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Washington State University
CAS Connect September 2013

In Motion: Carol Ivory lands lofty ’Frigate Bird’ award

Carol Ivory wears a cast bronze pendant of two stylized birds suspended from intricately braided fibers. Eye-catching yet sublime, the necklace signifies international recognition of her long and distinguished service to the creation, study, exhibition, and preservation of Pacific art.

Carol Ivory, center, with Antoinette and Heikeka’a Kaimuko at Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands.
Carol Ivory, center, with Antoinette and Heikeka’a Kaimuko at Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands.

Professor of fine arts and CAS associate dean for curriculum and instruction, Carol was presented with the pendant—symbol of the prestigious Manu Daula (Frigate Bird) Award—by the Pacific Arts Association during the group’s 11th International Symposium last month in Vancouver, BC.

PAA is an international organization devoted to the study of all the arts of Oceania. Award recipients are elected by the membership based on “outstanding achievement in and dedication to the arts of the Pacific.” Carol is among only 14 people who have received the award since its inception in 1984.

“Often, Pacific scholars talk of ‘our ancestors,’ as well as the importance of passing knowledge from one generation to the next. In essence, those given this award have become the organization’s ancestors—they have worked to promote the arts of the Pacific, they have shared their knowledge willingly, and their research has provided a foundation on which knowledge will grow,” said Karen Stevenson, PAA vice president for the Pacific and 2010 recipient of the Manu Daula Award.

“Carol has worked tirelessly for the Pacific Arts Association, but, more importantly, has dedicated her career to the art and peoples of the Marquesas. Through her scholarship and curatorial practice, she has helped to establish international recognition for the arts of the Pacific. This dedication to the field epitomizes the ideals of this award; one her peers believed that she so rightfully deserved.”

CAS Connect talked with Carol about her career and passion for art

Carol Ivory
Carol Ivory

You obviously have a profound affection for Polynesian art—what drives this passion?

My personal connections with and love for the people, the culture, and the land of the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia. I’ve been studying the art for almost 30 years and working in the islands for 20 years. I love the intricate designs and the historical culture and depth they represent. Bringing this art to a wider public is one of the things that drives me—being able to introduce not only the art but the culture and its history to a large international audience that has never heard of it.

What inspires your deep interest in the fine arts?

I’m an art historian, and my interest is in the context, meaning, visual formal elements, and functions of art within a culture/society and how those change over time. Art is a form of visual communication that reflects the values and beliefs of the people who make it, and the times in which they live. I am equally excited about the privileges I’ve had on the one hand to see and touch old, rare, exquisitely made pieces of Marquesan art in museum collections, and to be with a group of women in a village of 300 people sitting together making bark cloth (tapa), gossiping, and talking about what this art form means to them. One week I may be on an island accessed only by boat and the next week in a major art museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or Musée du quai Branly, Paris. It’s a pretty amazing life!

How did you come to study in the arts?

I grew up in New York City and, from high school on, had many opportunities to see art in person in some of the greatest museums in the world. When I started teaching high school social studies classes introducing “non-Western” cultures, I found myself using art as an important tool to engage students with the cultures. I also had the extraordinary opportunity to take a year off and travel around the world while in my mid-twenties. That experience changed my life.

Outside of curating—an art in itself—how do you engage in creative expression?

Photography is a tool for me to document the art and cultural practices I see, but I most enjoy it when I can capture the beautiful faces of the people I work with, their children, and their daily life. A few of my photos have been published and several times exhibited in the WSU Faculty show.

Do you have a favorite art form?

I gravitate towards sculpture and works with strong, complex, design systems. Tattoo, for example, is a traditional Polynesian art form. In fact, the word tattoo comes from the Polynesia word tatau. The Marquesans have the most complex and intricate Polynesian tattoo design system and those designs are pervasive throughout other art forms, including sculpture.

Carol Ivory with mountains in the background

What prompted you to pursue a teaching career in the arts?

While teaching high school social studies, I took a year to travel around the world, visiting five continents. I visited about seven Pacific island groups and Australia and fell in love with Polynesian cultures and arts. I then had the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree in art history. Opportunities to study Pacific art were then, and still are, extremely limited, but I was fortunate. Before I could finish my MA at the University of Washington, they had me in the PhD program, so I never went back to high school social studies but on to teaching art history at the university level.

