Dedicated Art Historian Finds Home At Amherst
Issue   |   Fri, 11/11/2016 - 03:21
Ellen Longsworth ’71
After receiving two degrees in art history at the University of Chicago and Boston University, Longsworth became a professor at Merrimack College where she has been for 33 years.

Ellen Longsworth ’71 enjoyed a non-traditional tenure at Amherst, spending a year at the college thanks to a “co-educational” experiment program that allowed her to take two semesters away from Mount Holyoke College. The art historian and professor has held fast to her commitment to education and continues to pull on her Amherst experiences throughout her tenure as a professor in the Visual & Performing Arts department at Merrimack College.

A Familial Path to Amherst
Longsworth grew up in Hicksville, Indiana, a place she describes as “a little farm town, and a very nice place to be.”
Her path to Amherst can largely be credited to her family. Her uncle moved out from the Midwest to Massachusetts, facilitating her cousins’ enrollment at Amherst. Her cousins Charles “Chuck” Longsworth ’51 and Maurice Longsworth ’53 both attended and strengthened the family ties.

Subsequently, her older brother Robert Longsworth ’65 played football at Amherst as co-captain of the team. Longsworth and her family often visited the campus to see him play. After spending so much time in the Pioneer Valley, she fell in love with the area.

Because Amherst was not yet co-educational at the time, Longsworth applied to surrounding schools and ended up at Mount Holyoke College. During her time, Amherst took part in a “co-educational experiment,” one that permitted her to apply for a semester “abroad” at the college. Her application was accepted, and she embarked on the eventual year-long transfer, a time she calls her “happiest and most successful academically.”

Studying “Abroad” at Amherst
Longsworth came to Amherst during the academic calendar year of 1969-1970. She says it was quite a chaotic year, characterized by sit-ins, protest and riots decrying the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, she greatly enjoyed her time here.
She graduated from Mount Holyoke with a double degree in art studio and art history and took many classes at Amherst that supplemented this education.

She credits professors in the art history department with fostering a love for the specific disciplines in which she focuses now, like 19th century American landscape.

Longsworth worked hard academically and made the dean’s list, something she had not done at Mount Holyoke College. “It was all-together a very happy experience,” she said. “I felt like I had a good community.”

A Love for Education
Longsworth then continued her education at the University of Chicago. She spent a calendar year at the school and two more subsequent years to finalize her thesis. Soon after, she was hired at Bradford College, an institution that has since dissolved, but had been based in Haverhill, Massachusetts. There, she embraced her love for teaching and decided to apply to Boston University, a school that would allow her to teach part-time while also working towards her second degree. Finally, in 1985, she was hired at Merrimack, where she has since worked for 33 years.

“It’s a wonderful place to work,” she said of Merrimack. “They work hard … and are enthusiastic.”

My conversation with Longsworth fell right after she returned from a field trip to the Courrier museum with her students, one of many that she takes with her Art History I class. These moments outside of the classroom are the ones she truly enjoys. “They were beside themselves at what they saw,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see this. It’s one of the parts of my profession; my job … that I love is getting students excited about the visual world. And no, I don’t mean iPads. I mean fine art.”

A Myriad of Interests
Longsworth teaches and studies a wide range of disciplines, but her primary interests are in sculpture, specifically 14th, 15th, and 16th century tomb sculpture as well as Lombard sculpture. Her dissertation focused on art of these three centuries, which at the time was “the type of study that had never been done,” she said.

“The other thing I work on specifically is … Lombard renaissance sculptures,” Longsworth said. “These are done by artists whom practically no one has heard of if you’re not Italian. They worked in the Northern part of Italy, around Milan, in the region known as Lombardy.”

Since it was a subset of art previously untapped, Longsworth’s dissertation was published among a list of other groundbreaking dissertations in a publication called The Art Bulletin.

“After my dissertation was listed, I got a phone call from a professor who had done and continues to do archival research in Milan,” she said. “He became a kind of mentor to me and showed me around Milan. He and another woman (Joanne Bernstein) who is now retired from Mills College were the two few American scholars working in that field.”

In the Classroom
When asked about her philosophy as a professor, Longsworth was quick to reify her commitment to her discipline. “I’m a traditional art historian,” she said. “I want to see that my students understand works within a chronological and social and cultural context. That’s traditional art history.”

She is also particularly fond of the “experiential learning” elements within her classes. “It’s not only the learning, but the guidance and learning, that takes place in the classroom but outside as well,” she said.

In her classes, Longsworth teaches about varying subjects and within many different scopes. Each fall semester she teaches two sections of Art and Material Culture or Art History I as an effort to “try to build up the interest in art and art history for my department.”

Her spring semester has a bit more flexibility — she has the ability to teach more specialty courses. This coming semester she has the opportunity to teach a class on-site in Tuscany.

Longsworth credits much of her focus and teaching style to her time spent at Amherst. “I took classes at Amherst with subjects that became particular loves of mine … like 19th century landscape painting, Milton, Dante. They all come into play often in my own career as a teacher.”

Longsworth also holds a special admiration for the relationship between her work and students. “As I put it on the first day of my survey course, this is a course really about who we are … how we’ve developed as humans,” she said. “I get to talk to them about some of the grandest, most beautiful, most provocative works … that human kind has ever made … what we’ve created as people is just stunning.”

History of Philanthropy
Just as many of Longsworth’s relatives also attended Amherst, so too does her family have a long history of giving back to the institution and the larger area. Her aforementioned cousin Charles served as a member of the board of trustees and now holds status as Life Trustee. He later helped found Hampshire College and went on to serve as the school’s second president. Charles’ wife Polly is an Emily Dickinson scholar and was instrumental in the creation of the Emily Dickinson Museum and the homestead’s continued healthy state.

Longsworth spoke enthusiastically about the work her family has done to continue to give back to the institution. “I think you can tell how proud of them I am,” she said with a laugh.

With this pride in mind, it’s no surprise that Longsworth has continued the family legacy and done her own fair share of giving back to Amherst. She has served as a Friend of the Mead and also led her class as vice president of the class of ’71 and co-chair of her classmates’ 45th reunion.

“The class of ’71 kind of adopted us, those of us who were at Amherst from 1969-1970,” she said. “At some point they just decided we should be part of their class — it’s wonderful. Now I call these people my classmates.”

With her personal commitment to giving back, Longsworth’s advice to current college students reflects Amherst’s impact on her life. “Take advantage of as much as what the college has to offer as you can, any particular category besides academics,” she said. “As long as they … dig in and do the very best, they can cull from those experiences as much as possible.”

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