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73-year-old woman graduates from MICA today

73-year-old Ursula Populoh will graduate from MICA today.

Throughout her girlhood in Germany, her struggles as a single mother and decades typing in bland offices, Ursula Populoh was pulled by two desires — to work with textiles and to graduate from college.

When her daughter started teaching in Maryland Institute College of Art's fibers program, Populoh walked into a classroom, took a look at a dressmaker's dummy and burst into tears.

"I felt envious, but not in a bad way," she said. "This is what I had always wanted to do."

Populoh wondered if she could return to the classroom roughly 50 years after graduating from high school. What would her daughter think of her mother studying at the school where she taught?

"I was very much in support of it," said Valeska Populoh. "It took a lot for my mother to feel she could indulge herself in this way after sacrificing for other people for her whole life."

On Monday afternoon, Ursula, 73, will receive her diploma at MICA's commencement ceremony. Valeska — who is now fibers department chair — will hand her mother the certificate.

"What more could I want?" said Ursula. "Without a degree, I felt incomplete."

The studio classes — weaving and dyeing fabrics, embroidering and sewing — were a joy. But one of the biggest challenges was an electronic media class that came easily for her digitally minded classmates. And then there was the culture shock of students half a century younger than her.

Some of her classmates, for example, describe themselves as transgender, or agender, or by other terms. It was all new to Ursula.

"I was never comfortable talking about gender before," she said. "The more I learned, the more I noticed."

Ursula once brought in a childhood photo of herself. The other students gasped when she said it was taken in 1948.

"You would have thought I said the Stone Age," she said.

Ursula grew up in Dusseldorf, the daughter of a soldier who died in combat. Her mother knit and sewed clothing to help support the family. By high school, Ursula was sewing all her own clothing.

After graduation, she enrolled in a business course. She married, had two children, and then became a widow herself, after her husband died of alcoholism. That began a painful time, one that both mother and daughter have explored in their work.

Ursula began drinking heavily, and nearly died from alcohol consumption. She entered a rehab facility, then returned home months later, healed and sober — but forever branded an alcoholic by neighbors.

Valeska remembers hiding behind a chair with her older brother, Boris, as paramedics took their mother away. She felt an intense mix of emotions when her mother made a tapestry about this time for a class assignment.

"I was aware that my colleagues were seeing into my life through my mother's work," she said. "By making art about her life, she was making art about my life."

A few years after getting sober, Ursula struck up a correspondence with about 15 American men looking for a mail-order bride.

Ursula ultimately connected with a suitor in New York City. They married, but later divorced.

Ursula worked as a stock clerk at Macy's, then took a series of clerical jobs. She rarely had time to create art.

"Sometimes, when I look back on that time, I think, 'How did I survive?'" she said.

Her children excelled in school. Valeska earned a degree in international relations from American University, and worked in Washington, and later in Switzerland.

But, at 29, Valeska felt unfulfilled in her work, and decided to enroll in MICA and study art.

Valeska was quickly drawn to the fibers department. After earning a second bachelor's and a master's at the school, she began working for local nonprofits. She made giant puppets and fashioned Victorian-style dresses from garbage bags.

Meanwhile, Ursula had retired. She moved to Baltimore eight years ago to be closer to Valeska. She traveled to Europe, learning how to paint religious icons and walking the 600 miles of the Camino de Santiago with her friend Susie Brandt, a MICA professor.

It was on that walk that Ursula declared thast she wanted to enroll in MICA.

"It took a lot of courage," said Brandt. "Being an artist is really assuming an open mind to become childlike. We have to become lifelong children as artists."

Ursula and Valeska create garments "rooted in folk work and craft," Brandt said.

Ursula's creations conjure up images from fairy tales. Her entries in MICA's spring fashion show resembled clothes for magicians and minstrels, nomads and royalty — long robes, elaborate turbans, rough-edged patchwork.

One robe appears to be brown patchwork from the outside, but opens to reveal brilliant colors and patterns. It's a metaphor for the beauty hidden around us, Ursula said.

Mother and daughter say they have taken turns learning from each other.

"We both work in a field that is very much about tradition and lineage. You want to follow in the footsteps of others," Valeska said.

Valeska taught her mother in a senior seminar this year. And, as department head, she served as adviser to all seniors, including her mother.

While Ursula learned many techniques from her daughter, Valeska cites her mother as one of her biggest influences.

The stories her mother told her as a girl — tales of forest animals getting dressed for secret balls and dinner parties — remain deep within her, inspiring all of her work.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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