The feisty heroines of legends and fables enchanted Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes as a child, but her go-to character when play acting was real-life adventurer Amelia Earhart.
"I would dress up as Amelia at every opportunity," she said of Earhart, who disappeared in 1937 attempting to circumnavigate the equator. "I've always had a deep respect for her accomplishments and would often have dreams that I was her, flying."
Michelle, a mixed media artist, recently learned that in the late 1900s she and Earhart would have been neighbors. The aviator attended the defunct Ogontz School for Girls, an elite boarding school located on the current Penn State Abington site, just a few miles from Michelle's studio.
The artist delved into Abington's archives and was floored by a story Lil Hansberry, who manages the collection, told her: Amelia regularly climbed out on the roof of the Sutherland Building dormitory, clad in a nightgown, and gazed in wonder at the night sky.
"When Lil shared the story, I wanted to hug her," Michelle said. "I knew I could never have found this by only consulting secondary sources."
Lil's account inspired the artist's award-winning tribute to Earhart, "Alone with the Stars." The photographic collage depicts a prop plane soaring over Sutherland with an Earhart quote trailing in the exhaust: "It was after midnight and the moon had set, and I was alone with the stars."
"I wanted to pay tribute to the 39 years of her glorious life, a life full of learning, dreams, risks, heartaches, joy and utter fearlessness,” Michelle said. “A life spent in pursuit of the next great challenge, where not a single day was wasted but rather savored and lived."
Michelle said she wasn't surprised to learn in the archives that Earhart tangled regularly with the boarding school’s headmistress, but she also discovered some of the aviator's other passions.
"The most interesting things in the archives were Amelia's writing and poetry," she said. "I had no idea she was such a talented student and a very good writer."
Michelle dreams her art piece will inspire people to remember Amelia's life instead of focusing on her death.
"We often forget the life she led up until her disappearance," she said. "I wanted to create a piece that captures what she means to me: a woman who led an extraordinary life because she simply couldn't imagine herself doing anything else."
The owner of the Ogontz School for Girls donated the property to Penn State in 1950. The iconic Sutherland Building, designed by the noted architect Horace Trumbaur, now houses classrooms, a theater and offices.
To learn more about Amelia Earhart's adventures at Abington, go to http://www.libraries.psu.edu/psul/digital/ogontz/alumnae.html.
To learn more about Michelle Ciarlo-Hayes' work, go to http://mkcphotography.com.