Smart Scholars

The Smart Scholars program supports research opportunities for UChicago students at the Smart Museum of Art resulting in an original creative work (of visual art, music, dance, writing), program, or scholarly essay. Students propose their own projects grounded in academic research (library, database, archive, conservation, materials science laboratory, or other museums) into one or more objects in the Museum’s collection.

Smart Scholars is an initiative of the Smart Museum of Art’s Feitler Center for Academic Inquiry made possible in part by generous funding from the Smart Family Foundation of New York. Additional support has been provided by the University of Chicago’s College Center for Research & Fellowships (CCRF).

Project archive

Marco Kaisth
2020–2021 Smart Scholar
The chapbook the unfinished world by Marco Kaisth was created in response to research into the provenance of two Indian miniature paintings: the first, in the Smart Museum’s collection, the second, passed down through Kaisth’s family. While differentiated by provenance, subject, and material, the works themselves were unified by the lack of information available about them. The work in the Smart’s collection, drawing, had no information associated with it in the museum’s online catalog, and limited details available in the object’s physical file. The work in Kaisth’s family had even less information surrounding it: they only knew it likely depicted an ancestor, and was older than Kaisth’s grandmother.

Through consulting scholars of South Asian art history, Kaisth was able to trace the Smart’s miniature painting to early 1800s, pre-Vaishnavite Rajasthan, and discovered it likely depicts a courtly figure of some renown. While it is likely to have originated in Jaipur, Kaisth was unable to confirm or deny this via archival research. The painting in Kaisth’s family has a similarly murky origin: it matches his family’s origin, as from the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, and fits in neatly with the accompanying style of Pahari miniature paintings. The subject is marked by the artist (who we can tell is illiterate, by their mock-Urdu) as a scribe at work, in service of some unknown customer. Additionally, further inquiry into the object reveals something fairly unique among miniature paintings: a landscape-sketch on the back of the portrait itself.

When Kaisth set out on this project, he knew he would have to gain comfort with a lack of information, with stringing together what loose facts were available about these pieces, out in the world, into a satisfying object. This is the essential nature of diaspora: it makes us tug ourselves together, build ourselves piece-by-piece from the old and the new, from absence and from presence alike. Kaisth could not have predicted the messy year over which this project would come into being but creating this chapbook has helped serve as a kind of anchor, a way of constructing stability and meaning in a time without much. This chapbook served as a locus for revisiting and retooling earlier poetic works with a focus on finding meaning in distance and trajectory, an opportunity to layer the past with light.

Talia Ratnavale
2020–2021 Smart Scholar
Jean Baptiste’s under-appreciated work Socrates Tearing Away Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensuality was studied by means of a technical art historical method in which art historical background research is combined with a technical analysis of the work itself.

Regnault’s work can be situated in the context of the French Neoclassical art historical period. A visual of the subsurface layers of Socrates Tearing Away Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensuality revealed crucial choices made by the artist during this period which sets him apart from his contemporaries. In order to achieve the visualization of these layers, IR photography of the painting was conducted. Infrared photography makes use of longer wavelengths of light which can “pass” through the surface of a painting and are able to be reflected back into a specially modified camera. The findings of this study (both technical and art historical) revealed that Regnault maintained a dual interest in the themes of restraint and indulgence. A final paper was produced in which these findings were discussed. It serves as  proof of concept that a simple imaging setup can be used to achieve profound insights into the mind of an understudied painter such as Regnault, someone whose concerns might have been previously thought to be lost to history. Finally, in order to facilitate the research endeavors of future students, an IR photography guide was created which details the setup process.

An Trinh
2020-2021 Smart Scholar
In The Teahouse in Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints: A Comparative Case Study of Two Prints from Hiroshige I and Hiroshige II, An Trinh studied Ise Province: Mount Asama, Teahouse on the Mountain Pass by Utagawa Hiroshige and Naka-no-chô in the Yoshiwara by Hiroshige II in the Smart Museum of Art’s collection. The teahouse is shared imagery in both prints; however, these teahouses serve different functions and purposes. The teahouse in Mount Asama is more similar to a chashitsu, which is a traditional house designed for the tea ceremony, but with a more open design for the pilgrims on their way to one of the holiest shrines in Japan—the Ise Grand Shrine. Meanwhile, the teahouses on Naka-no-chô street were representatives of the ochaya, or the place that served both tea and different forms of entertainment.

