+ By Brenda Wintrode + Photos by Alison Harbaugh
Painter and cut-paper artist Nancy Hammond shares how she handles a creative drought: “Just keep painting.” The 76-year-old insists, with a glint of encouragement shining from her lively blue eyes, that even when it’s ugly, one must keep working until “there’s something that looks like there’s life in it.”
Standing tall and thin, she explains that creatives can set themselves up for failure by deciding ahead of time that they are going to manifest an epic work before picking up a brush. She learned to silence her inner critic by deciding from the start of a project to investigate a subject and just play in the medium. Long strips of paper splashed with Hammond’s signature bright pallet form a mosaic of her past investigations on the hardwood floor of her Eastern Shore studio. Says Hammond, “What’s great is that I never have to clean up.”
When she was 48 and single, Hammond spent her savings and went into debt renovating her first gallery on State Circle. She laughs as she remembers the opening stopping traffic but not selling a single painting. “I used to scramble so hard just to stay in the world of art,” she says. “When it was time to take a real chance, it was totally normal to take another chance, open your own gallery, and blow every single dime you have on it.”
Hammond studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design but left one year short of graduating because of family struggles. She married an architect at age 24, reared her son, Richard, and drove carpool, but never stopped painting. Watching her then-husband struggle to build an architecture business prepared her for her own entrepreneurial debut. “I knew, from watching him, if you gave it everything you had for a solid ten years, you would have a success,” she says. Once on her own, she committed to those ten years, never watched TV, and never went to a movie. She worked many nights until just before dawn.
Her fondness for her own pieces sparked the idea to make her work more accessible to a broader clientele, and by doing so, she secured her longevity in the often fickle and distracted art market. After selling one of her favorite paintings, she realized she would never see it again. “If you’re a composer and you have a symphony, you get to hear it all the time on tape,” she says. “So I dreamed up this idea of having an unfancy art gallery.” She varied her price points by creating prints and further diversified the brand by designing ties with her nautical designs and T-shirts and note cards of her prints. “I love the psychology of what makes people want to buy something,” says Hammond.
Hammond generated marketing buzz around her brand 21 years ago by creating spirited, exuberant annual posters of iconic Annapolis scenes. Her 2018 poster, “Racing Down the Bay,” features punches of color contrast on precision-cut paper with spinnakers flying full sail in front of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Each year, Hammond fans wait for hours on the sidewalk by her West Street gallery to buy the poster on its inaugural day (thereafter, the price more than doubles)—a phenomenon she still cannot seem to process. She recalls crying the first year, as soon as she saw the line going around the block.
Sitting at her dining room table, she faces a wall of framed cut-paper tiger lilies and considers what she would say now if she were sitting across from her 48-year-old self. Says Hammond in an outburst, “I’d say, ‘Congratulations, girl, I can’t believe you did it!’”
Her cottage sits deep in the countryside, surrounded by patches of woods and swaths of golden grasses. With the passing last June of her second husband, Robert R. Price Jr., after 23 years of marriage, Hammond has found herself exploring what it means to be alone. “I have turned loneliness into solitude, and solitude into peace,” she says. “I had a great marriage. I’ve had a nice life. I love my house in the country.” Just across the creek lives her son with his wife, Kate (who also serves as Nancy Hammond Editions gallery manager), and their children. Enveloped in scenic inspiration and family, Hammond has no reason to leave her cozy home but still visits the gallery on occasion.
Judging from the various stages of work scattered on her tables and the fresh paint splotches in her paint-throwing room, the artist intends to remain prolific. Social invitations arrive, and she accepts some, but admits the pull of work can be stronger. “Someone told me a saying: ‘Create while the light is still there,’” says Hammond, who well understands the consequences of stepping away for too long. “It’s like going in a gold mine. You’ve got to get the axe, and you have to go back down into the mine, and then you have to dig for gold all over again,” she says.
Her next painting is already taking shape in her imagination. She thinks it will include the elements of winter. Perhaps it will incorporate the view from her studio window of the stark, brown branches hovering over the still creek; there are so many gems. Says Hammond, “I know it’s going to have pink in it. That’s all I really know.” █