Know Your Professor: Laura Prieto

March 10, 2015

Laura Prieto

On Wednesday, March 11th, Professor Prieto is speaking at the MFA!

What is your favorite class to teach?

This would be like naming a favorite child. I don’t want to ignite any sibling rivalry. Also each time I teach the same class it feels different, because the students make it different. What makes a course my favorite is not the subject matter but what the students bring to the classroom – engagement, inquisitiveness, an openness to ideas and to one another’s perspectives.

Fill in the blank: When I was in college, I ____

never guessed I would become an academic. I mainly resisted becoming an attorney or a teacher. Those were the two careers that anybody I grew up with could imagine for somebody who was “humanities smart;” “science smart” meant you should be a doctor, of course. I wanted to be a writer but my parents dismissed that as the road to starvation. So I worked in publishing for years and only gradually came to the idea of applying to graduate school. I was the first person in my family to get a bachelor’s degree; the thought of a doctorate or the life of a scholar just did not occur to me in my undergraduate years, even though I adored my professors.

When I'm not teaching, I'm ____

reading, writing, going to local theater, and cooking for family and friends. I’ve always found that the kitchen calls for creativity and structure; I love that combination.

Do you have a hidden talent?

I love to sing (pop, musical theater, American songbook, whatever) but I’ve never performed solo on stage. I had only a brief stint in a choir. I haven’t even done karaoke in public. I really must do something to fill this void in my life.

I love my students because ____

they have brains and heart. It’s from them that I’ve learned to be kinder to myself, even as I challenge myself.

Fill in the blank: I love Simmons because ____

of its founding purpose, to prepare women to secure an “independent livelihood” – this is still, I think, a radical mission. I also love Simmons because teaching remains at the core of the college. My colleagues are such extraordinary teachers and mentors. The connections between faculty and students make the Simmons community such a fulfilling place to work.

How does it feel to be participating in the Women in Art Session at the MFA?

I’m particularly thrilled to be speaking at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts because an exhibit there many years ago inspired the question that eventually led to my book, At Home in the Studio.

I was a first-year graduate student, casting about for a seminar paper topic, when I saw a great exhibition called The Lure of Italy at the MFA. It gathered the work of nineteenth-century American artists who had lived and worked in Italy. One of the objects on display was the marble sculpture of a Faun. This did not strike me at first as peculiar at all for the era, until I looked down at the label and noticed the sculptor’s name: Harriet Hosmer. I had not realized there were women creating neoclassical sculptures in the 1860s. 

Who was Hosmer and how did she become a sculptor? How did Americans receive her work, when the culture then insisted that women should dedicate themselves solely to wifehood and motherhood? I soon learned that not only Hosmer but a whole group of American women sculptors resided in Rome in the mid-1800s. I became fascinated by the ways that these women justified their pursuit of sculpture, gained training and commissions, and developed identities as real, professional artists.

What does your session focus on?

It’s impossible to reduce a book to a half-hour lecture, so I decided to focus my talk around women’s self-portraits. Self-portraits are visual memoirs; they reveal so much about how the artist sees herself and how she wishes to represent herself to others. I use a series of them to show how 19th-century women responded to the challenges they faced in being artists, and how they shaped their sense of self as artists. This is why I’m calling my talk, “Her Own Subject;” the empowerment of these self-portraits began with women’s very act of painting (or sculpting) themselves, claiming that ownership of their own images.

Do you have a favorite art museum?

I love to check out all sorts of museums wherever I go. I’m particular to historic house museums but to narrow my choices, I’ll stick to your question. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has an amazing collection and admission is entirely free; it is a truly public museum. I am so impressed by that ethos. Closer to home, I encourage everyone to visit the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in Providence.

For a museum that is art – the building itself being a work of art – my absolute favorite is the Alhambra, a 14th-century Moorish palace in Granada, Spain. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

If you could have dinner with any artist -- living or dead -- who would it be and why?

I’d want to dine with Frida Kahlo, because (as André Breton wrote), her paintings were like a ribbon around a bomb. And so was she.