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Redefining Monumental

Distinguished teacher and art historian Julia Guernsey advocates for underrepresented art and students

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Julia Guernsey says she doesn’t like to mythologize her past. A true art historian, she is ever aware of how the narrative she might tell shapes reality. When asked about her life growing up, she says simply that she had a happy childhood growing up in Rockford, Illinois, a town west of Chicago. “Nothing much of note or unusual. I’m really not sure what to say about Rockford. … It was the home of Cheap Trick?” she says laughing about the birthplace of the rock band.

Guernsey was the oldest of three children and was encouraged to pick a more practical degree as an undergraduate. She got her bachelor’s degree in business from Marquette University. After graduating, she started working at an art gallery in Milwaukee, where she first learned, from her boss, about art history as a discipline. Guernsey, a curious learner, decided to sign up for a class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). She fell in love with the discipline and found a home in it. She went on to get her master’s and eventually her doctorate. “I had always loved history,” she says. “But for me it was adding that visual component to it that really resonated — understanding that there was this visual history that was as important to study as text.”

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Today, Guernsey is a distinguished teacher and professor in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. She is a leading scholar in the field of Mesoamerican art with a focus on ancient cultural traditions in Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador. She studies sculptural objects and how they relate to structures of power — social, economic and political. Her scholarship focuses on the marginalized. She questions how we define what is monumental and what deserves attention, and by doing so, her career has empowered her subjects, her students and herself.

“I was really interested in histories that had been overlooked or underemphasized,” she says. “I began to see myself as someone whose work could contribute.”

Guernsey says the art history she teaches now is very different from the discipline she entered in the late ’80s. Scholarship largely focused on the Western world, and it was often a critique of formal properties of art. It focused, at times, more on the creator’s use of line, shape, color, texture and composition than on the cultural context. However, many academics were challenging this notion, and one of them was Andrea Stone, a UT alumna and UWM professor. Guernsey remembers how refreshing her first class with Stone was. Rather than looking at the work of European masters, the teacher and students explored archaeological artifacts of Mesoamerica. It was adventurous and exciting and rigorous.

Stone became Guernsey’s master’s adviser and recommended the Ph.D. program at UT, where professor Linda Schele, whose work as a groundbreaking pre-Columbian art historian was widely known, was teaching. Following in her adviser’s footsteps, Guernsey applied to work with Schele, moved to Austin for her doctorate and never left.

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Guernsey has been a professor at UT since 2001. She made a name for herself as a preeminent scholar and caring teacher. Her work has taken her around the world studying artifacts of Latin America’s ancient past. She has published three books, written numerous peer-reviewed articles and received several awards, including a 2014 Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award and a 2015 President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award. This year she was inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

“I adore teaching!” Guernsey says. Like her mentors, she wants to help students from all backgrounds who take her courses to have the tools to contemplate, critique and contextualize culture.

“I want students to leave an art history course with an appreciation for the power of images, emboldened by their ability to read the world around them,” Guernsey says. “One of the most rewarding moments is when a student realizes, for the first time, that art is a tool that can be used to discern meaning.”

She is dedicated to promoting globally situated arts and humanities. As associate chair of her department during 2012-2015, she expanded the curriculum to encourage interdisciplinary conversations across campus. She also inaugurated a series of programs for undergraduate research, which established a greater presence for art history undergraduate research.

One of her former students praised her dedication. “Professors are expected to juggle teaching, publishing, and community outreach. It is easy to place student welfare on the back burner,” wrote Kendyll Gross in her Academy of Distinguished Teachers recommendation letter of Guernsey. “Time and time again, Dr. Guernsey has gone to bat for her students, fighting for their funding, research projects, and access to professional opportunities.”

Guernsey also brings the same fierce dedication to diversity that she showcases in her scholarship to her leadership in the department. She notes that a large number of her undergraduate students are Latinx, taking the class in order to learn about a history they claim as their own. She empowers and invites students to question how scholarship is being done and to think about what they could contribute.

Many of her students say this is their first class in which their family histories — “stories that their grandparents have told them” — resonate. “It is a particularly poignant experience when students realize that they can be a vital part of the process of thinking, writing and the reworking of histories that have been marginalized traditionally,” she says.

For Guernsey, teaching is monumental. In addition to being a noted scholar and professor, she prioritizes time as a mentor. It is endlessly rewarding, she says. She is dedicated to passing on the advice of those before her and to creating space for the next generation of art historians, museum curators and humanists.