“Art on the Wall" Episode Transcript

Art on the Wall with George Bent

Episode Transcript

Ruth Candler 00:15
Welcome to W&L After Class, the Lifelong Learning podcast. I'm your host, Ruth Candler. In every episode, we'll have engaging conversations with W&L's expert faculty, bringing you again to the Colonnade even if you're hundreds of miles away. Just like the conversations that happen every day after class here at W&L. You'll hear from your favorite faculty on fascinating topics and meet professors who can introduce you to new worlds and continue your journey of lifelong learning.

Our guest today is George Bent, the Sidney Gause Childress Professor in the Arts. George joined W&L in 1993 and has chaired the Art Department, the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program and the East Asian Studies Program. He also served as associate dean of the college. His research interests lie primarily in European art from the Medieval period through the Renaissance, and his latest project is a digital reconstruction of the Italian city of Florence at the end of the 15th century. George, thanks so much for joining us today.

George Bent 01:13
Thanks for having me.

Ruth Candler 01:14
So I learned a while ago that you did not begin your educational career intending to be an art historian. What inspired your interest in art history?

George Bent 01:24
I was threatened by my mother. I was ... I went into to college as an 18-year-old wide eyed not really knowing what college was about. I was at Oberlin, and even before classes began, students had to sit and listen to presentations from, you know, administrators and faculty. And for me, I was sitting in the audience listening to the dean of the College tell first-year students that we could major in anything that we wanted. And I thought that was great, because I loved history. So even before classes began, I knew I was going to be a history major. I spent the first year and a half at school, taking a steady dose of history and economics and politics. And right before registration for the spring term, I received a phone call from my mother who said, "Son, I love you, if you don't take a class in art or music, we're gonna pull you out of college."

Ruth Candler 01:47
The wrath of Mom.

George Bent 02:19
The wrath of mom. Well, she was a musician. So there was no way I was going to take a class in music. And I could barely draw a straight line, so I wasn't going to take a studio art class. So art history, which had history, and it sounded like a good compromise. I took a class with a professor named William Hood, who was a famously good lecturer but also ticked off a lot of people because he was opinionated and he didn't put up with fools. And he hooked me. He absolutely hooked me. He convinced me, in a class on Northern Renaissance art, that by looking at paintings, I could weasel my way into the past and really see what people were doing rather than just imagine it.

Ruth Candler 03:03
Just one professor.

George Bent 03:04
Yes, one person.

Ruth Candler 03:06
Well, now that you are a professor, how would you distinguish between art history and other forms of history?

George Bent 03:14
Oh wow, what a question. Actually, I think the distinctions are quite narrow. A lot of what I do would be considered social history because I'm interested in how images inform ritual and behavior and response. So yeah, I do kind of surreal stuff, I can tell you who, you know, the differences between two different pictures produced in the period that I'm interested in. But really what I'm interested in is how human beings respond to paintings or sculpture, what they're doing in front of them. And that, to me, that's, you know, standard historical stuff, using images to get to the endpoint.

Ruth Candler 03:58
So art historians are known to do their best work in the dark.

George Bent 04:02
Oh dear.

Ruth Candler 04:03
Would you share some of the challenges of teaching art history to today's undergraduates?

George Bent 04:09
Well, the first one you allude to, and that is, they're exhausted all the time. So it doesn't matter if you're teaching early in the morning or late in the afternoon, someone's falling asleep, right? Someone's asleep. So that's one thing, one of the reasons why I'm kind of gregarious in the classroom is just to keep people awake in the dark, you have to do something.

But really, the biggest challenge is relevancy. A lot of students, and it's not just art history, it's anybody who teaches anything from the late Medieval or Early Modern period. Making it relevant to the 21st century is a big challenge. Students today want to know why they're in your class and what that class is going to do for you later on. So frequently, I'll find myself in the middle of the lecture, pausing and reflecting on how this theme that we're seeing in the image from 1375 has a lot to do with who we are today in 2021. And it's hard to do that sometimes, but at other times, it's absolutely as easy as pie.

Ruth Candler 05:12
I was gonna say, is there any way you could give us an example?

