Material Culture Student Spotlight: Sophie Rain Plzak

Headshot of Sophie Plzak wearing a black face mask with her hair down standing in front of an abstract painting.
Image courtesy of Sophie Rain Plzack.

Sophie Rain Plzak, a recent Material Culture Certificate graduate of the Department of Art History and President of the Art History Society at the University of WisconsinMadison, shares her thoughts on “material culture” and her post-graduation plans.

CDMC: Congratulations on your Spring 2021 graduation, Sophie! Can you tell us a bit about your studies?

Sophie: Yes, I just finished senior thesis in the Department of Art History Material Culture program with Professor Ann Smart Martin as my advisor. My thesis was titled “The Material Culture of the E-Cigarette: Vaping, Juuling, and Gen Z.” I wrote about the ways in which vape design has impacted the social rituals of Generation Z. I traced vape design back to traditional nicotine marketing as well as to pieces of common technology like phones and USB drives. I also analyzed how unique vaping devices cause young and new smokers to read vapes as something entirely removed from cigarettes and smoking itself.

CDMC: Fascinating research, thank you. What are your plans and goals post-graduation?

Sophie: This summer I will be interning with The Harp Gallery, which specializes in the refinishing and sale of American antique furniture. I am very excited to learn from the Melchert family, who are extremely knowledgeable curators of antiques. I will be training in marketing and writing articles for their social media and blog, as well as using this as an opportunity to develop what I would like to study in graduate school: Material Culture and furniture from the American Midwest.

CDMC: Why Material Culture?

woman wearing a purple shirt and glasses works with a group on the floor taking notes on a large tear-away pad with a green marker.
Sophie Rain Plzak works during the installation of the 92nd Annual Student Art Show at the Wisconsin Union, where she worked as a preparator and event coordinator. Image courtesy of Sophie Plzak.

Sophie: Material Culture is so versatile. I can write about e-cigarettes one day and frontier kitchen furniture the next, all while using the same principles and skills. I began my material culture journey in Professor Martin’s “Intro to Material Culture” class during the first semester of my freshman year. Ever since, I have wanted to pursue the certificate and incorporate as much of what I learned about it into my Art History classes. Discovering cultural and social significance through objects is extremely meaningful. I felt like Professor Martin’s introductory class unlocked an interest I had always held but had not verbalized before.

CDMC: What does “Material Culture” mean to you?

Sophie: The study of Material Culture means removing my pre-conceived ideas before observing an object, a piece of art, or an image. Learning this helped me approach much of my Art History studies in a smarter way, changing the way I wrote essays and interpreted art. Material Culture also means understanding the relationship between production and object. Knowing and really understanding how labor exploitation can be embedded in beautiful objects drove me to pursue an independent study with Professor Martin that culminated in the “Finding Slavery in a Campus Art Museum” digital exhibition.