A Woman of Erudition and Grace: A Tribute to Ruth Bliss Phillips | Janet Catherine Berlo and Aldona Jonaitis

By Janet Catherine Berlo and Aldona Jonaitis

For more than thirty years, we have been lucky to be Ruth’s two closest friends. The fact that we all publish and work in the same field, Native North American art history, makes this friendship even more precious to us. We think of ourselves as an invincible triumvirate. A fellow member on the Board of the Otsego Institute, Jonathan Holstein, once called us “the Three Graces of Native American Art History.” Another, Joe Horse Capture, preferred “The Charlie’s Angels of Native Art History.” We couldn’t get Ruth to agree to the second, nor to pose for the photo that this moniker conjured up. For unlike us, she is, indeed, the model of grace. Never rowdy or rude, as we sometimes are, she has long been someone we measure ourselves against, and always find ourselves wanting.

Ruth was rigorously trained in art history, and did fieldwork in West Africa early in her career. In fact, Janet remembers attending an African art conference in Boston around 1979, and admiring the paper given by a tall Canadian woman on African women’s masquerades. Ruth turned to Native North American art history as she sought to find a university position in Canada in the 1980s. She published Patterns of Power: The Jasper Grant Collection (1984), and has since worked on many topics elucidating the artistic traditions of the Great Lakes and Eastern Woodlands. Ruth vividly remembers wanting to know the two of us at the 5th Native American Art Studies Association (NAASA) meeting in 1985 Ann Arbor, after attending panels that we chaired. We vividly remember the impression made by the elegant dark-haired woman who ascended to the podium at the 6th NAASA meeting in Denver, in 1987. Ruth spoke about Eastern Woodlands art in a manner that was clear, well-illustrated, and utterly brilliant. Her intellect and poise struck us both, and we needed to know her. Aldona had already taken Janet under her wing. Now this second newcomer to the field was added to the fold.

We all remember events that had transformational effects on our lives, such as (for our generation) where we were when Kennedy was shot, or when the Twin Towers fell. Our remembrance of this NAASA was both joyful and sad. Joyful at gaining a new colleague, for sure. But over a glass of wine Ruth quietly shared that her only sister had recently died. Aldona’s heart went out to her, they held hands, and at that moment became sisters forever. Our sisterhood has been forged through academic trials and personal ones, illness and jubilation. We know we can unfailingly rely on each other for anything. In our shared commitment to the emerging sub-discipline of Native art history, we fought to demand room for this subject in more traditional art history departments, journals, and conferences. Equally importantly, we found our friendship to be roomy enough to include fine food and cooking, clothes shopping, and personal confidences. The triumvirate was formed.

Yet within our many similarities, we three are also radically different. A quarter century ago, we laughingly imagined what we’d be in the future. Janet would be an artist, Aldona an equestrian, and Ruth would remain a scholar– though perhaps one who dabbled in watercolor. How right we were! Now that we’re retired (and all continuing to publish), Janet creates textiles and installations, Aldona lives on a farm, and Ruth remains brilliant and innovative. (We are still waiting for her to take up watercolors.)

Janet Berlo, Ruth Phillips, and Aldona Jonaitis, meeting of the Otsego Institute, Cooperstown, NY, c. 2002.

Janet and Aldona are impatient in various ways. Ruth has the patience of Job. When we visit a museum together, Janet and Aldona take things in quickly and soon need a cup of tea. Ruth, however, is tireless. She reads all the labels, thinks about what she sees, and determines the exhibit’s position in the complex trajectory of contemporary museology. We have always waited (usually patiently) for Ruth to finish, eager for her insightful analysis.

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which analyzed how new paradigms emerge when emergening information cannot fit into the accepted paradigms governing the discipline. Ruth has an impressive overview of scholarly issues and her work has focused on several themes that had been overlooked in the literature. We believe she changed the paradigm of Native American art studies. Twice.

