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The Influencer’s Early Influences: Michele Oka Doner’s Education at U-M

The Science Benches. Positron, The bronze figures Angry Neptune, Salacia, and Strider. At the University of Michigan, the presence of renowned multimedia artist and designer Michele Oka Doner (BS 66, MFA 68, HDFA 16), is deeply felt, contributing to the thoughtful beauty of the campus and Oka Doner’s alma mater. She is one of the university’s revered and successful graduates, with a career in art and design spanning five decades.

The works of Oka Doner span the end and beginning of two centuries, and represent a reflection of her experiences in the world. Oka Doner’s early influences can be traced back to her family heritage, her roots in southern Florida, and her undergraduate and graduate education at U‑M. The culmination of exposure to nature and mentorship of artists ranging from her grandfather to some of U‑M’s most notable faculty helped shape Oka Doner’s considerable artistic range and depth of subject matter. 

Michele Oka Doner, wearing a dark robe, poses with her eyes closed in a black and white photograph

Family and Nature

A self-described daughter of Miami Beach,” Oka Doner’s family lineage includes artists, like her Russian grandfather who painted frescoes at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. 

I had a wonderful childhood,” recalls Oka Doner. My father was the Mayor of Miami Beach, and my mother was a wonderfully accomplished woman who understood design. I am the second oldest child of four, and we were all expected to be very proper in public because of my family’s stature in the community, but we were always encouraged to be curious and pursue education.”

Oka Doner’s upbringing among the beaches and everglades is where she developed her respect for nature and natural objects. Oka Doner’s biggest influence was nature itself. She often refers to herself as a hunter-gatherer,” and as a result, Oka Doner’s masterpieces are inspired by the natural world. She collects and uses many forms in nature, remarking that using organic found objects was a thrifty way to accumulate art supplies. 

In her practice, Oka Doner has been known to infuse nature into installations in public places and government buildings. From libraries, to airports, and to cultural gathering spots such as the Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, she turns common spaces into uncommon experiences. In 2022, Oka Doner’s installation Beneath the Leafy Crown was revitalized for the first time since its establishment in 1999. The 13,000-square-foot inlaid floor consisting of terrazzo, mother-of-pearl and bronze depicts flowers, trees, and leaves inspired by the beauty of Michigan.

Michele Oka Doner poses with her ceramics at the Ann Arbor Art Fair early 1970s
Oka Doner at her Ann Arbor Art Fair booth in the early 1970s.

The Vast Wilderness” of Michigan

When it came time to choose a university, Michele bucked family traditions of east coast private schools, and instead decided to attend the University of Michigan in 1963. Michigan seemed like a vast wilderness to me,” said Michele. I knew I wanted to get away from Miami and visit someplace new and exciting. Ann Arbor seemed the perfect place for me at that moment in my life.”

Her journey at the U‑M School of Art & Design was one of discovery and hard work. One of the few women in art and design pursuing an undergraduate degree, Oka Doner was often the only woman in her class. True to form, Oka Doner was determined to prove herself, not as a female artist but as an artist. The men in class were often competing with each other,” said Oka Doner. I came to U‑M with a purpose, and I was busy focusing on my studies and my art. The courses were invigorating and challenging, and had a profound effect on me as I infused those lessons into my work.”

Legendary art and design professor John Stephenson was a key figure during Oka Doner’s Ann Arbor years. Stephenson was instrumental in helping Oka Doner continue her education at Michigan, becoming one of the first women to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree at U‑M. John Stephenson was a mentor and advocate, believing that women belonged in the program, and helped to shepherd that first generation of female MFA students,” said Oka Doner. 

During the 1967 campus wide Voices of Civilization celebration, Stephenson led the campus in hosting the internationally renowned ceramicist and U‑M honorary degree recipient Shoji Hamada. Oka Doner recalls attending an event where she saw Hamada at work, with the moment having a profound influence on her own creative projects. Hamada was a Living National Treasure in Japan,” said Oka Doner. Watching him create with his hands in class was a moment I will never forget.”

Professor John Stephenson and ceramicist Shoji Hamada wearing graduation caps and gowns in a black and white photo, 1967
John Stephenson hosting ceramicist Shoji Hamada at U‑M in 1967.

From ancient crafts like ceramics to the avant garde, Oka Doner recalls her graduate study years as a time of deeper exploration of revolutionary ideas, saying It was a great time, exploring new boundaries in our work, and being exposed to new ideas and forms of expression.” Faculty such as printmakers Frank Cassara and Emil Weddige, Oleg Grabar, and George Manupelli, the founder of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, opened Oka Doner up to the experimental aspects of Ann Arbor in the late 1960s. Through these connections, she interacted with artists such as Andy Warhol and others.

Oka Doner poses with her ceramics work in a black and white photo taken for the MFA brochure in 1967.
Oka Doner’s photograph for the MFA brochure in 1967.

During her graduate years, Oka Doner produced compelling works and began to exhibit her art around the state. Masks was featured in 1967 at U‑M. In April 1968, Oka Doner’s work was featured in the Graduate Master of Fine Arts Degree Exhibition at the Rackham Galleries. Then at the Cranbrook Hologram Exhibition in 1969, Oka Doner’s well-known ceramic dolls were featured. Oka Doner even set up a small space at the Ann Arbor Art Fair in 1966. She would remain in southeastern Michigan for almost 20 years, first earning her two degrees, and then developing her art practice and starting a family. 

Oka Doner speaking at a U-M podium for the 50th reunion celebration in 2018.
Oka Doner speaking at the 50th reunion celebration in 2018.

A Force of Art and Nature

Oka Doner is one of the preeminent artists of our time. The breadth and depth of her work is not limited to sculpture. It includes drawing, public art, functional objects, video, artist books, and costume and set design. Travelers know well the permanent artistic landmarks she has created such as Flight at Reagan International Airport in Arlington, Virginia, Radiant Site at the Herald Square MTA station in New York, and the celebrated mile and quarter bronze and terrazzo concourse, A Walk on the Beach at Miami International Airport.

In addition to U‑M, Oka Doner’s work is found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Detroit Institute of Arts, The Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Victoria Albert, London, and the Oxford, Yale and Harvard university art museums, among others. 

Oka Doner returns regularly to her alma mater. In 2016, she received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from U‑M. At a 50th reunion in 2018, Oka Doner took to the podium with a speech entitled The Ann Arbor Manifesto, recalling the late 1960s with a focus on the pivotal year of 1968 at U‑M.

As part of the 10th naming anniversary festivities at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, Oka Doner will grace the stage at the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series on September 22, 2022. With a lecture entitled, Carrying Golden Threads, Oka Doner will reflect on the influences in her life, each leaving a lasting impression on her which she refers to as golden threads that have been woven together as part of the tapestry of her life. 

I have been so fortunate, living this life”

I have been so fortunate, living this life,” said Oka Doner. To have the opportunity to learn from so many extraordinary teachers who taught me how to hone my practice, to try new things in a safe space. Ann Arbor was pivotal for me.”

Michele Oka Doner, wearing a white fabric wrap, facing left.

Story by Jen Hogan.