George Bent 05:14
Sure. In 101 yesterday, we talked about this object called the Kritios Boy, maybe one of the earliest works of classical sculpture that we have, from the early 5th century BCE. That work we think was probably produced in response to invasions of Greece from Persian armies. And those invasions were so horrific that they basically leveled most of Athenian society. The entire metropolis of Athens was destroyed. A lot of people were, you know, casualties of that. Many deaths. And the response of the Greeks was to move out of an archaic period, which is characterized by these goofy smiles that you'll see on sculptures, and is replaced by frowns and, you know, deep sorrow. So I compared that to 911.

Ruth Candler 06:08

George Bent 06:09
When you have a deep cultural rift that fractures who you are and how you think about the world and your concept of hope for the future, it plays on you. Think about where we were on September 10, 2001. It was a different world for us in the United States. We changed, our behavior changed. And as I was saying this in class yesterday, I looked around and looked at a bunch of kids with masks on. [And I] said, 'Look, we're in another seminal moment like this. I mean, this has changed who we are, the way that we approach life, the way that we approach our art, the way that we approach our music. It's conditioned by what's happening to us right now, just as it conditioned the way that the Kritios Boy was made in 490 BC.

Ruth Candler 06:42
What a way to bring it home.

George Bent 07:03
It was hard, I actually kind of choked up a little bit.

Ruth Candler 07:06
Yeah, not easy to talk about, that's for sure. So let's shift a little and discuss your current research project. Florence, As It Was, the high-tech digital recreation of late 15th century Florence. You've been working on it for five years and have involved more than a dozen W&L students, along with staff from W&L's IQ Center, and also collaborators from around the world. How did you conceive of this project?

George Bent 07:35
It began in the chapel in October of 2016, when Ed Ayers, who was then the president of the University of Richmond, came to speak at W&L about his digital project called "In the Valley Of the Shadows." It's a Civil War project in which Ayers was looking at letters written to and from soldiers on either side of the conflict, Civil War, and tracing their movements across North Carolina and Virginia based on those letters. To make a long story short, as I watched this PowerPoint presentation, all I could think of was how I could do the same thing with Florence. Because as an archivist, as somebody who's spent a lot of time looking at documents in Florence, I know that we actually have a lot of written material about that city from my period from the 14th and 15th centuries. So I think I was thinking, you know what? We could do this in Florence. But I'm an art historian so I can have better images than Ed Ayers does. [Laughter]

So that's what got us started, sort of a competition with Ed Ayers, who had been doing his project for 15 years. It must be 20 by now. So he's way, you know, he's light years ahead of us. But that's what got us started.

Ruth Candler 08:49
You collaborate with others at W&L. Tell us a little bit about that.

George Bent 08:53
Yeah, you know, everything is serendipitous, it just kind of ... things just kind of fell into place. I started off by asking for students who I knew had either art historical background or a deep connection to the city of Florence to join in this project, because up from the very beginning. I wanted this to be a collaboration between faculty, staff and students. Knowing that if you do research as a student, wow, you learn and you learn fast. So I wanted students to be involved. We worked with Dave Pfaff in the IQ Center, which is a modeling office in the university, whereby 3D models can be produced from images. And we just talked about what a digital project would look like.

It started off just by getting a map of the city and starting to pinpoint places on the map where things happened and where people lived and, you know, events and stuff like that. But as the project advanced, it was Dave Pfaff in the IQ Center who alerted us to the fact that there was already technology out there that would permit us to make 3D models of buildings and artworks. And that we could attach to those models the information that we were gleaning from the Florentine archives, and from other public sources. So it became a true collaboration. I depend on Dave Pfaff for, I can't even tell you how much I depend on him. He drives the whole technological wing of this project. And you know, he's a true partner in all of it.

Ruth Candler 10:25
So students, staff, faculty, other collaborators from around the world, definitely a group effort. Let's get into the nitty gritty for a minute. It sounds like you're collecting historical data, images and mapping points. And there are clues everywhere as to what Florence looked like six centuries ago. But in many ways, it must have been a very different place. How do you collect all of this information and then stitch it into a digital recreation of a city?

George Bent 10:59
Okay, so this gets pretty complicated pretty quickly. The first thing we did was to get our hands on a 16th century map that was produced by a monk named Stefano Bonsignore, who drew and then engraved a pretty accurate city map of Florence whereby the roads of that city come close to corresponding to the roads that we have now, according to the Google map. So Bonsignore did a pretty good job in 1584. Yeah. But it's an elevated map. So that means that you can see the height of buildings in relationship to each other. Well, that's a pretty good little model for us, a little template. It tells us what the major monuments were in the city in 1584. So you can use that as a starting point.

