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#DemystifyingThesis with Kari Karsten

by Liz Mehrmann

Kari Karsten developed an exhibit on contemporary indigenous female printmakers for the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). It is currently on display in the third floor galleries at SAM (June 15 – December 11, 2022).

As Kari began developing her thesis topic, there was little question that she would center her studies around Indigenous culture and art. She was already well-versed in the topic, and passionate about reclamation of space in cultural institutions for Indigenous peoples.

Kari Karsten is a member of the Seneca nation in Buffalo, NY. She has always felt very connected to her tribe, and her family has had a deep involvement with tribal leadership. She completed curatorial internships as early as high school, and knew early on she wanted to land in the museum field. Originally a studio art major, she eventually transferred to communications, with the intention of taking that skillset into a future graduate degree.  

It was when Kari applied for the Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Internship at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), which focused on the reinstallation of the American Art galleries, that she happened to share her interest in creating a comprehensive exhibit regarding indigenous art and culture for her thesis. SAM was immediately interested in the topic, Kari’s personal connection to the theme, and knew their institute could be an excellent resource for her. 

After locking down her host institute, Kari decided to take an elective class that focused on the historiography of Native women’s art history. This class inspired her to focus specifically on Indigenous female printmakers, selecting artists from the Northwest for local representation. She also invited the professor, Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, to join her thesis committee.

At this point, local interest in the exhibit had grown, and Kari’s thesis project was featured on the news…multiple times. 

It sounds like a dream, and Kari honestly made all of this look so easy, but she reassures me there were many challenges. Even with her communications background, coordinating within a large-scale institute such as SAM, managing three museum jobs, in addition to meetings with her thesis committee, her advisor, not to mention balancing the rest of her work load…was challenging. Online gaming, many trips to Din Tai Fung, and vision boarding helped her maintain her sanity.

Kari didn’t expect her thesis to gain so much traction; representing Indigenous people as living cultures, and not just a curiosity, is simply a high priority for her. Her advice to graduate students just starting their thesis journey is simple: be open, and dream big!