In light of #MeToo, women and others may find it empowering to consider works of art created by MaryEllen Ponsford, a resident of Montgomery Place, a life plan community located at 5550 South Shore Drive. Ponsford, 79, retired after a 32-year career teaching art classes at Moraine Valley Community College. She also spent most of her life creating art that she says celebrates “the strength, endurance and creativity of women.”
Ponsford considers herself a feminist, and she believes in helping other women as a way of life. “I’ve always made a special point of supporting fellow-women in business, electing to use female doctors and dentists as well as other professionals for personal services,” she said.
During her senior year at Bloomington High School, in Bloomington, Ill., she drew inspiration from her art teacher, Elizabeth Stein, a well-spoken Jewish feminist who was not afraid to discipline rambunctious students.
“She showed me women could be strong, independent and self-reliant,” said Ponsford. “She even helped one of my friends get together needed funding for college. She was my first true role model.”
Though Ponsford grew up in an era when many women still opted to stay home to raise children, she chose to pursue a career in art and remain single. After her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1960, she earned a Master of Fine Arts in painting from the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis in 1963.
Before settling into her teaching career, she created art and honed her specialty—monotypes, one-of-a-kind prints. To make them, she painted images on a plexiglass plate, dampened sheets of paper or linen—depending on the medium—and pressed the surfaces together.
Her series of monotypes on paper, called “Woman on Watch,” showcases women who have devoted their lives to saving wild animals. The prints use rich, dark colors on stark, white backgrounds to portray primatologist Jane Goodall with a chimpanzee; naturalist Chris Ferris with a badger; marine biologist Holly S. Lohuis with Orca whales; primatologist Dian Fossey with silver back gorillas, and PETA president Ingrid Newkirk with a bullock.
Ponsford admits a fondness for animals and shares her apartment with two cats, Camille and Paetra. She also respects the significance of animals as spiritual symbols in a variety of cultures.
To honor her mother, Frances Ponsford, now deceased, she created several monotypes of animals and goddess figures on natural linen. The resulting wall hangings convey the ascendance of her mother’s spirit in different mythical scenarios—taking flight with a crane, receiving the embrace of a bear, and melding into the forest with a deer.
Pointing to one of the linen wall hangings outside of her Montgomery Place apartment, Ponsford said, “This may appear to be painted, but with printing it comes out quite different.” She’s right. The resulting soft-focus prints convey an ethereal, otherworldly feel.
Ponsford’s works have appeared in galleries around Chicago. In the 1990s, Moraine Valley Community College exhibited her monotypes on linen. The Expressive Graphics Gallery of Oak Park showed her “Women on Watch” series in 2013. After she moved to Montgomery Place in 2015, her monotypes appeared in the Montgomery Place gallery in August of 2016.
Beyond the formative experiences of creating art, Ponsford acknowledges that teaching art proved extremely rewarding as well. “At Moraine Valley there was such diversity among students,” she said. “Many were 18, but in one class I had a 17-year-old high school student and another student age 81. I also taught many women who were returning to college after raising their families.”
For students who were truly serious about pursuing art, Ponsford said, “I would inculcate certain ideas—learning the craft, recovering from mistakes, pursuing dreams, and doing the best you can.”