School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Sarah Smith

Art History, PhD, 2013

Sarah Smith with her GG Award

Sarah Smith after receiving her Governor General's Gold Medal Award

Art Is Political for GG's Gold Medal Winner

by Lorinda Peterson, July 2014

The way art can be used to tell stories about our nation intrigues recent PhD graduate Sarah E.K. Smith. This spring she received the Governor General’s Gold Medal for her research examining visual and material culture in relation to North American free trade. The Governor General’s medals are presented to graduate students with the highest academic standing at participating Canadian universities.

“One of Sarah's greatest gifts is her ability to engage fully with her environment and the opportunities it provides,” says Lynda Jessup, an associate professor in the Department of Art.  “Her work at Queen's – in the Department of Art, in the Cultural Studies Program, at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, and in the larger graduate student community – is evidence of this.”

Ms. Smith’s award-winning dissertation, Art and the Invention of North America, 1985-2012, examines diverse examples of cultural production, including art exhibitions, tracing the substantial role that art played in establishing and naturalizing economic integration in the continent. It highlights different forms of art production that helped promote new understandings of North America after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Within her dissertation, she also examined contemporary video art responding to free trade at the time. These videos provide a map to key issues of neoliberal expansion and demonstrate a sustained engagement by Canadian contemporary artists in responding to and commenting on North American integration. “Visual and material culture played an integral role in deploying new understandings of the continent, while concurrently circulating counter-narratives of North America,” says Ms. Smith.

Among her many accomplishments at Queen’s, Ms. Smith collaborated with colleague Susan Cahill in 2008, founding Shift: Graduate Journal of Visual and Material Culture, a mobile, inter-university journal of visual and material culture studies. Shift is now being co-hosted in its sixth year at the international level by the University of Western Ontario and New York University. She served as co-editor of the journal from 2008-2010.

During her graduate career, Ms. Smith developed her curatorial skills, including taking a practicum course at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (AEAC) in 2008. This led to her curating Conversation Pieces, an exhibition of new media work featuring Canadian artists’ explorations of communication. She also worked with Jan Allen, Director, AEAC to curate Sorting Daemons: Art, Surveillance Regimes and Social Control, shown at the AEAC in 2010, and the Mississauga Art Gallery in 2011.

In 2010 Ms. Smith worked out of the University of California, San Diego for several months through a Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement. She conducted research into the contemporary art festival inSite, which commissioned art interventions in the San Diego-Tijuana border region in 1992, 1994, 1997, 2000 and 2005. “This experience gave me significant insights into the arts communities in San Diego and Tijuana, and expanded my knowledge of cultural production on the Mexico-US border,” she says.

Collaborating with colleague Alena Buis under the direction of Drs. Lynda Jessup and Janice Helland in 2011, Ms. Smith coordinated visiting scholar Theresie Tungilik's tenure at Queen's. Ms. Tungilik, an Inuit art historian, artist and arts administrator, based in Rankin Inlet, is the Advisor on Arts and Traditional Economy in the Department of Economic Development and Transportation, Government of Nunavut. Visiting scholar events comprised a panel discussion on Inuit cultural production, a screening of two documentaries addressing Inuit culture, a keynote lecture, and an event for graduate students.

Ms. Smith is leaving Queen’s this month, and taking up a two-year SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs (WCFIA). At the WCFIA, she will be working with the Transnational Studies Initiative, an interdisciplinary group of scholars and students focused on employing new methodologies for studies across national boundaries. Ms. Smith’s postdoctoral project, Canada and the Americas: Examining Art, Canada-US Relations and Pan Americanism During the Twentieth Century, examines how art exhibitions and museums contributed to the drive for American hemispheric integration, a movement that peaked in the twentieth century. She will explore the role exhibitions and museums played in creating a Pan American imaginary; the way exhibitions and museums acted to structure new ways of understanding the Americas; and how national projects were managed under the transnational Pan American grouping.

“Dissertation writing is a solitary process,” says Ms. Smith. “I am honoured to have my work recognized as I am leaving Queen’s. I am heavily indebted to faculty members especially my supervisors Drs. Lynda Jessup and Kirsty Robertson (University of Western Ontario) for their ongoing support during the five years of my degree. And I was thrilled to meet the Chancellor and attend Convocation twice!” she adds with a smile.

Since defending her PhD dissertation in September 2013, Ms. Smith has been Curator of Contemporary Art at the AEAC. She is also an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Art History and Art Conservation, and affiliated faculty member in the Cultural Studies Program, where she will continue to work with graduate students. She completed a MA in Art History in 2008 and a PhD in Art History in 2013, both at Queen’s. She received her gold medal at Spring Convocation 2014.