By Diane Majeske | Photos by Tobi Hollander
Her work blends metal with metaphor, craft with compassion, and art with empathy. It’s unexpected, both in subject and design, and frequently demands a second look.
That’s perfectly fine with artist Anne Mondro, an associate professor at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan.
Her art focuses on the human body, or to be more specific — on humanity.
“I employ metaphors all the time in my work,” she said. “For a long time now my work has been focused on art and the human body, in all ways, in our relationship with ourselves, with others, both physical and metaphorical.”
For Mondro, a native of Taylor, Michigan, art is not only a method of self-expression, but of processing personal experiences, keeping them close and giving them value.
Although she started out studying jewelry making and metalsmithing at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, her focus shifted when she traveled to Kent State University in Ohio to earn her Master of Fine Arts. Her grandfather, back in Detroit, contracted cancer.
“My experience of family illness began to come into my work,” Mondro recalled. “My grandfather was dying of cancer, so I would have this commute to Detroit, and most of my time was spent reflecting.”
“As I was driving, I would reflect on the experiences my family was going through as a result of my grandfather’s illness … and I was thinking how a patient is treated as a specimen, rather than a whole being. It was like a person becomes an object — a region — rather than a whole person. And that experience started coming into my studio, and the work became very personal.”
The result? Her thesis, “Sarcinae de Corpus,” or “Baggage of the Body” — an assortment of sculptural pieces that resembled old-time doctor bags.
“I actually called them ‘medical bags,’” Mondro said. “And you would open them up and inside would be a representation of the region of the body affected by an illness. The bags became a metaphor for the baggage we carry when someone is ill.”
“In my case, I wasn’t present when my grandfather was ill, so I wasn’t really contributing, and yet, there was this whole emphasis on living my own life, and I was experiencing all that for the first time. I was thinking about how the whole family dynamic changes when someone is ill, how your role changes — relationships are tested, and you find strength in unexpected areas.”
Mondro pauses a moment, lost in thought. “I think when you lose a loved one, sometimes you kind of sweep things under the rug, or you think, ‘I’m fine.’ Art became a way for me to process the experiences, to add value to them. Because it’s these experiences, really, that make us who we are.”
An Artist in the Community
Though Mondro’s art often focuses on serious, sometimes dark topics, she is anything but maudlin. She has an easy smile, often punctuating her words with graceful hand gestures, and is quick to laugh — even at herself.
“I don’t want to come off like I had a terrible, dark childhood or anything,” she said. “I had a wonderful childhood — it was great.” She notes how her parents supported her artistic endeavors, how she was close to her grandparents.
She shrugs slightly and shakes her head. “I just developed this real interest in science and anatomy and art.”
In fact, she was sure that if she found art to be healing, others would as well. She came to U-M in 2003, and in 2006, she developed a community engagement course, partnering with the University’s Geriatrics Center. The course, titled Retaining Identity: The Role of Creativity in the Healthcare Setting, focused on the benefits of creativity as a positive distraction from pain.
“Creativity helps retain who you are beyond your illness,” she said. “When you’re in the hospital, you lose a lot of your independence; this is an opportunity to have some say in an activity, or a part of your day. Creativity alleviates stress, it gets you focused on something else. It’s a chance to play and use your imagination, which is hard to come by when you’re in the hospital. It’s a chance to tell your story.”
That course led to an ongoing collaboration with the Geriatrics Center, one that continues today. Mondro is currently working with the Geriatrics’ Silver Clubs, which offer social programs for adults with mild to moderate memory loss. Mondro developed an interdisciplinary course that pairs students with adults at the centers.
During the course, titled Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts, the adult and student work together, collaborating on an art project.
“The course is designed to develop student sensitivity and awareness,” she said. “We use creativity as the main tool to connect with the community and build intergenerational relationships. The students receive a holistic perspective on aging from professors who contribute to the course, and then the student works one-on-one with an adult for 12 weeks, exploring the arts.”
Elaine Reed, facilitator for the Silver Club Programs, is the co-instructor of the course and an artist-in-residence at the U-M Hospital. She’s also a longtime friend and fan of Mondro.
“Anne is incredibly nurturing and patient and creative — and kind of groundbreaking, actually,” she said. “This is a safe environment; it’s an incredibly creative environment. It isn’t a typical class. Here the student and the club members use expressive therapies to enjoy each other’s company and not focus on the disease.”
“The focus is on what the member can do and on the enjoyment … they’ve composed music, they painted, they’ve even made short documentaries. They impact each other’s lives. It’s amazing.”
Mondro’s art, says Reed, is equally fascinating.
“Anne’s artwork uses unexpected imagery and materials to convey ideas about art in the healthcare field,” she said. “Her use of crocheted heavy-strength metal to produce delicate anatomical specimens invites you to look deep into the sculptures with wonder.”
In the Studio
Of course, Mondro isn’t always teaching. When she’s alone, she creates. She sculpts — wire hearts, hearts with feathers, digital images of hearts or lungs. Art — art and the body.
One sculpture, “Intertwine,” shows two anatomically correct hearts, connected and crocheted from copper wire, molded from one piece.
“The work I do with the adults with memory loss very much affects my work,” she admitted. “I feel like I’ve told my own story, and I really think deeply about the stories that are shared with me by caregivers and their partners, and that relationship. That’s what this represents.”
Her fingers trace a photo of the image. “I use wire for a variety of reasons — some of it is structural, but also, I’ve come to see it as a metaphor for how we need to protect our hearts and protect our partners, and I’ve been using it as a metaphor for strength and protection — as well as fragility. Why do we wear armor? Because we’re vulnerable to being hurt.”
In contrast to poetic reflection, the actual process of creating the sculpture is methodical, almost therapeutic, for Mondro.
“You have to focus,” she said. “It’s a way to process through my hands, if that makes sense. I work things out technically as well as emotionally.”
And while she can create quickly, the actual research takes far longer.
“I can create in just a few months,” she said. “But those hearts, for instance, they took me a good year to research. I had to go to U-M’s anatomy lab to look at actual hearts and had to learn how to structurally make the piece. It’s from one strand that is interlocking loops. It takes a lot of thinking about the technique and the construction … I sit in my studio and work it out.”
And there’s more to come — a larger installation of intertwined hearts, based on the stories of 15 couples she’s worked with for more than a year. What comes after that, she’s not sure. But she knows it will focus on the struggles of the body.
“Why do I focus on the body?” she mused. “I don’t know … I focus on the heart a lot, since I feel like it’s so much a part of our life on many levels. And art and healthcare, I think that just came from my upbringing, from having such a connection and a wonderful rapport with my grandparents and with older adults. It’s just always been an interest of mine, and I can see it moving from contemplative to something more into advocacy. How? I don’t know yet.”
She laughs. “Art, life. It’s always a work in progress, right?”
To see more of Mondro’s artwork, visit www.annemondro.com. She can be contacted at email@example.com.