We have paintings from the period, we have paintings from the 19th century that were produced by artists deeply saddened by the fact that there was an urban renewal project going on in the 1880s and 1890s, to just clean out some of those dirty infested alleyways that had made the Medieval city so interesting, but the modern city a health hazard. So they were painting these old sites that are now gone to us, but we have paintings of them, so we can see what the buildings look like.

There are also photographs that were produced by the Alinari family and the Anderson family back in the 19th century. So we've been able to use some visual data and information to give us some tips. But then there are also written sources, there were Florentines in the 16th century, the 17th century, the 18th century, the 19th century and the 20th century who are writing about what they were seeing in these buildings. So we go back and we read them. It's as simple as that, we just go back and read what was where. And we know where some of those objects are today. So we model the objects where they are today in museum collections and then we figure out a way to stitch them into these models of the buildings that we're creating, too. And I'm going to guess at your next question is, how do you do that?

Ruth Candler 12:59
Very close. Yes.

George Bent 13:01
So you want to know?

Ruth Candler 13:02
Yeah, I do.

George Bent 13:02
Okay. So what we do, we take a lay a LiDAR scanner, it's a laser scanner that's about as big as ... well, there's one model that's about as big as a large wine goblet turned upside down. The model that we use is a little bit larger than that, but not much. It stands on a tripod and it revolves twice around the tripod. And it takes about two minutes to do the one revolution - or two revolutions. The first one sends out a laser beam and the laser beam, as it rotates, the laser beam goes out, it strikes objects, all objects that it sees in 360 degrees, and then bounces back to the machine. And the amount of time it takes for that laser beam to go out, hit the object and then come back again, we can get a precise calculation of distance and also of shape. So we're collecting all of these data points for every revolution. Then the second revolution is a photographic one, where again, we're taking photographs in 360 degrees, mostly to take ... to get color so that we can add color to the points of data that the laser is is collecting.

We'll go from position to position in a building so that we're always making sure that we're catching every nook and cranny. Because obviously, a scanner is not going to be able to go through, you know, penetrate through a chair that might be standing in front of a column, you've got to find a way to capture that corner of the column. And then we send all the data back to W&L, Dave Pfaff in the IQ Center, working with students, will then combine all of those different positions and the data points will join them together. And what we get is called a point cloud, where we'll have literally one billion points that are all smashed together to recreate solid surfaces that the laser scanner has collected and photographed so that we have colored points. So that's the point cloud. It's great for architecture, it's accurate to within six millimeters per 10 meters of upshot. So you're right there. But it's not a very clear image, so you don't get a high-resolution photograph of objects. So that's why we go to museums and we take photographs of the artworks that used to be there, do models of those in high-resolution digitized photographs.

And then, through the magic of computer wizardry, we insert the photographs of the paintings into the point clouds of the buildings where those paintings used to be. How's that for an elevator answer?

Ruth Candler 15:32
It's a great elevator answer. And what I'm thinking about is a PowerPoint that I saw you share. And I'm wondering if we could post that on our website so that our listeners can also have that imagery at their fingertips. Great description. So how do you digitally reconstruct what a place looked like when, say, artworks from a chapel in Florence, have been moved to a collection in, say, North Carolina,

George Bent 15:59
For example. So we went to North Carolina in August because there are two paintings in the North Carolina Museum of Art we believe were originally located in two Florentine buildings that we had already scanned and modeled. So we took photographs of them. And then, you know, worked this magic of stitching the photographs into the point clouds, but the way that we knew about them being in those buildings in the first place.

The first was that we had some descriptions of one of the paintings in North Carolina, from the 16th century, and the description of it matches the painting in North Carolina. So for a long time, people have presumed that the painting was in this particular chapel in Santa Croce. And when we latched on to that, well, it was a no brainer that we should go photograph it.

But the other painting in North Carolina has only been thought to have come from this other building called Orsanmichele that we had scanned and modeled. But I'd written a book about public painting five years ago that included a number of panels I believed were once inside this particular building. And the dimensions of the painting in Raleigh, along with its subject matter, made it very clear to me that this picture belonged in that building. As did the identity of the artist. I mean, it all just fit together, you know, chronologically, artistically, subject matter, dimensions, the whole thing just fit together. So we experimented and we put it in the building, and we got all the dimensions precisely, and it fit like a glove.

Ruth Candler 17:28
That must have been very rewarding.

George Bent 17:30
It was really exciting.