Despite these different uses, the teahouses were portrayed by two artists with similar purposes: to lure the audience away from their mundane and full-of-worry daily lives and to construct alternatives filled with happiness and liberation. They were both made in the final years of the Edo period, when foreigners’ expeditions and warships’ intruded into Japanese territory, and the country was pressured to modernize and Westernize. Although this period was later shown to have momentous impact on the development of Japan, at that time, for the common people, it was experienced in daily life as a period of economic and political turmoil after a very prolonged period of peace, where prices were inflated, wars emerged, and many traditions were threatened with extinction. Thus, the chashitsu on Mount Asama was a place for spiritual escape and the ochaya in Yoshiwara nurtured audiences’ physical and emotional desires, so that although they could not run away from reality, they could at least spend some moments dreaming about escape.

The teahouses also provided the physical structure for these fantasies. As a Geographical Sciences and Environmental & Urban Studies double-major, Trinh was fascinated with anything related to the meaning and function of structure, and how that played role in the social interactions societally. Trinh produced a short essay for this comparative case study and a creative video using print-making and stop-motion animation to convey this thesis in different media. Trinh wanted to show how art and architecture played a vital role in shaping history and reflecting it, as the precious historical consciousness would have been completely lost without artists portraying mundane, daily life.

Chuwen Xiao
2020–2021 Smart Scholar
This project explored the use of Chinese ink in modern and contemporary Chinese art through two pieces held in the Smart museum’s collection: Mozart (1977) by Lü Wu-Chiu and Green Matter (2002) by Xian Hong. In the research phase of this project, Xiao closely studied the visual structure of the two pieces and focused on the narrative interaction between ink and paper that emerges within each painting. These artworks, like many Chinese ink paintings, conduct a mediated dialogue between the painted subject and the empty space of the paper. These observations are also integrated with Xiao’s research on the larger climate of ink wash practiced by Chinese artists, where a contemplation of cultural identity and conflict of temporality are at the core of modernizing the ink medium for the present. Indeed, the mature and practiced control of Chinese ink can be observed in both Lü and Hong’s modern application of the medium.

The exploration of these two paintings and academic research on Chinese ink wash painting inspired a 34-page illustrated storybook that follows a cow’s journey across inked worlds in search for more grass to eat. Merchandise such as sticker sheets and postcards were also designed and printed as an extension of the light-hearted storybook. Echoes of Lü and Hong’s paintings can be found throughout the landscapes journeyed by the story’s protagonist. With Xiao’s background in illustration and brief training in ink painting, the creative process of this zine challenged her to synthesize the traditional ink medium with digital drawing and image manipulation. The images are painted with ink on xuan paper, then manipulated digitally to accentuate the material interaction between ink and paper in the printed medium. Xiao embraced the mediated consumption of the ink wash painting as she could only experience these paintings through a digitized photograph for a significant portion of the project. Later seeing these two paintings in person and re-experiencing the spatial and visual relationship of the ink paintings’ materiality heavily inspired the visual arrangement of this book. Through this storybook, Xiao aimed to emulate the innovative and meditative compositions of Lü and Hong’s artworks and transform these elements into her own creative narrative adventure.

Conor Bulkeley-Krane
2019–2020 Smart Scholar
Conor Bulkeley-Krane pursued an interdisciplinary interpretation of Roger Brown’s lithographs in the Smart Museum’s archives. Bulkeley-Krane aimed to study the works with an eye toward the key thematic and structural features of the lithographs, in the context of Brown’s broader work, in order to manifest those elements in an original audio-visual artwork.

The project was conducted in two phases. First was an analysis and conceptual synthesis of the artworks. Before delving into the scholarship, Bulkeley-Krane sought to attend to the Roger Brown lithographs on their own terms. It was essential to form initial conceptions free from an imported academic inflection. Bulkeley-Krane visited the Roger Brown lithographs and related paintings in the Smart Museum’s archives, meditated on the works, and then pursued scholarship on Roger Brown including critical reflections and the posters of his art shows at the Regenstein Library. Bulkeley-Krane’s first key insight was that particular figures (the standing woman, the man smoking) reappear across many of the lithographs and paintings, expressing the same gestures and dispositions in varying configurations. These repeated figures are scattered across his work, but Bulkeley-Krane focused on their appearance in select lithographs where their interrelations presented heightened tension. These figures are two-dimensional silhouettes, often expressing reactions to the world, but their interiority is opaque. The precise inner meaning of each figure is concealed but their attitude towards the world of the artworks presents itself gesturally, and their varying repetition across the works suggests aspirations towards narrative within the works considered as a whole, an idea also supported in the Brown scholarship. Some figures are entirely self-absorbed (the smoking man), other figures ask questions (the pointing woman). These repeated figures occupy an artworld characterized by the textural patterns of machine suburbia. Patterns of gears often occupy the horizon while the foregrounds present geometric buildings. The figure-world relation across the lithographs is discordant, suggesting a tension, between the repetitive textural structure enacted by the emerging presence of machines, and the place of the individual in suburban domesticity.

