Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

New Position; Welcome Back to St. Olaf!

It is hard to believe that I just finished my first department meeting of the year back at St. Olaf College! It was wonderful to see familiar faces and to meet a few new ones as well. As you can see, my office is slowly coming together (although still in a bit of disarray). Slowly, but surely, things are feeling more alive.

The past week of orientation and meetings have been a major cause for personal reflection about teaching and learning. One of the key threads that wove itself through these intensive few days has been the importance of equity and inclusion, especially as it relates to our classes, our syllabi, and our connections to each other. It is always worthwhile to have these conversations together in community, rather than trying to parse out their meaning in a vacuum. I can’t help but reflect on several tenants provided to us by Rev. Dr. Jaime Washington, who delivered our keynote address. Without giving away all of the richness of his examples and metaphors, I kept going back to an idea he presented us regarding how to understand inclusion in real terms: a house versus a home. He spoke about inviting someone into your house (that you presumably own or pay for) and telling them to make themselves at home. While the words are coming from a heartfelt place, if the visitor changes something in the house, the owner will likely feel a certain kind of way. “I know I told you to make yourself at home, but this is my house!” Our institutions often operate in this manner. Colleges recruit students and faculty of color, tell them to be “at home” as members of the community, but never allow them to truly be at home. Instead, they are outsiders in someone else’s house. The question becomes how to we change this.

He offered us several tenants or ideas that I’ve been reflecting on (and I post them here for fear of losing them):

  • Communities are built through building relationships of trust and commitment
  • We are all doing the best we can (most of the time).
  • We don’t know all there is to know.
  • Just because you are, doesn’t mean you understand.
  • Oppression is pervasive and impacts us all.
  • Not our faults, but we must accept responsibility.
  • Conflict and discomfort are often a part of growth.
  • Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
  • Practice some forgiveness and letting things go.
  • Self-work, healing and self love are necessary for acceptance of others.
  • There are no quick fixes.
  • Individuals and communities do grow and change.
  • There is HOPE!

I’m grateful to have the next few days to think through what these things mean for me, my syllabi, and my students. How can I create a classroom that promotes inclusion and equity; a classroom that belongs to the students, rather than one they merely occupy? I’m open to any and all resources that you may have! Just post in the comments below…

Impermanence of Sand: Teaching Tibetan Sand Mandalas

We are moving on to Vajrayana Buddhism in Buddhist Art & Architecture and we created individual sand mandalas to commemorate the occasion. The goal was to not only understand what a mandala is, but how they can embody the idea of visualization, meditation, and impermanence in a Tibetan context. We’ll look at an actual preserved sand mandala at the Minneapolis Institute of Art on Wednesday. I just wanted to share the colorful fruits of my students’ labor!

  • Mandala by G.M.

    Mandala by G.M.

  • Mandala by C.H.

    Mandala by C.H.

  • Mandalas by M.K. (left) and D.T. (right)

    Mandalas by M.K. (left) and D.T. (right)

  • Mandala by N.X.

    Mandala by N.X.

  • Destruction can be just as beautiful as creation. Mandala by L.A.

    Destruction can be just as beautiful as creation. Mandala by L.A.

  • Our collective labor! Tossed to the wind.

    Our collective labor! Tossed to the wind.

Welcome to Version 3: My Illustrated Life

Redesigning a website feels a little bit like cleaning my house. It progressively gets “messy” to the point that I can’t stand it anymore, I drop everything, and then clean it from top to bottom. Once I begin the process, there is no stopping me, and it consumes every moment of free time until the project is complete. Then, I collapse into a pile on the floor admiring my sparkling living space.

So from my prone position, welcome to Version 3 of my online portfolio/cv/blog. I tend to live with my site layouts for some time. I get excited when I first implement them, grow into them, and eventually grow out of them. Especially as I grow and shift in my career and interests, the site needs to respond in kind. This latest version better showcases the various hats I wear as an academic, a teacher, and a digital humanist. The website features illustrations that I created of myself and my interests through an app called Assembly that my student M introduced to me just before winter break. Although I’m trained in Illustrator, there is something delightfully fun about pinching and zooming my way to an illustration.

The site has a flat, minimalist style and is a LOT snappier than the previous version. Let me know your thoughts below.

Meiji-era Prints in the St. Kate’s Special Collections

Special Collections, St. Catherine University Library

I feel like I keep saying this a lot, but I’m often surprised about the treasures that are hidden in plain sight. When I first arrived at St. Kate’s, Heather Carroll, a graduate student in the Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS) Program, told me that we had a few Japanese prints hidden in the library’s Special Collections. It has taken us a year, but we finally picked a day to head down to the library to check them out. As we slowly lifted the prints off the cart, I quickly realized that “a few” was in reality MANY! I took study photographs of about 70 prints just this past October.

There are some exceptions (such as a few examples of sōsaku hanga), but most of the prints we found are Meiji-era (from between 1890 and 1899). A few different artists are represented, but we have a fair number from Chikanobu Yōshū (楊洲周延) (1838-1912) also known as Chikanobu Hashimoto or Chikanobu Toyohara (seen in the top example). Most of our prints at St. Kate’s come from a series about court ladies living in the Chiyoda Palace. As an artist, Chikanobu first studied Kano School painting before moving on to ukiyo-e, where he was a disciple of Keisai Eisen. Later he studied under Ichiyūsai Kuniyoshi and then Kunisada. Many of our works have subject matter that hails from either earlier historical periods or from Japanese mythology, but we also have a few prints that conspicuously recognize the changing nature of Japan under modernization with red brick (akarenga) and the Emperor in Western military garb.

