If Maggie Bell’s life were a movie, it would probably be a Disney film. In this film, you would see a young Maggie and her little brother go off for a year to live in Madagascar with her zookeeping parents. You would see her struggle with the French language and then get so frustrated she would bite someone. This, of course, would change her whole life.
The story of how Maggie went from her Disney-like childhood to being a sixth-year UCSB Ph.D. student in History of Art and Architecture with a concentration on the Italian Renaissance is as fascinating as Maggie is.
When I first met Maggie in the lobby of the UCen she was excited because she would be ABD in two weeks. I found her surprisingly easy to talk to and we chatted informally for almost 10 minutes about grad school, what we we’re doing, and our teaching experiences (apparently 80% of the work of a fourth-grade teacher involves keeping the students in their chairs) before getting down to the interview.
You have a BA in Art History and a minor in Linguistics. Why Linguistics?
When I was little, I lived in Madagascar for a year. I remember feeling isolated because I didn’t speak French or Malagasy. I was terrified of French school. I actually bit someone because I didn’t want to be in French class. I guess it was very important for me. When I came back to the U.S. and was a little older I started taking Spanish classes in elementary school and loved it. I took it all the way through high school. Then I thought I would major in Spanish and do a dual major with linguistics. But I became interested in other ways that people communicate with each other and one of those ways was the visual arts.
How did you become interested in the visual arts?
I went to Catholic school growing up, but I was never actually Catholic. Everyone else was Catholic and got to have their own rosaries, First Communion, and stuff like that. I had none of that. I felt really left out. But what I loved was all the ritual. I loved actually sitting in church. I liked that we put crowns of flowers on the Virgin Mary at certain times of the year, and covered up the statues. I think that’s part of the reason why I was interested in images. Throughout the day you would pray to different images. We would pray to the crucifix at the beginning of the day, the Virgin Mary at the end of the day, and the crucifix again before lunch. It became so much about focusing on these images even though they had no other meaning for me other than this is something important we did every day.
Is this why you got into Art History?
I always liked the visual arts. My father was an artist. I never thought about art historically before. So I tried a class on a whim because I liked art. My first class was in the Italian Renaissance and I never changed my mind since the moment I took the first class.
You study frescoes. How did you become interested in them?
The thing that I like about working on them is they’re inexorable from the site in which they’re made. The ones I studied were painted in the 15th century and they’re in this massive hospital in Siena called Santa Maria Della Scala. It was impossible to understand them without understanding the hospital or what it would have been like to be a patient there, to move through that space, to see it every day as a citizen of Siena. I think that perceptual aspect of it, more than just, say, the subject matter of the fresco or the style in which it was painted, is what was really fascinating to me. Also because it’s so challenging to address those kinds of questions.
What is your biggest accomplishment?
Navigating the Italian postal system in Italian. I had to mail two bottles of sparkling red wine. Yes, there is such a thing.
You have a fascinating upbringing. What is the one thing that people find most interesting about your childhood?
I think the fact that my parents were zookeepers was the most interesting thing. And the fact that when my Mom needed to take care of us but also had to go to work, my brother and I got to spend the entire day at the zoo, running around and doing whatever we wanted.
What is the one thing people would be most surprised to know about you?
The thing that people don’t know about me is that I also have a black belt in karate. It sounds cooler than it is. I got it when I was 15 and it was something that my Mom made me do. I didn’t like fighting people. I gave a kid a bloody lip once when I kicked him in the face, but I felt terrible about it. But what I did like about it was the performance aspect.
You’re in your sixth year and about to become ABD. Any advice for incoming graduate students? Something you wish you had known?
Everything is going to be OK. You don’t have to be perfect all the time. If you miss a few readings for the seminar, you won’t be ostracized or lose your funding. Oh, and you think it’s just hard for you, but it’s hard for everyone.
On that note, what is your favorite thing to do to relax?
Seeing my friends is my most important hobby. It’s sad to say "hobby," because it’s an activity that makes me very happy, but I have to make an effort to do it, to find the time. I also have Netflix and Amazon Prime. I know this series is old but I love "Veronica Mars." I also watch "Bored to Death."
Finally, what do you hope to be doing when you graduate?
I want to be a tenured professor, or just a professor. I really love teaching and want to do that.