93-Year-Old NYC Artist has Spent Six Decades Fighting Stereotypes Through Painting

Career Retrospective opens March 1 at our Bernie Wohl Center 

WHAT: Nancy Brandon Solo Exhibition “The Accidental Artist – Joy & Cohesion in Black Life” 
WHEN: March 1, 6-8 PM 
WHERE: Goddard Riverside Bernie Wohl Center, 647 Columbus Avenue (between West 91st and 92nd) 
CONTACT: Trish Anderton, Sr. Director of PR, Goddard Riverside  
tanderton@goddard.org | 929-249-1449 

Nancy Brandon started painting in 1960. She was determined to shine a new light on the joy and solidarity of the Black community—counteracting the negative stereotypes of popular culture.  

Now 93, she’s as sharp and delightful as ever, surrounded by art in her Upper West Side Apartment. Below is a profile by the exhibition organizer. 

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ARTIST PROFILE: 93-year old Nancy Brandon’s smile is contagious. With a twinkle in her eyes and a clinking of gilded bracelets, she hands you a mysteriously deep-sea green margarita as she greets you into her wonderland-apartment at the Saint Martin’s Tower on 91st Street and Columbus Avenue. She has transformed not only the space she’s lived in since 1990, but also the community room, hallways, and doorways of neighbors on the floor, where she is beloved by all. “Almost all!” she says, laughing. 

A lifelong New Yorker, the Bronx-native Nancy is a frequent presence in the streets of the Upper West Side, where she can be seen strolling with her leopard-print cane, fashionable shades and daring new hair color on her way to an event at Goddard Riverside’s Bernie Wohl Community Center, a multi-use afterschool location and arts space. One day last year, Nancy brought us a look-book containing awe-inspiring images of her “hidden” artworks that have been gradually filling the corners of every room of her apartment. Our arts staff was amazed. Now, and for the first time in her life, Nancy Brandon’s career retrospective solo exhibition will be on view at the Bernie Wohl Center beginning March 1st, 2024, as part of the annual W.H.A.M. Festival celebrating the female visionaries in our local arts scene throughout international Women’s Month. 

A self-taught painter, Nancy Brandon defiantly picked up a brush in 1960. She had previously studied harp at the elite free School of Music and Art in Hamilton Heights for gifted students. “Back then, women were disincentivized from pursuing careers,” Nancy says with a slightly annoyed sigh. Growing up in a 5-story walk-up in Washington Heights (“across the street from Duke Ellington”), Nancy’s father was a mechanic, and her mother a teacher. Valuing education, Nancy attended Hunter College and taught kindergarten in Queens’ Rochdale Village housing cooperative before quickly switching to the junior high age group. “I realized I could not be ‘Mary Sunshine’ all day long,” she explains. She married in 1955 to a dentist who was “somewhat of a mismatch, but it worked.” She retired from teaching in 1985, devoting herself fully to painting and family. The merging of these two great passions is readily apparent in Nancy’s works which prominently feature Black American couples and families awash in brilliant tropical colors. 

Depicted with babes in arms, dancing, singing, or in still lifes with lush flora, “cohesion” is the word that kept resurfacing as we considered the meaning of her creative output over a truly impressive scope of multi-media works. Nancy’s subjects, in their pensive embraces, represent the gratitude she feels for the steadfast protection and love within the Black community in the face of turmoil caused by “ordinary racism.” One can easily trace the humor in Nancy’s oeuvre, which bears elements of folk/outsider art. Heavily influenced by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and the various modern European art movements of the 21st century, Nancy channels their audacity of figurative expression and bold painterly style while flipping the script to center the Black female experience. Nancy attended the renowned Printmaking Workshop with founder and master printmaker Robert Blackburn, resulting in her print, “The Offering” being added to the Library of Congress. (Other notable students of Blackburn included Leonora Carrington, Romare Bearden, and Faith Ringgold.) 

Although she was widowed in 1978 and has lived alone for many years following her adult children’s departures, Nancy’s light has not dimmed. Instead, her love for people has seemed to grow exponentially. Upon entry to Nancy’s studio, one spots her expansive display of children’s artwork, alongside memorabilia from past group shows she was included in at the Jamaica Arts Center, Brooklyn Museum, and Dorsey’s Fine Art Gallery. Her paintings are stacked a dozen high to save space; in recent years she’s taken to creating new ones with housepaint to save money. Nonetheless, each one is more exquisite than the next. One is a portrait of Miles Davis as an angel, based on an encounter they had via Nancy’s friend, Davis’s former lawyer. Another is of the well-known fictional Black lovers, Porgy & Bess. “The Matador Looks At Death” was inspired by Nancy’s trip to Spain, where she caught the eye of the bullfighter. His bravery made an indelible impression on her. 

Drawing from her own deep well of bravery, she is comfortable sharing her work with the general public in the hopes of having more space “and time, God willing!” she adds, to continue painting. “To do anything off the ‘grid’, you have to have courage. In doing notable things, you will first hear people say ‘why are you doing this, what’s wrong with you?’ The key is to ignore them,” she says knowingly, cracking open another can of housepaint. 


ABOUT GODDARD RIVERSIDE: Goddard Riverside strives toward a fair and just society where all people can make choices that lead to better lives for themselves and their families. Our programs serve more than 20,000 people annually, preparing children and youth for success; supporting self-sufficiency; enriching the lives of older adults; promoting behavioral health; fighting homelessness; and strengthening families and communities.