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Anna S. ‘Nancy’ Wilson, a noted abstract artist whose work can be found in public and private collections, dies

Anna "Nancy" Wilson.
Anna "Nancy" Wilson.

Anna S. “Nancy” Wilson, a noted abstract artist who worked in both oils and acrylics and whose works can be found in public and private collections, died Aug. 12 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at her Broadmead retirement community home in Cockeysville. The former Ruxton resident was 83.

“I give her great credit for continuing to paint, keeping at it, and not getting discouraged,” said Fred Lazarus IV, who headed the Maryland Institute College of Art for nearly 36 years, before retiring in 2014. “She was a wonderful character who was simply devoted to painting.”

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Suzy Cordish, a longtime friend, worked with Ms. Wilson at Maryland Art Place.

“I was so fond of Nancy, who was a longtime, staunch supporter of Maryland Art Place and the arts in our region,” Ms. Cordish said. “She was so warm, but a very strong personality. She was sassy and fiercely independent, which is what a real artist is in my opinion.”

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The former Anna Stockton O’Donovan — whose nickname was Nancy — was the daughter of John Henry O’Donovan Jr., a George Mackubin & Co. banker, and Anna Reeves O’Donovan. She was born in Baltimore and raised on the family farm in Dulaney Valley.

She attended Calvert School, Garrison Forest School and graduated from the old Convent of the Sacred Heart in Connecticut. she made her debut in 1958 at the Bachelors Cotillion.

In 1958, she married Joshua G. Harvey IV, and during their marriage the couple lived in New Haven, Connecticut, while her husband studied for a graduate degree at the Yale University School of Architecture.

“My formal artistic education began in the back rows of lectures at the Yale Architecture School, where my husband was a student under Paul Rudolph and Joseph Albers,” Ms. Wilson wrote in her autobiography, “Nancy O’D. Wilson: ARTWORKS 1981-2015.” “Women were not allowed to attend lectures, so I would wait outside the auditorium until the lights went down, creep into one of the back rows, and sneak out the back door when the lecture ended before the lights came up again.”

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During their marriage, which later ended in divorce, they designed the Barn House in 1962 in Greenspring Valley, and later lived in Greece and Italy.

Ms. Wilson attended Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, but earned her bachelor’s degree in 1978 from what is now Notre Dame University of Maryland. In 1981, she obtained a master’s degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Leroy E. Hoffberger School of Painting, where she studied with Grace Hartigan, an abstract expressionist painter who lived and worked in Baltimore, and Sal Scarpitta, a sculptor.

Ms. Wilson said that both artists were a tremendous influence on her own work.

“Studying with Sal Scarpitta at MICA I learned to defend my artistic decision to use lace. He forced me to develop a conviction about my use of materials,” she wrote in her autobiography. “The fire in his eyes unleashed an excitement for making art and a genuine curiosity.”

As a graduate student at MICA, she starting repurposing objects from her lineage — especially vintage Irish lace that had belonged to her grandmother.

“I discovered Albers’ color theories much in the way I had examined my grandmother’s lace: through stolen glasses. Lace, like a woman, is made of exquisitely strong fiber,” Ms. Wilson wrote. “By incorporating my own dresses and my grandmother’s laces into my work. I feel a connection to the past. The fabrics tease the mind by holding their original image, yet allowing for the creation of something new.

“I see new relationships in the lace that are applicable today and give the same pleasure that they gave before they were saved inside a deep, dark trunk. [I use] lace for its own qualities. It has a pattern that suggests new possibilities and a new future,” she wrote. “My paintings speak to the power within each of us to transcend the physical into a spiritual space.”

In 1981, she was a founding member of Maryland Art Place Inc. on West Saratoga Street.

“I knew Nancy 30 or 40 years ago when the arts scene in Baltimore was minimal and she was a great activist for artists in the community. She was the link between the art community and the establishment, and she did it with a lot of humor and enthusiasm,” Mr. Lazarus said. “She was a fun person to be around and always had a smile and a laugh.”

“She loved Maryland Art Place and was so supportive of us. She always gave us a painting for our auctions, came to our galas, which she never missed, and participated in our panel discussions and Q&As,” Ms. Cordish said. “We’d go to her studio and she’d let us pick out a painting and it was always a fun time.”

After moving to Broadmead in 2015, Ms. Wilson added a studio to her home and continued painting.

“Her own work has been shown in many galleries nationally and internationally, and has been selected by curators of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York,” according to a biographical profile of Ms. Wilson submitted by her family. “Her work is included in many public and private collections.”

Ms. Wilson was interred Aug. 19 in the O’Donovan family plot in Green Mount Cemetery and plans for a funeral service to be held Sept. 25 at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer are incomplete.

She is survived by four daughters, Louisa Reeves Wilson Murphy of Roland Park, Emily O’Donovan Wilson Murphy of Chestertown, Anna Charlotte Harvey of New York City and Eleanor Stockton Harvey Hartman of Stuttgart, Germany; a sister, Marianna “Dolly” Shriver O’Donovan Fisher of Unionville, Pennsylvania; three grandchildren; and a nephew. A marriage to Dr. Ezekiel “Dooner” Hunter Wilson Jr., a Baltimore endocrinologist, ended in divorce.

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