For the second phase, Bulkeley-Krane produced a piece of conceptual-audio-visual synthesis. Drawing on the student’s technical knowledge of analog electronic modular synthesis, previously developed in Bulkeley-Krane’s electronic music practice, this student used Smart Scholars funds to procure a video synthesis module, an experimental instrument component that allowed Bulkeley-Krane to build a dual-sensory electronic performance instrument. With this instrument, Bulkeley-Krane was able to dramatize Brown’s work cinematically. Using control voltage connections, the student fed images of Brown’s art into this dual-sensory instrument, and had the textures of his work literally affect the sound being generated, and vice versa. In this sonic interpretative piece, Bulkeley-Krane aimed to make present certain Brownian themes and structures: an industrial atmosphere, repetitions of patterns, questions asked but no questions answered (melodically phrased: unresolving musical passages; dissonance between leading figures and background mood), uncanny harmonics of human being and machine.

Katerina Stefanescu
2019–2020 Smart Scholar
Katerina Stefanescu worked on uniting interests in numismatics, rigorous academic research, and community outreach through a Family Day experience inspired by a few of the coins in the Smart Museum’s collection. Specifically, Stefanescu was inspired by the Smart's coins of Flacus Valerius Constantinus from the 2nd century CE.

The Smart’s collection of ancient coinage from this period reflects the historical trajectory of coinage manufacturing technology as well as the origins of coinage as an effective form of propaganda. Partnering with the Oriental Institute’s phenomenal collection of pre-coinage and early forms of trade originating from Mesopotamia, Stefanescu hopes to inspire local Hyde Park children to appreciate the artistry and history in something as ordinary as the coins in their pockets. In a Family Day event that spans both the Smart Museum and the Oriental Institute, there are numerous hands-on activities, culminating in material investigations that explore the relationship among designed objects, currency, language, communication, and business.

Through activities inspired by the ancient world and trading exercises and games, participants develop a better understanding of the day-to-day function and form of coins, currency, weights and measures, and commerce. These activities include a tour of the Oriental Institute’s exhibition of Mesoptomian trade and commerce, a grain bowl-making station, an aluminum foil-coin image imprinting station, and a clay coin-minting station.

Juhi Gupta
2018–2019 Smart Scholar
Juhi Gupta is a new media and installation artist and progressive political organizer in Chicago who is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 2019 with a B.A. in Visual Arts and Public Policy. Her work strives to engage with contemporary sociopolitical issues, specifically dealing with technology as an apparatus of power and utopia/dystopia. During her tenure as Smart Scholar, Gupta studied the creative practice of Adrian Piper—an esteemed Black conceptual artist who has spent her decades-long career provoking political dialogue about Black stereotypes, internalized racism, and othering through her art. Piper utilizes a variety of hybrid artistic-political strategies in her work, including direct address, interactivity, installation, and the use of the body as a site of resistance. However, where Piper’s artwork focuses more on interpersonal manifestations of white supremacy, our fraught sociopolitical moment calls for a more institutional critique—one that engages with the online culture and digital discourse characteristic of the 21st century. Gupta’s project takes Adrian Piper’s artistic strategies as a point of departure to explore racial capitalism and structural oppression in the context of Chicago police forces, positing what Piper’s political art might look like when updated for 2019.

In Se (Mary) Moon
2018–2019 Smart Scholar
As a fourth-year Philosophy major and Creative Writing minor, Mary Moon plans to attend Harvard Divinity School after graduating from the University of Chicago to further pursue her interest in Buddhism. Moon’s Smart Scholars project was about inviting the religious experience into religious art exhibits, thereby transmuting the art objects’ status from the passive, viewed “object” into an interactive “subject” that is on par with the viewer. Moon researched the “Buddha image,” including Seated Buddha Amitabha (Amita) (The Buddha of Infinite Light) in the Smart Museum’s collection, and how the Buddha emerged as an icon in Buddhism despite central theories of anatta, or no-self.

Zachary Sherman
2018–2019 Smart Scholar
As a fourth-year student studying Media Arts and Design, Zachary Sherman plans to design and engineer decentralized, democratic software with Open Work Labs in New York City after graduating from the University of Chicago. The Hairy Who made funny art that, according to them, existed for its own sake. While the Funk artists in California were dropping acid and making ceramics and the Pop artists were trying to art-ify mass culture, Chicago was left feeling very lonely without cool, weird artists to call its own. So, the rich Chicago art collectors picked the Hairy Who, made them famous, and now we get to look at their cool, weird stuff fifty years later. Reflecting on this, the artwork resulting from Zachary Sherman’s Smart Scholars project attempts to pick up the Hairy-Who-thread of playful art and put it through the cultural meat grinder of the online.