by Hanna Schutte ’11
You never know what might happen when you take a class at Gustavus. You might make a best friend, learn that you really can write a 20-page paper, or find a topic that sparks a lifelong interest. This last possibility was the case for Laura Mueller ’92.
Initially, it was family that brought her to Gustavus. “Both of my parents, as well as my older brother and sister, attended Gustavus . . . First and foremost, it was a family tradition I wanted to continue,” Mueller says.
It was one of Mueller’s options for coursework that changed her life, specifically the class Japanese Art. “I can still remember attending lectures with Linnea Wren, and being completely mesmerized by the slide images being shown on the large screen,” says Mueller. “The sophisticated and yet simple design, economy of composition, and sheer brilliance of line and color deeply moved me.”
Little did Mueller know that this one class would develop into a lifelong passion. She went on to obtain an M.B.A. and an M.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas in 1995; then a doctorate specializing in Japanese art from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also spent some time abroad, studying under the Japanese Monobusho Fellowship at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, Japan.
“I had thought that art and art history would always be just an enjoyable hobby,” says the 1992 Gustavus international management major. “Little did I know that it would so profoundly shape my life.”
According to Linnea Wren, art and art history professor, “Laura has been very adventuresome in her professional and personal life. She has lots of intellectual ability, combined with a personal openness to cultures and traditions that are not her own. She was willing to immerse herself in a culture and she works to open up understanding between people of different geographic regions and historical traditions. She has worked collaboratively with people in the United States and Japan. Her scholarship is very focused, and yet broad in its ramifications for her part of the global world.”
Looking back on her time as a Gustie, Mueller recalls the January Interim Experience. “Some of my fondest memories at Gustavus were the unexpected experiences and education that came during classes I took during J-term. It was such an unusual and special time to be able to completely immerse yourself into one thematic course,” she says.
Mueller has been involved with several exhibits, including one titled Utagawa: Masters of the Japanese Print, 1770-1900 at the Brooklyn Museum. This show presented prints that told the story of the history of this fascinating art form. According to a review from the New York Times in 2008, “Ms. Mueller’s intent was something other than a ‘greatest hits’ show. She wanted to tell the history of the Utagawa school and, in so doing, convey something of the complexity of the Japanese printmaking business in general.”
Having her work reviewed in the New York Times was one of the biggest highlights for Mueller. “It was a thrilling experience,” she says. In addition, an image of a print design by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) appeared on the front page of the Times — a first for any work of Japanese art.
Mueller has also written 3 books related to her subject of interest. Her most recent publication, Adornment in Clay (2010), is about netsuke, small sculptural toggles that were traditionally worn by men on their outer garments. It is the first book in English on this topic. She has also written Competition and Collaboration: Japanese Prints of the Utagawa School (2007), and Strong Women, Beautiful Men: Japanese Portrait Prints from the Toledo Museum of Art (2005).
When speaking about the experience of publishing, Mueller says, “It is an unbelievably difficult, but ultimately rewarding experience. The process takes a tremendous amount of time, but it is very satisfying once you see and hold the finished product in your hands. The simple act of seeing your name in print is wonderful.”
As for looking forward to the future, Mueller has no plans to change from her current course. “I hope [to do] many more exhibitions and catalogs. There is still so much in Japanese art to be discovered. I love the idea of learning more about ourselves and the world through art,” she says.