Home » Publisher's Letter » Publisher's Letter: An artist for the ages

Publisher's Letter

Publisher's Letter: An artist for the ages

Timing is everything. Just as we were enjoying Eric Barton’s piece on art collecting (page 36), it came to our attention the story of a 100-year-old artist who is being honored for her artwork both locally and by her Ivy League alma mater.

Her full name is Ellen Carley McNally, but she goes by Nella, and that nickname goes back a long, long way. She celebrated her 100th birthday in August. The Galt Ocean Mile resident has been painting most of her life. That in itself is a story, but a better one is her unique connection to her old school—Yale.

She is a 1945 graduate of Yale’s School of Fine Arts, the oldest of its kind in the country. There she learned a form of painting that had been largely lost for hundreds of years. Egg tempera uses egg yolk as its base and was a common technique in Europe before oil paints were adopted in the 15th century. It lost favor over the years, although some prominent artists, including Andrew Wyeth, preserved the medium.

Ellen McNally pictured two years ago with her wining Bonnett House work. Her 1960 painting of a nun will be in Yale's gallery.

There was a professor at Yale who taught tempera painting to McNally. The teacher is long gone and Yale dropped the course from its curriculum. It had largely forgotten his contribution until McNally’s work was called to its attention. That was done by another Yale alum, retired Fort Lauderdale lawyer Laz Schneider. He is a friend of the artist’s son, Phil McNally, also retired from banking. Not surprisingly, many of McNally’s relatives and acquaintances have added the word “retired” to their resumes. But McNally is definitely not retired. She paints almost every day.

The artist will be part of “Yale 50/150,” marking 50 years of Yale College admitting women and 150 years of their granting women art degrees. The event will run from March until November. Yale’s art gallery obviously is a major part of the celebration, and McNally will serve as a link to its past. The school made a two-hour video of McNally’s painting technique. The gallery is also adding one of her works to its permanent collection as an example of the egg tempera medium.

The centenarian artist is not without glory at home. She was grand prize winner two years ago at the Bonnet House annual juried competition, and recently received a special mention for her work.

The painting chosen for the Yale gallery is a story itself, going back to around 1960. McNally was asked by her sister to do a painting of a nun who taught at a now-closed small Catholic college in New Hampshire. She was known as Sister Mary Margaret. The relative planned to give the painting to the religious order that ran the school. The order, however, refused it, quaintly terming it “vainglorious.” They must have been humble nuns indeed. Today, no one knows Sister Mary Margaret’s real name. The painting was damaged by water and then restored and was in the home of McNally’s daughter in Connecticut. And now Sister Mary Margaret will have a permanent place in one of the world’s great universities, one not likely to go belly up anytime soon. So much for vainglory.