Department of Visual and Performing Arts

Kristina Wilson, assistant professor of art history, specializes in modern and contemporary design and architecture. In her popular classes, Wilson is master at helping her students understand art— often incorporating visits to Worcester and Boston museums and stores so that her students can experience art, architecture and contemporary design first-hand.

What courses do you teach?

Prof. Wilson: I teach modern art, which we define as the middle of 18th century all the way up to the present. My courses include late 18th and 19th century art up to impressionism, post-impressionist through cubism and surrealism, and abstract expressionism and contemporary art.  I also teach a class on my particular research area, design in the 20th century.

I heard you teach a class about IKEA?

Prof. Wilson: It’s called “Design in the 20th Century- Arts and Crafts to Ikea” It’s a really fun class. We start with the arts and crafts movement and then we go through the early 20th Century in Europe and America and study Art Deco. We move on to mid-century modern design, which is pretty popular, and then we end up with contemporary design talking about some of the big name designers who design for Target and Ikea. With these modern designers, we discuss how interiors should be arranged in order to enlighten and improve your life—the concept being that furniture that is simpler, sparer and easier to clean   provides order and leaves room in your life to deal with the things that are really important. That’s the whole gist of it.

By the end of the semester, I send the students to Ikea and have them write a paper about an object they found there that is clearly a knockoff of something we learned during the semester.  They always come back with many examples because, basically, they learn that Ikea designers are looking to design history as they develop new products. The goal of the class to get students to look critically at their every day surroundings rather than just at painting, which is what the rest of art history tends to do.

Do you have any students who go on to study furniture design or interior design after taking this course?

Prof. Wilson: I usually have a fair number of studio art majors who have been focusing more on 2-D work in paintings, drawing, and graphic design. My class really gives them a chance to think about things in 3-D. Some students have gone on to do senior projects that involve 3-D work in some way. A lot of the graphic design students who take the furniture class really learn a history of graphic design alongside the furniture, and that ends up influencing their aesthetic sensibility and how they think about graphic design as a field. For example, there is one student who took my class and ended up designing a graphic logo for a contemporary furniture store here in Worcester. It was a nice merging of his furniture and graphic design interests.

Do you always try to incorporate an active-learning component into your courses?

Prof. Wilson: Yes, I try to. We always go on field trips. We always go to the Worcester Art Museum, which is one of the best regional museums in the country. At least once in the semester I have students pick a painting from the museum and write about it. The purpose of that kind of assignment is to give them the experience of sitting in front of a work of art for a period of time to think about it, then write about it. I have another class where we do fieldtrips that are a little further away to Old Sturbridge Village, which is an outdoor museum of colonial architecture, and to museums in Connecticut and Boston.

How does studying an older period of art help you understand contemporary art?

Prof. Wilson: It helps for several reasons. Learning the history of art is really important because it teaches you to look at a work of a contemporary artist and understand how or if they are responding to an artistic tradition. Art history also important for helping us understand the historical moment of a piece--what people were thinking, what their concerns were, what their anxieties were. In the modern period, we spend a lot of time talking about the changes of every day life such as transportation and technology. The art ends up being a very good way to analyze the psychology of a period.

What are some of your alumni doing now?

Prof. Wilson: I’ve had a couple of students go on to work in galleries in New York City. One is working for an auction house there. Several of my students have gone on to Clark’s fifth-year masters program in public administration. If you’re interested in arts and might want to be a manager or fundraiser in the arts, having art history background is essential. Clark’s fifth-year program is very good training for this.