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An Inspirational Life

The late Nancy Witt mixed passion with surrealism.


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The painter Chuck Close has said that inspiration is for amateur artists. Nancy Witt, who died Dec. 16, understood this and lived it. She was in her studio routinely, even when she wasn't inspired or when her Jungian bent wasn't fashionable. Painting was work and she worked hard, producing more than 600 paintings, some landing in the Mint Museum, Chase Manhattan Bank in New York and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

Set amidst the digitally dominated world of image-making, the unnatural yet convincing oeuvre she painted may seem less than remarkable. Yet in her hyperrealistic paintings created during the course of a long career, objects defy gravity, light and wind, seem to crystallize from nowhere, and space is deeper and more fantastic than any Photoshop studio can muster. This she did with the use of her mind and hand alone.

This only speaks to the frequency and technical qualities of her work. Her capacity to access and express the tricky relationship between the real and unreal was even greater. In her strange, magnetic landscapes, she offered an experience that went beyond the visual.

Witt earned a master of fine arts degree in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University, but it was painting that consumed her studio time. Intellectually driven by an interest in Jungian psychology, she began each of her complex images with only a thumbnail sketch, letting canvases take shape according to what came to her during the course of her painting.

In 1995, when Witt was 65, she published a collection of sketches, journal entries and paintings in the book “On Alternate Days.” Both personal and instructive, it represents a life lived deliberately and fully. It also suggests that to live such a life, the right and left brains must continually duke it out.


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