By Sharday Mosurinjohn
May 1st, 2012
If there's one piece of advice Ana-Joel Falcon-Weibe could give to all the other grad students out there, it would be: ‘'never underestimate the importance of your work or the value of the people that are sent your way at unexpected times in unexpected ways.'”
From the outside, Ana-Joel Falcon-Wiebe seems to have led an academically charmed life. But the trick, says the fourth-year Art History PhD candidate, is in recognizing opportunities as they come your way. “I thought I was going to be an artist!” she recollects, thinking back on the path that led her, labyrinth-like, to where she is today. As a third-year undergraduate, the young scholar studied in Paris through an exchange program. “I took a course at the Sorbonne,” she explains, “and the paintings we were studying were at the Louvre. I was won over.” And so Falcon-Wiebe turned her attention to contemporary art history.
Having completed her double major in French and Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo, Falcon-Wiebe planned to pursue Master’s studies at Queen’s. Sadly, soon after her arrival, the professor who had agreed to supervise her thesis passed away. Open as always to new possibilities, Falcon-Wiebe stayed and, through the confusion, discovered her true passion: 19th century French painting. “The fact that I had to figure it out all over again made me network with all these new professors and I found out what I really loved to study” she insists. Now her research explores the under-recognized influence of 17th century Spanish painting in the work of 19th century French artists. Falcon-Wiebe hopes to better understand timely questions of national identity in France in the context of Spain’s embodiment of two contradictory stereotypes, at once perceived as the “exotic other” in a trend of Orientalism, travel, and appropriation, and also depicted through a realism that attended to family scenes, beggars on the street, and all the stuff of the everyday.
Falcon-Wiebe’s instinct for networking has made her contacts at renowned galleries all over the world and given her professional development opportunities that would have otherwise seemed far out of reach. The enterprising student stayed with her new supervisor, Dr. Sebastian Schütze, through her MA and now her PhD, making the most of his expertise. In 2010, the two attended a conference at the National Gallery of Canada. Falcon-Wiebe knew that Chief Curator of Prints and Drawings Dr. Catherine Loisel from the Louvre would be there as well and managed to get noticed. “Supervisors are glad to introduce you to other scholars!” she exclaims. “They’re already established, they have connections. Don’t be afraid to ask!” Taking her own advice, she asked her supervisor to catch the curator during a break and make the introduction. After the “hello,” the first words out of the curator’s mouth were “Ana-Joel, would you like to do an internship at the Louvre?” Of course, Falcon-Wiebe replied with an ecstatic “yes!” and the two parted on the promise to “see you next year in Paris.” She did, in fact, find herself in Paris the next year, but on a fellowship to pursue her own research. By that time, the internship was already full. But Falcon-Wiebe and the curator had kept in touch, and over a follow-up coffee, she was offered a position anyway.
The curator turned out to be a specialist in 16th and 17th century Italian prints and drawings, which had almost nothing at all to do with Falcon-Wiebe’s specialty. Nonetheless, the methodological training she gained around tracing the genealogy of artistic styles, solving attribution problems, and the general navigation of the museum system proved invaluable. “At our first meeting,” Falcon-Wiebe recounts, “I thought Mme. Loisel wanted me to class the genealogy of a particular drawing, but without being familiar with the artist’s oeuvre, I was in the dark.” The eager intern spent her first week giving herself a crash course only to find that the curator hadn’t wanted her to solve the problem. Says Falcon-Wiebe, “Mme. Loisel was just giving me a chance to watch her at work and to learn from the thought processes and methods of inquiry I was seeing in action. I had the chance to learn from one of the world’s best curators at work, and that was a rare and invaluable opportunity.”
The curator was happy with Falcon-Wiebe’s work and a four-month contract turned into seven, with additional duties training new hires. During this time, the intern worked half-time so that she could continue with her own project, the materials for which were also located at the Louvre. The clearance afforded by Falcon-Wiebe’s intern status gave her access to drawings and letters that were crucial for her work. As you might imagine, this arrangement was part coincidence and part strategy. In another position, this time at the National Gallery of Canada, luck and hard work once again made for a golden opportunity. Falcon-Wiebe’s enthusiasm for working with the former Chief Curator and Deputy Director Dr. David Franklin on the recent exhibition “Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome,” motivated her to finish her duties over a month early, giving her a chance to work with two more curators on two other exhibitions. And yet another happy accident took the PhD candidate’s work experience even closer to her dissertation topic, when an application to a practicum at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (AEAC) during her first year of Master’s studies got lost in the mail. Falcon-Wiebe was disappointed to receive a message notifying her that she had missed the submission deadline, but a helpful staff member suggested that she speak instead with the AEAC’s Director, Janet M. Brooke, who is a 19th century specialist and gave her a position after all. “It was a stressful situation,” remembers Falcon-Wiebe, “but it was also a blessing in disguise. Janet’s insight and expertise provided the first building blocks in my journey towards a career as an art historian within the museum context.”
Now, Ana-Joel Falcon-Wiebe is in “the heavy writing phase” of her PhD thesis. “Researching is never done,” she acknowledges, “but at some point you have to just shut it off and just start writing down your ideas a little at a time.” After defending this year, Falcon-Wiebe is considering a post-doc in New York. Given her multilingualism (English, French, Spanish, Italian, and a little German), Falcon-Wiebe could work almost anywhere. The future, she is sure, will see her in a museum as curator; “the Met, if I’m dreaming big,” she says with a laugh, “but I’m open for anything.” And this is just the advice she wants to pass on to other emerging researchers and cultural producers. “Don’t set limits on yourself,” urges Falcon-Wiebe. “Experiences like these could happen to you, too. There are things we can’t control and opportunities that are sent to us. We have to keep our eyes open and take them.”
"A final word of advice: 'Kingston is not Europe, but we have the digital image and we have email! The world is really small.’