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USC Brings Van Gogh From Canvas To Web
Nov 04, 2011 (01:11 PM EDT)

COLUMBIA, S.C., Nov. 4, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- After writing her undergraduate thesis on Vincent van Gogh's sunflowers, USC art history instructor Elizabeth Petit never really expected to work on another project involving the 19th century Dutch painter. For her master's degree, she chose Greco-Roman art history as her specialty.

"Van Gogh's art has always spoken to me in an indefinable way," Petit said. "That's why it is ironic that my specialty, my passion should be in classical art and the friezes and frescos of ancient Greece and Rome."

But there came an unexpected opportunity to do something truly revolutionary in the world of art and scholarly publication. An unusual job offer in December 2009 from Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith from Aiken brought Petit back to Van Gogh.

"They were writing a biography on Van Gogh that was nearly 1,000 pages, but they had 6,000 pages of notes they wanted to accompany the book," said Petit. "Clearly, it wasn't feasible to print the notes, so a USC team and I came up with the idea of creating a website for the book and they asked me to oversee its development."

Petit worked with USC's Center for Digital Humanities to create the book's companion website. The center is a research arm in the College of Arts and Sciences whose projects use new media technologies and involve collaboration with a variety of disciplines.

The resulting website went live during an interview with the authors on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" just days before the book, "Van Gogh: A Life," was released Oct. 18.

"The website was an incredible undertaking," said David Miller, director of the Center for Digital Humanities. "It required Web design and extensive coding for a massive amount of data.

"It demonstrates the possibilities of partnerships between universities and the business community."

In addition to Petit, the project team included students from computer science, library and information science and media arts.

Petit provided the vision for the website as a tool for scholars and a resource for art enthusiasts. Graduate students Lessie Bernshouse and Jessica Dame organized and input 28,000 footnotes into HTML coding. Maliek McKnight, a senior, and Mike Helms, a graduate student, handled the computer coding of the information for Web display, and Aidan Zanders, a recent graduate and a media arts specialist for the center, designed the entire look and feel of the website, including its gallery of nearly 200 images.

"I'm particularly proud of the design. Aidan had an elegant eye and did a phenomenal job," Petit said.

Michael Weaver, a computer consultant from Camden, S.C., assisted the USC team with some of the complex coding needed.

In addition to notes from the book that are interactive and searchable, the website includes bios for people in the book, previously unpublished family photos, bibliographies and two Van Gogh family trees as well as information about the book, the authors, reviews, book tour stops at 27 museums in the United States and Europe and links to social media sites associated with the project.

Petit said their success shows what is possible for publishing books with companion websites, something she hopes to do again.

"We revolutionized how academic books are presented," she said. "This is the future as society becomes increasingly more technology-based. Companion websites are active and can be added to, not just read and placed on a shelf."

The team is looking to add more interactive features to the Van Gogh website that focus on the places that Van Gogh lived and visited.

"I love knowing that my work editing notes and inserting hyperlinks helped make this site possible," Dame said. "I want to find out how visitors use companion sites and if that has positive effects on

research and citation use."

Naifeh and Smith won a Pulitzer Prize for their 1989 biography "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga." Their Van Gogh biography raises doubts on whether the artist committed suicide and is based on a new edition of Van Gogh letters.

Petit will give a lecture about the USC Van Gogh project at 12:20 p.m., Nov. 8 in McMaster College, Room 239. It is free and open to the public.

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SOURCE University of South Carolina