Sharon Mendola was the kind of teacher who inspired her students to see the world differently.
An art instructor in the 1970s, she made her students slow down when they sketched their subjects and pointed out how lines actually varied in width. She encouraged them to break down what they saw in terms of positive and negative space.
But mostly Mendola taught her students that being an artist was about how they lived, a way of creating and understanding.
“Art was important to her and she wanted her students to understand her love of it,” says Jane Pederson. “That passion (for creating art) is still as strong among us as it was when we were there (at MSUM).”
Mendola was one of two younger female faculty hired by the art department in 1973. She quickly made an impression. Her students were enamored with her boisterous, vibrant personality and inspired by how she challenged gender expectations.
Pederson remembers one male instructor telling his female students to ask their boyfriends to make stretchers – the frames needed to stretch canvases for painting. Mendola, however, taught her students how to use saws and miter boxes to build their stretchers themselves.
Gregory Winter transferred to MSUM where he took drawing classes from Mendola. She encouraged him and other students to establish their own studio and get busy creating. He thought he’d be a high school art teacher until Mendola encouraged him to attend graduate school.
“She encouraged us to understand ourselves as artists,” he says. “She was so good at seeing potential and value in students.”
She even invited some of her older students to join her at Country Kitchen to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and sketch whatever happened to be in front of them.
“It was like an extended class,” Winter says.
Loral Iverson Hannaher, a retired MSUM faculty member, credits Mendola for encouraging her to teach.
“I started to model myself after her (and the other women in the department) early on,” Hannaher says. “I followed her career path.”
Mendola taught at MSUM for a brief two years, but remained in touch with students after she moved back east to be closer to her family in Buffalo, New York.
“She was our mentor. We’d send her letters and Polaroids of work we were doing,” Pederson says. “She’d always respond with good criticism; she mentored us even after we were working adults.”
Mendola eventually was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and by the mid-1980s she was paralyzed on her left side. For a person who had been as dedicated to art as she was, this was shattering.
The left-handed artist taught herself to draw and paint with her right hand. As the disease progressed, she began to create her art on the computer. Using an infrared beam, she directed the cursor with a device activated by her chin.
Mendola passed away in 2002.
The news devastated her former students who still cherished letters and critique from their mentor. One even had hung a portrait he sketched of her in his professional studio.
To honor Mendola, Pederson reached out to former classmates and invited them to pool their resources to establish an endowed scholarship in her name. The scholarship is awarded yearly to a student in the art department.
Thanks to their efforts, Mendola’s legacy continues at MSUM.
“One of the things (Mendola) did well was encourage students,” Winter says. “It’s fitting to encourage students today with a financial award in her name.”
Header image credit: Mendola during an art critique class, photo taken by Harold B. Velline, class of 1975
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