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A Passion Shared
Dr. Jill Blondin Inspires Students to Explore the History in Art

interior pantheon photo
When Dr. Jill Blondin received the Chancellor’s Council Outstanding Teaching Award at The University of Texas at Tyler, it coincidentally followed one of her most eventful summers devoted to her work as an art history professor and researcher.

She took students to Italy for two weeks Jill Blondinin May 2007 to visit the sites rich in art history and experience the culture of the land that was home to Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and so many other artistic and architectural masters. The intensive travel/study itinerary took them to central and northern Italy, from Rome to Florence and on to Ravenna, Venice, Padua, Verona and Milan.

In June Dr. Blondin returned to Italy to attend the National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar “Roman Religion in its Cultural Context’’ in Rome. The assistant professor of art history, whose specialty is Italian Renaissance, was one of 15 professors selected nationally to participate in the six-week research and teaching enrichment seminar. She lived in Rome in 1999-2000 while working on her doctoral dissertation, but said she discovered even more about the Eternal City and its history during the seminar.

After gaining perspective and new ideas for research and academic curriculum, she returned to UT Tyler and was presented the Chancellor’s Award during the academic year convocation in August. Based on nominations by both faculty and students, the award annually recognizes a tenured or tenure-track faculty member for excellence in teaching at the undergraduate level.

“The award meant so much to me and it was exciting because I had just come home from Rome, where I had focused on my research. To come back and receive the award for teaching was really nice and sort of an affirmation of what I do,’’ said the Indianapolis native, noting UT Tyler’s talented and dedicated art faculty is a factor that drew her to the university in 2002.

“UT Tyler has so many good things about it – the students, the faculty, the campus setting, everything. One of the things that struck me the most when I interviewed here was the strength of the art faculty. I had the highest respect and admiration for their work and wanted to be a part of that. And everyone has been great and so supportive of me.’’

‘Absolutely Outstanding’
Dr. Blondin is lauded by students and faculty for her passion for art history, depth of knowledge with special insight based on extensive international travel and research and ability to bring life to the subject with energy and enthusiasm. She also is commended for the educational travel opportunities she provides.

Dr. Blondin on trip“She has done some phenomenal things in the development of our art history area including the addition of the Italy travel/study course, which is a wonderful opportunity for our students,’’ said UT Tyler art department chair Gary Hatcher.

“And she’s a very high energy, very inspiring, absolutely outstanding teacher. As art chair, I read students’ evaluations of her classes and the students just love her. She’s not an easy teacher, but she’s a fair teacher and her students know where they stand. She makes clear her expectations -- and they are very high expectations,’’ he said.

Cindy Taylor, an art major with an art history specialization, has taken several courses taught by the professor, including the Italy travel/study last summer.

“Dr. Blondin’s lectures are enthusiastic, interesting, sometimes even captivating and it’s obvious she loves the subject,’’ the student said. “Her depth of knowledge about art history is just beyond outstanding. In her specialty area she can just rattle off and then in the other areas she knows so much. And when you have a question, if she doesn’t have the answer, she knows where to find it.’’

Taylor added, “She not only can tell you about a picture, she can tell you all about its iconography, the artist, the historical and political circumstances, the social and cultural environment. To me that’s the most fascinating way to learn the subject. We’re not only getting art history, we’re getting mythology, history, anthropology. She teaches all that in her classes.’’

A Passion Shared

For Dr. Blondin, teaching art history is about sharing her passion.

“UT Tyler students are really smart and I enjoy interacting with them and challenging them. I probably challenge them in such a way that they don’t realize just how much work they’re actually doing. But even more than that, I try to inspire them because I love art history. It’s not something that I leave at the UT Tyler campus when I go home. Art history is my life, it’s everything I do and I try to convey that to the students,’’ she said.

