January 2018

Interview by Arnold Serapilio

Dr. Heidi Gearhart discovered the Boston Athenæum as a teenager when her mother brought her on an impromptu trip to Boston for an informal tour of historic sites. She was taken with the atmosphere of the first floor reading spaces. ‘Those big red chairs, and looking out onto the graveyard. I just loved it.’ She went on to obtain a Bachelor in Arts from Pomona College, a Master in Art History from Tufts University, and a PhD in History of Art from the University of Michigan. Then, after several years of moving around the country and the world for various academic and professional pursuits, she landed back in Boston to teach at Assumption College, where she is currently Assistant Professor of Art History​.

Gearhart and I sat down to discuss her first book, Theophilus and the Theory and Practice of Medieval Art, an exploration of twelfth-century German monk Theophilus’s rare treatis​e On Diverse Arts—and also the excitement of the highs and lows of the writing process, and the new project on her horizon.​

DR. HEIDI GEARHART: I grew up in Marblehead, and I went to college out in California. I studied studio art, and mathematics. Then I bounced around for a number of years: I worked in L.A., I lived in Italy. I came back here to get a master’s at Tufts. I ended up at Ann Arbor for my PhD. I got into art history because I decided I really like art but I don’t actually like doing it. I don’t like sitting there and mixing paint, say. [laughing] I loved writing in my journal about what I would do—that’s what I liked. 

Q: Taking it in is what moves you—

HG: Thinking about what art could be. At this stage—thinking about what art has been over thousands of years, right, and we’re sitting here at the edge of it looking back—what is there to do now? I was really obsessed with that question. How do you do something that is worthwhile at this point in time? That was more interesting to me than actually sitting down and doing it.

Q: I’m curious about the mathematics connection because there are other members who seem to have this dual aptitude for math and art. I don’t know whether it speaks to a larger pattern. What was your background in math?

HG: I just always liked it so I just kept taking it. In some ways it has correspondences to writing. I like the beauty of numbers. I like that there are patterns. I like the abstraction. And there are some parallels to the way I think, in terms of art history. In terms of process, when you’re doing a math proof, it’s like a puzzle. You’re trying to make the pieces work, and sometimes you go down one path and you get stuck. ‘But all my logic was sound!’ and yet you get to a stopping point. Writing is like that. You go down these paths and you get stuck but you have to go down there, and then you come back up and you finally find the right path and all the pieces fit and it’s this amazing, gorgeous thing.

Q: Is that how it happened with this book?

HG: Yes and no. I think writing is a whole bunch of small instances of that—and lots of dead ends. I wouldn’t say that as a whole it was that way. It was such a big project that happened over such a long period. 

I was first introduced to the topic of this book, this twelfth century art manual, in grad school. It started out as thinking about who artists were in the Middle Ages, and using Theophilus’s manual to think about artistic practice during that time. I looked at all the manuscript copies of that text. There are 25 of them and they’re all over Europe, so I went and looked at every single one and tried to figure out, How is this book read? How was it understood in the Middle Ages? So that was the dissertation, finished in 2010. In 2011, I started working on this book.

Q: When you were doing your dissertation, were you thinking the whole time that you would eventually expand it to book proportions?

HG: I had hoped to. In academic art history that’s the goal. If you get an academic job you’re expected to come out with a book in six years. You hope that it will turn into a book—and that it won’t be that hard to turn it into a book—famous last words, right? I decided I would talk about what the values were of art-making in the twelfth century. What did artistic work mean? What did it mean to be somebody making something in the medieval period, particularly in a monastic context? Because there is this idea that work and learning are part of your spiritual exercise. Theophilus is trying to make art-making part of the spiritual world.

Q: Is writing a love of yours or a means to an end?

HG: I really enjoy it. I enjoy the process. It’s hard, but I enjoy it. I like all aspects of it. I like when you’re writing just to write, to get something out. And then there’s this whole long process of going back and endless editing and figuring out, What am I actually trying to say? It suits me somehow. I would write all the time if I could. 

Q: And your writing is primarily research-based, right?

HG: Right.

Q: So you have that whole other layer of—if I had to pull from sources to put something together I would never be able to stop the research portion and begin writing. How do you negotiate that balancing act? Is that a challenge for you?

HG: There is this point where you have to just cut yourself off and write. And know that you can fill in holes. I’ve found you don’t always know what you need until you’re writing, so it actually is good to start writing sooner than later.

I was writing an article about an altar-piece, and I thought I was writing about aspects of material—it has this inscription on it that says it’s made of this much gold and this much silver. And it turns out that altar-piece, which was from Germany, is a lot like altar-pieces that were being made in Denmark. But if I had just kept on going with the strain of research that I thought I was doing, about materiality—what I really need to know is how this piece works with other pieces. So then I had to go and look at Danish altar-pieces.

Q: What were some of the great joys and struggles of this writing process?

HG: I had one chapter that was really difficult—I had to rewrite the entire chapter. And at that point it had already gone through peer review and wouldn’t again.

Q: When you delivered the first version were you feeling that part was off?

HG: I knew I had struggled with it. One of the nice things about writing is that when an argument works it doesn’t feel difficult or convoluted. When you have a really clear argument, it makes sense. It will unfold, and the pieces fit, and you’re thinking clearly. Getting to that point is horrendous. That’s the struggle, right? But somehow, I have this gut feeling about what something is at the beginning. Then I go on this roundabout path, and at the end of the day I end up pretty close to where I started—but it’s more clear. I enjoy taking a step back and thinking, What am I actually trying to say? With that chapter, I was trying to make the argument more complicated than it needed to be. And in making it more complicated than it needed to be, it was weaker. 

