The secret lives of our profs

Kayla Wilson

Professor Michael Orr is really into sports. Not a statement usually made about an art historian specializing in medieval art and illuminated manuscripts, but there you have it. He has even been known to watch Packers games.
Before all this, Orr was a child in England who loved art. “I thought I would go to art school, be a painter,” he said. But he went to a very academic high school and was encouraged to get an academic degree first.
Orr settled on a degree in art history, citing his interest in calligraphy as the source for his focus on illuminated manuscripts. After completing his master’s degree, he had “fallen in love with academia” and decided to pursue his doctorate in the States.
“It was the early ’80s and, a name which isn’t as well known as it was then –Margaret Thatcher– was making many changes to the academic system in England at the time.”
Cornell offered him a very generous financial package and he made the move. He and his wife, who is also British, go back to England almost every year to visit. His research trips, strangely enough, often take him to England as well.
After finishing his doctorate at Cornell, Orr set out looking for a teaching job with the following requirement in mind: It had to have more snow than Ithaca.
“It was a combination of things,” he explained. “I was interested in a selective liberal arts college [that] valued teaching and scholarship and was in the northern clime. Then it is the serendipity of who is looking at the time you are looking for jobs.”
At the moment, Orr is reliving his college days, taking the 100-level Chinese series. Motivated in part by his continued interest in calligraphy, he persuaded the faculty to let him audit the classes.
They consented, but on the condition that he do everything: “exams, homework, getting picked on, which is an almost daily occurrence. It has allowed me to rediscover that experience of being frightened that the teacher will call on you and you won’t be as prepared as you thought you were … which happens quite frequently,” he said.
He reports that he is hanging on by his fingernails.
In addition to teaching and doing homework, he also exercises, somewhat maniacally in fact. He and his wife get up at 5:30 a.m. to get a jump on working out, and sometimes he even squeezes in some exercise during his lunch break.
The two of them also do cross-country ski races in the winter, mountain bike racing in the summer, and triathlons. Right now they are training for the Wisconsin Ironman in September, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run, and is insane. This is their second time participating in the event.
He also enjoys spending time with his two children, who are not as into the “crazy exercise routine.” When there is time, he reads “all kinds of things.” Currently he is reading, on the recommendation of his Chinese tutor, Cao Xueqin’s “The Dream of the Red Chamber,” and he just finished rereading Bill Bryson’s “Notes From a Small Island.”
His favorite book is Richard Russo’s “Straight Man.” On the subject of favorites, Orr was able to pick favorite works of art, settling on two.
The “less obvious,” as he put it, is Cézanne’s watercolor “Montagne Sainte-Victoire.” “It was one of the first works of art that blew me away when I first saw it, and that was back in high school,” he explained. The more obvious, especially for those who have taken his Survey II class, is Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait.” “It is an iconic painting for the 15th century.