Special Collections, St. Catherine University Library

We are in the process of identifying the prints, assessing their condition, and looking for the original donor information. Together, we hope to figure out a better storage solution that will keep them laying flat and prevent them from curling. Long term, it would be great to put together some sort of exhibition to reintroduce these prints to the St. Kate’s community. We have some big idea, so stay tuned!

St. Kate’s Scholar’s Retreat: The Virtues of Writing Socially

During the school year, I always bemoan a lack of time and yearn for summer days when I will be totally free to write that latest book proposal / article / essay / blog / conference abstract… And yet, every time the summer comes, I find it hard to find the focus and motivation to get work done. I know that I’m not alone in my struggles, as it seems to be one of the most common topics of commiseration among faculty both old and new. But I can never help feeling like I am struggling along in front of an empty Word .doc. And before I know it, the summer comes to a close as we turn our attention towards course preps and upcoming departmental meetings. The summer is fleeting.

I’m trying to psych myself out of these ruts by establishing a daily practice, but it is sometimes easier said than done. But this past week, I had a wonderful opportunity to unite with other faculty in disciplines across campus for the St. Catherine University Scholar’s Retreat. The image I had in my mind was “writing bootcamp,” but the actual experience was quite different. It really made me think about the process of writing socially. The two facilitators of our group encouraged us to mix writing and work with periods of dedicated play. We were encouraged not to lock ourselves in a conference room with nothing but coffee, computers, and a laser-jet printer, although that was how I imagined our entire week at the Oakridge Conference Center in Chaska, MN. We had a schedule that stressed balance and we were expected to keep to it to avoid writing binges, structured around “Sacred Writing Time,” or periods of uninterrupted work. This writing time could occur in company (I liked to work in one of the larger rooms with about 6 others), or alone in your room, in nature, or in any other nook. A typical day looked like the following:

7-9am: Continental Breakfast
9-11am: Sacred Writing Time
11:15am-12pm: Small Group Meeting (progress check in and the setting of daily goals)
12-1pm: Lunch
1-2pm: Individual Meeting (if needed)
2-4pm: Sacred Writing Time
4-6pm: Play
6-7pm: Dinner
7:15-9pm: Large Group Meeting (which consisted mostly of public readings of works in progress)

The fact that I got more work done in these dedicated two hour chunks than one of my 8-hour coffee-shop binge sessions was enlightening. I kept thinking, “I can get more work done in two 2-hour chunks than a solid 8 hours of effort?! What magic is this?!” But I really think the process was effective because of breaks and the cultivation of a writer’s community–with people who faced the same struggles and neuroses as the rest of us. This week, I felt like my work was part of something larger. And through the process, an 8-page conference paper blossomed into a 25-page draft (complete with references). More work needs to be done, but I’m going to try my hand at allotting my own Sacred Writing Time during the week, and see how that goes. It begins today.

And as an added bonus of the process? Learning about the scholarly work and ambitions of my other colleagues in fields as diverse as English, Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Biology, and Business. As I walk around campus this fall, I now have 13 newly familiar faces to greet me during Opening Workshops. I can even tell you what they are working on!

The more I reflect, the more I think that graduate programs should embrace similar retreats to teach their students and faculty how to establish a healthy writing practice. I try to think about when I learned all of the bad habits that I am trying desperately to unlearn. Was it when I was dissertating in coffee shops across the U.S. and Japan? How about cranking out seminar papers on the quarter system? Did it begin in my undergraduate education? Or in high school? I think that by the time we enter graduate school, everyone makes the assumption that not only can we write well, but that we can do so efficiently. But writing can be a struggle if it is not routine. And since there will never be enough time, we need to protect the time we allot in order to make writing a more mundane part of our schedule.

Because if I am telling the truth, my best work was never the result of divine inspiration. And I bet yours wasn’t either. It was the product of a daily toil and a special kind of perseverance to keep returning to that same draft no matter what frustrations I harbored. And the daily courage to sit down and double click on the document in order to begin.

Constructing a (Digital) Resource: Isabella Bird in Japan

The summer is off to a fantastic start! It has been hard to get my head into writing, so I’ve thrown my effort into developing a new online resource using ArcGIS and the StoryMap feature that they offer for free. It isn’t live yet, but I’m close…

I have some experience working with the basic functions of mapping in ArcGIS through the Traveling Hokkaido project. I’ve got a long way to go before that work is done, but I wanted to make a resource more squarely focused on the various dimensions of a single traveler. Since I’ve been working on an essay on the role of illustration and the depiction of the Ainu in Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880) (which will be moving to proofs soon, hopefully), I thought this might make a nice supplement.

My goal with this is to create something that is accessible for audiences of all ages. The points I plotted out for Traveling Hokkaido form the basis of the Hokkaido map above, but I’ve gone through Bird’s itinerary and began plotting out her travel in Honshu as well. Although her journey is in two volumes, I am breaking it up into four stages: Yokohama to Niigata, Niigata to Aomori, Hokkaido, and Kansai. Each point on the map to the right is an actual location Bird indicates either in text or in her itinerary. For each pin, I am going through the original 1880 text and isolating relevant quotes that pertain to place, geography, specific sites, or customs. I haven’t worked with her first volume extensively before this, and it has been enlightening to see seasonal changes and her subjective evaluations of place before and after her time in Hokkaido.

In addition to creating an overview of her entire Japan trip, I’m also trying to conxtualize the importance of her time in Hokkaido. I feel committed to doing this in terms of Japanese history while also recognizing the current state of the Ainu in the Saru River valley, where Bird spent her time. I’m highlighting the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum, the Kayano Shigeru Ainu Museum, and the legal debate regarding the Nibutani Dam. Too many popular writers only see the Ainu in terms of their “pastness” and it would be irresponsible not to consider their present and their future.

