Beth Merfish on the power of visual expression

Art history professor Beth Merfish always loved biographies and visual learning and found a way to combine them in the visual language of art. She tells us how summer camp was a chance to try one a new self, how she uses political activism to give everyone a voice, and how exciting it was when she got her PhD and her professors became her peers.

Long before she became an art historian, Beth engaged with art in a personal way. 


Where she’s from: Houston, Texas
Grew up with: mom, dad and older sister
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Art History and Jewish studies; master's degree and PhD in Art History
Where she lives now: Houston, Texas
Growing up she wanted to be: engaged with the Jewish community or women's issues
Now she’s: an art history professor

Tell us about yourself growing up!

When I was in elementary school I loved math and reading. More than anything I loved biographies. By 3rd grade I had read through all of the biographies in the elementary school library. They started letting me go over to the high school and checking out biographies from there. I’ve always loved thinking about people and what their lives look like and what they think.

What got me going in school was reading, English class, writing, seeing my friends, eating lunch, playing on the soccer team. But really I think the parts of school where I was able to figure things out myself. I loved geometry for example, partly because it’s a very visual kind of math. I could think about spatial awareness, which fit very well with my then continuing interest in looking at objects or works of art and thinking about them. I loved classes where I could figure things out myself, where I was reading a book and thinking about what it meant or writing about what it meant or doing complex math problems and figuring those out.

I was a nerd and I mean that in the best way possible, which is that I really loved subjects like that. I didn’t love sitting through lectures. I think I wanted something different and something that relied more on my visual senses than relied on just listening.

What did you like to do outside of school?

I played a lot of soccer. I quit piano when I was nine years old and never looked back. I was in choir in high school and I enjoyed that. I spent at least a month at camp each summer. That’s where my oldest friends came from. I was also involved in the Jewish community in Houston. I was involved with youth group. I have never lacked for natural enthusiasm. I liked anything where I got to wear an outfit that coordinated with other people or make an outfit or yell cheers as a group bonding exercise.

What made camp such an important part of your life?

Camp was the best. I was pretty self-conscious at school. It wasn’t a place where I felt totally free or totally at peace. Then camp was this oasis. I got to have this whole other group of friends who hadn’t known me since I was five. I got to go to this new place and be myself at each stage of my life in a totally new way. I loved every single thing about it. It was really fun to have a month where I could be the person that I thought I was and try that out.

College was the next iteration of that. By that point I was okay just being me. I was meeting all these different people. I was also getting to do all of these exciting things. I was wearing pajamas all day long, so that was basically camp all the time. [College was] not a place where I felt self-conscious but a place where I could be free to do anything and really give myself the freedom to figure out what I wanted to do and what kinds of things I wanted to think about and what kinds of clubs I wanted to join without worrying about what other people thought.


Beth on her first day of college, or as Beth describes is "basically camp all the time."

How did you get into art history in college?

In high school, I sat in history class and I heard about kings and wars and over and over again. I thought it was so boring. Art history excited me so much in college because all of a sudden I could think about history in terms of ideas or in terms of visual expression and how everyday people, not just kings, not just people negotiating pacts or trade agreements, might express themselves.

There are these different ways we express ourselves. Some are through language, some can be through movement, through body language there are all sorts of ways you can basically express your thoughts and your feelings, and art is this other way; it’s this visual expression. You walk into a museum and the more you look at things, the more that you learn about them, the more that you understand what the artists were thinking or what their time period looked like, and what kind of political issues they were interested in, the more fluency that you get. You gain this ability to read that kind of visual expression and to really enjoy it.

What made you choose Latin American art as your specialty to teach and research?

I grew up in Texas around a lot of Spanish-speaking people, and by the time I finished high school, I was basically fluent. I had also gotten to spend a lot of time traveling in Spanish speaking countries. When I became interested in art history, which was mostly because I was a creative kid and I really loved art and I also loved to read so it became this perfect combination of my interests. It was this natural fit to gravitate to a field where I could use my Spanish, towards certain kinds of picture-making basically that already felt very familiar and very interesting and one of the really exciting things for me about this field was I could look at all these images that I seen before, but because I was learning so much about them and studying them and writing about them, they gained much deeper meaning. So it was a natural draw for me, because I’d seen so much of these images; I spoke Spanish. And it didn’t hurt that I had a professor that was super into this stuff that was super exciting as a lecturer so I wanted to do that, too.

Having your doctorate means that now you are a colleague of your advisers instead of their student, 

Earning a PhD is an arduous process. How does it feel to complete one?

In college I had gotten so excited about learning about these topics, and I was coming up with these new ideas and learning how to express them and graduate school was the next iteration of that. I did a master’s degree first. I went to NYU for both my graduate degrees.

Having your doctorate means that now you are a colleague of your advisers instead of their student, and it’s this really exciting transition from being this student that you have been your entire life to now being an independent researcher and a colleague of these people that you so admire. It’s a long road, but it’s exciting. If you’re someone who loves to read and to do that kind of research and to write and then also if you’re someone who wants to use that degree to teach, because not everyone does, and you love expressing your excitement and trying to spread your enthusiasm for a subject that you care a lot about, it’s a really exciting road because you get to really immerse yourself in what you care about most. It’s exciting.

What does being a professor entail?

