Jewelry student wins top art history paper award at Longwood University

"Noctua," a girdle book created by Amber Slusser-Brillhart

Senior art major Amber Slusser-Brillhart presented a paper and art project at the 10th Annual Longwood University Undergraduate Medieval Conference. It was when she checked her email upon returning home she discovered she had won the conference’s Abels-Johnson Award for Excellence.

Mary Prevo, a senior lecturer in fine arts from Hampden-Sydney College, hosted the April 9 conference session “Wearing the Past.” This is when Slusser-Brillhart’s presented “What You May Not Know About Girdles.” Though it sounds as if her winning topic was about undergarments, it centered on certain items worn as adornments.

“My topic is wearable medieval books, particularly girdle books,” she said. “They are small books that could be worn because of their unique leather binding. I also researched lockets, folded almanacs, and metal girdle books. I focused on their impact in the arts and how this reflected their popularity during the middles ages.”

She first became interested in this during the fall 2016 semester at Radford University when she enrolled in Associate Professor of Art Carlee Bradbury’s History of the Book course. Since Slusser-Brillhart’s art concentration is jewelry, Bradbury suggested she research the girdle books as a topic for a research paper.

When Slusser-Brillhart began her research, she discovered different types of wearable books. This caused her to want to make her own girdle book. She created “Noctua,” to fulfill another class assignment and supplement the paper, which involved making a book without a traditional spine.

“The research made me think about how these books would be worn and how important they must have been to the owners so I wanted to make a book that would be special to me,” she said. “The metalwork of some of the books was amazing and very inspiring.”

This inspiration helped to make “Noctua” an award-winning piece in the 2016 Student Juried Exhibition. She received an award of merit for the book made of copper, brass, fine silver and onyx cabochon. On the front there is an ominous owl design, for which Slusser-Brillhart said the medieval world thought these creatures were unlucky. Because of this, Amber included a miniature ancient curse manuscript inside the book itself.

Bradbury suggested she submit her research paper to the Longwood University Undergraduate Medieval Conference. And with the acceptance of her paper, she also submitted it for the Abels-Johnson Award for Excellence, the fourth competition for the best student paper.

“Amber's paper, project, and presentations were all exceptional,” Bradbury said. “Her work gave the conference community at Longwood a sterling look at a successful Radford University art major.”

During her paper presentation, Slusser-Brillhart, shared “Noctua” with her audience, which she said was popular amongst the medieval scholars in attendance.

Then at the end of the weekend they announced she was the winner of Abels-Johnson Award.

“The Longwood University Conference is one of a very small number of nationally attended undergraduate research conferences dedicated to medieval studies,” Bradbury said. “The Abels-Johnson Award is based on research and scholarship of the written paper that is presented at the conference. Amber's paper is the first Radford win.”

For more information about the Longwood conference, visit

Apr 28, 2016