Thursday Spotlight: Maruta Vitols

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in an artistic family (my grandfather was both an illustrator and a professional actor), so art in all of its forms has always been an integral part of my life. However, my love of cinema was born at Wellesley College when I took an Italian cinema course with Maurizio Viano. That class completely changed the way that I saw film and the way I understood life (as cliched as that sounds, but it’s true). That experience provided so many answers that I had been seeking, and it demonstrated to me that real, concrete communication (i.e., connecting) between people was possible through cinema. At the time, Wellesley didn’t have a formal media program, so I earned my B.A. in Italian Culture, writing about Italian filmmakers for the thesis. After graduating in 1998, I moved to New York where I earned my M.A. in Cinema Studies from NYU in 2000. There, Bill Simon was instrumental in teaching me close textual analysis and narrative theory, both of which made me deeply appreciate how complex filmmaking and storytelling can be (his class on Hitchcock was particularly eye-opening). After NYU, I felt burnt out, and I returned back to the Boston area. I found a job working in the Admission Office at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA, and it’s there that I discovered my great love of teaching. I started an evening co-curricular there called F.I.L.M. (For Intelligent Lovers of Movies), and my interactions with the brilliant Olin students convinced me that my calling was teaching. I left Olin in 2004 to return to graduate school, this time at The Ohio State University, where I continued my cinema studies within an art historical context (since I’ve always viewed cinema more as an art form, and have had little interest in film as an industry). In 2006, I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to conduct my dissertation research in Latvia. I spent the 2006-2007 academic year living in Riga, Latvia, where I wrote most of my monograph on Latvian political documentary filmmaker, Juris Podnieks (he chronicled the collapse of the USSR). After my tenure in Riga, I finished my PhD in 2008 and began teaching media studies as an adjunct at Emerson College in Boston. This fall, in addition to my courses at Emerson, I will also be a Visiting Lecturer at Olin College. I am very much looking forward to returning to the Olin Community, this time in a teaching capacity! I’m also currently working on a book on the history of Latvian cinema, and have published various articles about Latvian filmmakers in several languages.

Name some people, artists, artistic genres, etc. that have been influential in your work.

This list is so long, you’d be reading for days if I named everyone! In terms of filmmakers, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Juris Podnieks, Antra Cilinska, Laila Pakalniņa, Dziga Vertov, Jean Rouch, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, and Alfred Hitchcock are just a few of the artists that have inspired me. In terms of other artists, movements, and genres, Barbara Kruger, Bertolt Brecht, the Dadaists, and German Expressionism (particularly in cinema) immediately come to mind. The key link here, for me, is the theme of how art and ideology interact. Whether it’s The Clash and Rage Against the Machine singing about social injustice or Botticelli subtly supporting Savonarola and Michelangelo fighting with the Pope, the complex relationship between art and ideology fascinates me and is central to my work.

Where and how do you get your ideas?

I get my ideas mainly from 3 channels. First, as boring or weird as this may sound, I get inspired by calls for papers (for both conferences and anthologies – a sign of a true academic nerd, right?). I read these calls, and they encourage me to think about how this particular topic, theoretical framework, or conceptualization may help me better understand or gain insight into films that I’ve seen. Second, certain films inspire me. I see a film like The Defenders of Riga and its blatant representation of nationality and ethnicity motivates me to write an analysis. Finally, I find discussing films with other people extremely helpful in clarifying my ideas and refining my perspective, since their questions and comments force me to rethink my initial reactions.

Describe your creative process.

Staring at a blank page is like staring at a blank canvas. It can be exciting and it also can be paralyzing. I usually try to jot ideas down on a notepad first. This brainstorming helps me express my arguments. Next, I review my notes, drawing a clearer thesis and getting a better idea of the shape of my article or chapter. I then create an outline, mapping out my claims and the evidence I will need to include to support my ideas. FInally, I have to get down to business and start writing (a painfully slow process for me). If a writer’s block attacks or I hit an analytical wall, I will often sleep on the particular problem at hand or work through it while walking my dog (can you tell I am an introvert?). Once the draft is done, there are usually a few rounds of editing, including proofreading and input from colleagues and friends, before the manuscript is sent off to the hands of the editor or publisher.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of being creative? What is the best part of being creative?

The most challenging aspect, by far, is the criticism and rejection. There are so many naysayers in the world, that they can wear you down to the point where you begin to believe them and start losing faith in yourself and in your own vision. That loneliness and absence of support is the hardest thing to overcome. The lack of funding for the arts and humanities in the U.S. also makes life that much more difficult (instead of spending your time and energy being creative in your work, you end up devoting an inordinate amount of time to identifying, applying for, and scraping together funding for your projects).

What advice would you give to someone seeking advice about being an artist?

Don’t give up. I realize that this is very cliche, but it’s true. The key to success is persistence. Just keep trying. So what if you’ve been rejected from a school/gallery/publisher 100 times? Try again, because that 101st time may give you that break that you need. If you believe in your vision, someday others will, too.

 Maruta’s faculty profile
American Latvian Artists Association website

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