Ruth Candler 17:31
Yeah. The entire process sounds very intense. You're recreating an immensely complicated historical monument, even if it is in digital format. Can I ask you how much a project like this costs and how its funded?

George Bent 17:49
Yeah. So Tom Wolfe, whom some of our listeners might know of, wrote this great book called "The Right Stuff," and in it, Gus Grissom is speaking to the other astronauts, and he says to them, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers." [Laughter] And it's really true. No bucks, no Buck Rogers, you need money to make this thing happen.

We've been the recipient of a couple of grants. One came to Washington and Lee as an institution back in 2014, 2015, something like that, from the Mellon Foundation that funded a variety of different digital humanities projects. We were just one of them. We received funding from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, thanks in part to some really good work from Liz Holleman, a Washington and Lee alum who works there. But really, it was through the largess of two friends of the university. Don and Sidney Gause Childress and George, Carol and Catherine Overend. Those two families took great interest in this project and helped fund, really, most of what we do.

We need to pay students to do the work that they do both during the academic year and in the summertime. The equipment that we use runs, you know, $60,000-$70,000, so that costs a pretty penny. We have software license fees, travel budgets, I mean, you can't scan Florentine buildings or take photographs of paintings unless you're on the road. So yeah, we have a pretty significant budget.

Ruth Candler 19:32
You shared a story and even some pictures with our podcast team about how a restoration architect gave you access to a bell tower that not many people have toured. How do you get permission to work in these cultural sites?

George Bent 19:49
This is probably the most challenging part of the whole process because it requires one to cut through lots of bureaucratic red tape in Italy. So some projects were easy as could be. I send an email to the abbot of a monastery out of the blue asking if I could just trot over to the monastery and scan it. Four days later, there was a response from him that in Italian said, "Yeah, okay." That was it. That was the whole response. "Yeah, okay."

So I went to the monastery and I tried to get in to do the scanning, and I was met at the door by a monk who said, "What are you doing here? You're not allowed to use that scanner here." And I pulled up my phone and showed him the email from the abbot that said, "Yeah, okay." And he looked at the phone and he read the email and he goes, "Well, actually, that does sound like him. Yeah, okay, go ahead. [Laughter] So sometimes it can be really easy.

This latest project was for Santa Maria Novella, which is a major cultural center in Europe. It took us four months to get permission to go in there. I had to go through four different bureaucratic offices — two at the church, one in the city government, and then one in the Italian Ministry of Culture. I needed an Italian in Florence, who was proofreading and editing my emails, to make sure that I was genuflecting properly in Italian in those messages. It was — and even then, I arrived in Florence in early June of 2021 without really knowing I was going to have access. So I just got there and prayed that it would happen, and lo and behold, it did. So some of it is just dumb luck. Some of it's just dumb luck, some of its day after day of pulling out your hair, writing the same old email to the same people and praying for a response.

Ruth Candler 21:43
So I remember you posting a picture [on] Facebook, the beginning of one of your days and at the end of that same day. And at the beginning of the day, you were covered in dirt and underneath I don't know what; at the end of the day, you were up on top of some roof, looked like in your white linens, you know, taking pictures, much cleaner. But I'm wondering if you could share some of your pictures so that we can post them on our episode page?

George Bent 22:11
I'd be happy to. We did get up into the rafters of Santa Maria Novella at the invitation of the church architect. I had no intention of doing that when I got there, but he saw me scanning and he really wanted the model of his church to be better than the model of the Duomo that we had done the year before. So clearly, there was some competition involved, which worked to my advantage because he said "Go up to the rafters, go up there." So we did and yeah, I was covered in filth. It was over 100 degrees up there and I'd forgotten to bring water. So this is no joke: I got back from that month-long trip and I'd lost 10 pounds in four weeks. And it was an unpleasant weight loss. It was tough. It was hard work. But at the same time, not only did we do the rafters, we actually got up onto the roof, did the tiles, did the bell tower...

Ruth Candler 23:04
Wow. How many people can say that they've seen that?

George Bent 23:07
Not very many. Not very many. That's one of the reasons why we do it. It's just kind of fun.

Ruth Candler 23:12
Mmm, it sounds it. Moving away from the nitty gritty of the project, would you share what impact your project is having on both students and teachers of the Italian Renaissance?

