June 15, 2020
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Kristen Van Ausdall, professor of art history at Kenyon, died Oct. 27 at Stanford University Medical Center in California. A resident until recently of Mount Vernon, Ohio, she was 68. Kenyon alumni, current students, faculty and staff have shared memories of the much-loved professor.
"Kristen Van Ausdall was a model Kenyon faculty member, a dedicated mentor to her students, whether in Gambier or in the College's program in Rome, a creative teacher in the classroom, and a supportive colleague on campus. She will be missed by us all."
"Kristen was a gifted scholar and teacher. She was the most thoughtful person I ever met, and she wrote like an angel. She was the perfect humanist. To borrow from Erwin Panofsky's formulation, 'The humanist rejects authority, but respects tradition.' She insisted on a high standard from students, colleagues and most of all from herself. Her death is an irreplaceable loss to the community."
“I don’t think there is any question that I will remember Kristen first and foremost as a truly great mentor,” said her colleague Austin Porter, assistant professor of art history and American studies. “She was unbelievably helpful, kind and generous with her time from the moment I arrived on campus. I spent many hours with her discussing aspects of teaching specifically. But I also counted on her for advice on many other issues as well, and I know that the students did, too. She was a very warm, giving person who clearly enjoyed her role as a teacher-scholar, and as a mentor.”
"Kristen was a model mentor, building close relationships with each of her students. Her office was next to mine, and she spent hours talking with them, often late into the evening. Through her generosity and friendship, Kristen cultivated a family of students and colleagues."
"Kristen enriched my life in spheres as wide as her spirit. She was my professor and mentor, but also a mother to me in her way; I'm probably not the only student at the College to feel like her child. I spent hours cradled by the old wooden chair in her office, learning, venting, seeking advice.
"One of my favorite memories of Kristen took place far from Kenyon, an impromptu picnic beneath the dusk-drenched cliffs of Gold Bluffs Beach in California, her smile pushing her eyes up into a squint as we watched the sunset."
"Kristen opened my mind as an observer in ways I didn't think were possible. Her lectures felt like a discussion over dinner, the kind where everyone has already finished his or her meal but sits for an extra two hours because they're lost in conversation. Her voice had this soft sing-song yet captivating quality when she spoke about the Italian artists she loved.
"Aside from her being my professor, she was also a mentor and travel companion. I have been so lucky to experience the city of Rome with her leading the way.
"Lastly, Kristen treated me as a friend; I'd come into her office for a meeting and she'd make me spin around so she could see my whole outfit. A shy me was eager to do this for her. In April of 2015 (my freshman year). We sat on middle path with iced coffees. I knew I had found my advisor. The world has lost such a brilliant woman."
"Professor Van Ausdall was my advisor. Every week for the whole of senior year we met in the late afternoon on Friday, the final thing before the end of the work week. As the 4 p.m. chapel bells rang and my peers went on to the weekend, we would be sitting in deep conversation in her darkening office. It would begin with practical work about my thesis. She would point me to little-known pieces of information about Catholic monastic orders and Spanish colonialism. I was always shocked by her incredible wealth of knowledge. But then, all that necessary conversation out of the way, we would move on to other topics. Everything from family, my future, her experiences, the workings of the college, my other classes, it all came up in an organic, comfortable, wandering way. One of our favorite topics, to which we often returned, was our shared memories of traveling through Italy, where we had become so close in the first place. We would go back to the churches we saw, family dinners we shared, Thanksgiving at her apartment in Trastevere, our walking routes, and the everyday experience of being foreign in a city like Rome. And before we knew it, hours had passed and it was growing dark out. These meetings were always among the highlights of my week. In them Professor Van Ausdall made me feel like family, like I could be open and honest. She was a genuine, comforting presence, while also being stunningly knowledgeable, funny, and powerful. I miss her already, and thank her endlessly for making my Kenyon experience so strong."
"Kristen Van Ausdall found a way to make both Gambier and Rome feel like home. A dreary Ohio winter turned bright and colorful with the way she brought Renaissance art alive in the classroom. She would invite me back to her office where we’d continue discussing Hieronymus Bosch's 'Garden of Earthly Delights.' The conversation never stopped there; she helped guide me through my academic passions and career goals — probably understanding me better than I understood myself. During our class field trips in Rome, I often found myself sitting next to Kristen looking up at a work of art — I would follow her gaze across the piece as she guided me through the history of the art and its maker. Just as she carried me into a work of art I never thought I could relate to, she carried me out of life’s tougher days reminding me that she was always there for me. I miss her so much and feel incredibly lucky to have called her family. Kristen will forever be in our hearts and minds as we go through life remembering her passion, warmth and knowledge she never ceased to share with those around her."
