Ron Monsma: painting a legacy at IU South Bend

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By: Kate Luce


It’s been 25 years. Ron Monsma has been teaching painting and drawing classes at IU South Bend, moving up the ladder of positions, until he has reached associate professor. At the end of 2021, he is set to retire.

Monsma got his start at IU South Bend, working under the direction of Anthony Droege, former painting and drawing professor at IU South Bend.

When Monsma graduated, he worked on paintings and drawings but focused on his musical passion. He played drums for a band, but when a position opened up for a painting and drawing professor at IU South Bend, he took it.

 “You know, no one, no one gets a degree in some kind of fine arts program and walks into a gallery and hands them their [degree] and says, ‘Where do I put my work?’ They don’t really care if you have a degree or not. But, you do accumulate certain, you know, some skills over the years and you can relate some knowledge. You want a paycheck, you know and most, most people that teach at the university teach because it gives them the opportunity to stay in the field,” Monsma said.

During his time at IU South Bend, many students have come and gone. Whether they were painting and drawing majors or just wanting to brush up on their skills, hundreds of former students have been able to learn under his direction. 

Through the years, Monsma has introduced many projects that got his classes excited. This past semester, he had asked his drawing class to draw a “mask selfie.” This project produced some of the best work Monsma has seen out of his classes. His students were totally engaged.

Just a few years ago, he teamed up with fellow IU South Bend professor, Bill Tourtillotte, to work on monotype prints with his drawing class. These prints, while not too precious, brought many subjects, an energy that other mediums cannot produce.

In years past, Monsma held an illustration class, which was a favorite to him. In this class, students were able to illustrate book covers for Alice in Wonderland. The class also designed album covers.

However, one of his favorite things to see in any of his classes is when students are engaged, especially if they are typically the quiet type.

“I love to see some students that maybe didn’t interact much all of a sudden start interacting and really get involved. There’s always a few students that take charge of everything. But, I think that sometimes those group projects, I can’t think of any specific project but I can think of, where students work together to find an interesting solution to a compositional setup, or something to that effect to be involved with is an important thing,” Monsma said.

This past year, Monsma had to change many elements of his classes. While he had about two-thirds of his painting classes work on landscapes around campus in the fall semester, the spring semester shifted to a more online setting with the colder weather.

His classes this semester focused on self-portraits, as COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult for models to come to campus. On top of that, the studios have been pretty much empty because of social distancing guidelines. Even with the changes, students found ways to adapt. 

“If you had a class on a Monday and Wednesday. Depending on who the student is, they might not see their work again until the following Monday. If you’re working in your home studio that work is always there. I found that students were being more productive,” Monsma said.

With COVID-19, among other reasons, it seemed like a good time to retire.

“So I just turned 70, and I thought at 70 I’m gonna, that’s gonna be a good age to stop. But you know, I think a lot of people do work beyond 65, and a lot of people retire at 65. My predecessor in this department, he was 65. Oh, and I thought, God you look, old man,” he laughed, “You know, I think that it just seemed like the time was about right,” Monsma said.

He hopes that “young blood” can make its way into the painting and drawing classes.

While he is taking a step back from full-time teaching, he thinks that doing workshops might satisfy the want to teach. As a devoted musician, he plans on continuing to play the drums, and hopefully perform once things start to open back up. Monsma plans on continuing a few commissions, as well, and is not slowing down with art-making anytime soon.

“Even with painting. I’m still trying to figure it out. I saw a 60 minutes interview, a few years back, where they interviewed this composer. He was like 97 years old. They asked him if you still practice, and he said, ‘Yes, I do.’ They asked him ‘Why do you still practice?’ He said, ‘Because I think I’ve seen improvement.’ It does not end, you’re always trying to figure something out and so, I’m looking forward to that,” Monsma said.

It’s safe to say Monsma’s impacts will be felt throughout IU South Bend.

“I first met Ron before attending IUSB. I was working as an art model for the classes here, and while I loved the work it was Ron’s talent, charm and teaching capabilities that inspired me to enroll back in school for painting and drawing. I have always been an artist, but since joining the program Ron has become one of my most favorite teachers in my life, as well as a long-time friend. His wisdom and experience makes him a wonderful teacher, but you could also just sit back and chat with Ron for hours about art, music or whatever. I have him to thank for pushing my art beyond boundaries I never thought were possible, and I have him to thank for making me the artist that I am now. Not to mention his selflessness and dedication to bettering the lives of his students; always offering to help out and work with underprivileged students such as myself,” current BFA painting and drawing student, Charlie Meyers, said.

“Ron’s influence and instruction led me into painting, and I became passionate about painting and drawing. I cannot express the countless ways in which he impacted my fine arts career because there are too many. His passion about his craft and support for his students is unparalleled. I still hear myself thinking ‘Ron phrases’ when I instruct my own students or work on my own artwork. I wouldn’t be the artist and professor I am today without his guidance and amazing mentorship,” Katie Neece, BFA painting and drawing ‘13, said. 

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