There are 3 major parts to my job. I’m a specialist in 20th century art, so I teach college classes that range from lower level classes when you cover as much as 500 years to the mid-level classes, where I cover let’s say a specific country or a similar time period, or maybe 100 years but looking at a larger region and then very high-level classes where you might look at 50 years in one country. Teaching involves lecturing, leading discussions, assigning readings, grading.

Research is just as important as teaching when you’re a professor, learning about the subjects that I work on, doing archival research, and then publishing anything that I can write about those topics. That’s a major part of my job. The third part and that’s called service, means that as a full-time assistant professor, I’m required to give a certain amount of my time to helping things run, serving on committees that address student issues or academic issues or administrative issues and working to make sure the university is welcoming to everyone and also runs the way that it should. From the outside this looks like a career that’s more solitary, but in fact service is the time you get to know everyone else in the university.

What fills your time outside of work?

Recently, what has filled most of my time is that I have a baby now. One of the things that really appeals to me about my job is the flexibility. I’ve known for most of my life that I want to be a mother and being able to have a schedule where I set my own on the days that I teach, I’m in class at the time that classes are, but on the other days I really self-schedule. I get to do my research and my writing on my own time. I still work full-time and long days, but it’s really nice to know that in the future if my daughter has a recital or has a school presentation or anything, I have that flexibility to be there.

I spend a lot of my time doing a certain amount of political activism. I’m really interested in politics and I feel really strongly that it is everyone’s job to change the world in the positive ways that we can. For me that’s been talking a lot about reproductive justice and trying to be active in the greater community talking about women’s rights and what I think is an inalienable right that women should have to control their own bodies and their own histories and futures.

I’ve done a lot of work to try and encourage women to tell their stories, particularly to talk about times when they’ve had to terminate pregnancies and the kind of barriers that they’ve faced in doing that. That work, which is about asking women to use their voices and to empower themselves is very similar to the kind of I work that I do in education, where as a professor I’m asking my students to learn to use their voices to become confident in discussing and asserting their beliefs. It’s a natural fit for me, and a way that I can make a real difference.

I need to make sure that the world is better not just for the people who look like me and act like me and have what I have but also for the people one neighborhood over who aren’t in any of those categories.

Beth and her mom outside Frank Lloyd Wright's studio. Beth's mom spent many years as a political fundraiser and instilled the importance of political engagement in Beth.

How did you get involved in political activism?

I grew up with a family where we were always politically active. I was steeped in politics from a very young age. To me politics is about making sure that everyone gets a voice. In the case of reproductive justice, that’s saying that women have just as much a right to their bodies as men do and their voices should matter and that we need to hear from those women. I think that’s true of every political goal. For me with my politics that’s certainly true. Every issue that I think about, every compelling case that I hear about, you can hear immediately the need for someone’s voice to be amplified for open dialog. I think a lot about open dialogs and part of my interest in politics is in making sure that my community is better. It feels really urgent to me. To me it feels like politics are local even when I’m talking about national politics. I need to make sure that the world is better not just for the people who look like me and act like me and have what I have but also for the people one neighborhood over who aren’t in any of those categories.

How did you imagine your adult life when you were a teenager?

Gosh, I thought everything would happen sooner than it did. I thought I’ll go to college and I’ll graduate when I’m 22 and I’ll have a job and a career immediately. I had always imagined having a spouse and having children and I thought that’ll all happen immediately. I always thought that I might do something that was community-oriented, either Jewish or women’s issues related. I certainly never imagined I would be a professor. I don’t think I knew what being a professor was, really. It took until I got to college and saw my professors and started to talk to them that I realized this is something I think I want for me.

When I looked around at all the adults around me, in college, at my professors and at my parents, at my parents’ friends, at the staff people at the college where I go, at my friends’ parents, who had the kind of life that I could see for myself? That was the only time that I started to think I could get this doctorate degree. Once I started to work on my graduate school degrees I thought, “I could teach. This is something I could really enjoy.”

It wasn’t until college really that I started to see that my career might be very different from what I thought. I might think about affecting positive change in this new way. It was not until well after college that I realized not everyone gets married right after college and has kids and has this life that looks so easy from the outside. In fact, no lives are quite as easy as they might look from the outside.

it took me a while to realize that asking for help actually shows how resourceful and how smart you are.

What advice would you give a girl like you?

One piece of reassurance is that high school can be a really tough time. I’m sure someone told me but I might not have really let it sink in is that everything gets better. As you get older you become more sure of yourself. You become more comfortable with who you are. You become more able to distinguish what interests you versus what all of your friends are interested in. Don’t feel like your academic life has to be about being good at every single thing. If there’s something you love, be comfortable delving into that and really making that a project for yourself and following that passion. I think that’s how you get into this space where you can think about specializing in something or really making a certain field your career.

I think a natural part of high school can be feeling like your world is artificially small. I wish someone had reassured me that that wouldn’t always be the case, that I would become more comfortable with myself and more comfortable figuring out what I cared about.

I think it took me a while to realize that asking for help actually shows how resourceful and how smart you are. Your ability to use your resources, to look around, think about who can help you find information, to marshal everything available to you is one of the most important abilities no matter what your career is. I wish I had known that sooner because for too long I thought that asking for help was a sign of weakness. It’s the opposite. It’s a sign of just how smart and together you are. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Check out books Beth loves and find out more about her!