Scholars, artists, curators, activists, local historians and members of the public will convene at Syracuse University Oct. 6-7 to discuss the rightful place of monuments in our society and the increasing complexity they represent today in terms of their cultural,…
Interest in Dreams Informs Student’s Kaish Fellowship With the Art Museum
Sophomore Elizabeth Su is a double major in biomedical engineering and neuroscience and considering a minor in psychology. Having completed her first year at Syracuse online from her home in Los Angeles, she arrived in Central New York in August eager to get the full college experience.
When she saw the Kaish Fellowship opportunity with the Art Museum, Su decided to apply. “I have always been interested in art. I took a couple of art history classes and I volunteered at an art museum in high school. I saw that they were looking for interdisciplinary research,” Su says.
When she interviewed, she zeroed in on a topic that she has always been interested in—dreams. “In my career, I want to find a way to understand dreams—and maybe even record them. They’re my passion.”
Syracuse University Art Museum Director Vanja Malloy knew what direction to point Su in. “For me, as an art historian, surrealism was obviously the place to start,” Malloy says.
Su took that idea and ran with it. “I started researching the surrealist movement and got really invested in it—particularly in how people see themselves in an irrational way,” Su says. “Then I looked through the Syracuse University Art Museum collection and was inspired by a few pieces. There are self-portraits that aren’t drawn in a traditional style, but not strictly abstract either. That’s the way surrealism is. I started looking into how surrealists come to understand self-portraits.”
This experience seems to be exactly what Syracuse University alumni and prominent artists Luise ’46, G’51 and Morton ’49 Kaish had in mind when they made a major gift to the University. In addition to establishing the Luise and Morton Kaish Gallery Endowed Fund, the gift created the Kaish Fellows program.
The program provides funding to enable undergraduate students from every discipline to undertake original research on the permanent art collection and to work with museum staff on exhibitions, scholarly publications and public programming. The philanthropic gift to support undergraduate research at Syracuse University is unique as few programs such as this are available for undergraduate level students at peer academic museums.
“This is my first real independent research project,” Su says. “I’ve learned how to contextualize research questions and conclusions. I wouldn’t have had time to follow my interests without the Kaish Fellowship.”
Following her interests led Su to look at the connections between perception and neuroscience. She found examples of artists with altered perception. One condition—prosopagnosia—is the inability to recognize familiar faces (including one’s own) without any accompanying visual impairment or visual processing issues.
Another—hemispatial neglect—causes a condition in which those affected can’t perceive the left side of their face, without any vision loss. “In thinking about surrealism, it’s interesting to think about thinking irrationally in a spontaneous way or how artists may put themselves in a mindset where they fundamentally perceive things differently or they understand the world through different kinds of logic,” Su says.
Su particularly enjoyed working with the artists’ files, bringing context to their work. “It’s really exciting, actually. I see those old newspaper clippings of an artwork that I have right in front of me, with the handwritten letters the artists have written to Syracuse University, then I’m able to follow what the artist does later in life,” Su says. “There are also materials that give insight into what the artist was doing when they created the work, like interviews with family members who sometimes infer inspiration even when the artist doesn’t seem to be aware of it.”
Su’s work—and the connections she is making—is exactly what the Kaish Fellows program was meant to evoke in its fellows.
“As the first Kaish Fellow to be chosen, Elizabeth has stepped up and really made the most of the opportunity to work with the art and artist materials, and applied her research interests to reveal the fascinating interdisciplinary connections that inform the creation and appreciation of artwork in the museum’s collection,” Malloy says.