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UNC Bio picTrista Reis Porter is interested in a variety of topics falling under the scope of American Art and Material Culture. She received her M.A. in the History of Art from Indiana University in 2014, where her thesis focused on the exhibition history of American folk art over the last century. This interest and approach continues to inform the way she thinks about canons in American visual and material culture, how and by whom those canons have been established, and the ways they are constructed around genres such as pottery and sculpture, and descriptors such as folk, fine, outsider, visionary, and immigrant. An Iowa native, Trista received her B.A. in Art History from the University of Iowa in 2012. Here she answers five questions about her and the department!

Why did you decide to come to UNC’s American Studies department for your degree?

I came to this program as a renegade art historian. It was important for me to find a multi-disciplinary department with a strong emphasis on art and material and visual culture, but with the flexibility to study material culture broadly and in conversation with other modes of expression (including literature, music, performance, etc.). Almost all the faculty at UNC in both American Studies and Folklore are versed in one or all these areas, and their expertise never ceases to be engaging, challenging, and in some way relevant to my work.

What has been your favorite class to TA for?

All have been excellent, but my favorite class to TA was actually my first! Folk, Self-Taught, and Outsider Arts with Bernie Herman. It was a great opportunity for digging deeper into material that I already loved, gave me a better opportunity to weekly connect with my adviser, and I got to help assist with things other than grading, like helping coordinate a week long visit with the artist Lonnie Holley and edit undergraduate essays for an exhibition catalog we did on southern folk art for the Southern Foodways Alliance 2014 Meeting.

Give us the elevator pitch for your dissertation/thesis topic.

Art is often defined along lines of what is included or excluded from the canon of fine / high / mainstream art. Somewhere along the line, someone looked at a ceramic pot or a quilt and thought, “Huh. This is cool, but I actually use this, whereas I don’t really ‘use’ a painting because it just hangs on the wall. Since painting is fine art, pots and quilts must be something else.” So pots and quilts are left out of the canon of fine art, instead grouped under slightly less legitimate categories such as “craft” or “folk” or “traditional.”

The same thing happens with the work of self-taught, or “outsider” artists. Someone looked at the drawings of a patient in a mental hospital, or the sculptures of some reclusive artist who has had no contact with the “fine art world,” and thought, “Huh. This is cool and this person has a pretty strange story and personality, but this doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen in a fine art museum. Since this person wasn’t trained or anything, this must be something other than fine art. I think I can sell that.” Then the works of self-taught artists are left out of the canon of fine art, instead pushed to the margins and into categories such as “folk” or “visionary” or “outsider.” There is something that happens within those (overly-simplified) thought processes — I call it “otherness” — and my dissertation will explore the variety of ways it plays out, for good and bad, through three examples of objects: a ceramic vessel, a quilt, and a collection of wire sculptures.

Most gratifying yet unexpected perk of coming to UNC or Chapel Hill?

I spent the first three days of January 2015 hiking and camping. Outside. And I didn’t freeze! This might not seem that crazy to someone who is used to being able to do stuff outside in January, but as a native of Iowa, where January is more often than not unbearably cold, I was delighted. I complain about the heat in Chapel Hill a lot, and I do sometimes miss the frigid, snowy winters of the Midwest, but I can’t say I don’t appreciate the cool-but-not-below-zero-degrees temperature around these parts.

Define American Studies or Folkore in one sentence.

Someone once described American Studies to me as “the place for all the misfit scholars who study American-related things, but who don’t fit as neatly in or are restricted by what they can do in their home programs.”

I like that. It’s that kind of inclusivity of people, topics, and methodologies that drew me to American Studies to begin with.

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