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Dr. Melissa Dolese

Melissa Dolese Photo

Dr. Melissa Dolese, one of the newest faculty members on campus, brings her passion for art to the field of psychology. From an early age, she was interested in painting, drawing and photographing and is now one of just a handful of psychologists nationwide who studies the interconnections between art and psychology—a field she stumbled upon as an undergraduate student at Montclair State University.

“I’ve been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. I told this to one of my professors and he said that there’s a guy who works right down the hall who studies the psychology of art. I was so excited to learn that this actually existed,” Dolese recalled.

The professor right down the hall was Dr. Paul Locher, an esteemed faculty member, and researcher at Montclair State University, who proved to be very influential in her development as a psychologist—so much so that she stayed on to get her master’s degree at Montclair State University. She continued working with him, studying how stimulus properties—such as balance—can affect a person’s aesthetic judgments and interests. “He was the catalyst for my career, it was amazing,” Dolese said.

Since those formative years, as a graduate student she went on to teach at Brooklyn College and Montclair State University as well as lecturing at Kean University. After earning her Ph.D. in Cognition, Brain and Behavior from The City University of New York, she worked as a visiting assistant professor at St. Peter’s University. Most recently, she worked as a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Colorado State University, before accepting a tenure-track position at SUNY Potsdam.

Now Dolese’s research looks at the ways in which art affects the viewer. When she looks at a beautiful work of art, she wants to understand what underlies that emotion, how it affects people, and she has conducted research interconnection between artist and viewer. “I think the experience of beauty is the recognition of our interconnectedness. Psychology and art are windows into what it is to be human. The practice of art viewing and receiving may be a form of communication. We are connecting with another human being through the stories we find in their art,” Dolese explained.

This fall, she has been teaching a sensation and perception class where her students have been exploring the visual system, looking at how people process color and movement, and examining the connection between art and psychology. She recently gave them the assignment to look at a piece of museum quality artwork for an extended period of time. “What I have my students do is pick an image that they’re attracted to, sit there for 35 minutes and journal their experience while viewing this image. Then I have them connect what they’ve experienced to some of the concepts that we’ve learned in class,” Dolese said.

She will be selecting students to help with her upcoming research project, an extension of work she did in Colorado last year. She conducted a unique experiment to see whether artwork can influence the viewer’s actions—particularly related to compassion—by curating an exhibition of work featuring Dalai Lama Tangka paintings that depicted the lives of the 14 incarnations of the Dalai Lama (www.embracingcompassion.com). She saw very promising results and she saw a correlation between people viewing the art and them exhibiting more compassion. “I’m more interested in the perceived exchange between a viewer and an artist, even when they’re not directly communicating with one another. It’s really about the social exchange that I think swims below the level of conscious awareness,” Dolese said.

Moving forward she would like to work with museums and other institutions to facilitate the aesthetic experience for more viewers to allow them to experience the Museum Effect (Smith, 2014)—a transformative process that can take place by viewing artwork. “The acts of art-making and receiving are central to our experience as humans; we use it as a means to inspire, transmit ideas, and to feel,” Dolese said.

After benefitting from essential research opportunities when she was a student, Dolese now plans to pay forward the type of mentorship she received. “The way that grad school and advanced education is going, if they don’t have research experience, they are not going to be competitive candidates for grad school. It’s really important to me to honor my undergraduate mentors, who really facilitated my growth as a student through research experience…I’d love to give to my students the experiences my mentors offered me,” she said.

To learn more about the Department of Psychology, visit: www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/Psych