“And I think the love for art can be infectious. At the beginning of the semester you find students sitting in your classes thinking, ‘Oh I have to take this class.’ And by the end of the semester, they’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I love art history.’ And when a student comes to my office and says, ‘Dr. Blondin, I think I want to be an art history major,’ I jokingly say, ‘Oh, I’ve ruined another life!’ ’’

baths of caracallaDr. Blondin believes the role of an art history professor is first and foremost to help students improve critical thinking, writing -- and looking.

“When students take my classes, many of them realize they’ve been seeing art all along without really looking at it. We do really close readings of art and my job is to facilitate that and to lecture and direct discussion. Ultimately the students find the meaning, led by me,’’ she said.

“My role also is that of an eye-opener. It is about opening people’s minds, opening their worlds up to them. That is one of the things I enjoy most about teaching. I can see it happening when a student comes to up to me after class and says, ‘Oh, I never knew about this,’ ’’ said Dr. Blondin, who believes the study of art promotes a thoughtful examination of historical issues and an understanding of other cultures.

“I just love when students email me with articles about things in which I might be interested. My interest in the article is not the point for me. The point is that they were interested, they took the time to read the article and then thought to pass it on to me.’’

A student was watching the television sitcom “The Office’’ and noticed one of the characters was given a replica of a statue that had been discussed in Dr. Blondin’s class.

“The student said had she not been in the class, she would not have known about this ancient Venus of Willendorf statue. That’s more of a pop culture reference but it’s an indication that students are becoming more learned, even at the most basic level,’’ said Dr. Blondin. “I think that when students leave my classes, it’s a bigger world for them.’’

Gaining Insight
buildingKristen Akin-Henton, an art major with an emphasis in studio art, enjoys printmaking and working in two- and three-dimensional design. She admits she signed up for art history only because it was academically required. She took one of Dr. Blondin’s classes and was hooked.

“My first class to take with Dr. Blondin was Art History Survey I and it was my first-ever art history class. I had never liked history classes, but her excitement about what she was teaching was contagious and made me excited about learning. I have loved all of her classes and the history of art ever since,’’ the student said.

“She creates such a fun atmosphere in which to learn and has helped me to understand and learn about so many different types of artwork. I am able to take what I have learned in her classes and apply certain aspects of it to my artwork.’’

Akin-Henton said the professor has definitely inspired her. “Although I don’t plan on becoming an art history teacher necessarily, she has shown me that whatever I decide to do, I should enjoy it and be passionate about it.’’

Discovering Art
Dr. Blondin first became fascinated with art during summer break following her freshman year of high school in 1986.

Unlike her summer of 2007, she and her twin sister Jo were spending an uneventful summer at home in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel when their mother suggested they accompany their father on a business trip. The 15-year-olds would travel to Denver with their father, an industrial engineer. Their mother, director of Carmel’s chamber of commerce, would remain home with their younger sister Jan.

On the trip, the daughters of Roger and Nancy Blondin enjoyed dining, shopping and seeing movies while their father conducted business. He was somewhat aghast at how the girls were spending their time. Their mother expected them to do something cultural, so they should visit the art museum or United States Mint Building, he suggested.

The sisters were not enthused about either option, but decided they’d rather see money than art. They went to the historic U.S. Mint in the cultural heart of downtown, prepared to take a tour and learn about the currency making process. The building was closed. The sisters smiled smugly. But then they remembered -- if not the Mint, they’d have to visit the museum. Reluctantly, they walked a couple of blocks over to the Denver Art Museum on 14th Avenue.

lionDr. Blondin was not prepared for what she would encounter beyond the gray-tiled building’s castle-like façade. The visual experience was captivating from gallery to gallery, from eloquent 19th century ballerinas by French painter Edgar Degas to a 20th century sculpture by Jean Dubuffet, who favored primitive and naïve art forms.

“I walked into that Denver Art Museum and it literally changed my life,’’ she said. “I saw Degas, I saw Dubuffet, I saw all of this art and it really spoke to me. I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to study, this is what I’m going to do with my life. My sister and I went home and started studying art when we could, even though there were no art history classes in our high school. We studied on our own.’’

