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Alisa Alexander ’10

From Willamette to the University of California's doctoral program in Art History

I am currently a Doctoral Scholars Central Fellow and PhD student in the History of Art and Architecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara, having recently finished my Master's degree with the thesis, "How to Produce a Fantasy World: Henry Darger and American Hobby Culture." I am in my third year at UCSB and working on a variety of things, at the moment finishing up my PhD coursework and getting ready to study for my comprehensive exams.

I was very involved in many extracurricular activities, and that has not changed since!

At the moment I am currently the co-Chair of our Art History Graduate Student Association, a position that involves the representation of our graduate students and organizing events that promote our professional, social, and intellectual development. I am also a Teaching Assistant for a variety of undergraduate courses, currently I am TAing for a subject completely outside of my area: Islamic Art and Architecture. Within the last year I have TAed for many of our survey-level courses and can say, with great confidence, that teaching has been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences at UCSB to date. It's a dream come true to be able to step into the classroom and share my passion for art history with students, and luckily for me, I was provided with the best possible examples of amazing teachers at Willamette. Professors Roger Hull, Ricardo De Mambro Santos, Ann M. Nicgorski, Heidi Grew, and Bill Duvall being the instructors I hold closest to my heart. I try to bring a bit of all of them to my teaching style.

In addition, I also work as a volunteer in our Art History Education Outreach Initiative, a program founded by my colleague in which art history grad students give talks at local middle and high schools, and programs for at-risk youth. We introduce students to a subject rarely taught at the K-12 level (that being art history) and hopefully spark interest in the world of the visual. It challenges not only the students, but also us as teachers to be able to talk about art at its most basic and engaging level.

In regard to the shows I curated at the Hallie Ford Museum on campus:

Curating exhibitions was, for me, one of the most useful and rewarding experiences of my academic career. A fruitful educational experience should provide one of many things that are difficult to achieve in one fell swoop, but working on two curatorial projects (one in 2008 and another in 2010) allowed me to access a wide range of art historical inquiry and application. First, there is the creation of an idea--an exhibit begins with a necessity to communicate something specific and timely about the art it presents, and generating this idea is often one of the more complicated aspects. Besides the theoretical elements, there are practical ones: how to gather your objects and present and arrange them in a way that communicates your idea. Uniting theory and practice is often a rare opportunity, and the something I loved about WU was that the professors endeavored to show us ways to unite them. Then, when the actual exhibit comes together, the most exciting part arrives--the presentation of your hard work to the public. What a rare opportunity for an undergraduate, to be able to list oneself as "Curator!" Then, you gauge the reception and response to your work and take the learning process even further. Curating was an invaluable experience which was, thankfully, entirely supported by the University and the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. If one wants to pursue a career in art history or museum work, the Hallie Ford tailors that experience to your needs. It is really and truly an incredibly beneficial opportunity for students, and the staff at the Hallie Ford are also some of the nicest and most genuinely interested people one could ever ask for.

On my senior thesis:

My senior thesis was about the Chicago artist Henry Darger. And so was my Master's thesis. And I anticipate a chapter of my dissertation being devoted to him, as well. Not because it's somehow "easier" to keep revisiting previous interests, but rather, because the topic I was introduced to is so rich and under-appreciated I feel compelled to keep working. So I must continue to thank Professor Ricardo De Mambro Santos for introducing me to his work. The introduction to Henry Darger, and the opportunity to engage critically with his work, has most certainly altered the course of my academic career.

Finally, I would just like to say a couple of things. My time at Willamette completely shifted the trajectory of my life. Coming from a family in which no one received a college degree, entering the world of academia was a frightening and overwhelming choice I somehow managed to work myself into (by luck and tenacity). But Willamette, and especially the Department of Art History, welcomed me with open arms and fostered both my personal and academic growth. I cannot tell you how surreal it is for me to go from being a small-town, 20-year-old barista, to being a community college student, to being a student at a prestigious liberal arts college, to finally, teaching students of my own at a large research institution as someone pursuing an advanced degree--without Willamette's initial push, where would I be? This is why I hold my time at Willamette so dearly. I often have to remind myself of the incredible privilege I am granted to study, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating fields out there. And I owe much of that to the generosity of spirit and means Willamette provided me.

I understand that for many students there may not be someone at home who wholeheartedly believes in what they do, or want to do--or even understands. That can be very difficult, because you often feel isolated in your own hopes and dreams. Given the social history of our country I completely understand where this belief is founded. But I would like to thank those at Willamette who believed in my capabilities: they became my family. Belief, encouragement and support--these are not things to be discounted.

— Alisa Alexander, Winter 2012

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Alisa Alexander pictured at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2012.

"My time at Willamette completely shifted the trajectory of my life."


Art History Honors:

  • 2010 Joy Lorraine Hayhurst Award for Achievement in Art History, WU
  • 2009-2010 Hallie Brown Ford Scholar, WU
  • 2009 Inaugural recipient of Department of Art History Travel Grant, WU
  • 2008-2009 Myrtle L. Atkinson Foundation Scholar, WU
  • 2007-2008 Carson Undergraduate Research Fellow, WU
  • 2007-2008 Esther Wright Huffman Scholar, WU