Q: There’s this tendency to get as much out of you and onto the page, but simplicity always seems to be the way to go. When I write drafts, I usually end up cutting most of it.

HG: But that’s not a bad thing. I have to go through that process. I wonder whether there are people—you hear stories about somebody who’s such a clear, brilliant thinker that they just sit down and—

Q: You hear those stories, but is that all [bunk]? I’ve never actually met anyone who has copped to that.

HG [laughing]: Me neither!

Q: Rewriting and reassessing what it is you were trying to say in the first place, for me, is the actual work.

HG: Right, right. I think for most people, writing is really hard work. I enjoy the work—but it’s really time consuming, it’s really slow, and it’s hard.

I remember talking to someone when I was writing my dissertation. I was in Germany at the time. He’s an American professor and was there giving a lecture. I was really in the middle of the dissertation writing and just suffering, suffering to no end [laughing]. I said, ‘This is so awful, does it get easier?’ He said, ‘It gets easier. The dissertation is the hardest, but it gets easier.’ OK. Great. Gets easier. So I finish the dissertation and I work on the book. And I actually just saw him last spring at the medieval conference when this book came out and I said, ‘You told me it gets easier!’ And he said, ‘I did? I lied.’ [laughing]

Q: He probably didn’t want to push you over the edge!

HG [laughing]: He saw that I was going to lose it. He said, ‘It doesn’t get easier, it just gets harder.’

Theophilus and the Theory and Practice of Medieval Art

Gearhart’s new book, published in 2017.

Q: Harder as in busier? Or more daunting?

HG: My optimistic thought is that the longer you do this and the more practice you get, the easier it gets. Because I’ve been through the process now a couple times I understand the process better, so I deal with it better. ‘OK. Here I am in a dead end, step away, calm down, start again.’ Or, ‘Just keep on going.’ 

What I think gets harder—and I don’t know, I’m just speculating in thinking about the new book—

Q: Audience expectation?

HG: Possibly audience expectation, although—well, that is something to worry about—

Q: No. Don’t go down that road! Not worth it! [I’m sorry I even mentioned it, in retrospect]

HG: What I’m thinking of is similar in that, the longer you’re in the field, the more you know. Which is good, because you have more to say. But that also means you know all the problems with any kind of argument. You can see all the different sides. If I talk about how artists are remembered, for example—what does that actually mean? Who is doing the remembering? How are they remembering? That turns into self doubt. It’s a different kind of self doubt. When you’re younger, it’s, ‘Can I do it?’ Now I have less self doubt about that. I can get it done. Will it be solid? As good as I want it to be? Maybe that’s what he meant, when I saw him last spring. You just can see too many sides of the argument.

Q: Couldn’t that ultimately be leveraged as a strength? If you’re able to incorporate it into your work without going insane, you have anticipated and preempted a detractor’s arguments?

HG: Ideally, yes. But there’s also the fear of muddling it. When you’re younger—students see things with fresh eyes because they don’t have all the noise. They can look at something and see it in a new way, and ask a new question that was right there all along. 

Q: Are you able to talk about your current project?

HG: I’m looking at how artists in the Middle Ages were remembered. Who gets remembered? Women don’t get remembered. Lay people—their names aren’t often remembered. A monk will be remembered because he’s part of the system in which they are remembering people. This whole project is looking at the structures of memory and what that tells us about art-making in the Middle Ages. What it meant for an abbey to have something a particular person made. Whether that person was real doesn’t matter so much. What I’m interested in is what that story did for them, why they needed that story to be the way it was.

My favorite story, there’s an abbot who’s trying to build a church, so he hires these stonemasons to come to the abbey to build. He says, ‘While you’re here at the abbey, you can’t eat pork.’ So, the masons go out into the woods and cook a pig. The story goes that a little dove comes to the abbot and tells him, ‘Go out into the woods and you’ll find all your stonemasons.’ He goes into the woods, finds the stonemasons, and tells them, ‘I told you not to eat pork while you’re working on the church.’ He tries to convince them of how it’s good for their soul—this is all in a monastic chronicle, mind you. Finally, he says ‘I’m not going to pay you unless you stop eating the pork and come back to work.’ And the story ends—[here her vocal delivery is ironic]—’And the masons were pricked to the heart, and they decided to go back to work!’

It shows you, number one, that even if you’re a lay person working for the church, you’re expected to behave according to the rules of that abbey. Number two, it’s a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that at the end of the day, the stonemasons a) want to eat pork, and b) want to get paid. So what I’m trying to do is tease out, What can we tell about what matters to these people in art-making through these stories?

I like having a puzzle in my head, that’s just the way I am. I like having something to stew on. I like books for that. They let you think about something for a long time. After [the first book] was done, I wanted to think about the next book. I wanted to have something bigger, more encompassing. I’d rather have that new puzzle to stew on.

Q: That’s a healthy instinct, just forge ahead.

HG: This is why I believe in over-writing. Just write. Some path that you went down that ended up being a dead end could be useful for something else. Things come around. I try to trust in that. And that gives me hope not to worry and not to be too precious. The word to teach in Latin is docere, which is to lead. My Latin teacher said, ‘My job is only to help you put things in order. It’s already in your head.’ All your dead ends, all your discarded ideas—they just haven’t found a place yet. They’re still there. They just need a place to live.