Ruth entered the field when the “paradigm of authenticity” informed much work. So-called “authentic” works of art had been created within “traditional” societies supposedly untouched by western influences. This view denied the value of art made for the marketplace, and provided a simplistic view of history. Ruth demonstrated that the approach to authenticity in the old paradigm did not fit our increasingly clear realization of the cultural significance of art made for outsiders. Several articles, and most importantly, her book, Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900 (1998), revealed the profound meanings embodied within “tourist art,” and changed forever the importance of the souvenir in the field of Native North American art history. Just about every book and article on Native art written after that book came out has referenced Ruth’s work. That same year, she co-edited with Africanist Christopher Steiner the book Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Post-Colonial Worlds. These two books mark Ruth’s first paradigm change.

Many scholars make one significant shift in their discipline, but Ruth did not stop with tourist art. She has analyzed museum representations of Indigenous Americans throughout her academic career, and in 2011 published Museum Pieces, an award-winning collection of her essays. Then Ruth led the way in demonstrating the importance of another type of art that had been disregarded by most art historians: Indigenous Modernism. Art that blends western modernism with historic traditions is found throughout the Indigenous world. Ruth realized that this was an under-investigated style and developed a project with scholars across the globe to study and theorize Indigenous Modernisms. The project has produced several books, articles, and exhibitions, with this subject now accepted as a valuable component of Native American art history. 

In addition to meeting at virtually every NAASA conference, we routinely visit each others’ homes in Ontario, New York, and Alaska. For decades, we have read and edited each other’s drafts of papers, essays, and books. Visits to Ruth’s summer home at Bob’s Lake, Ontario, have always included rigorous manuscript critiques, leavened with hilarity, chocolate cake, and unmerciful teasing. As we read the chapters that would become Trading Identities, we learned from her, and tormented her at the same time. Janet has long threatened that she would embroider a pillow for Ruth with a memorable phrase from that book: “Essentialism hates a hybrid.” Packed within that pithy phrase is an indictment that would come to underlay much of the subsequent critique of traditional art historical paradigms, by Native and non-Native scholars alike.

Ruth Phillips and Janet Berlo working on the first edition of Native North American Art, Rochester, NY, 1998.

In the 1990s, we three traveled the back roads of the Southwest, introducing Ruth to the subtleties of Navajo and Pueblo visual arts. Ruth and Aldona have attended meetings together of the American Indian Workshop in Germany, as well as the finest operas and museums of Europe. Janet and Ruth have collaborated on two editions of a book and several essays. We have counseled each other on difficulties in romance, family, workplace, and a host of other topics. We share recipes, pdfs of articles, love of dogs, and things we make with our hands, from jam to art.

Neither one of us can imagine how our adult lives would have developed without Ruth Phillips having enriched it for so long. She makes us better women and better scholars. Her diplomacy and tact with others has long been a model for us both. Since the start of Covid lockdown in March of 2020, the three of us have Zoomed for an hour almost every Sunday night. Three years of Sunday nights, and counting. It is hard to imagine that a long friendship could deepen even further, but it has–immeasurably so. And as we enter the foreign territory of old age, once again Ruth leads the way.

Ruth is 77 as we write this, an age by which most scholars have finished their academic work. But concerning Ruth, we know better. Her father, Charles Bliss, was a petroleum geologist who remained active in his field until he was 99. So we can all look forward to two more decades of Ruth’s scholarly breakthroughs, and rigorous historical research. To her spiced apricot jam, and her wise counsel. To her unfailing collegiality and talent for friendship. Ruth Phillips—an unparalleled woman of erudition and grace.

Ruth Phillips, Aldona Jonaitis, and Skippy the dog at Bob’s Lake, Ontario, critiquing manuscripts, July 1992.

Biographies of the contributors:  

Janet Catherine Berlo is Professor of Art History and Visual and Cultural Studies Emerita at the University of Rochester and the author, with Ruth Phillips, of Native North American Art (Oxford UP, 1998 and 2014). 

Aldona Jonaitis is Director Emerita of the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska, and author of numerous books on Northwest Coast art.

Cite this blog post
Birgit Hopfener (2023, April 2). A Woman of Erudition and Grace: A Tribute to Ruth Bliss Phillips | Janet Catherine Berlo and Aldona Jonaitis. Celebrating Ruth B. Phillips. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vxbh

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