As I put this together, I am also compiling ideas for an Educator’s Guide pitched towards high school and undergraduate students. I want to give educators ideas about how to use this series of maps in their classes. (After all, what good is a resource if you don’t know how to use it?) I think it could be extremely useful in Japanese history (of course), discussions of Victorian travel writing in literature, understanding the role of women in 19th century exploration, understanding the role of the Ainu in these narratives, and as a way to highlight the geographic context for understanding earlier practices of tourism that inform our own “beaten routes” today.

A work in progress! I anticipate releasing the project in two weeks or so. The Educator’s Guide might come a little bit later, but it will definitely be done before fall. For now, enjoys the screenshots!

Grades Are In! Finishing My First Year at St. Kate’s

Grades are in, the seniors have graduated, and campus is unusually quiet. Welcome to summer!

(Did anyone ever notice that Will Smith is wearing a Speed Racer t-shirt? I feel like my students in Global Japan would appreciate this!)
(Also — what a great video to use when talking about the role of the gaze.)

It has been an amazing year at St. Kate’s, and I continue to be grateful to have landed at an institution that has values so closely in line with my own, especially with regard to issues of social justice. After reflecting on my own experiences at co-educational institutions (K-12, undergraduate, graduate), I have constantly grappled with what it means to actually teach at a women’s university. As this year draws to a close, I feel like I am one step closer to understanding the importance of this commitment.

Like most of us in education, I look forward to the summer with relief and anticipation! I have a whole bucket list of things to accomplish over the next few months.


My (Ambitious) Goals for the Summer

  • Continue working on the Evelyn Goodrow Mitsch collection at St. Kate’s and flesh out my previous conference presentation into a full essay on chirimen-bon and US collecting practices. It will be good to get back into the archives without having to run to class!
  • Finish an essay about indigenous representation in gaming, based on conference presentations at Console-ing Passions, Mechademia, and the Popular Culture Association.
  • Begin inputting data I have collected for Traveling Hokkaido for Arnold Henry Savage Landor in ArcGIS. Because his travel was so extensive, this will be a lengthy undertaking… I also need to decide on future figures whose journeys I want to map and include in the project. My end goal is to have 6-8 journeys mapped with illustrations in order to be a useful, comparative, and open-source digital resource for scholarly work in Ainu Studies.
  • Finish a blog post for Art History Teaching Resources for the Fall on using Sutori to create interactive study guides for undergraduate students.
  • Research and pitch a 2000-word essay to First Person Scholar on gacha mechanics in Japanese and F2P gaming.
  • Work with Gabrielle Filip-Crawford in Psychology to develop our new collaborative course at St. Kate’s, All Art is Propaganda: Visual and Scientific Perspectives on Persuasion with our Academic Professional Development Committee Curriculum Development grant. (So excited for this!)
  • Redesign my approach to the Ways of Seeing course to include a significant community or service learning opportunity (#arthistoryengaged #arthistorythat)



Ainu and the Antique Store: Minnesota Edition

After 12 months of research in Hokkaido, I returned to California in 2014 to finish my dissertation. It was a large and intimidating project, and I worked off the stress by surfing antique shops throughout SoCal. All those years ago, I wrote a post about a pair of Ainu nipopo dolls that I stumbled across in an Orange antique shop. It reminded me of the travel economy and the emergence of these dolls as a staple of the tourist trade.

Old habits die hard. Not too long ago, I was doing some antique shopping in Hopkins, Minnesota. I came across some great Japanese stereoviews which I picked up, in addition to Meiji-era maps that were likely inserts in Western travelogues. But imagine my surprise when I spotted this woman out of the corner of my eye. She was standing on a shelf too high for me to reach. When we finally brought her down from her long-time resting place, her tag merely read “ethnic doll.” I decided that she would join her Orange County friends. When I brought her up to the register, the clerk examined her closely and explained to me how this was likely a wooden figure of Norwegian or Swedish origin, pointing out the details that led her to a conclusion: the rough hewn surface, the patterns in the clothing, and finally, the facial features. She looked at me with suspicion when I explained that it was a doll from Japan, from the indigenous people in the north called the Ainu. I can’t say I blame her skepticism… What would an Ainu nipopo be doing in a Minnesota antique shop, anyway? Considering the Scandavian roots of those that settled this region, a Swedish or Norwegian doll would be much easier to accept. But in some ways, she may not have been too far off the mark. The Ainu did not begin carving bears or nipopo dolls for tourist consumption until they fell into hard economic times in the 1920s. The practice may have been inspired by the works being created in Scandanavia. It is an interesting linked history.

She lives in my office now and gives me cause to talk about my work with students. It never ceases to amaze me how a small doll can tell so much about this history.

Women’s March MN

Women's March 4Like millions of like-minded individuals across the United States and the world, I participated in a women’s march this past Saturday. It was such a sight to see 100,000 people descend upon Minnesota’s capital in St. Paul. Every where I looked, I saw people of all cultural backgrounds, people of all ages, people of all religions and no religion, people of all orientations, and people of all degrees of disability (many of whom participated virtually). And together, we fought for the right to economic opportunity, the right to healthcare, the right to human dignity and personal safety, the right to just immigration policies, the right to representation, and the right to reproductive freedom and care. We heard from our Senators and Representatives, including Illhan Omar, the first Somali American legislator in the United States, and important figures in our local community, such as Sandra Day from the Indigenous People’s Task Force, Raeisha Williams from the NAACP, and Lucila Dominguez from the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha. I was also happy to see ASL interpreting throughout, something that I have become increasingly aware of with regard to my own privilege since arriving here at St. Kate’s. And importantly, we stood in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and efforts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Feminism needs to be intersectional in order to practice the kind of equality that it preaches. I am of firm mind that we still have much room to grow in this regard, but I thought this was a great first step for many people in the state and the country. The best of worst times. I was proud to stand with a group of Katies on Saturday, hand in hand with our students abroad marching in Paris and beyond.

