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Ph.D. dissertations provide inspiration for artist

By Jeff Bleiler

Alison Rivett, associate director of the Arts Initiative, has created several paintings inspired by Ph.D. dissertations, including one based on a Greek-language papyrus letter from a man to his wife. Photos courtesy of Alison Rivett.

Alison Rivett would love nothing more than to make the arts accessible to more people.

That’s a large part of her role as associate director of the university’s Arts Initiative, but it’s also the guiding principle behind her latest efforts: illustrations based on Ph.D. dissertations.

Alison Rivett

Alison Rivett

Dissertations are not the most natural form of inspiration for art, and Rivett relishes the challenge.

“I was interested in text and image, since my time as a grad student here at the Stamps School of Art & Design,” she said. “I’ve only done a few from this series based on dissertations, but I want it to become my life’s work, especially at a place like U-M. I am interested in art for an audience of one, but very personally meaningful to that person.”

She completed her first one in 2019, a painting inspired by an analysis of the papyrus collection at U-M. Rivett was with the International Institute at the time and a colleague wanted to gift her partner something visual from his scholarly work in the classics department.

She chose a Greek-language papyrus letter to illustrate.

“I found the one I thought was the most visual, and it was a letter from a husband to his wife telling her to pack up the household and come,” she said. “He has found the place they were going to be living and all the things she needs to bring with her, which were trunks of clothing, 12 jars of olives, his three best men, and a few sheep.

“Taking it literally, I’m showing the woman carrying all this stuff on her own on a big platform — even though he probably did not intend that, it would have been difficult for her to move an entire household. I often look for what a textual description leaves out, or assumes.”

She also recently completed another piece inspired by an art history dissertation about the history of early tarot cards, which were hand-painted in Italy in the mid-15th century.

Alison Rivett made this painting from an art history dissertation about the history of early tarot cards.

Rivett’s painting from an art history dissertation about the history of early tarot cards

“The illustration I created combines frescoes referred to in the dissertation, and juxtaposes them with people mentioned in the textual evidence,” she said. “This one was great to work on because I love painting patterns-on-patterns.”

The finished product was gifted to the recipient as part of a “secret Santa” exchange.

The other painting she completed was about linguistic anthropology for a friend who wanted a gift for her Ph.D. adviser. The subject was the Wolof language in Senegal. She said she’s about to start another one based on an anthropology dissertation.

“I say part of the gift is I read the entire dissertation, and the joke is, they say, ‘You’re the second person who’s ever read this,’” she said. “I note the passages you can see in your mind’s eye that seem to suggest a setting.”

Rivett created this painting based on a linguistic anthropology dissertation about the Wolof language in Senegal.

Rivett’s painting from a linguistic anthropology dissertation about the Wolof language in Senegal

Rivett’s sense of humor shines through in her illustrations, and she believes that helps open the arts to a wider audience.

“Even when I try to do paintings that are straightforward, they end up being kind of funny, and that’s one way I see the arts being more accessible,” she said. “If you can laugh at it a little, it takes away some of this gatekeeping idea that art has to be about the sublime or it’s only for people who are insiders and go to galleries every week.

“When I was a student here, even classmates pursuing Ph.D.s were intimidated by art. They thought they did not have enough training to access or appreciate it fully. I think of that a lot now as we at the Arts Initiative think about how more students at the university can participate in art making.”

Rivett is an art consumer in addition to being a creator. She said her favorite exhibit each year is the Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners through the Prison Creative Arts Project. The exhibit closed last week.

She said she enjoys visiting museums that are off the beaten path, inspired by her time as a museum studies student at U-M, and she holds the distinction of being the second paid employee of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall.

She also said she enjoys checking out local estate sales on weekends and has come away from many of those with unique finds.

“I went to an estate sale that had a set of scrapbooks,” she said. “I found that all of them, 10 or 12, were filled with images of cats found from various sources — newspapers, greeting cards, and even Morris the Cat from cat food containers. I bought five of them.

“When confronted by incredulous friends, who see these as ‘trash’ not ‘treasure,’ I point out that these are pre-internet Google images. If we wanted to have images of things, we had to work hard to find them and collect them. And, particularly because these are images of cats, and some say the internet mostly exists as a platform to share images of cats, I think these are, really, an early version of the internet.”

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