An interview with Art History alumna, Michaela Rife

February 26, 2021 by Department of Art History

Michaela Rife joined the University of Michigan in the fall of 2020 after defending her PhD. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows and an assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art. She is working on her first book project, a history of New Deal murals in the Dust Bowl region, based on her dissertation.

What prompted you to pursue a PhD in Art History?

I fell in love with art history in my undergraduate classes at the University of Oregon, but I was naive to the realities of academia and the art world. I was not sure what career path I should (or could) pursue, but I kept coming back to research. When I was admitted to Toronto, I planned to focus on contemporary art and resource extraction, but kept finding myself pulled back into history and archival material! When I started focusing on the historical roots of resource extraction and settler land use in visual art and culture, that is when my reason for doing the PhD clicked. 

How would you describe your PhD experience in Art History at U of T?

Two things stand out from my time at U of T: a supportive dissertation committee and an incredible interdisciplinary community formed through the Jackman Humanities Institute. Of the former, my committee supported my dissertation from its early days as a too-big project, to the last weeks as I struggled to finish during the pandemic. I was fortunate enough to participate in a couple of iterations of a working group on landscape and land use at the JHI during my three years in Toronto. These working groups facilitated conversations that shaped my research interests and dissertation project, and introduced me to trusted friends and colleagues.

How did your education prepare you for your career?  

In a literal way, a PhD is a requirement for my current position as a postdoctoral fellow and assistant professor at the University of Michigan. To answer the question more fully, I think it would be hard to identify all of the moments that prepared me for my career. I am currently teaching a seminar in Environmental Art History, and I often find myself thinking back to my first TA position for (my advisor) Mark Cheetham’s Eco Art class during my first year in Toronto. Similarly, as I work on my book project, ideas from Kajri Jain’s seminar on art and time are still shaping my writing. However, I also think that my experiences presenting at conferences and researching during residential fellowships not only formed many of the skills that I draw on today, but also the academic network that I rely on at this stage in my career.

What advice would you give to undergraduate students who are thinking of pursuing art history studies?

I think there are a lot of practical things to consider, and one should be clear headed about their financial and career goals. But I also think it is important to explore the discipline widely by taking classes and attending events outside of your immediate interest. Your early academic career is the best time to develop a large knowledge base that will serve you well in the future.

Is it possible for an art historian to have one favourite work of art?

Yes, and I actually think this is a revealing prompt to consider! I was recently asked about my favorite artwork by a group of undergraduates here at U-M, and I was completely unprepared for the question. Ultimately, I surprised myself by answering with Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. After reading about him extensively for my comprehensive exams and moving away from land art in my own research, I thought I had a mostly cynical relationship to Smithson! Still, when I think about my “favorite” work of art, I am immediately transported to the feeling of standing on those basalt rocks in the Great Salt Lake. I visited the Spiral Jetty the summer after I graduated college, and I will always think of it as the place where I had the (late!) realization that the rural American West, my home region, is a site worthy of study, consideration, and care. This is a conviction that drives my academic work today.