"Nothing I write can fully encapsulate the immense impact Professor Kristen Van Ausdall had on those who knew her. While studying abroad with her in Rome, Professor Van Ausdall took us to churches scattered across the city. During our trip to San Luigi dei Francesi, there was a crowd of tourists blocking our view of the Caravaggio paintings. Yet in true Professor Van Ausdall fashion, she gently wrestled with the crowd, and we then somehow had the foremost view of the paintings. She then began vividly describing the in-situ paintings. Throughout that semester, she imparted an immeasurable amount of knowledge upon me and so many other students. As my mentor and thesis advisor, she balanced her encouragement with candid feedback. She shaped me into becoming a critical and assertive art historian. I miss her already."
"Kristen Van Ausdall commanded rooms. And she repeatedly requested the same from her students. She taught us to be critical, confident and unapologetic scholars.
"She was unyielding in her dedication to her students and her work. She will be missed very deeply."
"Kristen Van Ausdall cared deeply, not only about her students' academic work, but about her students' life and well being. I recall countless incidents of walking into her office to draft a paper, only to leave two hours later having discussed my life’s dreams and ambitions, knowing she truly, enthusiastically believed in me. Her actions backed up our conversations. Kristen made sure to attend every single performance I took part in at Kenyon, and after my senior thesis in drama, stayed late into the night in order to congratulate me, and discuss the play. Many of us had the privilege to travel throughout Italy with Kristen and her husband Scott, where we became family. On Thanksgiving Day, 2016, Kristen hosted the entire Kenyon-Rome program for a feast in her small apartment in Trastevere, where those of us who stayed late had the honor of witnessing Kristen and Scott’s annual Thanksgiving Day tradition, singing along to 'Alice's Restaurant' by Arlo Guthrie. They each knew every word, all two-thousand five-hundred and thirteen of them. Kristen thoroughly committed herself to everything she did, to her academic work, to caring for her students, to traveling the world, to taking the time to learn every single word in Alice's restaurant. My most sincere thoughts, and deepest condolences go out to Kristen’s loving husband Scott, and to the entire Van Ausdall family. She and Scott will always be family."
"She was a person very dear to me, and I took many of her classes including 'Women in Renaissance and Baroque Art' (it was one of my favorite classes in all four years at Kenyon). Here is my memory: the semester before I went abroad, I had office hours with KVA. We began discussing a paper I was working on but it eventually became a discussion of abroad. The previous semester she had been on the Kenyon in Rome program I was going to attend, and she sat with me answering all my questions about abroad. I spent two hours that day speaking to her about the best restaurants, best museums, and most beautiful pieces of art in Rome. She told me all the tourist traps and how to avoid scams, and she told me what Rome was like when she was my age. Every question I had she tackled with humor, wit and intensely intellectual insight Throughout my time at Kenyon, I would have office hours like this with KVA: we would discuss art for a long time, but it would always bleed into other things. Life, travel, advice about how to break into the art world. Kristen Van Ausdall was an incredible professor, a wonderful advisor and a dear friend. I will always remember how she could light up a painting when talking about it, how fierce her love of Artemisia Gentileschi was, and how she pointed out how cute the Putti in Renaissance art paintings were. I miss her dearly. But if there’s a heaven, I know she's up there, with Artemisia, Leonardo and, of course, many little Putti."
"Kristen and I had a deep friendship. I loved visiting her when I came back to Kenyon. She also took great joy in taking credit for introducing me to my wife, Jessie, during the Kenyon in Florence program in '08. At the time, she suggested we cook together, and she and her husband, Scott, were there four years later when we got married in Nashville, Tennessee.
"One of my favorite pictures of Kristen shows the three of us laughing on a balcony in Stabia, Italy, overlooking Mount Vesuvius. She has her glasses in her hand. In looking for ways to remember her, I found this message from 2010, which she sent to Jessie and I during a difficult time in our lives. 'Please know that most of all, I want you both to have the best of everything. Always take opportunities when they arise! I feel confident that one way or another everything will fall into place.' The message is dear to me. I will miss her, tremendously."