So let’s continue to think about the reasons why we march. And continue to protect our first amendment right to do so. It will be a marathon, not a sprint. But I march to protect the ones I love, my students, and those who are most vulnerable among us.

After all, as I saw on sign after sign at the march, a woman’s place is in the resistance. I can’t help but feel that it would have brought a smile to Carrie Fisher’s face.

I find protest photography fascinating, and I’ve long been looking at images from the ANPO protests in Japan in the 1960s. (If you want to see/read more about these images, I highly recommend UCLA Professor William Marotti’s Money, Trains and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan [Duke University Press, 2013]). Like many forms of social activism, protests are most effective when they are visually documented. I wonder what historians will say about photographs of the Women’s March years from now…

Crisis Logic & the Reader: Election Reflection

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The past two weeks have been a challenge as a professor, as a mentor, as a sister, and as a friend. Although I speak from my own personal experience, I know that the election has stirred up a range of emotions in our community–from hope to fear to anger to anxiety. I am listening to my students, I am talking to faculty and staff, and just yesterday, I participated in a community forum titled “The Election, Moving Forward, & Staying Safe” in an effort to understand and hear perspectives that I might not have been exposed to otherwise. At times, I have been loud. At other moments, I have stayed silent. And as this week draws to a close, I’m left with questions, more than anything. In the spirit of asking questions, it was a treat (and somewhat cathartic) to have visiting social practice artist Sam Gould with us at St. Kate’s for the week for an experimental symposium, Crisis Logic & the Reader. He describes the project in the following terms:

Crisis manifests relationships and modes of action uncommon outside of other states of disruption. As a positive experience, crisis can highlight utopic possibilities such as egalitarianism, collaboration and cooperation, int he midst of the destruction of the day-to-day.

But along with crisis comes anxiety. The repeated boosts of adrenaline, while beneficial in small immediate doses, fractures our clarity and composure over time, contributing to the breakage of self.

Crisis Logic & the Reader, an area of inquiry to be centered around crowd-sourced questions and facilitated by artist Sam Gould, will manifest as an experimental symposium at St. Catherine University in November 2016, the week following the US presidential election. Although the project is not explicitly about the election, it aims to engage in meaningful ways with civic and civil discourse through symposia discussions, poster making, a durational listening session, and a musical concert.

Promoting the idea of the “culture of reading” as a long-term, daily alternative to the logic which arises out of singular moments of crisis, Crisis Logic & the Reader will convene students and the public as a means towards unpacking the possibilities and complications of reading culture serving as a vehicle for socio-political engagement.


I was intrigued by the idea of crisis as something that not only brings great anxiety, but actually forces us to pause mundane routines in order to seek actions and answers. Sam questioned us — can this potential be harnessed? Would it be dangerous to do so? How can the act of social reading serve as an antidote to the anxiety of crisis? I listened in on the symposia discussions, and my students and I made posters with our “questions” in the wake of the election. I had some of the same questions as my students. Some of their questions surprised me. But all of them came from a shared sense of living in a crisis moment. The questions were read without attribution into a P.A. system set up in the entry to the Visual Arts Building. Some students whispered their questions. Others yelled them into the void. But read together, you could feel the range of emotion and concern from both sides of the political aisle.

Sam spoke about the value of asking questions not to get answers… but to ask better questions. So in that spirit, let’s keep asking.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Autumn, Art, and Archives at St. Kate’s

It is hard to believe how quickly autumn as come — it feels like  yesterday that I was just getting settled into this office. Our campus is positively gorgeous at this time of year, and I take every opportunity that I can to set foot outside of the brutalist concrete of the Visual Arts Building to soak in the color of the changing leaves. People love this season here in Minnesota, but part of me does miss the seasonal tourism of Japan where whole streets would occasionally be closed to traffic for pedestrians to admire and take photos of the 紅葉 (momiji, maple) and 銀杏 (ichō, ginkgo). When I was at Hokkaido University, they would not only close ichō dōri (ginkgo street) for a couple of days, but they would also illuminate them with floodlights at night. It made the street look otherworldly; a dark sky punctuated by pale yellows and greens. We have some gorgeous side streets in St. Paul lined in vibrant shades of orange and yellow, and I so desperately want to rid them of cars.


Looking across the lawn at St. Kate’s towards the Visual Arts Building and Mendel Hall

In addition to teaching art history and visual culture, things are finally coming together on a variety of fronts. I’m editing my chapter on artist Kondō Kōichiro to submit for peer review (a long time coming!), I will be guest blogging at the Art History Teaching Resources this spring on digital cartography in the classroom, and I will be presenting the third, and possibly last, iteration of my arcade fighting games and gender project at the Popular Culture Association conference (this time strictly focused on Street Fighter II, Chun-Li, and fashion) before drafting it into an essay. Classes are also now set for Spring 2017. I will be teaching Art History: Ancient through Medieval and Global Japan: Art, Anime, and Visual Culture. It will be such a treat to teach Japanese visual culture again, and based on feedback I received at St. Olaf College, I’m looking forward to reinventing part of my approach to teaching it. All good things.

Japan: Described and Illustrated by the Japanese, 1897-1898. Evelyn Goodrow Mitsch collection, Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University.

