Posted by Elyse Mack
“What happened to law school?” my dad (half) jokingly asked the day I declared an Art and Performance major. I smiled, laughed, and told him that I had fallen in love with a man named Leonardo.
Leonardo da Vinci.
No, it wasn’t Leonardo’s fantastic beard that swept me away, nor was it his fabled charm. What drew me to Leonardo was his deep curiosity about the world, which ranged from civil engineering to anatomy to robotics.
Oh yeah, and he was pretty good at painting.
Studying Leonardo is demanding. It requires knowledge of mythology, history, architecture, politics, philosophy, and yes, science.
Despite the intellectual weight with which he painted, his figures maintain a lightness that can only be described as life, and the spaces he places them in have physical and emotional depth. Studying these elements requires formal knowledge of artistic techniques.
But best of all, studying Leonardo requires studying the milieu of Renaissance Italy — the way giants like Michelangelo and Botticelli interacted with dukes, popes, queens, and each other, all resulting in one of the richest intellectual environments in all of human history.
By studying one man, I got to study the world. Because of McDermott, I get to see the world.
The summer after my crash course on Leonardo, I traveled to Italy to see the Renaissance masters’ works for myself. When the golden crest of the Colosseum appeared around the bend, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to Art History. When the cluster of iPads and fanny packs finally parted so that I could see Botticelli’s Primavera, I knew I wanted to study Art History. When I sat in front of the wall of the Santa Maria della Grazie refectory that mercifully survived bombings during World War II, the one with Leonardo’s Last Supper painted on it, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to Art History.
Even though my Madonna and Child stamina was spent by the end of my Italian summer, there is no replacement for experiencing something in person. It’s hard — even as a Jew — not to feel a deep sense of awe when standing under Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling. Maybe it’s because it signals the end of the marathon hike through the Vatican, but I believe at least a small part is recognition of the lasting power of paint and a brush.
But studying art is not always easy — even if it is a lot of fun — especially at UTD. Our school is known for its engineering, computer science, business, and even political science programs. But art history?
Like most things at UTD, the art history department here is burgeoning. Yes, this means fewer faculty and therefore a smaller variety of classes. But it also means that I have had one-on-one meetings with many of the art history professors here, plus a few in history and literature as well. I have attended lectures and symposia with them. Even better, my classes are small enough that they know me extremely well, which results in more personalized letters of recommendation.
UTD’s focus on STEM creates more opportunities for me outside the classroom as well. I am not competing for a spot in a lab against 100 other equally qualified undergraduates, nor have I been studying for the MCAT since second semester of my freshman year.
I get to work in beautiful places, like the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center. I get to plan art retreats for my McDermott class, like the one we took last fall to Molly’s house in Eureka Springs, where we saw the world renowned collection at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. I get to hone my skills as a writer and as a leader by running AMP, the campus opinion and satire magazine. Last summer, I got to work at the fifth largest museum in the nation, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Art is at once a raw, emotional outpouring and a layered, calculated communication of thought. The way an artist sees the world and the way the artist’s world has shaped her to see are hidden between layers of paint.
Studying art may not be your style. But the power of the image surrounds us, and Art History provides the tools necessary to dissect that power. Whether we’re looking at Giotto’s Arena Chapel or a Ford F 150 commercial, we need to understand why we are presented with images, how they were made, and the circumstances that shaped them.
At the end of the day, the most important skill we can learn — no matter what we choose to study — is truly listening to another person’s perspective.