By SARA ARTHURS
After the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, the Bluffton University website crashed.
People all over the world were seeking out professor Mary Ann Sullivan’s collection of architectural images, then one of the few extensive collections online.
“I think I got over 3 million hits,” Sullivan said of that day.
Now retired, Sullivan is still at it 17 years later. The internet has gotten a lot bigger, but so has her site, which features more than 26,000 images and text.
Her original goal was just to create a resource for her students. As an art history professor, she learned it was expensive to purchase slides, and the slides available didn’t always offer a lot of detail. “So I decided I had to take my own images.”
Travel has been a lifelong love, ever since Sullivan’s parents took her on family vacations as a child. In adulthood, she has “sort of conned my husband” into going all over the world. (He has joked that the only reason she got into art history was that it’s an “excuse to buy expensive art books and travel.”)
But it helped her, when teaching, to have actually seen the art she was talking about. When Sullivan saw reproductions of a painting by Eugne Delacroix, “The Abduction of Rebecca,” it struck her as dramatic, and she assumed the painting was 15 or 18 feet wide. When she actually saw it, she realized “the painting was about a foot and a half.”
Seeing architecture helps you understand the space and the scale, she said. Sullivan could tell her students about places she’d visited, the narrow door she had to pass through to reach a building’s interior.
“Probably more than any place, it was true of Egypt,” she said. She was impressed in her travels through that country at the size: “It’s all so massive.”
The medieval period is one of Sullivan’s favorites in art history, in part because of the “wonderful entrances” to churches. In a time when most churchgoers couldn’t read, a story of damnation depicted on the church’s entrance was a way of conveying the message that it was by entering the church that a person would be saved.
Sullivan obtained her Ph.D. in English and was hired to teach English at Bluffton in the early 1970s. She had a particular interest in 19th-century literature, and started seeing connections between that period’s literature and art. She would find herself looking at features on a church and thinking, “Gosh, that’s pointed. That’s round. I wonder what that is.” She wanted to learn more about the symbolism, which led her to study art history.
Bluffton’s art department is primarily studio artists, and Sullivan found herself teaching alongside many talented artists — herself someone who “couldn’t make art if she tried.”
She has, however, gained skills as a photographer. She is primarily self-taught and has gotten better with practice. She’s especially gotten better at Photoshop. While she doesn’t manipulate photographs much, she will occasionally clean up objects in the background, only with the goal of making the “information in the picture clearer.”
But her goal isn’t to create art, but rather to document architecture and convey information — to “try to make that building more understandable.” She strives to get a lot of detail in her images, and she thinks that’s why her site has been so popular.
When Sullivan started the website in the late 1990s, few such sites existed. Back then, data storage was expensive, and she was grateful to the university for being willing to house the images and for its ongoing support, which has included grants. Sometimes an art history professor at another university would create a list of links to other resources for their students, “and I was always on those lists.”
To this day, when Sullivan Googles certain locations, her site is sometimes among the first hits. But while a Google search 10 years ago for some of the “obscure churches” would have only brought up her site, now there are 10 or 15 other websites containing these images.
She takes pride in the quality, as well as quantity, of her own work, though. When she started, “film was expensive,” and a photographer would take the time to compose a photograph. Now, people sometimes go on vacation and upload hundreds of images online.
“There’s a lot of stuff on the internet that we could live without,” she said.
Sullivan is not a computer programmer, but she has learned some simple computer coding along the way. But she said she’s not really interested in the “flashing lights” and extra features used on many websites.
“I think I have a really stodgy site,” she said. “It’s an academic site, and that’s what it’s for.”
Sullivan said it wasn’t certain that someone researching a church in Rome would take time to learn about a university in rural Ohio, but she always made a point to link back to the main Bluffton University site.
People didn’t always have individual computers, “but libraries had computers.” She realized “I could really do a service” by making it possible for people all over the world, anywhere there is an internet connection, to access these images.
“I am gratified that I get so many emails from those in countries where expensive art books are unavailable, where libraries are limited, and where budgets are so meager that travel around the world is impossible,” she wrote on the website. “In my small way I hope to make some educational resources available to those in these conditions. I believe that those of us in wealthy countries with personal means have an obligation to share resources. For me, the great advantage of the web is that it helps to eliminate some of these inequities.”
Sullivan retired from teaching in 2006. She has, of course, traveled a lot since then, and she and her husband have “gone someplace interesting every year,” sometimes twice a year. She said her favorite travel destination is always the last place she’s visited.
She and her husband traveled to India in January, and to Russia last July. Many of those images aren’t yet on the website.
“I’m about 10,000 pictures behind,” she said.
Sullivan doesn’t know as much about African and Asian art as she does Western art. While traveling in China her camera broke, and she learned a valuable lesson to always take a second camera with her, just in case.
Over time, she developed a system of “pretty extensive pre-trip planning.” First she anticipates and maps out a trip, then she actually travels, then she relives the experience while putting images on her website.
Sullivan, who turns 77 this summer, said her hope is that the site will continue long into the future. She said people’s lives, including her own, take all kinds of strange paths, adding this is something “I could absolutely have never anticipated.”