I also had the chance to visit the Special Collections here at St. Kate’s and take a look at some of the material hiding in the Evelyn Goodrow Mitsch collection. Imagine my surprise to find a Meiji-era copy of Japan: Described and Illustrated by the Japanese, edited by Captain Francis Brinkley and published by J. B. Millet circa 1897-1898. There are 10 volumes here at St. Kate’s. They contain original hand-colored photographs by Tamamura Kozaburo and a few flower colotypes by Ogawa Kazumasa. When Denise Bethel was describing this work, she said, “[It] may be the last great book to be illustrated with original photographs” (1991). Harvard has a brief write-up of their fine art edition of the work that is worth checking out if you are curious.


The Smiling Book, 1896. Evelyn Goodrow Mitsch collection, Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University.

In addition to this great find, we also have a copy of a crepe-paper book called The Smiling Book by Hasegawa Takejiro published in 1896. I’m fascinated by this work, and I think it would be fun to work more closely with it in the future. Otsuka Nanae has written a few articles on this work and other period publications which use the same images at the National Diet Library: here and here. I can’t help but think that this small crepe paper book is in conversation with research that I’ve done regarding late 19th and early 20th century practices of borrowing and re-appropriating images in Japan. The second page of the work mentions American author Lu Wheat, and I’m curious about the relationship between this female writer (who published The Third Daughter: A Story of Chinese Home Life in 1906 and Ah Moy: The Story of a Chinese Daughter in 1908), the female collector Evelyn Goodrow Mitsch, and the content/imagery of The Smiling Book. I hope I can get back soon!

I have also been to a wide range of exhibitions as of late. All I can say is that I’m continually impressed with the work being done here in the Twin Cities. Exhibitions alone warrant their own post, so I’ll leave you all with this page from The Smiling Book


The Smiling Book, 1896. Evelyn Goodrow Mitsch collection, Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University.


Antique Finds: Inuit in the Twin Cities

The greatest part of moving to St. Paul thus far has been the sheer amount of local antique and thrift shops. I love antiquing because of the treasures you unexpectedly come across. A while ago, I posted about two Ainu nipopo dolls that I stumbled across in an Orange County shop. Although I will never again be so lucky, it is surprisingly easy to find affordable and original artwork when antiquing. Although I am usually pretty lucky with American prints and lithographs, this past weekend I spotted an Inuit painting of a salmon hung high on the wall. Needless to say, about an hour later, it came home with me.


Spawning Salmon Rattle by Haida-Salish artist Jordon Seward. Yellow cedar and cedar bark.

Spawning Salmon Rattle by Haida-Salish artist Jordon Seward. Yellow cedar and cedar bark.

Salmon was and is a lifeline for many northern indigenous peoples, the Ainu included. In Hokkaido, Ainu elders hold ceremonies for the divine fish (kamuy cep) to ensure their abundance each year. The fish held importance as both spirit and sustenance. (If you want to know more about the relationship between the Ainu and salmon, especially now, I recommend this essay). It is amazing how the stories of the salmon in the Pacific Northwest resonate with those of the Ainu. Recounted by Clint Leung, the salmon were seen as eternal people who lived in the ocean. When the tribes who lived on land were starving, the salmon presented themselves as fish to ease their hunger. The bones of the salmon were ceremonially taken back to the ocean in order to ensure their return the following year. Animals that give themselves to satiate our hunger are worthy of our respect.


The Trapped Salmon by Haisla artist Lyle Wilson. Glass and aluminum.

In 2010, the Inuit Gallery of Vancouver held a show called The Return: Salmon Imagery in Northwest Coast Art. The artists blended traditional designs and iconography with their own signature style and materials in sculpture, painting, and jewelry design. The “return” in the title could refer to the yearly return of the spawning salmon to the river or the original return of the salmon’s bones to the ocean. But it could also refer to a return of interest in a fish that has been heavily impacted by everything from industrialization, over fishing, pollution, to climate change. As various species dwindle, people are once again considering the cultural and environmental importance of the fish. The website for exhibition shares a quote from Andy Everson, who explains, “People often ask me why I keep including salmon in my artwork. The answer to this lies with the importance of salmon to me, my relatives and my ancestors. Put simply, salmon was the vital link between mere survival and the development of the splendor of our culture.”


One thing about looking at art from the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshiam, Kwagiutl and Sadish peoples in the Pacific Northwest is that there is a certain inventiveness and consistency of design that makes the styles iconic. I agree with Leung in that if you put works from this region next to any other, you would still be able to isolate those features which make it unique. Although his e-book on Pacific Northwest art focuses on sculpture and falls short of an academic treatise, it provides a helpful cheat sheet for beginners introducing some of these design elements–the formline, the ovoid shape, the u-form shape, the split u-form shape, and the s-form shape. These small elements are combined, juxtaposed, and contrasted to create larger forms. Most all of these shapes can be found in Lyle Wilson’s The Trapped Salmon above, but they are also present in the painting that I found.


In this work, the formline of the salmon is a thick and black modulated line that encases most of the body. Although most contemporary artists use commercial ink, in traditional works, the formline was typically created with pigment from charcoal, graphite or lignite charcoal. Occasionally red formlines are also seen, created from red ochre or hematite. Several ovoid shapes make their appearance here. It defines the eye socket of the salmon, fills out the fin, and is used to hinge together the body and the tail. The body of the salmon is defined by contrasting s-form shapes, which mimic the striation of the salmon’s flesh, and split u-form shapes perhaps reminding us of its bone structure. The split u-form shape reappears inside the eye, fin, and tail. And, finally, the fish’s gills are defined by a single, simple u-form shape. The aspect of this work that interests me is the string of pearly red roe spewed almost fountain-like out of the mouth of a face located near the fish’s pelvis.


All of these small shapes merge together to form a larger creature. Alongside the salmon, artworks commonly feature the bear, the killer whale, the thunderbird, and the raven. The repetition of common forms across these sacred creatures is a powerful device in both traditional and contemporary art. I also find that art from the Pacific Northwest presents a great opportunity for teaching students visual analysis, and the differences between iconography and style, or about the different effects of line, space, and color.


