Portraits, Paintbrushes, and Partnerships: Monroe Artist Frances Amy Maedel’s Creative Legacy

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When Frances “Fran” Maedel died in January 2016, she left a legacy of art, creativity, and service to her community of Monroe, Michigan, a legacy that began and continues with family and community ties. She combined her artistic talents, her family’s photography, and her Monroe community to create a self portrait in artistic skill and service.

Frances “Fran” Amy Maedel picked up a paintbrush early in her Pennsylvania childhood. On July 24, 1922, Alice Maud Amy Mack gave birth to a daughter, Frances Amy in the home that she and her husband Arthur Elwood Mack shared in Bangor, Pennsylvania. Fran’s older sister, Joyce, also welcomed her into the family. Arthur Elwood Mack taught high school and her mother Alice stayed at home tending her two girls. Fran learned to love art at an early age, as Fran tells it, at age four when her sister Joyce came home from school and showed her how to draw. Decades later, she still recalled the feel of the crayon in her small fingers.

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Fran and her mother.

Fran’s parents encouraged her passion for art and she took art courses throughout her school years. In 1932, Arthur died and Alice Maud and her two daughters moved to Indiana, Pennsylvania where Fran finished her last year of high school. After high school graduation, she enrolled at the Indiana State Teacher’s College and graduated with honors in 1944 with a degree in art education.

In 1942, Fran met Robert Maedel Sr. while she was boarding a bus in Lebanon, Pennsylvania and from the time that they met he asked her to marry him on every date until she finally said yes. They were married on October 7, 1944, in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Since neither of them owned a car, they took a street car to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where they spent their honeymoon. After their marriage, Fran taught art in Wyoming, Pennsylvania until her husband Bob was discharged from the Army in 1946.

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Bob and Fran in the 1940s.

Maedel’s Cameras in Monroe, Michigan

After Bob was discharged from the Army, the Maedels moved to Monroe, Michigan to be near Bob’s father, Gottfried who by this time had established himself as a professional photographer in Monroe. Their first home in Monroe was a cottage on Elmwood Drive at Woodland Beach which Fran described as snug with a huge yard. She took care of her three children- Jack, Robert Jr. and Connie- fixed up her home, and worked in her yard and garden. She devoted the next 67 years to her family, her art, and the Monroe community.

In 1949, Robert Maedel, Sr., opened his new business,  Maedel Photo Shop on 227 East Front Street  in downtown Monroe and the family moved to a house attached to the store. Fran helped out in the camera store with the processing, tinting, and printing of photographs. Fran and Robert’s  daughter Connie Maedel Diehl  described her father Robert’s business practices.  “In the business we were shown that honesty was very important, even if it lost a sale. He earned a reputation to being fair and honest to a fault, and business grew in a town that normally would not support a specialty camera store.”

Connie recalled that her father could sit in their living room and spot a customer coming into the store, so he could move back and forth between the store and the house. The Maedel children weren’t allowed to come into the store during business hours without an invitation or when they grew older, unless they were working.

The family business which was eventually renamed Maedel’s Cameras remained a fixture in Monroe for over 50 years, 1949-2004. When Robert Maedel, Sr. died in 1995, Connie took over the store management until it closed in 2004.

Besides helping in her husband’s business, Fran Maedel worked full time as both a mother and an artist. She didn’t drive, but her daughter Connie said that since they lived on the edge of the downtown Monroe shopping district, Fran and sometimes the children walked everywhere they needed to go. Fran taught full time for a few years at Cantrick Junior High School, but Connie recalled that “she was there for us and active in our school activities and education.”

Practicing Art At Home

 As soon as her children were old enough, Fran introduced them to oil painting. They would set up in the dining room at the back of the house featuring a wall of windows with a norther exposure. She taught them how to work with clay, sometimes with a potter’s wheel, and they had a copper kiln where they made jewelry. She didn’t limit herself or them to just one type of art, but encouraged them to explore and try new art forms. “But we were never made to feel we had to enjoy it as she did, or that anything we made was not up to par or could be compared to hers or the work of other artists,” Connie said.

Encouraging  and Enabling Art in the Monroe Community

 When Fran first came to Monroe, she looked for art classes, but she discovered there were none available. She didn’t know many people to ask about artist groups or classes, but she heard that Dr. Vincent Barker had space above his office where artists worked. Fran worked to organize a community of artists and she taught a group of students, but she insisted, “Teaching is what I loved to do, but art was something I had to do.”

Local store owners would sometimes let the artists use empty apartments above their stores to meet, paint, and hold fund raising art shows. Connie and her brothers had the opportunity to help and be with their mother as young children at the many art events.

The Monroe Community Players were another of Fran’s artistic activities. She almost single handedly painted all their props for many years, sometimes with the help of her children. After she was grown and married, her daughter Connie digitized Fran’s artwork and made print for her to sell and share. Connie reminisced  that she and her mother complemented each other and grew especially close in the last decade of Fran’s life.

In 1959, Fran helped found the Monroe Arts and Crafts League and over the years the Art League dropped the crafts and became fine art. The Art League has met and worked in various locations around the city and more recently the League  meets on the fourth Tuesday of each month in the United Way Building at 216 North Monroe Street. Fran joined the Toledo Art Club as a contributing member, the Toledo Women’s Artists’ League, the Bedford Artist’s Club, the Women’s Center at the Sawyer House, and the Monroe Spinner’s Guild.

After Maedel’s Camera’s closed, Fran decided to turn the former store space into an art studio where she could paint. Over the years, she created enough art work to line the walls of her studio, ranging from a portrait she painted in college to 21st century landscapes and Native American sculptures. She invited other artists to share her studio and attendance varied from two to more than a dozen artists.

Fran continued to create art, accepting paid commissions from area businesses. Through the years she participated in numerous art shows, winning over 100 awards for her watercolors, acrylics, oils, and pastels. She preferred working in acrylic paint and particularly favored scenes, but she did portraiture work as well. A large scale winter scene of hers is displayed at the Monroe Golf and Country Club. She also created paintings on several panels of glass that placed together in a frame make the work look like it is three dimensional. For one piece, she found scrap metal in front of her home where an old parking meter was removed. Admiring the colors in the metal, she juxtaposed the metal with sea shells and old thread spools.

Artist Fran researched, designed, painted and donated murals in church basements, banners for a church sanctuary, and paintings for museum gift shop donations. She researched and painted three large educational paintings for the River Raisin National Battlefield. She molded an Indian from clay for an art contest that 1812 Bicentennial Steering Committee, the River Raisin National Battlefield Park and the Monroe Art League sponsored.

Several months before her death, Fran researched and painted a historic painting of Wyandot Village Life, but she wasn’t satisfied with one version of it. She redid the painting to make it more historically accurate and reportedly was still working on it when she died.

Modest about her monetary and artistic successes, Fran said in a 2013 interview in Monroe Magazine,  “I’ve had plenty of dry spells and sometimes it takes someone else to help me get going, but I love to do this. I just have to make art.”

Connie Diehl, Fran’s daughter said that her mother didn’t want public recognition for her decades of community service with her art, remarking that sometimes friends had to trick her into recognition for her contributions.

Fran didn’t have to seek recognition for her artwork or her community service. Her pictures and her contributions speak loudly and clearly for themselves.

Photographs courtesy of Connie Maedel Diehl.

Story by Kathy Warnes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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