What compels someone to study art history? It could be a passion for the life and work of a certain artist, like Frida Kahlo, or a fascination with a specific period of visual history, like the Renaissance. But for Josie Greenhill, graduating this month with a BA Honours in Art History & Visual Studies (AHVS), her inspiration came from a movie about Jack and Rose.
“I’ve always liked museums, but when it comes to liking history, that was from watching way too many period dramas when I was growing up—specifically Titanic. I was next-level obsessed with James Cameron’s movie, which I used to watch every single day,” laughs Greenhill. “Can this interview just be about Titanic?”
Alas, no, but the legacy of that great ship is a good metaphor for what drives an emerging art historian like Greenhill. “I’ve always liked art, history and culture, and this is an area that mixes them all together,” she says. “I like what objects and material culture can communicate to you; it’s a different approach than just looking at historical texts.”
Born and raised in Nanaimo, Greenhill admits she started out as a “mediocre student” at UVic, but that clearly didn’t last long. Beyond completing an AHVS honours thesis, she’s also taken on leadership roles in student governance, was awarded a JCURA for undergraduate research, had a work-study position, held a co-op placement as a curatorial assistant at Legacy Art Galleries—where she also curated an exhibit about local architects—was hired as an archival assistant in Special Collections, launched her own digital exhibition for UVic’s Electronic Textual Cultures Lab, earned numerous awards and scholarships, presented and published numerous academic papers, and is one of the “faces of art history” in new AHVS recruitment material.
She has also been accepted into the University of Toronto’s highly-competitive art history master’s program, for which she also won a CGS Master’s SSHRC grant—a rare feat for a first-year MA student.
“Josie represents everything UVic stands for,” notes AHVS chair Dr. Erin Campbell. “She is a well-rounded, high-achieving, brilliant, civic-minded, thoughtful and compassionate student who has been shaped by her UVic experience.”
Not that the self-effacing Greenhill would describe herself in such glowing terms. “People think I’m really busy all the time, but I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts and watching Netflix,” she admits. “It’s partially about time management—I wake up early every day—but it’s also about taking risks. Sometimes you just have to take the leap and apply for things you may not have all the qualifications for; it’s surprising how many opportunities will come your way.”
One of Greenhill’s favourite aspects of studying art history has been the sense of discovery that comes through working with archival material. “An object can be your only insight into a time period—if you can hold history or really see it, it has more impact than just reading a document.”
For example, she was thrilled to be able to access a pair of books by Christina and Dante Gabrielle Rossetti through UVic’s Special Collections. “She did the poetry and he did the binding and illustrations,” she explains. “My honours thesis is about Pre-Raphaelite book art—the binding designs, illustrations—which directly ties into why I’m interested in art history. The Pre-Raphaelites were so multi-faceted; they were poets, designers, painters, illustrators . . . there are so many aspects they bring together, and I like studying all those different parts.”
One of her favourite projects was curating a Pride Month exhibit in the lobby display case in UVic Library (seen above)—which she feels doesn’t get the attention it deserves. “People don’t necessarily connect with the lobby case. I often see people just leaning on it with their coffee and I want to say, ‘There’s such cool stuff in here!’”
With her time at UVic coming to an end, how does it feel knowing her face and voice will continue to have a presence on the department’s recruitment material? “It’s kind of intimidating,” she admits. “I’m pretty shy, but I do think it’s cool that I can reach people who I won’t ever meet in person and help motivate them to study art history. I’m grateful that people trust me enough to be a face for the department.”
And is there any wisdom she’d like to share with those future students? “You get out of your degree what you put in to it,” she concludes. “If you get involved, you’ll feel so much better.”