George Bent 23:24
That's an interesting question. We're still trying to gauge it. We know that our project is on the syllabi of a number of college and graduate school courses. We know that we get between 150 and 200 hits every week from non-Lexington users. We know that our students at Washington and Lee who work with the project get a second and third look from graduate programs when they apply. And in fact, I saw an email from a major research university yesterday that was sent to one of our students. And the email basically said, "Anybody who's working on Florence As It Was has a place here."

Ruth Candler 24:10

George Bent 24:10
So we've put students at Cambridge University in the UK, and then there's some other universities I can't name right now or won't name right now that are interested in our current students because of the project. So that's worked well. But also I use it in class. So I see how students respond to it. You know, I answered an email today from a student who wants to take a look at one of our models that she can write a research paper. So it's giving students the context to see things and to understand how viewers would have experienced a space or an image circa 1500. It's working.

Ruth Candler 24:48
So students on the W&L campus and outside of our campus, as well.

George Bent 24:53
We get emails from graduate students in Germany, from faculty in Australia. I think most of our non-U.S. hits are in Italy. So yeah, we're global.

Ruth Candler 25:06
That's exciting.

George Bent 25:06
It is, it's really exciting.

Ruth Candler 25:07
And rewarding, too.  I know that Rome wasn't built in a day. How far would you say the project is from completion?

George Bent 25:19
[Whistles] It'll never be done.

Ruth Candler 25:22
That means you can't retire.

George Bent 25:23
I know, I know, and my wife is, you know, furious about that. Look, digital ... okay, there are two different ways that a digital project can be presented to the world. One is the old-fashioned humanities way, which is to squirrel away all your information and write it up and make sure that it's absolutely perfect, and then present it to the world fully formed.

We chose the other route, which is to put things in incrementally. So when we do a building, we post it. We don't wait until we have 25 buildings and then post them all at once. We do it one at a time. Well, this means that you're constantly changing it, you're constantly building it, constantly growing. We're always adding new things. The latest addition that I think is going to go live by New Year's Day, 2022, is a database. We've already entered the information for over 500 artworks. So come January 1st, you'll be able to go into the search engine, type in the name of an artist and up on that Bonsignore map from 1584 will appear little flash points that will show you every place where that artist had an artwork in the city of Florence.

So we're always growing, we're always building, we're always writing interpretive essays. I want to go through and transcribe documents that have been published about these different places. We're translating some of those descriptions from the 16th and 17th centuries, we're going to put those up in the models. It's, you know, I'm 58. You know, if I die at 80, I'll still be working on this project. And I'll be happy doing it. We just had a conversation about this in class today.

Ruth Candler 27:04
Well, I've heard you speak of Florence as having art for common people created by artists who, who weren't well known by any means. Where is this art located? And how does this art differ from say, the uptown art by such famous artists as Michelangelo?

George Bent 27:24
My period of the 14th century is not very well known to the casual art lover. You've heard of Giotto, probably. But beyond Giotto, no one really knows much about the 14th century. And that's what attracted me to it to begin with. There were all these craftsmen who I thought were really terrific painters, they do wonderful work, but not very much is known about them. So that kind of got me on that kick. We need to recognize that the Michelangelos of the world, the Leonardo da Vincis of the world, they come out of that long-standing tradition that had been forged by artists whose names have been lost to us. So going back and finding those people and kind of reconstructing their careers and understanding how contemporary viewers would have seen those objects, that's what strikes me as the historian and gets me interested in the object and the maker and the viewer. So it's, it's those lesser-known artists, the, you know, the Jacopo di Ciones of the world, the Lorenzo Monacos of the world. They're the ones I really like because they're not anomalies. They're not Michelangelo, they're the regular people. And that really excites me.

Ruth Candler 28:45
It's almost like you're giving them a second life and another look at their artwork.

George Bent 28:50
Oh, that's a nice way to think of it. They would probably be horrified. [Laughter] By the way I'm reconstructing their lives, but I like that, that's good.

Ruth Candler 29:02
So when you speak of art for the common people, I can't help but think about your role as a teacher of art. At W&L, you teach art history at all levels. Do you have a favorite area of teaching and a favorite period of time?

George Bent 29:19
Hmm. I've taught a class on Italian Renaissance art every year with the exception of the years I've been on leave, every year since 1993. So that's my bread and butter course. I still cannot roll out of bed and teach that class. I still need to look at my notes before I go in. I still need to look at the images that I'm going to show. Because it's such a rich and complicated period. There's no way that I can just go and talk about it. And I kind of like that. If there was ever a moment where I just sort of, you know, shrugged my shoulders and taught a class, that would be kind of boring.

