Anne Wainscott can’t get anything done.
But don’t for a minute think it’s because she’s 93. She’s up at 6 a.m. to catch her favorite exercise programs, Body Electric on WOUB and Sit and Be Fit on CET. She recently painted her fridge a bold, Sevres pink (her favorite color), and sewed new, crisp white slipcovers for her semi-circular living room couch on her White sewing machine. And her granddaughter-in-law Jamie’s book club is gathering on her front porch tonight to discuss The Help by Kathryn Stockett, though Anne’s been too busy to finish reading it. Truth be told, Wainscott has more going on than most people half her age. But that’s not why she can’t get anything done. It’s the river that’s to blame.
“I thought I’d get out and paint every day. Then I thought, well, maybe one day a week,” she says, seated in a rocker on the expansive front porch of her Covington apartment, her cats Gino and Tosca snoozing nearby. “I just find myself drawn to it.”
Who could blame her? Wainscott’s home—an apartment she owns in an antebellum red brick house—sits just beyond the shadow of the Roebling Bridge on Riverside Drive. From here, mere steps from the water, it’s impossible not to be drawn to the Ohio River’s gentle daily rhythms. Wainscott has watched the tiara-topped Great American tower grow taller week by week, and over the summer, thanks to the Reds, she was treated to fireworks at nearly every home game. “I can’t get anything done because of this porch,” she says. “I just love watching the river.”
In case you have somehow missed the radio interviews, exhibits, and articles (including a short one in this magazine last July), Anne Wainscott’s work is having something of a renaissance. If you are a woman of a certain age, from 1947 to 1978 you bought clothes at Shillito’s in part because of Wainscott. Whether you wanted cotton skirts on sale or the latest Dior coat, her pen and ink illustrations in the newspaper lured you in the door, wallet at the ready. Last April, Landor Associates, the global branding agency that occupies the former Shillito’s space on Race Street, mounted an exhibit of Wainscott’s work called Inspired by Anne. More than a title, it’s the essence of what it is to know Wainscott, who to this day has a way of inspiring a creative chain reaction among old friends and new acquaintances alike.
“Right away, I thought, She’s someone I want to get to know,” says Mary Zalla about her initial meeting with Wainscott. Last January, Zalla, the managing director at Landor, was ready to redesign the company’s Race Street display windows but she wanted to do something…different. “We’d always used the windows to showcase our work, but it was always perfectly finished and Photoshopped,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but I really wanted to use the windows to inspire our employees, inspire our clients, engage the public, and just bring back the beauty of what once was.”
At a Covington dinner party late last winter, lightning struck. “I saw this piece of work which we’ve since named Woman in Flowered Shrug,” she recalls. “There was this beautiful woman in this beautiful illustration and her eyes were just incredible. I asked, ‘Who did that?’ and the host said, ‘Annie Wainscott. She lives down the street and she was a fashion illustrator at Shillito’s for years and years.’ And we all started talking about doing a show.” Seven weeks later, Zalla and her team unveiled Inspired by Anne.
The exhibit, which ran in Landor’s lobby last spring and summer, pulled together professional work from Wainscott’s time at Shillito’s—full-page, illustrated newspaper ads and a 16-foot-tall reproduction of Green Eyes, which like Woman in Flowered Shrug is one of her most captivating sketches—and mingled them with more personal items such as hand-drawn family holiday cards and furniture from her home. (The exhibit will go up again at the Cincinnati Museum Center this summer.)
“They took everything!” Wainscott said in mock horror as she showed me around her apartment. In their effort to recreate the essence of Wainscott’s home, Landor’s team hauled out her handmade clothes, her fur hats (she makes her own), even the writing desk she rescued from a secondhand store and covered with hand-painted flowers. If they could have transported her entire apartment into their lobby—like Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian—no doubt they would have, since it’s where she is truly in her element.
Whatever assumptions you may harbor about what a 93-year-old woman’s home is supposed to look like, check them at the entryway mural. The hand-painted woodland scene, replete with birch boughs and climbing roses, greets visitors just inside her front door. “That was the first thing I did when I moved in here 10 years ago,” says Wainscott. “I wanted the place to look like me.”
For home decorating junkies who still mourn the passing of Domino, check apartmenttherapy.com more than once a day, and know that The Selby is not a Manhattan boutique hotel, Wainscott’s apartment is a sensibly sized nirvana of chic, individual charm. In the middle of her living room sits the semi-circular couch she and her late husband Jim bought as newlyweds in 1939 at (where else?) Shillito’s. Oriented toward the French doors that lead out to the porch, its companions are an original Dorothy Draper chair (Dorothy Draper!), an oriental rug in a pastel blue scheme (also from Shillito’s), and a breakfront she stripped and refinished herself. For Wainscott, no surface is sacred—everything is a potential canvas.
