Finding her future in the past
Jewell alumna’s journey of discovery leads to the Middle Ages.
For Holly Flora, an assistant professor of art history at Tulane University and a William Jewell Oxbridge History graduate from the class of 1996, art is about more than the lustrous palette of hues on a manuscript page or the glow of an exquisitely executed stained glass window. It is about telling stories.
“I am drawn to the beauty of art,” says the author and academician who has illuminated the mysteries of medieval religious art as a writer, teacher and exhibit curator for some of the country’s most influential museums. “There’s something about the simplicity of telling stories. I really find that to be very moving in medieval art and in manuscript painting and stained glass. I am drawn to the stories and to the beauty. It all just fascinates me.”
The Oklahoma native came to Jewell in 1992 as an academic scholarship winner. “The Oxbridge program was a huge attraction for me because I had always wanted to travel and live in Europe, and I was interested in majoring in history,” Flora says. “I knew that I would have a great opportunity to spend a year in England. Oxbridge was definitely a huge influence on my formative education. I would not be close to the writer that I am today if I hadn’t done Oxbridge.”
Flora cites among her major influences at Jewell Dr. Ken Chatlos, emeritus professor of history; Nano Nore, professor of art; and Dr. Mark Walters, professor of English. “Dr. Chatlos was my main tutor for history. He’s a great teacher and a great mentor. We read Erasmus and Luther and Thomas More. In my Oxbridge tutorials, he helped me learn the discipline necessary to synthesize all this material and then put together an argument every week.”
Dr. Chatlos recalls Flora as a gifted student who consistently sought out academic enrichment opportunities.
Dr. Walters remembers Flora vividly: “Holly was a student who was always gracefully composed during class—calmly attentive, though passionate (you could hear it in her voice)
about the ideas we discussed, and capable of remarkably sophisticated readings of the texts we studied,” Walters says. “It was clear that she had this great intellectual elasticity and energy, and she was of course utterly likeable—funny and quick and kind.”
Nore calls Flora “my most outstanding art history student” and now refers to her as “a dear colleague.”
History comes to life
It was a report prepared for Nore’s art history class at Jewell that ultimately led Flora to discover a love of art from the Middle Ages. Her research led her to a video on The Cloisters, the branch of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. “I thought it looked like the most amazing place,” Flora recalls. During the summer of 1994, she was one of eight interns selected for a nine-week internship at The Cloisters, where she led tours for inner-city high school students and developed gallery talks.
“It’s this magical place where medieval art comes to life,” Flora says of The Cloisters. “You have all these fantastic works from the Middle Ages, and you have this spectacular setting where you just walk in the door and you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. You’re stepping in actual medieval spaces brought from Europe. I just fell in love with it and fell in love with art and art history.”
During her overseas study while at Jewell, Flora served as a curatorial intern at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum, where she researched French medieval metalwork. During her senior year, she was a curatorial intern at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where she assisted the curator of European paintings.
While juggling the demands of an Oxbridge academic schedule, Flora found time to participate on the dance team and was a member of Zeta Tau Alpha sorority. “Some of my best friends are Zetas,” she says. “You learn a lot in a sorority about how to interact with people who are different from you. The philanthropy that we did as Zetas was very meaningful to me because my mother died of breast cancer, and we did work for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. I got to do a lot of volunteering and a lot of work with raising money for breast cancer research. So I was very busy, but it was the good kind of busy. I think I had an ideal college experience in many ways. I was doing a lot of great things that I love to do, and that helped make me become a well-rounded person. It wasn’t just all about studying.”
A career in art beckons
After winning the Faculty Award and graduating with honors from William Jewell in 1996, Flora was one of ten national Pew Graduate Fellowship award winners. She began working toward her M.A. in the History of Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where she was awarded a master’s degree in 1998 and a Ph.D. in 2005.
Before accepting her current tenure-track position as assistant professor of art history at Tulane University in New Orleans in 2007, she held teaching positions at City College of New York and New York University. In the museum world, she served as a curator at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York and was a guest curator and curatorial fellow for New York’s Frick Collection, which includes some of the best-known paintings by the greatest European artists, along with major works of sculpture.