What do you enjoy most about being part of WSU faculty?

While I no longer teach classes, I still work with individual students on theses and dissertations here at WSU and at other institutions. I previously taught the world art history survey and introductions to Asian, Native American, and Pacific arts. For all of these classes, the material was brand new for almost all of the students, so in each class, I was introducing them to cultures, belief systems, and art forms of which they had no previous knowledge. Often these contradicted or challenged their own beliefs and inevitably made them look at or re-evaluate their place in society (a WSU learning goal!). I really enjoyed that sense of surprise, awe, questioning that the study of other cultures can bring, in addition to new respect for those peoples and their cultures.

Certainly I had great experiences teaching classes, but the most meaningful, I think were the one-on-one advising, mentoring experiences that helped individual students overcome challenges and hurdles in their lives, and then seeing them graduate and go on to have rich, full, productive lives. I also work with our Pacific Island student community as co-advisor of the WSU Pacific Islanders Club, which I’ve been involved with for some 12 years now. I also do a lot of mentoring of junior colleagues both at WSU and in the Pacific Arts Association. I had several really important mentors in my life and to be able to pass some of that on is important to me.

Why is it important to put art—especially Polynesian art—in public places?

Most people don’t know much about Polynesian art beyond plastic tiki (human figures) for sale in Honolulu, or hula and other dances performed at luau. So to be able to present the arts in a forum such as the Met or quai Branly means bringing them to a world stage where they can be appreciated for their formal qualities while their context and meaning can be shared, too. It is also important for the Marquesan people to see their art validated through such exhibitions.

Do you have any special memories from your work in exhibitions?

I was really pleased with the reviews of the Gauguin Polynesia show last year. Almost every one of them said that, of course, the Gauguins were impressive, beautiful, etc., but then talked about the “surprise” of the exhibit being the Polynesian art—sort of “who knew” how powerful and beautiful the art is. That was very satisfying, and the credit for that really goes to my colleague at the Seattle Art Museum, Pam McClusky, for her beautiful presentation of the pieces.

Especially memorable was working to bring a group of 15 Marquesan dignitaries to New York City for the Met opening in 2005. Together with colleagues in the New York area, we planned an itinerary and made all local arrangements. One of my proudest moments was seeing them in their colorful dresses and shirts standing at the front of the exhibit, greeting the guests as they entered. We also took them up to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., to see the oldest, best-documented collection of Polynesian art in America, where, in the storage area, they were able to touch and hold objects collected two hundred years earlier. It was incredibly moving.

You have a broad spectrum of interests and abilities. What’s next on the horizon for you?

After 22 years at WSU, I will be retiring at the end of June next year (2014). I have numerous projects, the most exciting is that I’ve been asked to guest curate a major exhibition of Marquesan art for the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, opening in April 2016. It will include some 250 artworks from museums throughout Europe, accompanied by a 320-page catalog that I will edit. I also plan to finish a research/book project on a family of 19th-century Marquesan women that documents the changes in their culture and lives. I hope to spend several months in Paris in 2015 to complete the research and to work on the exhibit. In addition, I lecture annually on the Aranui 3, a freighter/passenger ship that travels from Tahiti to and through the Marquesas on a two-week trip. I do that again next July and consult with colleagues there about the exhibition.

Being an associate dean is surely not without its challenges—what led you to serve the college in this capacity?

I was chair of the Department of Fine Arts from 2003 to 2009. For me, the best parts of being an associate dean are the opportunities to work across the University and across disciplines to find solutions, shape policy, and further the educational goals of the college and University. I know that, as the largest research and teaching unit at WSU, the College of Arts and Sciences will continue to have a strong and positive impact.

Frigate bird necklace
Frigate bird necklace

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Just to say that all of the above was part of a long journey that I came to later in life than most people  (I didn’t finish my PhD until I was 43). There were numerous challenges and a lot of dues to pay before the really big opportunities started to come my way. I learned the importance of staying the course, of being humble in trying to insert myself into another culture, of networking with colleagues both in the Marquesas and in the academic/museum world (where PAA was a key factor). I see the Frigate Bird award as an acknowledgement of where I have come from and where I am now on this incredible journey, and I will wear the medallion proudly as I continue on my way.

