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.

Student Rocky Pierson is Presenting at Mechademia 2017!

This year I am thrilled to be in attendance at Mechademia at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The theme this year is Science Fictions. The CFP explains this notion in the following terms:

Science fiction gives us free rein to imagine a different world, giving us insight into what in our own world has become naturalized and allowing us the space to question the potentials of technologically enhanced futures. The questions provoked by science fiction strategies and forms often provide insights that lead us to imagine our own world in a different light. Mechademia 2017 focuses on Science Fictions. Science fiction is central to the study of Asian Popular Cultures because it is the key narrative formation of anime, and the subject of many manga volumes and video game narratives. We encourage papers that analyze science fiction tactics and narratives to explore themes regarding the way the geo-political, geo-economic climatic situation has been reflected, criticized, and made hypothetical through futuristic utopian/dystopian narratives in anime, manga, art, design, illustration, literature, film, and gaming.


I won’t be presenting this year, but I am so very proud that my undergraduate student Rocky Pierson (majoring in Electronic Media Studies at St. Thomas University and minoring in Graphic Design at St. Kate’s) will be presenting her insightful paper, “In the Age of Technology, the West Calls for a Separation of the Ghost and the Shell,” that explores Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 Ghost in the Shell in contrast to Rupert Sanders’ 2017 adaptation. Rocky makes a fascinating argument how each film considers its potential audience with regard to the fear (or emancipatory potential) of technology. Her argument engages in both theology and philosophy as she considers the ontological importance of the cyborg body in each film’s visuals and narrative, while questioning how each views the possibilities of the post-human condition.

If you are interested in hearing Rocky’s paper, she is presenting on the 3rd panel at 9:45am on Saturday morning (9/23). She will be presenting alongside Genevieve Gamache, Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, and Andrea Horbinski.

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!

Working with Clay in Art History

Yesterday, with the generous help of my colleague Monica Rudquist, the students in Art History: Ancient through Medieval had the chance to create their own version of a fertility figure in terracotta. They came out great, and we had an awesome time making them together. But more importantly, I think the process gave students a better appreciation for how clay can be worked as a material. Hopefully, the next time they come across a ceramic work of art, they can understand it from the perspective of the maker.

A variety of Neolithic and Paleolithic figures including the Venus of Willendorf, Venus of Dolní Věstonice, Venus of Hohlefels, and other examples of figures from Germany, Syria, and Çatalhöyük in Turkey.

In our lecture content, we recently finished our analysis of prehistoric art, which included examples from both the Neolithic and the Paleolithic periods. One of the themes that emerged time and time again was the relative consistency of small female figures across regions and materials, which included limestone, clay, and ivory. With their heavy breasts and corpulent bodies, there is a lot that will remain a mystery about these small figures. Nevertheless, our goal in making them was to get a feel for the materiality of clay while understanding the many different ways that you can create a 3-dimensional form. Some students found that working with clay came easy. Other students struggled to mold the form into what they desired. Some used their hands to shape a solid mass into their figure while others (including myself) created a core base and attached legs, arms, breasts, and heads. Some students got even more creative, and we have a likeness of Beyonce’s recent pregnancy photo with Blue Ivy and a goddess with a serpentine protector. The longer they worked, the more the clay evidenced their unique personal approach.

We don’t always have the opportunity for this kind of kinetic learning in art history, especially if coverage is a concern. But if the goal is to understand an ancient people who have no written documents and limited material evidence, nothing gets us closer than working with only our hands and nails. I’m now actively looking through my syllabus to see if we might not have another opportunity to get into the ceramic studio moving forward! It makes the techniques we study more real and tangible. In the meantime, check out these awesome clay bodies produced by my class.

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.


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!