In nominating Prof. Sinclair Bell for the Presidential Teaching Professorship, Judith Testa, professor emerita of the NIU School of Art and Design, described Bell as “that rare individual among university faculty members: a brilliant, innovative and extraordinarily productive scholar who is also a brilliant and inspiring teacher.”
Bell, professor of art history at NIU, is a world-renowned scholar and researcher with the ability to bring his knowledge of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art, architecture and archaeology, and his experiences in the field, to his students in the classroom. In recent weeks he has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study ethnicity in antiquity, was awarded an Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, as well as being named one of this year’s four NIU Presidential Teaching Professors.
Fittingly, recipients of a Presidential Teaching Professorship are those who have demonstrated their commitment to and success in the many activities associated with outstanding teaching. As one undergraduate student wrote, “Professor Bell is a highly knowledgeable instructor who takes teaching seriously. He makes students work hard and think critically. These are both very helpful tools for the real world.”
For Bell, his interest in art history and archaeology originated from his parents, beginning with their travels together when he was a child.
“My parents have a passion for history, even though they both had careers in medicine. When I was eight, we left the US for Saudi Arabia,” he said. “As a result of being there for several years, I ended up seeing ancient sites all over the Mediterranean. I was not only able to visit all of the great monuments of antiquity in Egypt, Greece, and Italy, but I also witnessed firsthand my parents’ passion for the ancient world. It was very encouraging for me at an early age to know that studying the past was a legitimate interest.”
Bell majored in classical studies and history at Wake Forest University. He furthered his studies through a summer term at Oxford University, followed by a semester in Athens, Greece. He went on his first archaeological excavation in Carthage, Tunisia in 1994.
“In Carthage, we were digging at a site near a Roman circus—a venue for chariot racing—and that was when I first became intrigued by Roman entertainment,” he said. “It sparked a real interest in this topic.”
That interest led Bell to develop an expertise that has provided opportunities to present his research at conferences all over the world, write for dozens of publications including book chapters, journals, and encyclopedia articles, and to serve as lead presenter for the Smithsonian Channel series, “Rome’s Chariot Superstar.”
He says that one of the things he most enjoys about teaching ancient art and architecture at NIU is the challenge and the opportunity it provides to expand students’ horizons.
“Most students have only the slightest background knowledge of the material I teach every semester in my introductory and upper-level courses,” he said. “Few, or none, possess any knowledge of the ancient languages—Greek, Latin—that are key to the understanding of these cultures. There is no better example of this than my course on the Etruscans, a once-powerful but now-obscure ancient Italic people who lived in the modern region of Tuscany.
“They are commonly referred to as ‘mysterious’ because we lack a full understanding of their origins and their language, and because they were largely written out of history by the Romans who conquered them, the Etruscans are the subject of very few college courses nationwide. But in teaching this unfamiliar material to mostly first-generation college students, I frame it broadly as the story of a people who – although ‘mysterious’ now – left a material record of their lives, hopes, and dreams that is both radically different from and hauntingly similar to our own. Students learn several words of Etruscan and their English derivatives (such as the word augur) and hear about the contributions that the Etruscans bequeathed to our own civilization.
“By the end of each semester of this course, many students confess their enchantment with this ‘lost’ civilization: it is as if an entire new world has opened up to them. Each year, several even head to Italy on digs, to personally search for the Etruscans. This is my greatest source of joy in teaching: to promote a passionate interest in the past by those who had no or little previous knowledge or interest.”
Bell is returning to the field again as part of an excavation near the city of Viterbo in central Italy, a project which is directed by two colleagues, Profs. Lea Cline and Kathryn Jasper at Illinois State University. NIU students are already asking him, “Do you need any help in 2022?” He said he feels gratified that so many of his students develop an interest and enthusiasm in material that they had little or no exposure to before taking his classes.
“It’s not that they just graduate and disappear,” Bell said. “They tell me about how they continue to try to find ways to gain access to the material, whether by integrating ancient imagery into their own artistic practice or through visits to museums or going off on a dig in Italy.”
Bell said one of the things he appreciates about teaching at NIU is the opportunity to work with and learn from other faculty members who are able to integrate their fieldwork into the classroom. He considers retired colleagues Dan Gebo, a professor of biological anthropology, and Jeff Kowalski, professor of art history, to be two of his role models in this regard.
“Students really appreciate when you can ground your lessons with specific examples and not just speak in generalities,” Bell said. “That is, provide examples of you as a researcher at work, so that they can actually imagine: How does art history work? How does archaeology work? I’ve always done my best to illustrate my arguments through examples, such as ‘When I was in the field, this happened.’ I try to contextualize my lectures with examples from my own professional experiences and research interests.”
This approach has clearly resonated with his students. As one undergraduate wrote, “Dr. Bell’s knowledge and stories back up his claims. I love when professors can bring real life experience to their lectures.”
Echoing Prof. Judith Testa, another student remarked, “Dr. Bell is a spectacular professor who creates an environment that inspires his students to do their best work. I came in for a writing infused course and left an educated mind with a greater art historical appreciation.”
This article originally ran in the April 15, 2021 edition of NIU Today.
Priscila Farias, PhD, a professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, will give a presentation on Typograpy, Memory and Heritage, A Brazilian Perspective as part of the NIU School of Art and Design’s Elizabeth Allen Visiting Scholars in Art History lecture series, Wednesday, March 24 at 2 p.m. via Zoom.
Farias is professor and coordinator of the Visual Design Research Lab in the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo.
