Maine’s art scene—dominated by contemporary and abstract art—isn’t exactly where a European medievalist scholar like Professor of Art Véronique Plesch thought she’d end up.
“When I came to interview for my job in early spring 1994, it was the first time I set foot in Maine,” said the art historian, who also chairs the Art Department.
Listing all Plesch’s accomplishments since then would take an edition of the Colby Magazine. A few condensed highlights: She is the author and editor of nine books and more than 90 articles in English, French, Italian, and Spanish; president of the International Association of Word and Image Studies from 2008 to 2017; senior editor of the series Word and Image Interactions from Dutch publisher Brill; and most recently, editor of the Maine Arts Journal: Union of Maine Visual Arts Quarterly.
But what Plesch sees as her greatest accomplishment has nothing to do with traditional accolades. “When I think of what I’m most proud of at Colby, it’s the connections with people,” she said. “It’s amazing to realize that you’ve made a mark or changed the way someone thinks about things.”
In her time at Colby, Plesch has dedicated herself to bringing Colby students fully into the world of art—not just to admire, but to engage with directly, for instance, through two real-world humanities labs.
A medieval chapel in small-town Maine
A few miles north of Skowhegan along the Kennebec River is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Solon, population 978. The South Solon Meeting House looks like the hundreds of other churches dotting small towns like these: A classic white clapboard church set at a crossroads. Inside this unassuming building is an explosion of colorful frescoes similar to those found decorating many medieval churches in Europe.
That’s what drew Plesch to visit over and over. “I wrote my dissertation on frescoes in small chapels in the Alps,” she said. “I think it’s proof of how serendipitous things are in life and how they happen from places you’d never expect them.”
Fresco, or the process of painting on wet plaster, developed in the ancient world but became most popular during the Renaissance. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is one of the most famous examples of this medium.
But the South Solon frescoes aren’t ancient—they’re from the 20th century. Thirteen artists painted them in the 1950s through a juried competition organized by the nearby Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Biblical scenes include Noah’s Ark, the Last Supper, and the Parable of the Sower.
Plesch immediately saw a place for Colby students to learn more about art in real life. In her digital humanities lab Tradition and Innovation in Mid-Century Frescoes: The South Solon Meeting House, students learned through the hands-on experience of building a website for the meeting house. “In the course, we talked about web design and how it impacts the information we want to convey. I never turn down an opportunity to work with real art,” said Plesch, who last April gave a talk about the meeting house to a group of docents from Maine’s Farnsworth Art Museum and members of the local community.
A 20th-century cabinet of curiosities
This is exactly the kind of opportunity Plesch is a pro at finding for her students. In spring 2020, Plesch taught another humanities lab in which the class learned about the history of museums and created a website for the L.C. Bates Museum in nearby Hinckley. “Humanities labs allow us to experiment with courses,” said Plesch. “The L.C. Bates Museum is such a special place, and I love working with them.”
The natural history museum, set in a sprawling early-20th-century building, is often described as a “museum of a museum” for its eclectic collection, including a set of dioramas depicting different Maine habitats with taxidermied mammals and birds.
Plesch first started collaborating with the L.C. Bates in 2009 when she launched an annual curatorial practicum in which two Colby students curate the museum’s summer exhibition, which gathers artists from Maine or with ties to the state around a given theme, which Plesch has chosen in recent years. Anna Jaubert ’25 and Zehra Gundogdu ’25 curated the most recent exhibit, titled In Balance/Imbalance, which resulted in a collaboration with the Maine Arts Journal: UMVA Quarterly. The 2020, 2021, and 2022 shows are also available on that same website.
This kind of experience is a stepping stone for students who want to pursue a career in art. For Kristen Nassif ’14, who co-curated the 2012 exhibition Humanity in Nature, it solidified that art was where she was meant to be.
“It would be hard to overstate the impact Véronique has had on my life and career,” said Nassif, now a postdoctoral curatorial fellow at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. “I took my first-ever art history class with her during my first year at Colby, and I never looked back. Through her mentorship, I was able to secure internships, research assistantships, and curatorial experience that shaped me as an art historian. Her passion for art, love of teaching, and dedication to her students played a huge role in my decision to pursue and earn my Ph.D. in art history.”
For Plesch, teaching at Colby is all about the connections you make and the people you meet. “When you come to a school like Colby, you have to teach everything,” she said. “When you look at my interests, it may seem like they’re all over the place. But a common thread is word-and-image studies. The beauty of teaching here is that there’s freedom to explore anything that piques my curiosity.”
Plesch takes this liberal arts spirit to heart, teaching a variety of coursework in the Art Department from the entry-level Survey of Western Art course to deep dives into eras like Surrealism or topics like the history of graffiti and tattoos.
For students, Plesch represents a gentle guiding hand—a mentor who can sort through what’s often a nebulous post-grad field with her signature flair for the fabulous. “Véronique just pulls people into art,” said Annie Muller ’22, who is in graduate school in Germany through a Fulbright grant. “As a chemistry major and art history major, I wanted to find ways to pursue both of my interests together. Véronique helped me do that.”
This kind of mentorship doesn’t stop after graduation. Said children’s book author and illustrator Steven Weinberg ’06, “I cannot stress enough how much of an amazing resource Véronique is. I’ve been sending her drafts and asking her for notes for several years now. And, of course, none of these books would have happened without the love of art history she passed along while I was at Colby.”
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