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Tonie Leeds: Making Something Out of Nothing for Almost 100 Years

In celebration of the University of Michigan’s bicentennial, we’re shining a spotlight on Stamps alums. Our first story is a conversation between two alums: one of our oldest living alums, Antonietta (Tonie) Leeds (B.Des. ’42), and Cristina Lorenzetti (BFA ’82). Recently, the two sat down on a sunny Monday afternoon for ice cream, cake, and conversation. Tonie had just celebrated her 97th birthday over the weekend.

Cristina Lorenzetti and Tonie Leeds

Meeting artist and educator Tonie Leeds was an inspiring and humbling experience. Vivacious and warm, Tonie continues to make art, travel, and live independently. A child of the Great Depression, Tonie sees this as instrumental in forming her subsequent life as an artist. Tonie elaborates:

“Well, nobody had things during the Depression, so what you did is you reused things; made new things out of old things. That has stuck with me my whole life. No matter where I taught or did anything, it’s automatic for me to look for a second use for something, or, ‘What could we make out of that?’”

This methodology served her well in her various teaching roles throughout her life, including her time as a Galens Medical Society teacher at the former Main Hospital, now C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Galens is the largest and longest-standing medical student service organization at the University of Michigan Medical School. In between their surgeries and procedures, Tonie engaged pediatric patients and encouraged them to take comfort in their incredible imaginations. Tonie taught the children new techniques and creative ways to use materials, often making art out of whatever resources she had scrounged up and saved: egg cartons, plastic jars with the lids on them, floss or yarn that was either scrambled up or knotted in a ball, buttons, and all kinds of stuff. Tonie says wistfully: “Budgets were small and there were a lot of hospitalized children staying for longer periods of time. But the kids really appreciated being able to make something, to see something that they hadn’t seen before. This has been my life, trying to rally those around me with, ‘Oh, we can do that!’”

When I asked Tonie if teaching sick children had taught her anything, Tonie responds wholeheartedly. “What I learned was how to deal with the kids that were sick, really sick, not just sick for a short time, for a long time. I realized how lucky my own kids were, being so healthy bouncing around. I worked until I was 80 years old, not for the money but for the rewards I got. I got a wonderful thank you letter from one young patient some twenty years after I’d worked with her. She had become a doctor!”

An active member of the Exhibition Committee for the Stamps Alumni Show, Tonie exhibits every year. She welcomes the show’s parameters of creating work around a theme, seeing it as a kick-start to her creativity. Tonie describes her Stamps experience this way, “The alum group has been an incentive because it makes me dig. Otherwise I would put it aside and not get to it.”

Where does this almost centenarian get her inspiration? Tonie explains, “You know the human mind is very imitative. Even when I’m not painting, when I see something, I look at it differently. I sort of analyze it and I sort of tuck stuff in the corners of my brain. Then, if I ever get to it, there’s a lot of stuff that comes out. You know what I mean?” I know exactly what she means. While there may be some forty years between us, our creative processes bear a striking resemblance.

Tonie credits two first-year design courses at Stamps — then known as the Art & Architecture School — with teaching her the basis of her art. “I am good at design. I can move something here or there to be able to control the page. That goes back to the introduction that I got in here at Michigan in DD2 and DD4 (Decorative Design 2 and Decorative Design 4).”

In addition to her late husband (a former art teacher who she met in an art history course at U-M) and her two children, Tonie has built her life around art and educating others about art. Watercolors, oils, pastels, beads — she is not bound to any specific media. Over the course of her life, Tonie has shared her light and her talent with so many: hospitalized children, medical personnel, university students, and the Stamps community. When I asked Tonie how it felt to be one of our oldest living alums, Tonie doesn’t miss a beat. “Blessed,” she tells me with a radiant smile, lighting up the room.

Story by Cristina Lorenzetti (Stamps BFA ’82). Cristina works as a writer in advertising in the Detroit area. Her specialties include automotive and cause marketing.

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