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
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.
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
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."