It was the teachings of a “fantastic art history instructor” that sparked Pauline Ota’s interest in art history as an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine. She describes him as a “classic New Yorker and art critic.”
“He taught amazing art history courses that I took to fulfill a requirement, and I remember thinking: I’d like to be an art history major.”
But Ota, associate professor of art and art history at DePauw, explains that she’s the child of immigrants, and her parents are “very practical.” She was a computer science major when she shared her newfound interest and desire to change majors. “They told me, ‘We want you to get done as soon as possible and get a job.’”
They said that, if she wanted to go back and study art history later and pay for it herself, then she’d have their blessing.
Ota completed a degree in computer science and worked in the field for four years. She saved enough money to go back to school “to study what I really wanted to,” she says.
She received a master’s in art history from the University of California, Riverside, and a Ph.D. in art history from Stanford University.
Her study of focus on East Asian art began “partly as an interest in my own heritage,” she says, and partly because of language skills. “I had an advantage because I grew up with Japanese spoken in our house, and my mother taught us the written language to a certain level.” Still, it was difficult to progress sufficiently to read classical text.
Ota’s research focuses on the latter half of the 18th century. “I work on a certain degree of indirect foreign influences. For example, she studies how the Dutch influenced the Chinese and affected Chinese art during that time period.
Ota is doing research for a book on Japanese artist Maruyama Ōkyoa (1722-1795) and his representation of the city of Kyoto.
The book looks at how an indirect contact with the West has filtered through China and changed the way they thought about visual perception. And how that visual perception could then be translated into a two-dimensional work of art.
Ota’s teaching interests include early modern Japanese art, the supernatural in Japan and China, artistic exchange between East Asia and the Euro-American West, dialog between popular culture and "fine art" and museum studies.
One of her favorite classes to teach is supernatural in Japanese art. “It’s especially popular with Asian studies students, but I get a lot of computer science students who like Japan so they’re usually Japan studies minors or Asian studies minors. They bring in a level of expertise and knowledge of the popular culture world.”
Her students know all the latest manga and the anime that come out and all of that has to do with the J-pop world. “So,” she says, “because I don’t play video games, and I’m not part of that generation, I get to learn from them.”
“And they get to learn all the historical background and all the connections to Japanese culture and religion. It’s just a fun journey to take with them.”