So yeah, the Italian Renaissance class that I teach is probably the one that I like the best just because it's so interesting to me. But, you know, I also, you know, I taught a seminar last winter on a book I'm writing about manuscript illumination at the end of the 14th century. That was really exciting. Students were doing some research. They were writing short essays, really guiding my thinking as I was writing the manuscript of that book. So that's always fun to do, too.

Ruth Candler 30:29
The students teaching the teacher.

George Bent 30:30
Oh yeah, it happens all the time. Happens all the time. I got an idea for an article based on a flip comment that a student made a couple years ago in a seminar. Yeah, it happens all the time.

Ruth Candler 30:44
How about a favorite painting? Is that like asking you who your favorite child is?

George Bent 30:48
Yeah, yeah, it is. And you know, shame on you, you know better. [Laughter] It's kind of funny, I think of Italian Renaissance painting, which is my area, as being a job. I love it. It's a great job. That's not where I would go to find my favorite painting, though.

Ruth Candler 31:10
So where would you go?

George Bent 31:12
Seventeenth century Amsterdam. I think that the painting of Rembrandt is probably the most moving stuff that I ever encounter. There's one in particular called "The Jewish Bride" that I think is mistitled that I always find deeply moving, really emotional, in ways that other people don't, because I'm interpreting it differently. But that's the beauty of Rembrandt. He's producing a painting that invites multiple interpretations, and it's really difficult to get your brain around what he's trying to formulate. And that to me is the mark of true artistic genius.

Ruth Candler 31:53
So you said the "The Jewish Bride" was not named correctly?

George Bent 31:56

Ruth Candler 31:57
What would you name it? What should it be?

George Bent 32:02
"Cavalier in a Brothel." I think it's a brothel painting.

Ruth Candler 32:05
Alright. I'm gonna go home and look that up tonight. We'll include a picture on the episode notes page, too. Our discussion today has really opened my eyes to art history in practice. How would you say that art history fits into the liberal arts, or how would you say that art history complements a student's education?

George Bent 32:32
I'm the product of the liberal arts tradition in multiple ways. My mother taught music theory and performance at Oberlin. My father was a trustee at Oberlin. So I sat at the dinner table as a child and I used to listen to faculty talk to administrators every day, every day. So I grew up believing in the power of the liberal arts, and I believe it today. And in fact, when I applied for jobs in 1993, W&L was number one on my list, because it was a liberal arts college. And there were other options I had, but I wanted to come here.

I think art history is fundamentally important. Not only does it teach us lessons about who we are, not only does it remind us of where we've been, or maybe even give us a sense of where we're going, it's also deeply embedded in literally every other discipline on campus. So, Ruth, if you're taking a class with me and you're really interested in geology, I can find an art history paper topic for you that that will incorporate your geological interest. If you like Spanish literature, we can find a ton of topics for you to write about. If you are interested in journalism, and I've had a number of journalism students who have double majored in art history, we can find a way to get that into your curriculum, your personal curriculum, I tend to think of art history as touching all of them.

In a way, it's kind of like a wheel, you know, you have the hub and all of the spokes generating out from it, touching the big curriculum that a student designs for him or herself. So I like to think of it as being an anchor for a lot of students, and a lot of students here feel that way as well.

Ruth Candler 34:28
I love that description. So in thinking about past students, have you kept in touch with many of them? And are any of them using their education in art history?

George Bent 34:41
I'm in touch with former students. I won't say every day, but more frequently than you'd believe. I fielded an email today from a former student. We had young alumni weekend a while ago. I basically had office hours outside and I talked to a bunch of former students. Sure, yeah, I see people and hear from people quite frequently.

Working with the Alumni College has been a wonderful way for me to maintain old connections, but also make new ones. And that's been great. We have had great success in the department of sending our students to graduate programs. You know, in the 90s, we were sending kids to NYU, to Columbia, to University of Chicago, Cincinnati, Maryland. We're sending students to the UK, we're sending students now to Florence to study there. And, you know, again, we have students now who are applying to graduate programs that I'm not going to mention that are very highly placed. Columbia still is deeply interested in what we're doing. Yeah, so we've done quite well.

Ruth Candler 35:50
That must make you feel very good.

George Bent 35:52
It makes me feel great.