Although Flora has always been drawn to art, she considered different options in her career path. “I’ve always loved objects,” she says. “I love looking at something that’s from the past. Someone made it many centuries ago. So I was attracted to museums for that reason. And I think because I had done a lot of lecturing during my internship at The Cloisters, that really opened up a whole new world for me.
“I learned how museums function in terms of educating the public. They’re not just repositories for old stuff. They’re living places where people interact with objects, which I love. But then, I also really liked the kind of life where you would have the opportunity for intensive research, for writing books, for traveling and for teaching.”
Curatorial opportunities were the first to come her way—first at the Museum of Biblical Art and at the Frick Collection. But she missed the opportunity to travel and do in-depth research that the academic world allows. “I think Jewell instilled that love of travel and the love of interacting with other cultures,” she says.
The Oxbridge advantage
Throughout her educational and professional experience, Flora has competed with the best and brightest for graduate school admission slots, internship opportunities and career positions. She believes her Oxbridge background has served her well: “My best friends in graduate school went to Vassar and Princeton—you know, places with very established art history programs. And I was a better writer, I found, than a lot of my colleagues who had been to bigger schools. I was prepared to research, to write clearly and effectively, and to think on a higher level. The Oxbridge program is really some of the best preparation for graduate school that I could have had.”
After spending nearly a decade in New York, along with extended periods in Italy and Greece, Flora felt the need for a change of scene. During a vacation to New Orleans, Flora and her husband discovered a city that, like New York, had “the same kind of cultural life and vibrancy and an air of excitement about it. We wanted to be a part of helping it come back, and to be better than it was. Then this great job at a great school came up for me and we decided to go for it.”
Following her passion
She began working in a tenure-track position in Tulane University’s art history department in the fall of 2007. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she has become involved in the New Orleans Museum of Art’s “Van Go” program, a community outreach program that involves filling a van with art objects and taking them into urban school districts and presenting programs built around the art. She is also putting the finishing touches on a new book based on her dissertation research.
“It’s about nuns in 14th-century Pisa, and about an illustrated devotional manuscript made for them of a famous text called The Meditations on the Life of Christ,” Flora says. “It’s about the imagery of this manuscript and how the nuns would have interacted with it—a window into their spiritual life, in a sense, from the images in this book. A friar wrote it for a nun. He said, ‘Since you don’t have any books to read, I’m going to spin you a tale about the life of Jesus,’ and he adds all these little illustrated anecdotes to the life of Christ. It was a way to make these stories in the Bible become real to people living in 14th-century Italy, a way of making these very spiritual truths relevant for the times.”
The book, titled The Devout Belief of the Imagination: Gender and Devotion in an Illustrated Manuscript of the Meditationes Vitae Christi, is scheduled for publication by Brepols in 2009. She will be the co-curator of a related exhibit, Renaissance Art and the Devotional Imagination: Meditations on the Life of Christ, scheduled for the summer and fall of 2010 at New York’s Museum of Biblical Art.
“I think that having a passion—having a great interest and love of something—is really essential to what you do,” Flora says. “For me, it’s a fascination with works of art. There’s nothing more exciting to me than being in a great cathedral, or being in front of a great work of art. I hope to be able to convey that to my students. Maybe they can’t be in a chapel in Palermo today, but they could—maybe from my experience—get a sense of what that’s like and then want to go.”
Top: Cenni di Pepo called Cimabue The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels, c. 1280; Tempera on poplar panel 10 x 8 in.
(25.7 x 20.5 cm) National Gallery, London. Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the National Gallery, 2000.
Bottom: Magdalen Master The Virgin and Child and Scenes from the Passion, c. 1280; Tempera and gold on panel; Central panel 16 x 11 1/8 in. (40.6 x 28.3 cm), left panel 15 x 5 5/8 in. (38.1 x 14.3 cm), right panel 15 x 5 1/2 in. (38.1 x 14 cm);The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of George Blumenthal, 1941 (41.100.8), Photograph (c) 2004 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(click on each image to view a larger version)