Rodin Art Sleuth Mallory Mortillaro on Her Years at Drew
How studying art history led to discovering a sculpture of Napoleon.
November 2017 – The sixth-grade language arts teacher who identified, researched and authenticated an Augustine Rodin sculpture hiding in plain sight in Madison Borough Hall displayed similar moxie and work ethic at Drew University and its Caspersen School of Graduate Studies.
As an undergraduate, Mallory Mortillaro concentrated on art history and English, interned at museums in New York City and worked part-time as an administrative assistant. And after deciding that she wanted to teach, she fast-tracked, enrolling in the full-time version of Caspersen’s Master of Arts in Teaching program, which lasts a year. All the while, she worked part-time for the Hartley Dodge Foundation, cataloging its photographs and art inside Borough Hall—a temporary job that led to a once-in-lifetime discovery and one of the biggest feel-good stories of the year. Here’s how she got there.
What led you to Drew?
It was appealing that it was small. I was familiar with the campus—I knew it was so pretty. And I wanted still to be near the city but not in the city. Also, I knew that I wanted to do something with the humanities, which Drew has great programs for.
How did you pick a major?
I went in starting for English. Then, during my freshman year, I took some art history classes and I was really liking that. So, I decided I want to do both. I was also doing a minor in arts administration.
English Professor James Hala was your advisor. How did he help you?
He was such a welcoming person and he made me really excited about the humanities. The first class I took with him was about the humanities overall: how art influences literature, how it influences theatre and how when you look through history all the same themes are being explored in all these different artistic mediums. I feel like that was the first time I had ever really been exposed to those ideas. And that really made me excited because that same semester I was taking an art history class and coming at it from more of an English background. Originally, I thought I would just be an English major. It really made me look at it differently and I still think that English and art history together really drives the way that I teach now in my job. And that was really important.
Who was your biggest mentor at Caspersen?
For people who were becoming English teachers, Mary Brancaccio was our main person. She was really encouraging and just a great teacher to learn from—how to be a teacher and be open to all types of learners and things like that.
What led you to teaching in the first place?
I decided I wanted to be a teacher like two weeks after I officially graduated [from the College of Liberal Arts]. I thought, “Wow, how silly is this? I just spent all this time in school and now I think I want to do something else.” I was a little mad at myself. But I realized that I can’t sit behind a desk every day.
Before that, you wanted to work in museums.
I had some good internships and things like that. A lot of the work there, though, is sitting behind a desk and clicking through databases of artwork. It was a little disenchanting that way. But when I was interning at the International Center of Photography, I asked if I could get trained to give tours because I thought it would be something that I’d like. And once a week, I would do that—I would go and give tours. And I loved that. I loved talking to people, whether it’s school groups or tourists from other parts of the world. Then, I also started doing that in Jersey, at the New Jersey Visual Arts Center in Summit. I started volunteering there. So, I realized that I liked doing that. I liked interacting with people, teaching them and hearing their ideas. That kind of started making me think that I would like teaching.
You learned of the Hartley Dodge Foundation job through an ad with the Drew career center. What prompted you to apply?
It was for the Hartley Dodge Memorial, which I’ve always known as that really cool big building. So, I thought it would be kind of fun. They also mentioned Geraldine Dodge. I knew a little bit about her. I love history and everything, so I thought it would be kind of interesting to learn more about who she is.
Your art sleuthing began while you were doing the cataloging.
Yes, in the spring of 2014. I started looking around a little bit on my own, but I didn’t tell the trustees until that following December because I was hired to catalog. I wanted to finish that and then when we were supposed to part ways I said, “You know, I think you might have something here.” And then we renegotiated how I would stay on.
Why did they place so much faith in you?
I think that I presented to them that I could do this. They were very happy with what I had done during the year cataloging. I think they knew that I was really passionate about it. And I think if things had been going catastrophically wrong, they would have intervened. But everything was going okay and kept going more and more okay. So, they were very kind to let me do that.
What’s it like to teach sixth-graders?
I love how excited they are about learning. I love that it’s still kind of cool for them to do well in school. They want to please their teacher. They’re excited about things. And I love that I can be a little goofy. You can just be your silly self and they appreciate that.
How did they react to the news?
They’re adorable and think you’re a rock star without even discovering a Rodin! [laughs]. The Friday that we were in The Star-Ledger, I showed them one of the videos we had just done for the news the day before. They’re so cute. They clap as soon as I come on the screen. They’re so excited. And it really lends itself to a lot of teachable moments.