Lisa Wainwright, BA’82, can recall the precise moment when she embraced art history and education as her life’s work. An English major at Vanderbilt at the time, Wainwright was taking an art history class with Milan Mihal (now professor of fine arts, emeritus).
“His class made me realize I could get the same pleasure and challenge that I got from writing about books by analyzing and interpreting visual form,” Wainwright says. “I changed my major to art history right on the spot.”
After graduation she earned an M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. During her postgraduate work she developed an enduring fascination with American artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008). “I felt like he and I had much in common—his whole relationship with politics and religion, his activism, and his commitment to art history,” she recalls. “I thought, Now, this artist I can spend a lifetime working on.”
And so she has—lecturing and writing extensively about Rauschenberg and his work for art journals and anthologies during the past 20 years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was recently named dean of faculty and vice president of academic affairs. She also met Rauschenberg a few times and asked him to confirm her interpretations of his work. “He was a lovely man,” she recalls. “But when it came to my ideas about his work, all he would say was, ‘Lisa, that’s your poetry, and I love it.’”
Her study of Rauschenberg has influenced her own work at SAIC. “Rauschenberg has helped me be a better dean,” she explains. “He touched on every medium, from sculpture and painting to printmaking and art technology. His transdisciplinary approach to art has been such an influence on the way I educate the next generation of artists here.”
Although her duties as dean leave little time for curating exhibitions, Wainwright has enjoyed success in that area as well. Her most recent show, at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries, was Ah … Decadence!, which explored the rise of decadence in art at the end of the 20th century.
“I like to step back and look at trends in the art world,” she says. “It’s very rewarding to make something of that as a curator, and it also brings me in contact with actual objects, allowing me to make a statement and tap into my own artistic side.”