Nancy's New Digs
By Amelia Blades Steward
Left: Carl and Nancy Tankersley, with their dog Gizmo, enjoy the natural light in their living quarters above Nancy's downstairs studio. Their custom build-out, handled by Easton-based contractor, Bay Choice Builders, includes this open-rise staircase, an elongated galley kitchen, and a secluded "Juliette" terrace.
Right: Nancy Tankersley teaches on Wednesdays in her natural light-filled studio on Aurora Street in Easton, which is located within the Arts and Entertainment District.
Although Nancy Tankersley of Easton is known as one of the founding members of Easton’s Plein Air Festival, the nationally known artist began her art career as a portrait painter. Her painting career came full circle two years ago when she was chosen as the Featured Artist of the 49th Annual Waterfowl Festival for her studies of watermen in Eastern Shore landscapes.
For two decades beginning in the 1980s, Tankersley focused on painting people on the beach. As her paintings gained popularity in galleries across the country, she was known as the “figures on the beach” painter. She then entered the gallery scene with figurative paintings of people at work and leisure, focusing on restaurant and bar workers, gardeners and police officers.
“I like humans because I am an observer,” Tankersley says. “I like to study gestures and human interactions.”
Although Tankersley started painting as a child and majored in art in college, she didn’t graduate as an art major. “I became a social worker where I learned so much about community and interaction,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of community projects and of course, Plein Air is the one that I’ll sure be remembered for. But I think my degree in sociology gave me the skills to do that and to understand communities and how communities react to change and how you can turn that into a positive.”
Tankersley’s foray into landscapes came after joining the Washington Society of Landscape Painters in 2001. This was also her first introduction to painting plein air, or outdoors, when the group painted together once a month.
“It was all pretty new to me because I’d been a studio painter for 20 years at that point, starting with portraits and then exhibiting in galleries. I really hadn’t gone outside to paint — and now was that a humbling experience,” she says. “Plein Air is an experience and a tool. It does good things for a painter like teaching us how to condense a scene and to edit. There is nothing more enjoyable on a beautiful day.”
In 2004, Tankersley, who had been living, painting and teaching in Solomon’s Island, decided to move to Easton with her husband, Carl.
“At that point, my work was in South Street Art Gallery in Easton. The owner of the gallery notified all the artists that she was going to sell her gallery and she approached me about it. It seemed like a crazy idea, but I took the idea back to my husband and we started coming over here and researching the town. The more we learned about Easton, the more we liked it. It seemed like a real community where we could see ourselves spending the rest of our lives,” she recalls.
The couple bought a house in Easton and became the new owners of the South Street Art Gallery. Becoming businesspeople was a new venture for them. “Moving to Easton took my career to a new level,” Tankersley says. “It’s a welcoming environment for artists. That’s what I love about the Eastern Shore.”
That same year, Tankersley and a friend traveled to a plein air event in Carmel, California. The trip proved serendipitous, she says, as she realized that her new home might be a perfect East Coast location for a similar event. She introduced the idea to Al Bond, who was the head of Easton’s Main Street Program at the time.
“He liked the idea because it would bring people to downtown during the summer. I presented him with a proposal and he called together a group of business owners and artists and the Academy Art Museum for a few planning meetings,” she says. “There was some resistance at first. But because of my training in social work, I kind of knew that we were going to have to win them over.”
“One of the founding principles of Plein Air Easton was including local artists to be juried in. So that’s how ‘Local Color’ started and it was always a big part of Plein Air Easton and I think that [it] helped a lot in getting support for the event, which started in 2005. I thought [that] once it got a foothold, it would keep going, but I didn’t think it would grow as it did. After the third year, I applied as an artist and over the years have won some awards. Plein Air Easton has become a steppingstone for artists trying to make it — it’s one of the preeminent plein air shows in the country.”
Tankersley’s husband, a retired naval aviator, supports her and the arts in Easton by serving with Talbot Arts and volunteering for Plein Air Easton and the Waterfowl Festival.
In addition to owning the gallery in Easton, Tankersley also rented studio space in 2010 on Dover Street and started Easton Studio & School, which eventually became Nancy Tankersley Studio, a workshop facility where she teaches and mentors aspiring painters.
