Faculty in Focus: Karil Kucera

Resting on shelves are numerous collectibles ranging from items associated with the Buddha to hand-made tea cups. Make no mistake, this isn’t a museum exhibit or a stupa containing relics – this is the office of Karil Kucera, Associate Professor of Art and Art History and Asian Studies.

After growing up in rural Wisconsin, Kucera took a nontraditional path and spent a few years in France after high school. She studied French literature and language before earning a second degree in Chinese history. Kucera first travelled to China while working on her senior honors thesis at the University of Wisconsin. She has since been to China every year for the past 30 years. She earned her Master’s in Art History at the University of Oregon and gained her Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Kansas. Kucera was able to pay for her education without loans by using the money she earned from teaching English in China during the 1980s. She has been a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, Lewis & Clark College and the University of Washington. Kucera currently teaches art history and Asian studies here at St. Olaf.

One of her most recent publications is her book “Ritual and Representation at a Chinese Buddhist Site: Visualizing Enlightenment at Baodingshan from the 12th to the 21st Centuries.” Baodingshan is a Buddhist site near Chongqing in southwest China. The site is about 1.5 miles long and contains roughly 6,000 sculptures. Kucera explains the significance of this site in her book and maintains an interactive website containing more information about Baodingshan: www.Baodingshan.org. The book and website are designed specifically for tourists to use as they visit Baodingshan. Kucera distinctly remembers a time when she was at the site and, much to her dismay, overheard the tour guides stating blatantly inaccurate information.

“The tour guides were just awful,” she said. “They told people this stuff and it was all wrong.” She hopes that her book, website, and research will help promote a greater understanding of the site’s significance.

Kucera is currently working on an electronic textbook for her students titled “Sacred Sites of Asia.” By creating it digitally rather than in the form of a traditional print textbook, she can incorporate more images and videos. She can also add and change content in the future, so students won’t have to spend money on purchasing a new textbook edition every year.

When it comes to some projects and assignments, Kucera believes her students should be permitted to choose what works for them. Some elect to write papers, but many choose to physically create their work or utilize digital resources such as Google SketchUp. The teacups on her shelves, for instance, were created by students in her Arts of Japan course. Kucera admits that the variation in submitted work makes grading difficult.

“The medium [of the work] is different,” she said. “But, structurally, they’re the same stuff.”

Besides offering variety in coursework, another core component of her teaching method is ensuring that her students know where to go to discover information, rather than simply providing them with pertinent facts.

Kucera lives in Northfield with her husband and her two dogs. She and her husband have been making efforts to be as sustainable as possible, going so far as to install solar panels and collect water in a 1,000 gallon tank.

Autumn is generally a fairly busy time for Kucera. Nevertheless, she and her husband usually try to spend one weekend in a hotel in St. Paul and eat sushi, given that “there is no good sushi in Northfield.” Another less known aspect of Kucera’s personal life is that she enjoys playing March Madness based on team mascots. For example, in a match between an Ole Lion and a Carleton Knight, Kucera asserts that she would “take a lion over a knight any day. The lion will pull you down.”