Ruth Candler 35:54
Before we wrap up our podcast today, I'd like to talk a little bit about your life outside of the classroom. What do you do when you're not on campus?

George Bent 36:05
Well, uh, for a long time, I was a pretty avid runner. So I would get out and, you know, pull on the shorts and the sneakers and go run, and then my knee got cranky. So I had to stop doing that. It got better, so I've started running again and that's been great. But my wife and I, we have three now-grown children. So we spent a lot of our time in automobiles driving to and from soccer practices in Roanoke, Virginia, and elsewhere on the East Coast, because they played everywhere. We've got a dog, so I spent time with a dog. We live out in Collierstown, so there're always weeds to pull and things to do.

Ruth Candler 36:47
So that was gonna be my next question. That's an hour to Roanoke, and an hour from Roanoke. What did you listen to in the car?

George Bent 36:55
Mostly to my children speak. You know, it's funny. I'll tell people the story about, you know, four days a week, five days a week being in the car with your 15-year-old. And, you know, they stink after practice over there. They just reek. And everyone I talk to about this, they'll sort of hold their nose and go, "Oh, that sounds awful." We loved it. Because, you know, we call it dashboard time, where you just get to sit with your child. And teenagers, as we all know, are not always ready to reveal. And they had no choice. There's nobody else to talk to so we would sit and drive. And I would learn things about their lives. That was kind of shocking, but also wonderful. You know, they were, they were telling me who they were. So we'd listen to music, sure. I couldn't tell you what we listened, it was usually their playlist. But mostly we'd talk and it was just wonderful. I miss those days, I really miss those days.

Ruth Candler 37:58
I feel that with you. I always think that you get much more out of your children when you're both facing the same direction instead of instead of looking at each other. [Laughter} They're more apt to divulge. And I can remember those those times in the car where you know, they'd pull out their phone and I'd be like, "Who's more important than me right now? Because I am your transportation." Alright, so you mentioned teaching in Alumni College. And you've also... you are a favorite host on W&L travel programs as well. What have those experiences been like for you?

George Bent 38:39
Oh, they've been wonderful. I always learned so much from alumni who participate because there's a wealth of experience there from multiple perspectives. Usually the people who go on those trips are experienced travelers, they've seen much more than I have and they can relate the experience that we're having, usually in Italy, to some experience they've had elsewhere. And that's always been meaningful for me.

Teaching on campus is also terrific because I'm usually paired up with somebody from a different department in a different discipline. And I've never really watched them teach before or heard them deliver their own areas of expertise. So there have been really... there have been great moments. You know, Erich Uffelman and I did a class together a couple of years ago that was just hilarious. We had a great time talking about 17th century Dutch painting. He was bringing in his perspective as a chemistry faculty member who's an expert in restoration techniques. And I was coming at it from the perspective of an art historian who interprets the work. And together we really played off of each other and it was just wonderful. And it wound up leading to the two of us collaborating on a research project. So we went to Luxembourg together to analyze one of my paintings for this book project that I'm working on. So it's been spectacular for me. It's been great.

Ruth Candler 40:10
So you're teaching and also learning?

George Bent 40:11
Oh, yeah. Mostly learning.

Ruth Candler 40:15
Alright, so I have one final question for you. If you had to pick a painting to represent your life, what would it be? And why?

George Bent 40:24
Oh, what a question. I'd say it'd be a painting called "Lucifer." And it's by Jackson Pollock. And it's one of his early drip paintings from 1947. And I pick it because there's no subject. There's no fixed thing that drives it. It's different color patterns, and it's a constellation of movement and different themes that are non-objectively dripped onto the canvas. I kind of feel as though I've been all over the place and done all kinds of different things, but it all kind of works together. There's a harmony to it even though it doesn't have a single shape. That's my story. I'm sticking to it.

Ruth Candler 41:26
I can't wait to see that. George, it's been great talking with you. Thank you very much for joining us today.

George Bent 41:33
Thank you for having me, Ruth. It's been a lot of fun.

Ruth Candler 41:35
And listeners, thank YOU for joining us after class. We hope you'll visit our website, wlu.edu/lifelong, where you can find out more about George Bent's scholarship and the link to view "Florence As It Was." You'll also find a great selection of other W&L After Class recordings covering everything from a candid discussion about stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination to the love of musical theater to a conversation about W&L's athletics. Take a look, and until next time, let's remain together not unmindful of the future.