IMG_0475.jpgIn my own research on the Ainu, it is not all that common to see representational art in older work (although bear carving and representations of salmon are both present staples of tourist and contemporary art). Instead, most graphic art similarly focuses on the repetition of smaller design elements, called siriki in Ainu. In embroidery and woodcarving, these patterns are combined into unique compositions, as seen here in these Ainu robes. I’ve reproduced a helpful chart from the Ainu Pirka Kotan website for your reference below. Occasionally there is more in common than what appears at first glance.



"Ainu Siriki," from Ainu Pirka Kotan website.

“Ainu Siriki,” from Ainu Pirka Kotan website.

If anybody knows any information about the artist of this work (or helpful resources that may point me in the right direction), please do let me know. I would love to learn more about it.

New Appointment: Visiting Assistant Professor at St. Catherine University

St. Catherine University LogoI was waiting for my official appointment letter to come through before posting this, but beginning this fall, I will be a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m so thrilled to continue this journey in the Midwest, and to be working with the students of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences at St. Kate’s. After a wonderful year in Northfield at St. Olaf College, I’m curious what it will be like to experience city life once again. One thing is for sure — there are real benefits to teaching art history closer to the cultural center of action. It will also benefit my research to be closer to the libraries at the University of Minnesota.
I will be teaching four survey-level courses in art history and visual culture: Introduction to Art History: Ancient to Medieval, Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to Modern, Ways of Seeing, and Global Contemporary Art. I’m excited to bring a more global perspective to the team in Art and Art History, and encourage a more socially engaged kind of art history practice!

Ruminations on Teaching in Another Discipline

Back in December, I was asked if I might be able to teach Japanese Civilization. This was not to be an art history or visual culture course, but a class positioned squarely within the discipline of history. In addition, the course would be taught at “winter interim” speed, which translates to meeting 5 days a week, for 2 hours each day, for four weeks. As of Friday, we have completed 50% of the class in a quick and steady two-week march from the Jomon to the Muromachi. Tomorrow, we get into the sengoku jidai, or the Warring States period. It has been intense! I feel like my hand is constantly on the fast forward button…

I must say that teaching a course that is so deeply related to my own discipline, and yet different methodologically, has been an enlightening experience. I see my work as interdisciplinary, and I’m intimately aware of how historians do from my time affiliated with the History Department at Hokkaido University. But knowing this also makes me sensitive to how my own approaches to teaching and scholarship do not always “fit” concretely within that disciplinary framework. Designing and teaching a history course has given me a new appreciation for the analysis of primary texts, but it has also been self-affirming in a variety of ways. More than ever, I see the importance of using visual culture to help concretize our understanding of a period.

Other professors have commented on the challenges and rewards of venturing outside one’s own discipline in teaching. Adam Kotsko wrote an essay titled “The Courage to be Ignorant,” where he describes his own experiments with the transition from text-based courses to one that explored art/music/architecture in the liberal arts. I agree with Kotsko in that becoming a version of Jacques Ranciere’s “ignorant schoolmaster” causes us to facilitate the classroom differently. I find myself exploring material with a more open mind alongside the first-time readers in the course. The definitive meaning and relevance of certain primary texts have not yet firmly settled. The process reminds me to remain open to interpretation, since the academic “mastery” of content that we cultivate through graduate school and beyond can occasionally shut down and obscure alternative approaches and possibilities.

I surely have my challenges ahead, especially with effectively managing time as the grading picks up, but I’m having a lot of fun with the class. I already know that the lessons learned are going to help me to take a fresh look at my approach to Arts of Japan this spring.

2d5aae7de939e4c25cb0fcb4b4815ea3(As just an aside, I have also had a few crucial realizations… One is that different disciplines tend to compress space and time in different ways at the survey level. As a simple example, several readings that I vetted for Japan’s pre-history tended to deemphasize the long Jōmon period to discuss the Yayoi in more depth, using it to frame later Kofun developments as described in Chinese dynastic texts. But in Art History, the pottery and architecture of the Yayoi is usually a brief mention between the fantastic flame pots and dogū of the Jōmon and the haniwa of later kofun tombs. Quite a difference there!)

Major Transitions: Filed, Moved, and Starting at St. Olaf College

Me and my awesome advisor, Bert Winther-Tamaki

As I rounded the final stretch of my dissertation, life didn’t give me much opportunity to come and update this blog. It has certainly been a time of major transitions for me, both personally and professionally. I am jazzed to report that my dissertation, Ainu Fever: Indigenous Representation in a Transnational Visual Economy, 1868 – 1933, has been filed with the University of California, Irvine for Ph.D. in Visual Studies. This closes a long and important chapter of my academic life! After so many years of research–both in the United States and Japan–it is hard to believe that the 300+ page document is finally wrapped up. Dissertations are works-in-progress in so many ways, and I look forward to seeing the new ways that it will evolve in the coming years… But for now, I plan on enjoying the huge wave of relief!


This is a photograph of “Old Main” at St. Olaf College. It reminds me so much of Akarenga in Sapporo.

But perhaps more crucial than the dissertation, I accepted a position as a visiting assistant professor. We arrived here in Northfield, MN after an arduous road trip across the country and I am thrilled to call St. Olaf College my home for 2015-2016. I will be teaching four courses here: History of World Architecture (Fall 2015), History of Photography (Spring 2016), Arts of Japan (Spring 2016), and Visual Culture in Modern Japan (Spring 2016). I’m currently putting together the syllabus for World Architecture which will be a fun, but challenging, topic to cover in a semester.

