An associate professor of art, Lisa Seppi coordinates the art history curriculum, teaches numerous courses in art history, and does research and consults for the Smithsonian on Native American art history, positioning the artists as, inclusively, American. 

How and when did you obtain a position at SUNY Oswego?

I was finishing my dissertation and adjunct teaching at three different locations in Michigan, which is where I grew up. I interviewed with Oswego at the College Art Association conference. I can even remember the people who interviewed me, and I can remember feeling really good about my sense of the relationship that the interviewers had with each other. I thought that was a good sign. I felt comfortable with them. Coming from Michigan, which has the Great Lakes -- I love the outdoors, and the topography of New York is similar -- I thought this would be a good fit, and it has been. I started here in September 2006.

What made you interested in art history? 

When I was an undergrad at Eastern Michigan University, I knew I was interested in a lot of different things that were related to the arts. I had a couple of faculty members that I was close to, and we would talk about my career goals. I was trying to decide on a major, and one of them said, "Why don't you create your own degree? It would be an interdisciplinary degree in the arts." So I studied journalism, creative writing, theatre, oral interpretation, visual art, art history, film. When I was nearing my degree, a friend showed me an article about a curator. I read it and thought, "That's what I want to do."

Where did you go next?

I got my master's degree in art history at Wayne State University in Detroit in contemporary art with a subspecialty in feminist art history. I later worked at the Detroit Institute of Arts, right across the street from Wayne State, for quite a few years, with a plan of going on for my Ph.D. in art history. I worked in the museum's department of African, Oceanic and New World cultures, mostly with Native American art. I loved working at the museum. I loved working with the objects. I created exhibitions, wrote about the objects, and gave lectures here and there -- but I didn't really get to deal with trying to influence people, with trying to get them interested in art and understand its relevance to society. So I decided when I went back for my Ph.D. that I wanted to go for a university professorship. 

Where did you do your doctoral work? 

I went to the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana. My area was modern and contemporary European and American art history, with a specialty in Native American art. My dissertation was on a contemporary Cherokee artist, Kay WalkingStick, who was a professor at Cornell University. I was interested in landscape and looking at how contemporary Native American artists dealt with representations of the land, and how that differed from non-native American artists.

Did you meet Kay WalkingStick? What's important to you about her art?

I can remember interviewing her in her kitchen in Ithaca. We started talking and I felt like I was talking with a friend I had known for decades. I'd have to stop myself and say, "Hey, I'm supposed to be interviewing you. What's my next question?" So it was a really amazing experience and really fortunate for me as a young scholar working with an artist who was so open and willing to share her work and life. What she shows you in her art are her experiences, her joy, her bliss, her sadness. It's really relatable, very moving and touches a lot of people. What I think is amazing about her work is that she shows you her world in the American context. Part of my agenda with my dissertation was to broaden our definition of what constitutes American art history. Earlier in art history anyone who was not European-American was pulled out as a different history. A lot has changed, but sometimes you still see that. In 2015, the Smithsonian asked me if I would serve as a consultant for a career retrospective they were planning for her. Their focus was to position her as an American artist. 

What courses do you teach at SUNY Oswego?

A lot of what I teach is core courses for most of our degree programs. I teach 20th century art history, and contemporary art and critical theory. I routinely teach a survey -- the big, expansive class that covers a long period, mostly the Renaissance to the present. I've developed a couple of recent courses: "Modern Art and Mass Culture" and "American Art, Identity and Visual Culture." I also teach a course in Native American art and architecture. I'm currently working on developing other courses to offer in the future.

What do you think of SUNY Oswego students?

My first impression of them hasn't changed: I was really taken with how genuine and polite they were, and their work ethic. As a contemporary art historian, I work with a lot of studio art students. I know they're juggling studio classes, which are longer. I try to push them, to give them material that is within their reach and also some that is just out of their reach. I'm always impressed with how hard they work, how committed they are and how respectful of the process. In terms of how genuine and polite they are -- and this might seem like a silly thing -- but emailing me if they can't come to class that they're not feeling well, they're sorry and they hate to miss my class. That has always impressed me. 

What do you think about your fellow faculty members at Oswego? 

I really like my colleagues. Anyone who works in academia knows there are sometimes territorial battles, there are little tensions here and there. I've always felt that with my colleagues, everyone is supported, no one is jealous and nobody gets territorial like I hear about at other institutions. I know I can count on them. I'm happy.

What else do you do professionally on and off campus?

I'm involved with the advisory boards for gender and women's studies and Native American studies. I served on SCAC (the Scholarly and Creative Activities Committee) for about six years until this year, when I became art history coordinator. I serve on Artswego instead, so I'm still involved with applications for awards and grants. I'm on the art department's curriculum committee. A few years ago, I curated an exhibition about Hannah Claus, a Montreal-based artist. I co-advise the Student Art Exhibition Committee. I'm the advisor for the minors in museum studies, art history, art, arts management and expressive art therapy. Off campus, I've been doing a lot with the Smithsonian for five or six years. I participated in a symposium where they gathered scholars in the field to talk about the direction Native American art was going in. Thanks to my membership in the Native American Art Studies Association, a curator in Germany asked if I would come over and speak about my research on Haudenosaunee art.

What can you tell us about your family?

My husband, Eric, works in the film business -- he's an art director and designer making film commercials. I have a 10-year-old daughter, Zoe. She dances and she's discovering her knack at baseball and volleyball. She's an avid reader and has a fantastic imagination. She loves writing, so right now she thinks she wants to be a writer. 

What do you like to do in your down time? 

I love gardening and baking. My whole family loves the outdoors. We camp on the beaches of Lake Michigan for a couple of weeks, sometimes with my whole extended family of 22 people. We spend two weeks camping in the Adirondacks, canoeing and discovering all the little island chains and hiking.

What can you tell us about yourself that's surprising?

My husband and I used to work on the QE2 (cruise ship). As an art director, he had some friends in the business that designed parties and set designs for all these parties and balls on the QE2. As payment for setting up the decorations, we got the cruise for free and got to dine with the passengers. We did that for a number of years while I was writing my dissertation -- in fact, I wrote the last chapter while I was on a cruise around the world, to China, New Zealand, Japan, Africa, Australia, all over. When I met with my advisor, who didn't know about the cruise, he said, "I don't know why, whether it's the content or what, but this is the best writing I've seen from you!" (Laughs.)