“Teaching allows me to challenge myself and learn new things. Outside influences grow us and collectors want to see growth in artists,” she says.
While she mainly focused on realist work during her career, her painting began to evolve and today Tankersley is known as a contemporary impressionist — moving between landscape, figures and still life.
“I have learned from artists in Easton and from nationally known guest artists at my studio, as well as teaching students across the country,” she says. “I started being braver and more experimental. My association with Plein Air Easton also influenced my style.”
In recent years, Tankersley has won both national and international competitions. From 2018 to 2020, she was invited to be an instructor and demonstrator at the Plein Air Convention in Santa Fe and released two instructional videos with Liliedahl Art Instruction Videos. In 2016 and 2017 she was invited to exhibit at the prestigious American Masters Exhibition at the Salmagundi Club in New York City. Recent honors include Best of Show at the 2018 Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival in Nova Scotia, Best of Show at the 2017 Lighthouse Artcenter Plein Air Festival in Florida, second place at En Plein Air Texas in 2020, and the Dickinson Signature Member Award from the American Impressionist Society in 2016 during its 17th Annual National Juried Exhibition.
Reflecting on the honor of being selected as the Waterfowl Festival’s featured artist in 2019, she says, “I never considered myself a waterfowl artist. I got a commission to paint a waterman and then I began amassing a body of work in this genre, so I applied to the Waterfowl Festival in 2015 and got in.”
“This goes back to an earlier theme in my work from the 1990s — people at work. Watermen at work are an interesting theme. I believe we should paint what interests us — you paint it and they will come,” she quips.
In 2016, the Tankersleys sold South Street Gallery and then sold their home in Easton — feeling the nudge to do something new.
“I just started feeling that maybe having a studio in the home would work. I saw a ‘For Sale’ sign on the building on Aurora Street that had previously housed Atelier 11 Architecture and I thought
I wonder if that could work because I always liked the building,” she states.
“It seemed perfect for me because I’ve been teaching and wanted to continue that. The building offered a large first-floor studio and the foyer also offered a place to show private collectors my work. It is the ideal spot for a home business,” she adds.
The couple purchased the building knowing that being in Easton’s Arts & Entertainment District allowed them to take advantage of an income tax subtraction for Tankersley’s studio. Qualified artists residing in Maryland that perform or sell their art within an Arts & Entertainment District don’t have to pay the state sales tax on the art that they sell.
“The Arts & Entertainment District certainly made the property more attractive to us. Buying property where we can both work and live has economic advantages. The first floor houses our studio and teaching space while we live on the second floor. It has the best light for painting of any studio I have ever had,” Tankersley says. “In addition to the large studio, which spans both the north and south sides of the building, there is a room for framing and supplies, and an office next to a small kitchen, which can be used by students. This will be the first time in many years that everything is in one location.”
Since moving into the newly renovated building in March, Tankersley has resumed hosting weekly clinics for local artists. In addition, she continues to host critiques and teach classes by Zoom that she began during the pandemic. Also during that time, Tankersley originated a community exhibition, “Black Lives Lost,” held in her property’s courtyard on Aurora Street, which generated a lot of interest.
“I went to the first protest march and was overcome by the response of our community. I asked myself, ‘How could I do more?’” she says. “I realized art is what I know. I went to my students first and then to local artists and got 25 people to create works of Black men, women and children who have died due to racial injustice and who wanted to share these works with the community. It kept students painting during the pandemic, too.”
The exhibit had a second showing at the Dorchester Center for the Arts in Cambridge. In addition, Tankersley organized a group of Easton artists who created a group painting, with the sale proceeds donated to people affected by the pandemic. Titled “Coming Together,” the collaborative painting depicted a kitchen worker at the Bartlett Pear Inn.
“We are enjoying the courtyard and plan to plant a garden here where artists can paint. It’s a quiet location on a busy street and was great for the exhibit. I want to continue doing this type of community art project in the future,” Tankersley says. “I would love to see this area of town really grow. Artists are living in this area and we hope to create interest in people moving to the East End as we did. I plan to stay here and paint here as long as I am able.”
For further information, visit nancytankersley.com.