Research Spotlight: Dr Jess Bailey
5 February 2024
Meet Jess Bailey, an Associate Lecturer in the History of Art at UCL. Jess works with Medieval and Early Modern European art and material culture. Find out more about her research.
What is your role and what does it involve?
I am an Associate Lecturer in the History of Art department at UCL. I finished my PhD in 2022 at UC Berkeley and was fortunate to begin working at UCL on a fixed term contract teaching European Medieval and Early Modern visual culture as well as the department's theory and methodology lecture course. My teaching foregrounds intersectional questions about art's role in the construction of gender and sexuality. I teach seminars about disability art history, human nature in the Middle Ages, and how artists were impacting cultural discourse about the human body. My favourite course to teach, however, is methodology where I endeavour to welcome students into the challenging world of reading more abstract texts. This course asks that we rigorously interrogate what tools our discipline engages with and what the implications might be of how we ask our research questions. Even though this course is not about my own topics of art historical research, I feel that it cuts to the core of why I enjoy my work. It gives us space as a class to try to become as self-aware as possible about how we do what we do in the humanities.
What do you find most interesting or enjoyable about your work?
I tell my students that research is like sitting at the best dinner party: you get to be a part of a multi-generational conversation where our citations call out to curious people before and around us. I find it deeply fulfilling to try to bring students into a deeper relationship with both the past itself and how people have written about the past. I am a manuscript specialist and so when I am not in a classroom, my favourite place to be is in a special collection library. I currently have 47 active library cards and I take my smaller seminars behind the scenes at Wellcome Collection, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and, of course, here to see UCL’s amazing special collection holdings. My work as an art historian does not preference individual artists, but rather considers how communities of people are making medieval manuscripts together. For me, there is a resonance between being interested in how communities made art and how research unfolds across and between generations in the library. I find the process of navigating between the art history and the historiography itself deeply fulfilling.
Tell us about your research
I am working on a book project titled Precarious Lines about the premodern art history of gun violence and gender. Drawing on my PhD research, this project combines my interests in the human body, organized violence, and Medieval European articulations of imperialism. My research contends with the earliest European manuscript illuminations about gunpowder and new forms of artillery, while considering what implications shifts in technology had for both state and interpersonal violence. My research explores how young men were being educated in the values of imperialism alongside exposure to gunpowder as early as the 14th century. My work contributes to our understanding of masculinity, gendered violence, and the cultural histories of military material culture.
What led you to pursue a research career in this field?
My own teachers. I was blessed with incredible academic mentors from my time in community college in the United States to completing my BA degree at UC Berkeley to staying in the discipline of art history for a PhD. The art historians who trained me instilled in me a generosity towards the past, presenting it as a place where really big, vital questions could be asked through attention to the intimate shapes and consequences of individual lives and artworks. Historical research was framed not as a reclusive retreat from the world, but rather as a way to be deeply engaged with the world.
What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?
During my first year teaching at UCL my students nominated me for a Student Choice Award in the categories of inspiring teaching and personal tutoring. I received the award for personal tutoring. As a researcher just beginning her career as a university lecturer, this meant so much to me. I hope my teaching inspires students to see the deep past as a place from which to draw both provocation and strength for thinking critically about our present.
What's next on the research horizon for you?
Like any early career researcher, I am juggling the realities of the academic job market with publication goals, teaching workload, and the tantalizing outlines of new research projects! A colleague in the history of art department, Dr Allison Stielau and I were recently able to gather an interdisciplinary group of researchers from across UCL to work on an early printed German medical book preserved in special collections. Our small team was awarded an Institute for Advanced Studies Research Workshop grant which will enable us to begin thinking together about the 1530 copy of Hans von Gersdorff’s Feldbuch der Wundarzney. My own contributions to the project will focus on how the volume’s woodcuts represent disability and military violence.
This will draw on my published research about an early 16th century Swiss artist named Urs Graf who was both a draftsman and a mercenary soldier. He created ink drawings of disabled people, gendered violence, and his fellow mercenaries in a period when changes in gunpowder technology were impacting battlefield medicine like that being written by von Gersdorff. My article, ‘Disability at the Edge of War,’ (in Disability and Art History, Routledge, 2022) features woodcuts of medical practice from the Feldbuch and pairs these printed negotiations of men’s gunpowder injuries with one of the earliest records we have of gendered gun violence between a soldier with a handgun and a sex worker.
Can you share some interesting work that you read about recently?
Inspired by the long-standing contributions of UCL's History of Art Department to feminist research and writing in our discipline, I am currently reading Woman in Art: Helen Rosenau's 'Little Book' of 1944 newly re-introduced by Griselda Pollock and published by the Paul Mellon Centre and Yale this month. I am also inspired by work in the publication Errant Journal combining critical histories and contemporary political dialogue in the humanities.
What would it surprise people to know about you?
While I am a researcher of Medieval art history and gender day to day, I spend a lot of my weekends thinking about quilts. Using traditions passed down in my own family, I make quilts and run an arts education project called Public Library Quilts (40.4k followers on Instagram) where I use cultures of quilting to make art history more accessible to a wider public. I organize community quilt projects such as the LION Quilt about local and colonial histories of plant dye with Decolonise The Garden and Land in Our Names. Collaborating with US based curator Dr Sharbreon Plummer, I co-designed a public lecture series based out of New York about social justice histories of quilting while this year I am designing public programming for the Paul Mellon Centre in London. I am passionate about getting more people excited about art history and sharing the critical thinking tools visual culture necessitates and has to offer. We can all engage with the impactful cultural work art does in the world around us.