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In Memory of Susan L. Smithsusansmith_550x430.jpg

Professor Emerita

It is with heavy hearts that the Department of Visual Arts announces the passing of dear friend and valued colleague Professor Emerita Susan L. Smith. Professor Smith died on April 5 at UC San Diego Health Jacobs Medical Center of complications arising from her long and brave battle with cancer. 

Smith is best known for her pioneering work in feminist art history and the excellence of her administrative contributions to UC San Diego, both as a chair of the Department of Visual Arts and Provost of John Muir College.

Smith was among the first art historians to study medieval art from a feminist perspective. Her groundbreaking dissertation “’To Women's Wiles I Fell’: The Power of Women ‘Topos’ and the Development of Medieval Secular Art" (University of Pennsylvania, 1978) was one of the most widely cited and influential art history dissertations of the period and became a standard foundational text in the then newly established field of women’s studies. The work shows how a theme invented by patristic fathers to advocate for male celibacy and promulgated by theologians, preachers and moralists to warn about women — and thereby denigrate and control them — became a vehicle in secular art to explore the ways “feminine wiles” were deployed by women to triumph over men.

Smith’s writing is distinguished by its intelligent and sensitive attention to images, not only in painting, sculpture and manuscript illustration, but also on textiles, mirrors, jewelry, trinket boxes and prints, genres then all too often considered on the periphery of art.

Her book “The Power of Women: A ‘Topos’ in Medieval Art and Literature” expands the range of works (texts as well as images) into a comprehensive study and, more importantly, provides a theoretical and conceptual context which explicates how it is that art promotes values and ideas that contest, and sometimes even transgress, the ideology of the dominant social groups who commission it, and are its primary viewers. Her later articles extend this exploration of the disruptive power of art through a treatment of female nudity and the female gaze.

Smith received a bachelor’s degree with honors (1968) from Swarthmore College where she studied history and philosophy, and then pursued a year of graduate work in Medieval Studies at Yale University. These were the years that the first women’s studies programs were established in the United States, so when Smith completed her master’s (1971) and Ph.D. degrees in art history (1978) at the University of Pennsylvania, she worked on topics of importance to this emerging field.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Smith taught several classes as a lecturer at UC San Diego, and then relocated to the Bay Area where she worked as a labor arbitrator and co-authored two books and an educational film on labor relations. In 1987, she was recruited for a full-time faculty position in the Department of Visual Arts at UC San Diego.

As a Visual Arts faculty member, Smith developed the department’s first curriculum in medieval art history. An undergraduate student specializing in medieval art whom she taught and mentored at this time was Elina Gertsman, now a chaired professor of art history and director of graduate studies at Case Western Reserve and author of two award-winning books on medieval art.

From 1999 to 2003, Smith served as chair of the Department of Visual Arts. This was a period of considerable tension occasioned by rapidly rising enrollments across all programs and explosive growth in the recently established Visual Arts major in Interdisciplinary Computing and the Arts Major (ICAM). Smith steered the department through these difficult times with great aplomb, and created out of the excitement and conflict a new sense of community and shared purpose among faculty and staff.

As chair, she also brought to fruition the department’s long stated objective of instituting a Ph.D. program in Art History, Theory and Criticism alongside its renowned MFA program. The Ph.D. program quickly rose to prominence due in no small part to the productive environment of collaboration between artists and scholars.

As provost, Smith had no less profound an impact on John Muir College and the UC San Diego campus. She insured the survival of the Modernist complex of buildings at Muir College by securing a major Campus Heritage Grant from the Getty Foundation, which initiated the first architectural preservation of these exemplary buildings and drew up plans for their continued maintenance and use.

Smith was a strong advocate for students, and as provost collaborated with the Office of Housing, Dining and Hospitality on the completion of Tamarack Apartments, the first building to be constructed at Muir College since the early 1970s, to enhance the experience of students living there. For university administration, she oversaw the consolidation of the six college business offices, and the establishment of a new campus-wide writing center, which opened in 2011.

In the spirit of college namesake John Muir, she established programs in support of local, national and global efforts to preserve the natural environment, and to promote environmental sustainability in energy and water use, waste disposal, food production and other practices. Prominent among these are the Muir Environmental Fellows awards, which each year honors UC San Diego faculty, staff and alumni for work in the cause of sustainability and environmental preservation.

She also revived the Muir College signature course Wilderness and Human Values on the ethical, scientific, economic and political implications of environmental preservation. This course that included wilderness trips in the Sierras and elsewhere, as well as outings in San Diego's local natural habitats. To further enhance student experience, Smith established an honors society, named for Muir's founding provost John Stewart, to recognize the academic achievements of Muir College seniors who had come to UC San Diego as transfer students. 

She was beloved by Muir students and staff for the respect, care and concern she showed them, and the graceful equanimity with which she dealt with the stressful situations and conflicts that inevitably arose at a vibrant and diverse institution.

In addition to these professional achievements, Smith will long be remembered for the gracious warmth, intelligence, hospitality and compassion that she displayed to colleagues and friends. Upon learning of her death, Visual Arts faculty old and new recounted how Susan made them feel welcome and included when they arrived at UC San Diego. She was a gourmet cook and avid collector of cookbooks whose Solana Beach home was a site for many lovely dinners and receptions for new faculty and friends. She loved cats and the Bay Area, entertaining, gardening and reading, and was a loyal and caring friend. Smith will be sorely missed by the many people whose lives she touched.

She is survived by her husband Visual Arts Professor Emeritus Sheldon Nodelman and step-son Daniel Terdimann.