Tanya Sheehan joined the Colby faculty in 2013, after teaching at Rutgers University (2008-13) and Columbia University (2005-07). In addition to William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Art, she currently serves as Director of Research at the Lunder Institute for American Art, Colby College Museum of Art. Sheehan has held a variety of leadership positions at the college, including Director of the American Studies Program (2019-20), Chair of the Department of Art (2015-18), and Special Advisor to the Provost (2016-18). In that last role she led the development of a campus-wide arts and innovation initiative and co-authored Colby’s environmental humanities grant funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Across her career, Sheehan has worked at the intersection of American art history and the medical humanities. Her first book, Doctored: The Medicine of Photography in Nineteenth-Century America (Penn State Press, 2011) argues that medical models and metaphors helped strengthen the professional legitimacy of studio photographers and define the cultural identity of photographic portraiture in the Civil War and postbellum periods. Doctored concludes with a chapter on digital photography and contemporary makeover culture. Sheehan’s current book project, for which she has been awarded a 2019-20 Boston Medical Library Fellowship in the History of Medicine, examines modernist art by African Americans that explores Black agency through the subjects of medicine and public health. Chapters focus on American art from the 1930s to 1960s by Charles Alston, Jacob Lawrence, Henry Bannarn, Georgette Seabrooke Powell, and others.
Winner of a 2018 Terra Foundation for American Art International Publication Grant, Study in Black and White: Photography, Race, Humor (Penn State Press, 2018) shows how photographic humor was used in the United States and across the British empire to express evolving ideas about race, Black emancipation, and civil rights. The book employs a trove of understudied primary sources that encompass the rise of the commercial portrait studio in the 1840s, the popularization of amateur photography around 1900, and the mass circulation of postcards and other photographic ephemera in the twentieth century. It also places historical discourses in relation to contemporary art that critiques racism through humor, including the work of Genevieve Grieves, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, and Fred Wilson.
Sheehan has edited four volumes on photography and its histories, including Photography, History, Difference (Dartmouth College Press, 2014), Photography and Its Origins (Routledge, 2015, with Andres Zervigon), Grove Art Guide to Photography (Oxford University Press, 2017), and Photography and Migration (Routledge, 2018). She has also published numerous essays on images of Black subjects in the US and Europe, on race and American art, and on vernacular photography from the nineteenth century to the present. A list of her publications is available on the Department of Art website.
Interdisciplinary research has significantly shaped her teaching interests and practices. Her courses include explorations of American art history, African American visual culture, art and science, race and representation, and special topics in the history of photography. Engaging with a broad range of visual forms – from high-status paintings to snapshots and new media – these courses emphasize the relationship between images and social history, identity formation, and popular culture.
In 2014, Sheehan founded the Photography and Migration Project. Based at Colby, the Project brings together scholars, artists, students, and members of the central Maine community to reflect on the relationship between photography and migration. It has included a research seminar and academic conference, exhibitions, photo contests, film screenings, and community events.
Since 2015, Sheehan has served as executive editor of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art Journal. In this role she has developed special issues on African American art, artist Robert Motherwell, Latino art, art and the environment, and feminism and archives, in addition to integrating into the journal special commissions by contemporary artists and curators.
In 2019 Sheehan was elected to the membership of the American Antiquarian Society (AAS). She previously held a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship at the AAS in 2010 and led the 2017 summer seminar organized by the AAS’s Center for Historic American Visual Culture.