies. Along with Visual Art and American Culture, she is also interested in feminist theory. It inspired Collins to blend the history of women artists into her academic research and courses.
This semester, Collins is teaching a research seminar which combines Africana Studies, American Culture, Women’s Studies and Art History.
This seminar, called “Art and Activism,” explores the African-American Arts of the Black Power movement and the feminist art of the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1960s and 1970s.
“In that seminar, we are looking at the primary sources of art, manifestos, exhibition catalogue and poetry.” Collins said. “We are going to end this semester by looking at some of the people who were trying to draw sustenance from both movements to create their art.”
Collins expresses her thoughts on Art, Black Culture and Feminism not only in her classes but also in her research and publications. She wrote on the subject that parallels between the African American Arts movement and Feminism Art Movement.
Her book The Art of History: African-American Women Artists Engage the Past, published in 2002, connects the two topics.
At present, Collins is writing a project called Love Lies Here. The work focuses on a black woman named Missouri Pettway in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.
“I am looking at the quilt she made out of her newly-deceased husband’s work clothes because she wanted to make a quilt to remember him by. So I am looking at the quilt she made, and how it might serve her as she was mourning the loss of her husband,” she said
As an African-American, Collins also thinks that learning African-American history helps her know herself and her community better.
“It is tied with my own family history.” Collins said, “My father was born in Alabama. And the quilt project that I am studying now is about a woman also born in Alabama. My father was born in an industrial city. She was born in a rural community.”
Collins finds that understanding her own background and ancestry helps to illuminate her own work.