"My first inkling that Kristen was ferociously devoted to her students was when she entered the final class of her 'Women in Renaissance and Baroque Art' seminar with a cake she baked, decorated with pretzels, figs and all manner of fruits and treats that appear in Clara Peeters' still lives, with little printouts of artworks we had studied attached to toothpicks and inserted into the cake like flags. The next year, I worked with Kristen on an honors thesis about the Mannerist painter, Pontormo, and his relationship with his patron, Ludovico Capponi. This was, without doubt, the highlight of academic career at Kenyon. Kristen worked with me extraordinarily closely, routinely spending hours in her office discussing my work. She expected a high standard of excellence, and did not sugar coat her response when my work did not reach her expectations. That’s a sign of profound respect, and as much as it could hurt, Kristen and I had so much fun that year. We laughed a lot and formed a tight bond.
"Once I graduated, Kristen helped me launch my career and apply to Ph.D. programs. Eventually, I chose to follow in Kristen's footsteps and go to Rutgers to work with Sarah Blake McHam, who had been Kristen’s graduate advisor too. (The first thing Dr. McHam ever said to me was, 'You studied with one of my favorite people in the world!') Kristen and her husband, Scott, drove three hours to see me deliver my first paper at a graduate student conference. They were two of about five people in the audience, and Kristen made sure to ask me a question when it seemed my paper had put everyone else to sleep.
"The last time I saw Kristen was a few weeks after Hilary Wallis and I got engaged. Kristen and Scott took us out to dinner at the VI and they were so excited for us that they immediately invited themselves to our wedding (which they were to be invited to anyway, of course!). At the last minute, they couldn’t attend. Kristen had lost her hearing and was under going intense medical treatment. We had another near miss a few months later. She had hoped to attend a paper I was delivering at the RSA conference, but had to change her plans when her father passed away. For this year's RSA conference, in April, I have been selected to deliver a paper in a panel for emerging scholars organized by the Italian Art Society, which Bill Wallace, the extraordinary Michelangelo scholar, will respond to. It feels like a significant achievement possible only because Kristen took me under her wing ten years ago. I will be dedicating my paper to her, but wish she could be sitting in the audience instead."
Professor Van Ausdall was a treasure to the Kenyon College and art history department communities. Having started as a researcher at the Princeton Institute, KVA would tell of stories of looking into renowned historian Erwin Panovsky's files and of her many travels throughout Italy (from churches to monasteries, and always concluding at the Uffizi). Her stories created a new form of imagery when sifting through our academic scholarly texts.
KVA was a tour de force, a mentor, scholar and most importantly, a friend to my sister (a Class of 2015 art history major) and me. I will remember fondly the many office hours where art, politics, narratives, travel and, most importantly, witty remarks, were exchanged. Every student that has worked with her has a story, conversation or quote from KVA.
When I took her special topic in visual narratives, the possibilities of visual storytelling and politics transformed my academic future at Kenyon. However, a class with KVA was never easy — my first grade with her "A for ideas and D for writing" will forever be prized as the beginning of becoming a better writer. Creating an eventually well organized final paper on Rubens and the art of diplomacy was possibly the highlight of my freshman year. KVA's encouragement of interdisciplinary study heralded the beginning of my independent major in political narratives (as she stated that "you are going to be miserable (if you don't do an interdisciplinary major) so you might as well have some fun"
The best way of remembering her is through her dedication of her students first. Thank you, Professor Van Ausdall, for the laughs, kindness, critiques and rigor. Most importantly, thank you for proving a chance for everyone to succeed.
I don't know if I have single memory with Professor Van Ausdall that stands out from the others, but rather a collective feeling that defined my relationship with her: she treated me not as a student but as a colleague.
The way in which Professor Van Ausdall encouraged and challenged me to be a better writer, not only in matters related to Renaissance art, but be it architecture or contemporary art, allowed me to grow as an academic and thinker. The way in which she taught writing art criticism as a craft that is complimentary to a given work at hand demonstrated that art history has incredibly surgical way of interrogating a subject.
Professor Van Ausdall was not only and incredible presence in my life at Kenyon and beyond, but also for the community atop the Hill. She will be greatly missed by us all.