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A City as a Canvas

Tuesday, January 7, 2020
lerman-tan showing students a piece of art at sama

Yinshi Lerman-Tan's current research focuses on artists and works in SAMA, including Henry M. Shrady's Moose.

Trinity partners with San Antonio Museum of Art for inaugural postdoctoral fellowship.

by Robin J. Johnson

Trinity’s mission to redefine and elevate liberal arts education materialized as an innovative postdoctoral fellowship that turns the city of San Antonio and its collection of art into a classroom.

In fall 2019, Yinshi Lerman-Tan, Ph.D., began the postdoctoral fellowship between Trinity University and the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), with support provided by the Coates Foundation. The two-year fellowship uses the museum as a place for teaching and learning and will add to the vigor of Trinity’s faculty research.

The fellowship was made possible by the Coates Family Foundation and collaborates with Trinity’s Department of Art and Art History, as well as the Departments of Classical Studies and Sociology and Anthropology and SAMA. Classical Studies professor Corinne Pache, Ph.D., developed the proposal for the Coates Fellowship with the former SAMA director after two successful Lennox Seminars that incorporated exhibits at SAMA. In hopes of creating a more permanent tie between the two institutions, the Coates Fellowship was developed and needed a special kind of candidate.

“We were looking for someone who could use the collection at SAMA for both their research and teaching,” Pache says. “This is an unusual kind of postdoc where the postdoc has offices and duties in both institutions, so we were looking for someone who has the ability to make and maintain connections, and whose research could be sustained by the collection at SAMA. We also needed someone who is an excellent teacher, who could teach in the First-Year Experience (FYE) program and create new courses that use the collection at SAMA.”

That someone was Yinshi Lerman-Tan.

Holding a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and a doctorate from Stanford University, Lerman-Tan is the inaugural recipient of the fellowship, which entails her to teach one class per semester that focuses on students’ direct engagement with art at SAMA while conducting research and curatorial projects out of SAMA’s collections. She is on the faculty of the Department of Art and Art History and receives mentorship, support, and an office in the department.

“A postdoc of this kind—and the rare joint and collaborative nature of it—establishes Trinity and SAMA as an incubator for new types of collaboration,” Lerman-Tan says. “Looking at the landscape of art history postdoc fellowships, it’s pretty unique to see a fellowship that spans two institutions in this way. It tracked exactly with my experience and my mission as a scholar committed to university teaching and research, as well as to curatorial work and museums.”

The fellowship mutually benefits Trinity and SAMA with a goal to strengthen its connections and future collaborations, including internships, additional classes utilizing the museum, new research, and new curatorial research out of the museum.

“Both Trinity and SAMA have long-standing relationships with the Coates Foundation, who have helped us individually advance scholarship and intellectual engagement in our own spheres,” says William Rudolph, co-interim director and chief curator of SAMA and a member of the fellowship search committee.

“This exciting, innovative partnership allows us to think in unexpected and original ways about how our two organizations can offer a new model of collaborative learning and service, while also helping mentor the next generation of art historians. We have had a wonderful relationship with Trinity, who provides otherwise unavailable library and research resources to our curatorial and educational teams. The partnership takes our interactions to a deeper, richer level.”

Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Lerman-Tan specializes in American art and culture from the nineteenth century to present, focusing on the idea of rethinking and expanding American art and the relationship between marginal and mainstream American art. Her scholarship centers on forgotten or understudied art and artists, including Asian American artists, another focus of her research and teaching. Additionally, her research is interested in the artist’s lived experience, how art moves through time, and the afterlives of art. Lerman-Tan was a recipient of a predoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., which supported her research on turn-of-the-century still life painter John F. Peto.

During her graduate work at Stanford, Lerman-Tan developed and taught a class that brought medical students into galleries at campus museums. Her students looked at art to hone observational skills and to think about how clinicians use observation and description in their clinical practice.

Lerman-Tan’s background and research interests lead to unique classes, which will continue at Trinity, highlighting her philosophy that “there’s something invaluable you can learn from standing in front of a work of art.”

