Tanya Sheehan is Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jetté Professor of Art, Chair of the Humanities Division at Colby College (2023-24, 2025-26), and Chair of the Science, Technology, and Society Department (2024-27). Since 2021, she has served as Principal Investigator of Colby’s first Public Humanistic Inquiry Lab, a grant-funded faculty research initiative devoted to critical perspectives on the intersection of medicine and race. She previously held a variety of leadership positions at the college, including the inaugural Director of Research at the Lunder Institute for American Art (2018-21), Director of the American Studies Program (2019-20), and Chair of the Department of Art (2015-18). As Special Advisor to the Provost (2016-18) 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 in 2017-20. 

Across her career, Sheehan has worked at the intersection of American art history and critical 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 was awarded a 2019-20 Boston Medical Library Fellowship in the History of Medicine and a 2023 Beinecke Visiting Senior Fellowship at CASVA, examines the subjects of medicine and public health in modernist art by African Americans between. An essay from that project, on art therapy and the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, was published in The Art Bulletin in June 2024. Sheehan also co-edited with Suzanne Hudson (USC) Modernism, Art, Therapy (Yale University Press, 2024), the first collection of critical essays to examine modernism and art therapy in a transnational American context.

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.

In addition to publishing numerous essays on the histories of American art and photography, Sheehan has edited six books on these subjects, including Modernism, Art, Therapy (Yale University Press, 2024, with Suzanne Hudson), Photography and Migration (Routledge, 2018), Grove Art Guide to Photography (Oxford University Press, 2017), Photography and Its Origins (Routledge, 2015, with Andres Zervigon), and Photography, History, Difference (Dartmouth College Press, 2014). She also edited the book Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death (DelMonico, 2022), which accompanied an exhibition of the same title at the Colby College Museum of Art. A more complete list of her publications is available on the Department of Art website.

Interdisciplinary research has significantly shaped her teaching of American art history, African American visual culture, art and science, race and representation, and the history of photography. Engaging with a broad range of visual forms – from high-status paintings to snapshots and new media – her courses emphasize the relationship between images and social history, identity formation, and popular culture. Many prioritize experiential learning, collaborative research, and civic engagement, such as the humanities labs she created through the Photography and Migration Project

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, feminism and archives, and oral archives, in addition to integrating into the journal special commissions by contemporary artists and curators.

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