San Juan Island Artist & Author: Nancy McDonnell Spaulding

Nancy McDonnell Spaulding
San Juan Island Artist and Author Nancy McDonnell Spaulding

“One of the things that drives my art is the desire to protect beautiful places,” said . An accomplished San Juan Island artist and newly published author, Nancy’s work does so by showcasing simple pleasures — often found tucked among awe-inspiring sights. 

Nancy and her husband, fellow artist Lewis Spaulding, moved to San Juan Island in 1979. Though they met in the dusty desert at the University of Tucson, they grew up in small Vermont towns. While on their first San Juan Island bike trip, they’d discovered echoes of their childhood homes among the rolling farmlands. In fact, they purchased the exact plot of land where they stopped to rest during that first trip in the mid-70s. 

The farmland was beautiful, and we thought to ourselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a place like this.’ A few years later on a whim, we asked the little real estate office if there was anything for sale and he drove us to that very field.

Recalled Nancy

Crazy enough to dream, they moved to an uninhabited plot in the San Juans with a small trailer, their two daughters, a dog, a cat, and a goldfish. The first order of business was to build a small studio; they’d already begun supporting themselves as artists and needed to keep up with their work. 

At the time, the couple specialized in fine art screen printing, specifically serigraphs. Though beautiful, it was, “not a very forgiving discipline. It was demanding because once you started to print a color, you had to keep going until you were finished,” Nancy explains.

Nancy McDonnell Spaulding 1
Nancy McDonnell Spaulding 2
Nancy McDonnell Spaulding 3

Among the simple pleasures that she showcases in her work— cultivating a rose garden, taking long walks through the island forests, and building a geodesic house — Nancy and Lewis shared the beauty of life through their art.

Today, Nancy has taken on the more forgiving medium of pastel. Her works are produced slowly, deeply inspired by what she sees in her garden and while exploring the island.

“I love that it’s very malleable. It’s the purest form of pigment an artist can work with.. And it’s also opaque, so you can put lights over darks and just keep creating,” she says. 

In 2020, Nancy found her way into another artistic medium, the written word. Prior to the pandemic, she’d given Road Scholar presentations on the island and frequently been asked to recount her story of becoming an island artist.

“In the past, I often felt I didn’t express myself very well verbally. But now I’m leaning on both mediums, words and art. And I’ve found that I love working with words as much as color.”

Nancy’s memoir, HOME IN AN ISLAND GARDEN: in pursuit of an artful life, explores the struggles, triumphs, and simple joys of carving out a life on San Juan Island.