What Are Dissertations Made Of? My Summer with Artworks

By Alex Strecker, Ph.D. Student in Art, Art History & Visual Studies


When we consider  how good scholarship comes into being, it’s tempting to focus first on ideas: their intellectual forerunners, the competing frameworks, the gaps in the existing literature. But what can be overlooked, in my experience, are the underlying personal relationships that guide the direction of our own efforts. Also, what is often forgotten in retrospect, are those intuitive leaps of faith that lie at the beginning of any big, uncertain undertaking. My transformative Versatile Humanists internship this past summer came about as a direct result of building on my existing relationships—and a willingness to explore, without a certain destination, where those bonds would take me.

A bit of background: before coming to Durham to start my PhD, I lived in Athens, Greece for seven months. The roots of this decision ran deep: I grew up in Boston in a bilingual household, my mother hailing from Greece and my father from the United States, and summers in Greece had been a formative part of my childhood. But I had never had the opportunity to spend significant time in Athens outside of these holiday visits.

There were also more immediate reasons. Over the previous decade, the country had been wracked by a historic economic crisis. Visiting Athens during the darkest depths of this period, I was moved to see how a flowering of cultural energy, driven by the country’s youth, was vital to giving hope. So, from January to July 2018, I immersed myself in the city’s vibrant artistic community, connecting with a wide range of galleries, collectives, and cultural organizations.

Of the many people I met during that time, Marily Konstantinopoulou stood out. After growing up in Greece, Marily left for further education and professional opportunities in France and New York. Something drew her back home, however, and when she returned to Athens, it was to co-found Artworks, a non-profit organization dedicated to cultivating a supportive environment for young Greek artists. Since its establishment in 2017, Artworks’ flagship effort has been the creation of an “Artist Fellowship Program,” which offers significant financial and professional support for emerging artists between the ages of 25-40 who reside permanently in Greece. The inaugural class of fellows consisted of a diverse, inspiring group of 45 visual artists and 15 filmmakers. It all sounded very exciting, but I figured my time in Greece was limited—the library beckoned…

Which is why from the very moment I heard about the Versatile Humanists summer internships, a lightbulb went off in my head. Far sooner than I could have imagined, I saw a way to get back to Athens. Admittedly, I was unsure how a summer in Greece would advance my academic research, but I felt that collaborating with young, passionate people in a city where I hold deep affinities could only be positive. Not nine months after I had left Athens for Durham, expecting that chapter to have closed behind me, I found myself on a plane for Greece.


“Working in Greece…I began to see where I could make an impact. Confronting my clarifying dissertation ideas with living, breathing practitioners helped make my ideas feel real and worth pursuing.”


Over my 15 weeks with Artworks, I focused on producing a series of written profiles of the 2018 artist-fellows. The goal of these profiles was two-fold: providing the young artists with an accessibly-written text about their work in English while increasing Artworks’ international presence outside of Greece. Unexpectedly, though, there was also a third benefactor—me and my dissertation research.

If the experience had only given me the opportunity to spend time with the artists themselves, that would have been enough. Speaking with 15 bright, unique, creative minds—working in mediums ranging from film to sculpture, painting to photography, installation and social practice—was a moving experience. Our conversations spanned from intense, one-hour meetings at coffee shops to full-blown, hours-long studio visits (one in a picturesque village on a Greek island!). I quickly lost count of the number of times that the intensity and passion of these conversations gave me goosebumps and pushed me to understand artistic practice in a new way. And invariably, there was a moment when I made an observation or statement that caught the artist by surprise. By virtue of my long relationship to Greece, balanced with a usefully distanced perspective, I offered them a fresh point of view.

Indeed, the honesty and depth of our exchanges is exactly what pushed me to shift my own academic focus towards  Greece. The scholarship that most inspires me  begins with a subjective hook into its topic—yet with my own work, I found myself consistently on the outside. During my first year in graduate school, I explored a broad interest in the relationship between photography and technology. But I began to grow frustrated at both the generality of this topic and my inability to speak about this subject from any specifically personal vantage point. Working in Greece, however, I began to see where I could make an impact. Confronting my clarifying dissertation ideas with living, breathing practitioners helped make my ideas feel real and worth pursuing.

While I gained an invaluable push in my own research, Artworks also benefited from inviting an international perspective on their still-emerging programming. Besides writing the artist profiles, I also helped with the production of the organization’s first major exhibition and weighed in during regular meetings about how to expand their reach beyond the confines of Greece. One of the Artworks’ top goals is to help connect Greek artists to further international opportunities—an effort that neatly mirrors my own desire to bring outside attention to these same individuals and, more generally, to the charged landscape of artistic practice in Greece today.

For PhD students considering whether to pursue an internship, I can’t speak highly enough of the value of testing your ideas outside the academy. In my case, 15 different artists shared their work with me while pushing and probing my own ideas. I look forward to seeing how these relationships develop in the years to come and how my research, perched now at the intersection of academia, the arts, and my own personal experience, will grow alongside them.


Interested in pursuing an internship in 2020? This coming cycle, funding will be offered on a competitive basis through Duke’s Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grant (GSTEG). Watch the VH@Duke newsletter for updates; the application window will likely open in the second half of November. Students with questions about creating their own internships are encouraged to reach out to Maria LaMonaca Wisdom (maria.wisdom@duke.edu) sooner rather than later.