How does a girl from a small town in Minnesota discover an interest in the fundamental science of chemistry, become an accomplished flutist, and earn praise as a skilled painter and printmaker?
What does she see when she travels around the world to places like England, Scotland, Istanbul, Egypt, Jerusalem, Scandinavia, Italy and France?
And how does she end up an art historian whose specialty is researching African American artists?
Meet Lindsay Twa, a product of the liberal arts.
A native of Mankato, Minnesota, Dr. Twa studied chemistry, music and studio art at Concordia College in Moorhead, went on to earn her Ph.D. in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and today serves as an associate professor of art and director of Augustana’s Eide/Dalrymple Gallery.
Armed with an innate sense of curiosity and a desire to find the connections between art and history, Twa has spent her career studying what she calls the “synthesis of different areas, such as history, technology, science and aesthetics.” In doing so, she has researched the social history of artwork and studied how “visual art can, in a very socially active way, shape and construct nations and cultures and inform us about who we think we are.”
Twa’s first book, “Visualizing Haiti in U.S. Culture, 1910-1950,” was published this spring after years of research that took her to New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Nashville and New York City. The project, she said, was made possible thanks to her foundation in the liberal arts.
“I feel like this book is a triumph of the liberal arts,” she said. “You don’t close doors just because they feel outside of your area of expertise or comfort zone. You need to keep pursuing the connections wherever they lead.”
Indeed. Pursue connections is exactly what she did.
Charting Her Course
As a kid, Twa was “constantly drawing” but had an equal love for music, along with a fascination for science.
After taking a number of classes at Mankato State University while in middle school and high school, Twa initially signed on as a triple major in studio art, music and chemistry at Concordia with dreams of one day having a career as a professional musician.
After being plagued by injuries from playing the flute, she began to focus her concentration on art.
“By my senior year, I had an art history mentor who took me under his wing, allowing me to work at [Concordia’s] art gallery. He’s the one who suggested to me that I think seriously about grad school and a career either in museum studies or art history,” she recalled.
While pursuing her master’s degree at Chapel Hill, she was encouraged to choose between the program’s two tracks.
“You could choose to become a research art historian, which means you’d become a professor, or you could choose to go into museum studies, a field where you would use the tools of art history for curation and working with primary objects.”
“But, I wanted to keep my options open,” she said.
After completing her master’s program, Twa was invited to enter Chapel Hill’s Ph.D. program in art history where again, she said, her mentors urged her to choose one track or the other.
“I just couldn’t pick,” she said. “So, it’s odd and unique that I arrived at Augustana where I am half a professor and half a museum curator where I have to know how to hang lights, cut mats and how to frame things. I know how to drive a truck across the country, how to load and unload objects, and how to handle them.”
Uncovering the Stories
Some people come into graduate school with a topic or area of interest on which to focus.
“It was literally the semester before I was to write my master’s thesis and I took this course of which the topic was ‘islands’ -- islands being physical or allegorical. The research paper I started writing for that was on Harlem as this geographical and temporal island, as in the Harlem Renaissance island in Manhattan. Through writing that paper I stumbled on these very real connections with islands amongst African American artists in the 1920s and ‘30s.”
“I realized through writing this shorter seminar paper that there was sort of this larger story to tell.”
She went on to research the African American painter Jacob Lawrence for her master’s thesis, concentrating on his very first signature series. Lawrence was only 20 years old at the time, and the series told the history of the Haitian revolution.
“He would go on to be known as a signature artist of telling African American histories and that’s what all the textbooks have,” Twa said. “But I thought it was interesting that he first became known by not telling an American, or strictly U.S.-American history but instead this history about Haiti.”
After completing her master’s thesis and progressing through her Ph.D. program, Twa said she realized the story was much larger.
“I started noticing how just about every signature African American artist of the 20th century had engaged with the subject matter of Haiti at one point or another and no one had really asked why that was. That kind of formed the core of my dissertation.”
“Then, I realized the story was even larger than that. So I kept going with that as my research as I moved into my post-graduate work, which is now the core of this work.”
Along the way, Twa spent more than two years living in England while her husband, Dr. Mark Larson, associate professor of biology at Augustana, completed his post-doctorate work.
In between commuting back to the U.S. for her research, the two took every opportunity to see the world.
“I had a personal goal of wanting to see everything that I would teach in the standard art history survey course. We were pretty much able to do that. We went everywhere and the British Museum in London kind of became my second home.”
Twa and Larson joined the Augustana faculty in 2006. Since then, Twa has gone on to publish numerous articles while teaching art history courses, leading experiential learning courses in the U.S. and abroad, and directing the Eide/Dalrymple Gallery, where she organizes and curates seven exhibitions each year and oversees a permanent art collection of over 3,500 art objects.
Her book, “Visualizing Haiti in U.S. Culture, 1910-1950,” is an intense, 322-page collection Ashgate publishing calls an “extensive textual and archival research [that] also supports her visual analysis, such as scrutinizing the personal papers of this study's artists, writers, and intellectuals.”
Twa says her background in the liberal arts played a significant role in shaping the work, which also features 78 illustrations.
“I feel very much that it’s a liberal arts book in the sense that it’s not just fine art objects. I analyzed photographs of the National Geographic. I analyzed military history, congressional speeches and reports, opera and theatre, and at the end, I analyze the tourism industry. The networks of these artists are so broad. If you’re an African American art historian, the tendency is to only want to talk about African Americans and African American culture. But, these artists interact on an international scale so, if you close that door, you miss a good point of the story. If you say you’re only going to focus on fine art, you miss the fact that these artists are communicating in theatre and in graphic design and popular media, which is another big part of the story. So I kind of feel like the book was only possible because I’d come to this discipline through the liberal arts training – being a chemist, being a musician, being a studio artist,” she said.
“In some ways, it’s like a scientific experiment,” she said. “A great scientific experiment is not one that generates just definitive answers; it’s one that generates further questions.”
“My journey has been about asking questions, finding answers and then more questions.”
Twa says her own journey drives her to encourage today’s students to document their stories.
“As a curator I’m thinking of someone who’s going to be like me a century from now – someone who might stumble on an artist or artwork and want to know more. I’m constantly hounding our student artists to keep a record of their artist statements – to keep a journal of their artwork and record what they were thinking about as they worked on each piece.”
“It’s a mechanism for how the art world might talk about them in the future.”