Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

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.

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]

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!