Nearing 80, with a New PhD, She Looks Fondly upon Her UAlbany History

A woman smiles, sitting at a table holding her laptop computer and printer
Joan Fiori Blanchfield sits in her home office. (Photo by William Blanchfield)

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 12, 2022) — There is nothing simple about Joan Fiori Blanchfield, except her answer as to why she worked 18 years to get her doctorate in History, less than two weeks shy of her 80th birthday.

“I like learning,” said Blanchfield, who this semester finished her dissertation on sculptor and UAlbany professor of art Richard Stankiewicz (1922-83). “There is always something new to learn, and I hope I never stop learning — art history and history, especially. They have helped make meaning in my life. And I love making art of all kinds myself.”  

Blanchfield became a much-exhibited, award winning sculptor after receiving her M.A. in Studio Art from UAlbany in 1972, with pieces still on display in the library at Utica College and the Museum of Modern Art in Legnano, Italy. Like Stankiewicz, with whom she studied, many of her pieces are large — 6 to 10 feet high — although his are made out of scrap metal, while she employs aluminum and stainless steel. “Mine do not rust,” she said.  

Nor, apparently, does she, despite having her dissertation delayed a year ago when she needed emergency surgery to repair her pacemaker. “My advisers were great and just told me to get well. I am well and plan to stay that way.”

A woman stands between straight tall metal sculptures
Blanchfield, Edith Barrett Art Gallery director and curator, stands at her own work, Brakebent Planes, in 1994.
Coming to UAlbany

The title of her dissertation is Richard Stankiewicz:  His Work, Life and Times; Artist, Professor and the Emergence of Abstract Expressionism. The artist had a big hand in bringing Blanchfield to UAlbany in 1972. “He was just starting to teach there and I had read about that in the newspaper while my husband, children and I were living in Glens Falls,” she said. “We were about to move to Utica at that time, as my husband Bill had gotten a job at Utica College.”

Blanchfield had seen Stankiewicz’s work in Manhattan when she was an undergraduate at the College of New Rochelle in the early ’60s. “I remember being startled by it, because it seemed so alive that I thought it was going to jump out at me. When I saw the article in the newspaper I told my husband that I had to go to Albany to study with him. Bill, who got his PhD at UAlbany (1970, Economics), said, 'You've got to go.'

“So, after we came to Utica I applied and was accepted by Richard into the program. It was a great program. I studied print making with Thom O’Connor, drawing with Bill Wilson, painting with Ed Cowley, Medieval art with Moijmer Frinta and sculpture with Richard.”

She recalled that UAlbany had a “welcoming atmosphere,” but that work conditions for sculptors, pre-Boor Sculpture Studio, “were not the best. The studio was on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building and I remember having to measure the elevator to make sure that I could get my work on it. Later on we had to drive out to Scotia, where they had rented an airplane hangar that was freezing cold except for a small room in the back. Another challenging place! But I sensed that Richard was happier there because there was more room to work.”

An Impressive Resume

After graduation, years as an instructor of fine arts at Herkimer and Mohawk Valley community colleges and then 14 years as director and curator of the Edith Barrett Art Gallery at Utica College, Blanchfield returned to the classroom in the late 1990s, earning an M.A. in art history from Syracuse University. Five years later, she returned to UAlbany for the PhD program in History, after turning down an offer from CUNY to do graduate work on pre-Columbian art in Mexico.

“That seemed to be a little more than I could afford, with having a family and grandchildren, etc.”

A man and woman stand before a wide 12-foot-high dark metal sculpture
Sculptor Richard Stankiewicz stands with UAlbany Art Gallery Director Nancy Liddle in the East Garden with an untitled sculpture.

Blanchfield, proficient in five foreign languages, began researching and found that UAlbany had a cultural history concentration in the History PhD compatible with her interests. She was directed by Admissions to longtime Professor of History Warren Roberts. “He gave me an interview in his office and admitted me on the spot. I remember asking him if he needed all my records and transcripts. He said no, I was admitted on the basis of the interview, that the transcripts would catch up.

“He was a very fine man and became a good friend. He was also a great mentor and guide, particularly when I first started working on my dissertation.”

A Memorable Path to the Doctorate

In the six years before beginning her dissertation in 2010, Blanchfield drove two to five days per week, 93 miles each way, to classes from her home in Utica, as she had for about two days per week when getting her M.A. The hardest part of commuting, not surprisingly, was winter. “I remember one late afternoon having to drive off the Thruway into a ditch in order to avoid hitting cars sliding down the Thruway sideways,” she said.

Sculture of stainless steel crosses on a solid white background
Fallen Saints (1994), steel crosses on sand, a tribute to fallen soldiers inspired by Allies landing on Omaha Beach, by Joan Fiori Blanchfield

A warmer memory was of her relationship with Assistant Professor Kevin Shanley, with whom she took classes and served as teaching assistant. “A great person to work for,” she said. “And afterwards, he, his wife Dinnie and my husband Bill and I would go to museums together.”

Since 2010, she has made only one or two campus visits. Most of her studies were done via email, internet, interlibrary loan and some trips to various archives, and mentored by Professor Dan White, both when he was still active on faculty and then after his retirement and move to Brookline, Mass.

Blanchfield will be returning to campus today, however. “I am going to attend my hooding ceremony,” she said. “I owe it to myself and to my family who have been so supportive to be there live. I also owe Professor Shanley. He will be giving me my hood.”

Shanley, now a member of the Asia Society policy institute, said, “Joan has one of the finest and most curious minds I have ever had the good fortune to interact with over my 20 plus years teaching in the History department. In addition to her fine intellect, her vast knowledge of art is complemented by a bubbling, enthusiastic, positive personality, which makes her a delight to interact with, both as a student and longtime cherished friend.

In all aspects of life, Blanchfield’s accomplishments have been noteworthy. While teaching, curating and getting master’s degrees, she and Bill raised a daughter who graduated Vassar (she teaches history at SUNY Oswego) and a son who graduated Harvard (he’s a family court judge in Schenectady County). She’s had great friendships, family and marriage — “my husband is the most supportive person I could’ve ever married” — and seemingly limitless energy.

“I’d like to get outdoors to draw and paint again and make some sculpture,” Blanchfield said this week. “Someday, I would like to have an exhibition.”