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Profile: Joan Seeman Robinson

Date: July 31, 2000

In a recent honors course taught by Joan Seeman Robinson, one student routinely sat through each session wearing a heavy-duty, broadcast quality headset clamped over his ears.

It wasn't that the student was trying to tune Robinson out. Rather, he and fellow students were trying to fine tune their understanding of the Vietnam War as part of Robinson's class, "The History of the Vietnam War in Film, Literature and Art." The 16 students each took on a persona typical of the late 1960s and early 1970s, dramatically portraying their characters through each class meeting in order to better appreciate the drama of the era.

The student with the headset was a disc jockey. And Robinson? Well, she was Ho Chi Minh -- a role garnered in the class lottery at the start of the quarter.

Joan Robinson

The role playing exhibits the creativity and passion that Robinson, adjunct assistant professor of art history, displays whenever teaching, researching, cooking or talking. "My teaching is warm and gleeful. I'm having more fun now that I'm in my mature years. I'm 72!" Robinson laughs.

However much Robinson wants her students to enjoy their studies, she also wants them to take the work seriously. "I like to make art meaningful to students' every day lives. The history of art is a critical part of civilization, that matters because we see and think visually. More than we know, we express ourselves in non-verbal manners. Art helps to open up how mysterious and multi-layered the world is," she added.

Robinson's roots in teaching stem from the fact that she was "supposed to be an artist, but I didn't have any great ideas." In fact, she began her love of art and teaching as a docent in a local museum. "I was shy. I realized that if I was well prepared and talked about a work and kept the focus there, everyone would look at the work. No one would look at me. I started as a docent in the '60s, and I found it to be endlessly provocative. It taught me who I am. It led me to a fuller life and socialized me, giving me a more outgoing personality."

Robinson began her special area of research about art related to the Vietnam War era in 1983, inspired by artist Maya Lin's design of the Washington D.C. Vietnam Wall Memorial. "As a pacifist, I was fascinated by war and this war in particular. What war does to people, its perceived worth, are important moral issues for any culture, any human being. We re a complicated species. I was previously married to a conscientious objector during World War II. I admired his guts. He volunteered, instead, for medical experiments during the war, and these made him quite ill."

As part of her research on art related to the Vietnam War, Robinson has interviewed hundreds of artists, veterans, protestors and others. She has documented hundreds of works from the era, works whose meanings are in danger of being lost as the artists who created them pass away. She has presented her research around the world, lecturing in classes and at conferences throughout the U.S. and Europe. Her book, They Ruled the Night: The Vietnam War and the Visual Arts, is due out from the University Press of Kentucky in 2002.

Robinson's enthusiasm for teaching and art extends into other areas of her life: cooking and family. She's up each and every day by 4 a.m. and checks the fridge first thing in the morning. What does she have on hand to try a new recipe? After a day of teaching and research, she'll return to the kitchen to try a new recipe almost every day. She thinks of her cooking as one of her masterpieces. "It's how I'm creative," she explained.

She's equally enthusiastic about her family. Boasts Robinson, "My son, Jeffrey, plays the best kick-ass slide guitar in Nashville, and he's a key player at Lighting Print, an e-book and publishing firm."

When asked, Robinson succinctly raps out a reply concerning the source of her energy and drive, "I want my whole life to be significant. My professional and personal life are one. I love what I'm doing, and I want it to matter."

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