Lenora Foerstel, retired MICA professor and advocate for social justice and women's rights, dies

Lenora Foerstel was recruited by famed anthropologist Margaret Mead to work with her in New Guinea, a project that influenced her thinking and her teaching.
Lenora Foerstel was recruited by famed anthropologist Margaret Mead to work with her in New Guinea, a project that influenced her thinking and her teaching. (File / The Baltimore Sun)

Lenora Foerstel, a faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art for three decades who once served as a field assistant to the legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead, died of pneumonia Oct. 17 at Gilchrist Center Howard County.

The longtime Columbia resident was 89.


Fred Lazarus IV, president of MICA from 1978 until his retirement in 2014, recalled Professor Foerstel as a staunch advocate for social justice and women’s rights who was “very strong in her ways and firm in her beliefs.”

“If you were with her, she was wonderful, but if you were against her beliefs, she could be very tough,” he said.


The former Lenora Shargo was born and raised in Philadelphia, the daughter of Russian immigrants. Her father, Carl Shargo, was a bartender, and her mother, Olga Goldstein Shargo, was a homemaker.

After graduating from high school, she received a bachelor’s degree from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 1953, and a master’s in fine art in 1959, also from Temple.

She was an art student in 1953 when Ms. Mead selected her to live and study with her on an anthropology project in Papua New Guinea, on the remote island of Manus.

“I had never even had a course in anthropology,” Ms. Foerstel recalled during a 1964 interview with Larry Birns that was broadcast over Pacifica Radio. Ms. Mead “was primarily interested in me because I was a painter and [she liked] the idea of someone looking at people through the dynamics of painting, and the kind of clustering of color and movement.”

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“For two years, Professor Foerstel spent every day interviewing, filming and photographing the people of Manus,” said a daughter, Karen Foerstel of Lancaster, Pa.

During her time in New Guinea, she took thousands of photographs of fishermen, native activities, playing children and babies being born.

Her daughter noted that years later, Professor Foerstel co-authored the book “Confronting the Margaret Mead Legacy: Scholarship, Empire and the South Pacific,” with Angela Gilliam.

In 1989, she told The Washington Post that working with Ms. Mead could be a daunting challenge at times. “It was always her way,” she said. “She was very feisty, very crabby. With Margaret, if you challenged her, she’d really give it back to you.”

In a 1965 interview, Professor Foerstel told The Baltimore Sun that it was Ms. Mead who taught her to be aware of people as individuals.

“I was so concerned with my own self, and Miss Mead made me aware that each one is individual and vulnerable, each with his own problems,” she said.

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In 1959, she joined the faculty of what is now Towson University and taught art history for a year. She then began a 30-year career at MICA, combining her painting and sculpting skills with her anthropology experience to teach how culture influences art.

Her subjects were Russian art, Mexican art and ethnological art — art from Third World countries.

Jim Burger, a 1982 MICA graduate and former photographer for The Sun, took her ethnological art class in 1979, and recalled that Professor Foerstel would share photo albums with the class showing her work with Ms. Mead.

“The class explored non-Western art through the perception of the Third World,” said Mr. Burger, a Remington resident and writer. “She was a remarkable teacher. There was no denying her pedigree…. She was also a very patient teacher who would work with students and help them pass their classes.”

“She believed there was no separation between art and the human experience, and regularly brought in speakers from a variety of backgrounds — including Mead, jazz musicians Archie Shepp and Max Roach, and civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael — to offer her students a broad spectrum of viewpoints and experiences that could expand their world view,” wrote her daughter in a biographical profile of her mother.

In a 1988 interview, Mr. Lazarus told The Sun that Professor Foerstel “forces [students] to learn about ideas and people they’ve probably never been exposed to. She is an activist in a very non-activist time.”

“Whatever it is she’s doing in her classes, it’s very popular,” he added. “Students generally vote with their feet, and they crowd into her classes.”

Throughout her life, Professor Foerstel worked tirelessly for civil justice, women’s rights and global peace. Fluent in Russian, she had led tours to Russia and Cuba.

She was one of seven delegates from the United States who attended the 1988 Women for a Meaningful Summit, held in conjunction with the meeting in Moscow between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

“Ms. Foerstel described the WMS as a pressure group of women from both the West and the East who seek to focus leaders’ attention on peace, disarmament, a healthful environment and other issues of concern to women,” reported The Sun at the time.

The delegation was led by Margarita Papandreou, wife of Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, and later she and Mrs. Papandreou founded Women for Mutual Security, an anti-war organization. In 1994 they traveled with other activists to Iraq to see firsthand the lasting impact the war had on women and children.

“From being chased by wild boars in Papua New Guinea to holding political summits with world leaders, her life was something out of a movie,” her daughter said. “She was the most compassionate person I’ve ever known, always fighting to improve the world around her.”

A memorial service will be held at 7 p.m Nov. 9 at Historic Oakland, 5430 Vantage Point Road, Columbia.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by her husband of 56 years, Herbert Neil Foerstel, an author and former head of branch libraries at the University of Maryland, College Park; a son, Jonathan Foerstel of Los Angeles; another daughter, Helen Cooke of Columbia; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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