Snapshot: Department of Fine Arts

The arts are vital to cultural expression; they enrich our lives while challenging and broadening our views of the world.

Faculty in the Department of Fine Arts foster an educational environment that encourages creativity, individual growth, and meaningful expression. They emphasize interdisciplinary approaches to the practice of art and the study of visual culture.

WSU Fine Arts Building


Fine Arts students are introduced early to a range of materials and ideas in two- and three-dimensional media, as well as to the history of art in Western and non-Western civilizations. They are encouraged to put their ideas into form while becoming visually literate, historically grounded, and familiar with the diversity of arts and cultures worldwide.


Fine Arts Studio faculty are practicing artists who exhibit regularly in the Northwest, nationally, and internationally. By working alongside professional artists, students learn first-hand about developing a career in the arts.

Art History faculty specialize in ancient Rome, renaissance, 20th-century visual culture, and the arts of native North America, and the Pacific Islands. They encourage interdisciplinary exploration into a wide range of issues, including aesthetics, material practices, and social conditions surrounding the arts.

Areas of study

Art History/Visual Culture, Ceramics, Digital Media, Painting, Drawing, Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture

Degrees offered

  • Minor
  • Bachelor of Arts
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts
  • Master of Arts

The Department of Fine Arts is an active center of creativity, learning, and research, with 13 graduate and 41 certified undergraduate students. Its 13 faculty members share a combined teaching load of more than 9,000 student credit hours.

Program strengths include

State-of-the-art facilities for metal and wood fabrication, ceramics, printmaking, black-and-white photography, and digital media (two Mac labs).

Forst Visiting Artist Endowment brings diverse artists to the Pullman campus for interactive residencies with students each semester.

Close relationship with the WSU Museum of Art, one of the top five museums in the Northwest, including annual faculty and MFA thesis exhibitions.

Undergraduate students manage one of the department’s two galleries in Pullman and assist faculty with the Art Center on the Tri-Cities campus.


Ceramics offers a comprehensive facility with special kilns for salt and raku firing.

Two digital media labs support work in interactive and web-based media, video, digital imaging and photography.

The photography area has traditional color and black and white facilities and utilizes the digital media and printing facilities.

Printmaking studios provide a facility for explorations in lithography, screenprinting, and digital photo-printmaking processes.

Sculpture houses equipment for wood and metal fabrication and a facility for bronze casting.

Individual studio spaces are awarded competitively each year to undergraduate students.

left-hand quotesAn art historian with a wide perspective based on profound knowledge, Carol Ivory has consistently encouraged anthropologists and museum curators to ask more specific questions in designing research and exhibitions. Her career-long experience in studying Pacific arts and her persistent approach to works of art and their creators with professional empathy have earned her much respect and praise.” –Christian Kaufmann, former PAA vice president for Europe and 2001 recipient of the Manu Daula Award.

Carol has served nearly 15 years in leadership roles in PAA, as vice president, president, and, most recently, past-president and International Executive Committee member (2007-13). She launched the first version of the association’s website in 2000 with assistance from a WSU Fine Arts undergraduate student. She also co-edited the PAA journal, Pacific Arts.


In addition to her service to PAA, Ivory has been recognized for her research and scholarly accomplishments in the study of the art, history, and culture of the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia. Her work on numerous exhibitions has brought Marquesan art to international prominence. She co-curated The Marquesas: Two Centuries of Cultural Traditions at the Mission Houses Museum, Honolulu (2003); was principal consultant and co-author of the catalog for Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2005); and was Polynesian consultant and catalog author for Gauguin Polynesia: an Elusive Paradise at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, and Seattle Art Museum (2011-2012). She is currently curator and catalog editor for Mata Hoata: Arts of the Marquesas Islands scheduled for 2016 at the musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Carol worked for more than 20 years in the Marquesas and is currently an advisory committee member for the UNESCO World Heritage Project for the Marquesas Islands under the Ministère de la culture et de l’artisanat, French Polynesia. She holds a master’s degree and PhD in art history from the University of Washington.