I will certainly miss many aspects of academic life at UC Irvine, but I’m ready for a new adventure. Although I’m not totally convinced that I can survive without easy access to Japanese food… Time to flex by culinary creativity here in Minnesota!

Site Revamp!

For those of you who haven’t stopped by in a while, you may notice the drastic site redesign!

I think that I got all the mileage that I could have out of a free template on over the last three years. Although an excellent service for an academic website, I wanted more control over my layout and web space now that I am on the road to finishing this degree. I needed some room to grow. After playing around with various other site builders–Squarespace, Weebly, and Wix, to name a few–I settled on purchasing my own hosting where I could find greater flexibility. And as someone who cares about the digital humanities, I figured that it was about time that my website reflected that investment!

I based the color scheme off of a series of photographs that I took all over Hokkaido, Japan, including places like Shiraoi, Sapporo, Nibutani, and Biei. In addition to the fresh look, there are some new features including my Visual C.V., a visualization of my research and teaching in a digestible format based off of an artist’s portfolio. Of course, the typical C.V. (revamped with accordion menus) is also available. I am looking forward to continuing this blog, but also experimenting with new kinds of projects that live and breath online. Hopefully I’ll have something to show in the coming months.

Distilling Your Dissertation

Next week, I have an opportunity to present my work in a short five-minute/1 slide format, and next month I am competing in the UCI Grad Slam (basically, a Three Minute Thesis challenge). These short presentations are supposed to capture the essence of my project, my approach, and my contribution with minimal fuss. And to be honest? These kinds of presentations are some of the hardest to nail down. If you’ve ever done a “lightning talk” or a pechakucha (its Japanese equivalent), you might know what I mean. We live and breath our research, shouldn’t this kind of thing be easier?

But in the time between undergraduate and graduate school, “short” presentations balloon in length in the Humanities: the 10 – 15 minute seminar presentation, the 15-30 minute conference paper, the 50 minute – 2 hour lecture, etc. Your written work also expands proportionally eventually leading to the 200+ page dissertation. Opposite of what we encourage in an undergraduate setting (a streamlined talk that hits the major points without too much fluff or distraction), graduate students constantly fear running out of time at conferences, and professors expertly squeeze final remarks out of that last two minutes of lecture. It is frustrating to be constrained by time and/or word limits when we have so much to say!

I feel like the eve before your first conference, and even more so as you enter the job market, you start learning the importance of the “elevator talk” or the “elevator speech”: explaining your (jargon-free) research and its importance to someone in 30-60 seconds. You want to be dynamic, engaging, and informative to draw people in, not shut them out. But doing this effectively is a tough task, and one that I think all graduate students, irrespective of discipline, need more practice doing. We already practice it in writing (via the abstract), but we need more opportunities to “talk” our project through in various lengths and various degrees of formality.

thesisI bumbled into an old article from 1999 titled “Making Science Understandable to a Broad Audience” (which is amazingly dated by the lingo — overhead transparencies anyone?), but Richard Reis makes a great point about having graduate students practice and master their “elevator talk,” “hallway talk,” “office talk,” and “guest lecture.” Let’s face it: (most) of us plain suck at boiling down the complexities of our work for non-specialists. We need to “teach” our projects, not just state them, and this practice is important in BOTH the Sciences and the Humanities. I’m excited to see Three Minute Thesis competitions emerge worldwide over the last 7 years (the first competition was in 2008), and hope that this is a trend that will continue, but I also think that this kind of exercise is useful even without the competitive component.

The value is definitely there, as mastering just this one skill helps you to connect with people from a variety of disciplines. I would love to see more professional conferences that integrate these short-format, exciting, fast-paced blurbs of our research agendas, because I think it helps us understand and distill our own importance as scholars more so than the conference paper or guest lecture. I know that the New Media Caucus has been doing them at the College Art Association for  a few years now. For example, in addition to formal 3-5 paper panels, there could be a session of 6-7 minute lighting talks by graduate students and do 8-10 of them rapid-fire. Then, have an open networking meet-and-greet session afterwards where people can drink coffee, ask questions, exchange e-mails, and create those important connections to faculty and peers across fields.

Alternatively, I think embracing the competitive aspects could also be fun in an undergraduate class. Have students create 3 minute presentations and then pick their favorites by secret ballot at the end. In my course on Japanese popular culture, we had a miniature film festival with videos they created on Mozilla Popcorn Maker. Although I evaluated their projects for a grade, students also judged them in various categories to determine whose video was the most effective at teaching their lesson, the funniest, the most creative, etc. It was fun, and they really embraced the spirit of the assignment, which got them thinking critically about their own work. Couldn’t this be replicated with a version of the three minute thesis?

I see real value in my project, but there are occasions when I really do believe that more can be said with less! There is an art to brevity (something that I just failed at with this post!)

(Images by PHD Comics)

SMPTE Color Bars, Warhol, and Visual Studies

Screenshot 2014-10-24 19.48.39UCI’s Visual Studies Ph.D. Program just relaunched its website. You definitely know you’ve been in graduate school too long when you’ve weathered three site redesigns and a curriculum overhaul. The tick-tock of that dissertation clock just keeps on getting louder and louder!

But in all seriousness, the site is a welcome improvement. The SMPTE color bars juxtaposed with a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi add a strange, but fitting touch. This bizarre contrast, for me, defines our program. I remember being a first-year student, sitting in seminar, and being challenged to define Visual Studies apart from Art History and Film and Media Studies. Noguchi meets SMPTE color bars. It is as simple as that.

Invoking a Japanese American artist next to these iconic televisual bars, I couldn’t help but remember this Japanese commercial for TDK Videotape featuring Andy Warhol, the music of Jun Miyake, and a television test pattern officially called “Engineering Guideline EG 1-1990.”

