Story by Katie Beth Ryan ’08 | Photos by Thomas Baker
At age 4, Fay Martin Chandler ’43 was denied the chance to hold her baby cousin, and instead was offered a doll to play with.
This was not a consolation prize that Chandler, who turned 90 in September, was willing to accept. Her recourse was to stick out her tongue at a photographer who snapped her picture.
Chandler displays the photo in the converted firehouse in Brighton, Mass., that doubles as her home and the studio where she paints. The image is proof that her rebellious streak began early in life. It never really went away, judging by the other accoutrements around her living space.
A sign tells visitors, “If you’re not barefoot, you’re overdressed.” A family of prickly red, orange and green cacti in small pots line the windowsill in her kitchen, giving off an air of friendliness. A plush monkey in the building’s cramped elevator serenades riders with Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song.” Chandler calls it her “elevator music.”
“All of my life, I’ve been sort of an oddball,” she muses. “I think it’s just been my life to be that way and not really mind it.”
Chandler’s home is only a glimpse of what is literally a colorful life. The term “whimsical” is often used to describe her bright, figurative paintings. She uses bold hues to create the larger-than-life characters in her paintings, which she gives fun, unpretentious titles. “Hold Tight” features a dirt bike racer and “How I Wished I Looked In the First Grade” depicts a pretty blonde girl in a blue flowered dress. The figures dominate the canvas, inhabiting colorful micro worlds of their own.
Fifty years ago, art wasn’t such an integral part of Chandler’s life. She was happily married and raising four children. She had met Alfred Chandler, a former Navy man, in her hometown of Norfolk, Va. They married a year after she graduated from Sweet Briar, where she’d followed her sister Alpine “Piney” Martin Patterson ’41.
At Sweet Briar, Chandler studied sociology and enjoyed her classes with professors Belle Boone Beard and Fritz Rohrlich. She was tapped as a Chung Mung and elected to the May Court. She socialized on the weekends with students from Hampden-Sydney and UVa, and once showed up at a dance at the U.S. Naval Academy with purple hair after a peroxide experiment went awry.
She and Alfred moved north when he took a job at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was the first stop in a storied academic career that led him to prominence at Harvard Business School. Meanwhile, Fay sometimes struggled in Cambridge’s academic community. She once went to a neighborhood picnic in blue jeans, only to find everyone else in cocktail attire. “I felt like a misfit,” she recalls.
Nearing 40, she began to sketch and paint portraits. Her drive to paint came from a spiritual longing; it was “time to learn to pray,” she says. She had begun reading about spirituality, and the words of Christian philosopher Paul Tillich — to make full use of one’s eyes in order to see — resonated with her.
“I got the message that learning to look was very important. It could be a very important start in learning to pray, and a good way to learn to look was to learn to draw,” she says.
Seeing anew the world around her, Chandler essentially received a second education. She kept Tillich’s words in mind as she taught herself about art. Looking was paramount.
While visiting museums Chandler observed, “Everybody would go and stare at something and then everybody would go another place. I didn’t like that. So I just would wander around and look.”
She didn’t try to overanalyze the pieces she saw. She was learning to see the world through new eyes, and recording her visions on paper and canvas.
While Albert was in residence at All Souls College at Oxford, she toured the U.K. by bus, people-watching all the way. “I had a wonderful time, traveling all around with a sketchbook,” Chandler says. Coupled with formal training at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she moved from portraits to more figurative-based paintings.
By her early 70s, she had accumulated a backlog of unsold work in her home. Not wanting her children to face tax liabilities on the work they inherited from her, she founded the Boston-based Art Connection. It’s an exchange that lets artists display their work instead of it sitting unseen and unsold in an attic. At the same time, nonprofit organizations can select pieces to display that they otherwise can’t afford.
“I always say it was the best idea I’ve ever had in my life. And I’ve had a lot of ideas,” Chandler says, grinning. It’s also a successful idea: Some 350 artists have donated more than 3,000 pieces of art through The Art Connection.
Chandler liked that people could view the donated pieces and draw their own conclusions about them, but she knew art has healing properties, too. She recalls a client served by an Art Connection-affiliated nonprofit. After years on the streets, the woman had come to the nonprofit to rebuild her life. She was drawn to one of Chandler’s paintings: a piece juxtaposing light and darkness. It was the perfect analogy for her life.
“She said, ‘I look at this painting every day. I come and I sit beside it and I see my life on the street, which was no longer what I could do. … On the other side, I see the way it is now and the way it’s going to be.’ ”
Chandler pauses, letting the story take hold. “Boy,” she says.
Chandler’s involvement with The Art Connection has solidified her status as the grande dame of Boston’s art scene. In 2010, a retrospective show of her work, “Just As I Am,” was held at the Boston Center for the Arts, where she was one of the earliest studio artists. And one of her paintings adorned the buttons worn by revelers at the city’s 2012 First Night celebration.
“You say her name and people smile,” says Mary Coogan, a longtime friend and former chairwoman of The Art Connection board. “She’s extremely generous, not only financially, but with ideas and emotional support and helping people see how to manage their careers and manage their work.
“She’s a model for women artists in Boston, and maybe all over the country.”
Chandler moved to her Brighton studio after Alfred died in 2007. Down the street is an Irish pub where, in true Boston fashion, everyone knows her name. Their faces light up when she walks through the door. “This is Fay’s home,” a waiter explains. She’s on a first-name basis, too, at Big Daddy’s, the pizza joint next door to the firehouse, and at the Benjamin Moore store where she buys her paint samples.
These days, much of the vision in her right eye is gone, and she usually wears an eye cap or tinted lens over it. Her diminished hand-eye coordination has led her to stop making her multi-media mini-sculptures.
“It wasn’t because I lost interest in making things. It was too confusing, I guess,” she says.
But Chandler has no room in her life for negative thinking. She invites other artists into the basement “junk room” to sift through the plastic bins full of assorted objects that she once used in her sculptures. It’s fun, she says, to see what other uses fellow artists find for unmatched earrings, rotary telephone parts and party poppers. In this sense, Chandler considers herself a Pollyanna of sorts. “She saw the sunshine where maybe it was gloomy.”
And in many ways, the visions she imparts in vivid colors to her canvases at age 90 are clearer and brighter than they have ever been.
“Sometimes if you just … let it happen, sometimes the result is quite different than what you expected it to be. Or maybe it will lead to something that’s more exciting than you thought it could be.”