A good thing (Nancy Howell's story)


From my visit to Martha’s trial last year. The Morning News editors were advised by their lawyers not to run it in my story. I’m sort of glad as it’s a fairly shitty drawing done in the height of nervous anxiety at breaking New York law.

My office is in a large building on Manhattan’s West Side. Our neighbor, one floor down, is the headquarters of Martha Stewart Living OmniMedia, so we expect to see the old ex-con wandering our halls and lurking around the showers any day now. Her stock has been soaring since she went into the clink, so I imagine we’ll hear well mannered caws of redemption from the many willowy blondes we see in the elevator each morning.
I like Martha (though I wish she’d lighten her ass up a tad) but I’m not going to talk much more about her today.
Instead I want to tell you about Nancy.
nancyNancy grew up in the South West, I think it was Albuquerque. She was always a creative person and, over Dad’s objections, she majored in Art at U of NM because she loved to draw. This was in the 70s when, frankly, drawing was not the thing. Instead her instructors were pushing performance art, conceptual art, earth works, that sort of thing. Before the first semester was over, Nancy, beaten, changed her major. She decided to become a physical education instructor., She figured art and PE both had something to do with anatomy, so she’d still be in a related field. When she graduated, she got a job as a substitute gym teacher. She would lie in bed each morning with the pillow over her head, hoping not to hear the phone ring and call her in. She hated being a gym teacher.
Nancy loved playing music. She was in band after band, playing the clubs and bars around town, making a little cash here and there. Not enough cash, however, so she got a job in a bank. She was the teller in the drive-through, sending deposits back to the branch over a pneumatic tube. She hated this job too and sucked at it.
One day, Nancy was on her lunch break at the TGIFridays across the road. It was decorated in that nostalgic style that blossomed in the ’60’s, full of mustache cups and barber poles and merry-go-round horse amidst the spiderplants. Hanging over each table was an ersatz Tiffanty lamp. Nancy deiced there and then that what she wanted to do was to work professionally in stained-glass. She found out that one of the country’s largest commercial workshops for stained glass was right there in Albuquerque and she soon had a job there.
Nancy’s friends were envious. She’d quit her straight job and was making money entirely through creative endeavors — glass in the day, music at night.
Nonetheless, Nancy still wasn’t happy. She realized that despite her field, she wasn’t really an artist. The glasswork she did was not original; she was just working from pattern books, filling orders from templates. And her band, good as it was, was really just a cover band. If they ever played original compositions, the audiences squirmed and the bar owner would complain. Albuquerque ain’t no CBGB and there was little appetite for true originality
So Nancy shed her job, her hometown and her husband, and came to New York City. Soon she had a job with the premier stained glass workshop in the country. She worked on St. John the Divine, on corporate headquarters. She even redid the glass in the Statue of Liberty’s torch. For the next fifteen years or so, she was at the top of her game. She had a new band with her new husband and they played the cutting edge clubs of the City. She had two kids. She seemed fulfilled.
Then Nancy reached the next crisis. She was the #2 person in the #1 firm. If she became #1 she would sit in an office at a computer all day and cease plying her craft. She’d topped out. She also felt past the age when she really enjoyed carrying enormous panes of glass into the grimy tops of old buildings. The work was more physical than she wanted. Time for a new page.
The part of glasswork Nancy had always enjoyed the most restoring or creating the hand-lettered legends that adorn big windows, naming the saints, the dates, the greats of the Church or the Corporation. So she decided to try her hand at something brand new to her. During her last year as a stained glass artisan, she spent each night taking classes and practicing calligraphy. She went to workshops, she learned materials and she worked hard at her craft. When the year was up, she opened her first business. She sent out a small announcement to editors and art directors and she was off doing work for weddings, for publishers, for all sorts of exciting and glamorous clients.
Within three years, Nancy went from a novice to the main calligrapher for Martha Stewart. Whenever you see some ornate lovely penmanship in MS Living, chances are Nancy did it.
Is she fulfilled now? More so than ever. But she tells me she’d still like to push further, to create pieces that are she writes herself, works of pure art that are not commercial but express herself at the deepest. She’s working on that now. Nancy and Mark and her kids are about to move out of the City to concentrate completely on their art, to play more music and to breathe fresh country air.
Nancy is a constant reminder to me that you can get what you want, no matter how far fetched it might seem. First off, know what it is you actually want. Then be willing to work hard, to take risks and most importantly, to listen only to the little voice in your head that first spoke the dream.
I hope Martha got a chance to listen to her voice as she weeded the prison grounds. Sadly. I have less faith in her than I have in Nancy. Or in you.