赤… 緑… 青… 群青色… きれい

Ainu and the Antique Store

photo 6_editedMy childhood in Pennsylvania was filled of memories of antique shops, flea markets, auctions, and estate sales. I think it was somewhere between the rows of old objects that I discovered a love of history and a passion for the hunt. I vividly remember summer Saturdays, watching the world fly by from the passenger seat of my mother’s car. It lacked air conditioning and my legs used to stick to the seat every time we stopped to check out a new garage sale. When our search was over, we would giddily talk about our “finds” on the drive home, and remember the new neighborhoods through which we traveled, guided only by little neon-colored signs with a poor sense of direction.

This past weekend, J and I were rooting through old antique shops in Old Towne Orange, CA. Often called the “Antique Capital of Southern California,” small shops and specialty cafes decorate a one-mile stretch around the historic Orange Plaza. Proceeding from shop to shop, I relived the days of my youth feeling my way around the unique and rusted.

Old souvenir objects from Japan and China seem to be a staple of the antique market, and there is no shortage of blue-and-white porcelain, geisha dolls, and Chinoiserie. But you can imagine my surprise when stumbling upon two modest wood-carved figures of an Ainu man and woman. As if experiencing a bend in time, my childhood activities seemed to link directly to my current research.

The two figures were each strangled by a snap lock pin security loop from which a price tag dangled: “Carved Wood Figure, $4.00 each.” They were sandwiched between a vintage straw hot pad that my grandmother might have used and a porcelain vase with a faux wood finish, decorated with a butterfly and the words “Maui.” In front of the figures were ashtrays of various designs, materials, and patterns. A large Native American figure loomed on the shelf above them along with brass and crystal candlesticks and an over-sized plastic M&M figurine. Kitsch at its best.

The pair was probably produced in Hokkaido as a tourist souvenir. Beginning in the late Taisho era (ca. 1924), dolls like these were produced by the Ainu specifically for a tourist market. The figures have roots the Ainu nipopo doll, which was carved and utilized by shamans as protective amulets. Although it was against Ainu beliefs to depict the human form in a non-religious context, the tourist trade was an important source of income for a vulnerable group of people dependent on the government (Dubreul 1999). Ainu dolls like these are often compared to the Japanese kokeshi, since some souvenir versions are more rounded in shape. But while kokeshi are lathe-turned,  Ainu dolls are carved (McDowell 2011).

For me, this pair of dolls amongst the random items on an American antique store shelf is a testament to the American interest in the Ainu and Hokkaido; an interest that feels almost alien to us today. But even now, any traveler can buy similar wooden Ainu dolls at almost every major tourist spot on the island. I can only guess how this couple landed in an antique store in Orange, CA, but their mere presence speaks to these larger networks of circulation and exchange.

I opened my wallet and laid the $8 on the counter.

Goodbye Hokkaido, Hello California

I cobbled together this post over the course of moving back to the States–from WordPress, the note-taking function on my phone, and a convenient napkin stuck between the pages of a book I am reading…

The Preparation

I leave Japan in less than a week. It is hard to admit that my leaving is actually real as I look around my apartment with items strewn everywhere. The moment when my room should be its absolute cleanest, it looks like a tornado tore through the hallway and down the center of my living space. My heart feels somewhat the same. This has been a week of many goodbyes, and each one does not come any easier than the one before it. My professional and personal life seems straddled between two countries, and although that brings with it a certain amount of joy and adventure, it also makes me feel a little disconnected by the sheer vastness of the Pacific (and perhaps, the price of plane tickets… In comparison to a flight I took in 2009, the price has at least doubled.) I will miss Hokkaido, Sapporo, and the people here a great deal — at the end of the day, this is a wonderful place to live and work. I am going to miss it here… Thank you so much Prof. Sasaki, Prof. Tanimoto, and everyone in the Department of Japanese History!


The Transit

Goodbye Japan!

I somehow managed to tame that tornado into two suitcases and a carry-on, and I headed to a hotel in Chitose. My flight left too early in the morning to depend on the trains, in addition to the fact that torrential downpours in Sapporo and the flooding of the Toyohira river pretty much brought JR to a stop. The storm broke for just long enough that we were able to make it to the hotel. That night, I submerged myself in the entirely empty public bath and reflected on the remaining leg of the journey. I had two suitcases–38 kg and 23 kg–in addition to two carry-on bags.  I’m still not entirely sure how I managed to wrangle the suitcases to the New Chitose airport. In Tokyo, when they transferred me to a different terminal, my heart sank as I stared at the pile of… stuff.  Let me just say that muscles were hurting me in places that probably has not seen any physical action since my short-lived rugby days. I’m waiting for my flight now, with eight hours left of my ten hour layover. I had some grand ideas of exploring Narita city when I got here, but now all I can think about is collapsing in a chair and taking a nap.

The Arrival

The flight went surprisingly well. For the first time in years, immigration and customs gave me no significant trouble and I assembled the bags onto a cart with the remaining morsel of strength left within me. As I ascended to the surface of LAX heading for ground transportation, I was hit with this overwhelming smell of french fries. At first, I thought it was just me… But judging from everyone else’s confused whiffing, I would say that the smell wasn’t my imagination. It seemed almost as if someone sprayed the place in french fry essence mixed with car fumes…  Welcome to the United States of America.

My other first impression is perhaps less surprising: California is hot.  Returning in a heat wave will do that to you, but it isn’t just the temperature. The sun itself seems to burn brighter, and I was squinting all over grabbing for my sunglasses within ten minutes of my arrival. It feels weird to be back here. I expected things to look and feel different, as if the landscape would somehow reflect my absence, but everything looks and feels the same. I guess the world just bumbled along without me. However after all the goodbyes of last week, I’m looking forward to saying hello for a change.