Typography and lettering are important elements in the configuration of public and private environments and documents, influencing the way we interact with all kinds of information, with each other and with other designed artifacts. Farias argues for the relevance of typography to design heritage and graphic memory studies, including examples of her research on Brazilian print culture and public lettering.
The lecture is free and open to the pubic, presented as part of the Elizabeth Allen Visiting Scholars in Art History Lecture Series and sponsored by the Art History division of the School of Art and Design.
Typography, Memory and Heritage – A Brazilian Perspective
NIU School of Art and Design Elizabeth Allen Visiting Scholars in Art History Lecture Series
Wednesday, March 24, 2 p.m.
“Wrapped in Fashion: Japanese Kimono,” is the next talk in the Elizabeth Allen Visiting Scholars in Art History Lecture Series. Presented by Janice Katz, the Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, the lecture will be held virtually, via Zoom, Tuesday, April 6 at 11 a.m.
Furisode, 19th century, Japan
Silk, satin damask weave (rinzu); embroidered with silk and gold-leaf-over-lacquered-paper-strip-wrapped silk in satin stitches; laid work, couching, and padded couching; lined with silk, plain weave. Gift of Gaylord Donnelley in memory of Frances Gaylord Smith, 1991.637
Fashion in pre-modern Japan changed almost as quickly as it does today. Using images of kimono, prints, and paintings in the Art Institute as well as in collections worldwide, Katz discusses the meaning of the clothing chosen by various levels of society that inhabited Japan’s great 17th to 19th century urban metropolises.
Janice Katz has been with the Art Institute of Chicago for over 18 years where she curates quarterly exhibitions of Japanese prints.
She received her Ph.D. from Princeton University in 2004. Her research focuses on paintings from the Edo period (1615-1868) and the history of art collecting in Japan. Her publications include Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (2003), and Beyond Golden Clouds: Japanese Screens from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Saint Louis Art Museum (2009), an exhibition which traveled from Chicago to St. Louis and San Francisco.
Her most recent major exhibition at the Art Institute, Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection, and its accompanying catalogue, focused on ukiyo-e paintings of the 17th through 20th centuries.
The lecture is free and open to the public. Please register in advance.
Questions? Contact Connie Rhoton, email@example.com or Helen Nagata, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Wrapped Up in Fashion: Japanese Kimono”
Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art, Art Institute of Chicago
NIU Elizabeth Allen Visiting Scholars in Art History Lecture Series
Tuesday, April 6, 11 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
Free and open to the public.
The influence of television on the works of acclaimed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1980s paintings, drawings and music is the subject of the next installment in the NIU School of Art and Design’s Elizabeth Allen Visiting Scholars in Art History series. “Jean-Michael Basquiat on TV” can be viewed live via Zoom, Wednesday, March 10 at 2 p.m. The lecture is free and open to the public. Please register in advance.
Dr. Jordana Moore Saggese
Dr. Jordana Moore Saggese, associate professor of American art at the University of Maryland, will examine Basquiat’s connections to the screen and media culture, via both popular culture and the art world. She will look into his predecessors (e.g. Pop artists who were engaged in media culture that emerged immediately before Basquiat.)
Saggese will also consider Basquiat’s engagement with media in terms of his contemporaries. By positioning the screen as apparatus (rather than as simply a passive surface onto which images are projected), Saggese will also explore his engagement with celebrity and spectacle, his critique of consumer culture and his hyper-awareness of the stereotypes circulating via television and film.
Here’s a brief introduction to the work of Jean-Michael Basquiat, by Jordana Moore Saggese:
Funded through the generosity of art history division alumna, Elizabeth Allen Plotnick, this series allows us to bring a roster of nationally and internationally known scholars to campus each year. All talks are free and open to the public.
“Jean-Michael Basquiat on TV” can be viewed live via Zoom, Thursday, March 10 at 2 p.m. Please register in advance.
The Elizabeth Allen Visiting Scholars in Art History Series returns for the spring with an online lecture titled, “When, Where and What is Medieval Art–And Why Does It Matter?” presented by Linda Safran, PhD, Associate Fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The lecture will be presented on Zoom, Tuesday, February 9 at 2 p.m.
In April 2019 people around the world watched as the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris was engulfed in flames. Even if they weren’t French, they knew was a shocking loss. But why do we care about the Middle Ages, its architecture and its art? And, if we do care, how do we define that historical period?
Where were its chronological boundaries? What about its geographical borders? Where are the lines on medieval maps and on our own maps of the Middle Ages? And, what counts as medieval art anyway?
We would probably all agree that the French cathedral counts, but what other kinds of buildings and objects? This illustration lecture proposes answers to questions about the what, where and when of medieval art and addresses why we should care about it today.
The lecture is free and open to the public. Participants are asked to register online in advance. After registering, registrants will receive a confirmation e-mail containing information about joining the meeting.
Linda Safran, PhD is Associate Fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto. Safranis writing a textbook on medieval art and architecture (with two colleagues), under contract with Cornell University Press. Another project for this year is an article on Byzantine diagrams of the Trinity, which will appear in a volume on Byzantine, Western Medieval, and Islamic diagrams that she is co-editing with Jeffrey Hamburger and David Roxburgh of Harvard. She earned her PhD from Yale University in the History of Art, she also holds a Master of Philosophy and Master of Art from Yale. She has a Master of Art and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania where she was a Benjamin Franklin Scholar.
She has also held academic appointments at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in Guangzhou, China; York University in Toronto; Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel; University of Cyprus in Nicosia; the University of Toronto; The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.; and Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.