She continued to explore independently the world of art beginning with the Impressionists of the 19th century. After high school, she enrolled as an art history major at Indiana University in Bloomington and discovered there was so much more to learn about her favorite subject, from ancient to modern.

The Impact of Travel

One of her greatest discoveries occurred during graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned master’s and doctorate degrees. She discovered the powerful impact of international travel.

While working on her master’s Dr. Blondin participated in a study abroad program in France. Her first time to travel overseas, she toured Europe independently for a month before the program. She was accompanied by her twin sister and “fellow history buff,’’ who was studying English as a graduate student at Arizona State University.

“My sister and I traveled all around Europe and then I took the class for a month. That was probably my biggest life-changing experience because I realized the importance of travel,’’ said Dr. Blondin, who also studied in Vienna before working on her doctoral dissertation in Rome.

“I decided that if I ever became a professor, I’d try and implement some type of travel program for students. Travel – international in particular but also travel within the United States – is what really opened up the world for me.’’

In addition to teaching the biennial Italy travel/study course, Dr. Blondin regularly takes UT Tyler students on bus trips to museums in Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

In her free time, the professor and her husband Ray, an attorney, enjoy traveling together in and out of the country with their young daughters, Elizabeth and Alice. As do her students, her family enjoys seeing art with her.


Beyond the Classroom: Taking Students to Italy

groupWhile lecturing and showing slides in a UT Tyler classroom about international sites significant to art history, Dr. Jill Blondin often finds herself remarking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be transported there?’’

The professor looks forward to the summers when she takes groups of students to Italy. The biennial travel/study course provides firsthand knowledge of some of the most important art and architectural monuments in theWestern world.

“The travel/study is probably my favorite part of teaching because it is truly a lifechanging experience,’’ said Dr. Blondin, who first offered the course in 2005.

“It is OK to talk in class about the Sistine Chapel or the Coliseum but it is nothing like actually going and seeing those places. And it’s not just looking at the art, it’s also about walking the streets, tasting the food, shopping, interacting with local people, the entire experience. I tell my students their lives will be changed as a result of this trip.’’

The 2007 trip included several stops in central and northern Italy. Highlights included visits to the Sistine Chapel, Coliseum, Villa Borghese and Saint Peters Basilica in Rome; the Duomo, Uffizi Gallery and the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence; the Accademia, the Frari and Piazza San Marco in Venice; the Arena in Verona; and the Arena Chapel in Padua.

They concluded the trip by viewing Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper at the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. “That was probably the main highlight of our trip,’’ Dr. Blondin said. “The students were so impressed, they were speechless.’’

buildingArt major Abhi Ghuge and graduate Lecia Ferguson were part of the travel/study group.

“The trip was phenomenal,’’ said Ghuge, whose emphasis is in studio art. “It was so different than any travel experience I ever had on my own. When you’re sight-seeing with a professor who has a Ph.D. in art history and she’s providing insight on a painting and why it was painted, how it was placed and where it was originally, you’re not just viewing a painting, you’re getting the whole story. You feel as though you’re stepping into those eras because you’re getting so much information.’’

She added, “I returned home with such wonder that, wow, that was ancient civilization and look where we are now.’’

Ferguson took the travel/study course in 2005 while working toward her bachelor of fine arts degree with a concentration in ceramics. She took the course again last summer as a graduation present, after completing her degree in May.

“Traveling to Italy was just amazing both times. Art is everywhere you go and the culture is so different,’’ she said. “We have so many customs and practices that are just American, but you don’t realize that until you visit other places.’’

Ferguson, who plans to attend graduate school, said she enjoyed the travel/study so much that she is looking into additional study opportunities in Italy.

Ghuge said she has learned to see the history in art as a result of taking Dr. Blondin’s travel/study and art history survey courses.

“It has been like a new world opening up for me,’’ she said. “Now, when I go to a museum I can really understand what I’m looking at. In the past, I’d look at an art piece and think, ‘Oh, it’s just a piece.’ But now I realize that you can learn about a whole civilization just based on an art piece.’’

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