The activation of SAMA as a place for teaching and learning began with Lerman-Tan’s first semester of the fellowship in fall 2019. Her lecture for the FYE “Arts and Ideas” course invited about 90 students to the museum, some for the first time, to see paintings by John Singer Sargent, Kehinde Wiley, and Angel Rodríguez–Díaz, allowing students to explore their city and its resources at SAMA.

“San Antonio is a city with a rich cultural fabric, and this fellowship really establishes that Trinity students can be integrated into the city and into an institution like SAMA,” Lerman-Tan says. “They can start to see their city as a sort of classroom, and that’s an innovative thing that Trinity has done by making this postdoc fellowship.”

Lerman-Tan describes her upcoming spring 2020 art history course, “This is America: Rethinking American Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art,” as the “headliner” for the Coates Fellowship. Taking its name from a song by the hip-hop artist Childish Gambino, the course will meet weekly in the galleries of SAMA instead of a classroom and push students to approach canonical American art with a critical lens by studying lesser-known artists and objects available at the museum. Additionally, students will have the opportunity to interact with SAMA’s curatorial staff as well as experience the functions of the museum on a day it’s closed to the public.

“This is the first course of this kind at Trinity that will be completely taught out of a museum collection and completely on site (at SAMA),” Lerman-Tan says. “I’ve noticed the student-focused nature of Trinity, and that’s something I’m really loving about Trinity. There’s a fostering of close dialogue between students and faculty, so I think it’s going to be a really rich environment for the spring class. Students will be excited to be off campus and have these intellectual experiences in the larger community and in the museum context.”

Lerman-Tan’s experiential courses teach Trinity students how to conduct art historical writing by choosing an object from the SAMA collection and writing an extended research project about that object. Additionally, the courses teach students how to look at art, how to have experiences in front of art and to discuss it, as well as how to place Texas and San Antonio in relation to the larger contributions of American artists.

“My hope is that (my courses) will introduce students to the importance of the humanities in terms of what they can teach us about what it means to be alive as a person, as well as the ways they can go on and pursue (humanities) after graduation,” Lerman-Tan says.

Yinshi Lerman-Tan discusses Elsie Wagg with Ariel del Vecchio '20 and Aubrey Harlan '23.

Students already benefiting from Lerman-Tan’s expertise and passion for the humanities include senior art history major Ariel Del Vecchio. Lerman-Tan is Del Vecchio’s thesis adviser. Del Vecchio’s thesis focuses on the aftermath of violence in the works of Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, articulating the way Mendieta forces the viewers of these works to become participants in the scene.

“Dr. Lerman-Tan has been absolutely amazing,” says Vecchio, who hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in art history.

“She is so affirming, and our conversations are always constructive. She is extremely skilled at guiding students to refine their projects and thoughts to be the best they can. I cannot put into words how grateful I am to work with her and how much I value the investment she has in this project.”

In addition to her courses and thesis advising, Lerman-Tan has already begun research out of the SAMA collection and working directly with the curatorial team at SAMA.

“Dr. Lerman-Tan brings a fresh academic and curatorial perspective to our collections, exhibitions, and practice,” Rudolph says. “We expect to learn a lot about our American collections and to re-think our assumptions. We are learning along with the students and with Dr. Lerman-Tan, and we hope that this fellowship becomes such a success that it can offer a new way to bring together the academy and the museum.”

Lerman-Tan’s current research focuses on Asian American artist Tyrus Wong in relation to the internment moment and his animation of Disney’s Bambi, as well as artists in the SAMA collection including Angel Rodríguez–Díaz, Henry M. Shrady, and Seymour Guy.

Only one semester into the Coates Fellowship, Lerman-Tan has and will continue to assist in elevating Trinity and a liberal arts education.

“There’s something of value that is a part of a liberal arts education that is more than just interacting with text or participating in the Socratic method,” Lerman-Tan says. “The direct engagement with art can really be an integral part of what a college student is learning at Trinity. We can look to works of art to tell us about all kinds of issues, from current events to the art historical canon and the pre-Columbian past. These artworks are on display for the public and for students, and they are telling us something both about the past and what it means to be alive today.”

Robin Johnson is an English Ph.D. student at UTSA. She is an alumna of St. Mary's University in San Antonio, where she graduated with a bachelor's and two master's degrees. You can reach her at robinjohnson646 [at] gmail.com.