The aubergine walls of the living room and the Tiffany blue walls of the dining area are hung with a mix of large gilt-framed mirrors and artwork by her husband and her two sons, Clay and Jim. Painted poppies adorn her kitchen cabinets and the Pepto pink walls of her studio match her newly painted fridge. (It was in this same studio where Zalla discovered Wainscott using the back-side of Green Eyes as a cutting mat.) Throw into the mix some Marimekko-esque cushions (she found the fabric at Urban Outfitters), a mid-century lamp here, a low, parson’s style end table there, a Norrsten storage cabinet from Ikea over there, and Wainscott’s apartment is the perfect mix of bohemian funk and uptown glamour. The look is curated, not cluttered. If Wainscott’s home doesn’t inspire you to cover your Antique White walls with color, then you need to check your pulse.
“She is seduced by beauty,” says Michelle Holley, an assistant professor of comparative literature at the University of Cincinnati who struck up a close friendship with Wainscott a decade ago when the two became neighbors. Over lunch at the Iris BookCafé, Holley recalled their first encounter. “I heard that this really cool artist was moving in and that she was an old lady and had a convertible and that I was going to love her,” she says. Wainscott, an animal lover, offered to walk Holley’s West Highland Terrier while Holley was at school. “And so she started walking my dog every day,” she says. “I’d come home from school, I’d go to Anne’s house to get the dog, and we’d sit on the porch and we really became good friends. Then we started gardening.”
Wainscott schooled Holley on the importance of bonemeal in the flower bed and the utter necessity of pink geraniums and white petunias in terra cotta pots. Now, Holley says, the once weed-ridden patch of land behind Wainscott’s apartment gets treated to “thousands”—that’s right, thousands—of tulip bulbs every fall. The two zip out to Funke’s and Rahn’s on Gray Road, Holley behind the wheel of Wainscott’s black Miata, to stock up on pink bulbs. “We started with a hundred and just kept adding,” Holley laughs. “We just started planting more and more. More is better.”
When Holley brought Wainscott along to see a dilapidated Dayton Street mansion she wanted to buy, “Annie said, ‘You have to get that house!’ ” Holley closed on the place last spring. Built around 1870, the enormous limestone home needs…everything. But inspiration is already flowing. Says Anne: “I saw a red in a picture of Oprah’s dining room that would look great in there. And a painted front door, maybe a dark glossy green….”
Born Anne Ketz, in 1917, Wainscott and her brothers Roy and Harold grew up in Price Hill. Her mother was Parisian and her father, who was from Russia by way of Cleveland, ran a tailoring business on Eastern Avenue. “I grew up playing with trimmings,” she says, and discovered a love of fashion early on. “Maybe in the eighth grade, dad gave me a fine serge wool and I made a pleated skirt. I used his big iron and he showed me how to pin the top and bottom and iron the pleats. I always wanted to make things myself because I wanted to look different.”
Wainscott can’t remember a time when she didn’t love to draw. After her high school classes in the morning, she would head to the Art Academy of Cincinnati to study art and illustration, hoping someday to become a fashion designer. In 1938, after finishing high school, Wainscott got her first job at La Mode, a women’s clothing shop on Sixth and Race. A year later she was freelancing at all the downtown stores—Shillito’s, Gidding-Jenny, Mabley & Carew. In 1939, while working at Shillito’s, young Anne Ketz caught the eye of Jim Wainscott, an artist from Knightstown, Indiana, who was making his way west after a stint in Greenwich Village. A talented illustrator and designer, Jim was also a persistent suitor. They eventually married and bought a 68-acre farm in Bullittsville, Kentucky.
Wainscott shows me Jim’s painting of their stone farmhouse that hangs in her violet-hued, light-filled bedroom. “I always found Jim’s work depressing to look at, but I thought I could manage this one,” she says. Every marriage has its challenges, but when both partners work in the same field, competition and jealousy can flare up. “I was warned. People told me not to marry him,” she says. But like many young brides at the time, Wainscott committed herself to making the marriage work.
The Wainscotts moved to Washington, D.C., in 1940 to help with the war effort. Jim illustrated military training aids and Anne, at 23, worked as the art director for the upscale Raleigh’s department store. In 1944 the couple relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, where they illustrated training aids for African-American troops and had their first son, Clay. From there the Department of Defense sent them to Riverside, California, where their second child, Jim, was born. By 1947, the family was back in Cincinnati and a chance meeting on the street with a Shillito’s executive who remembered her kicked off a 30-year career.
While the rest of the world has downshifted into tracksuits and flip-flops, dressing with care is still a pleasure for Wainscott. “I loved getting gussied up for work,” she says. Sitting on her couch, elegantly attired in a cream blouse and trousers, her hair piled softly atop her head, she would be a style-setter in any office. “I always tried to be different, but current,” she recalls. “I could just have a premonition, a feeling about what was coming in.”
If she wasn’t clearly having so much fun, you could say Wainscott suffers from a sort of artistic synesthesia: A trip to buy upholstery fabric eventually yields a Chanel style jacket. Cruising through a flea market means a set of iron chairs will get a new coat of turquoise paint. The alliums and money plant blooming in the garden now will become a sculptural indoor arrangement come fall. And on a quick trip to the hardware store—well, there are no quick trips to the hardware store—the bits and bobs and things all call out to become something else.
When I tell friends about Anne and the fact that she is still active and vital after nine decades, they invariably ask: “What’s the secret?” In the case of my paternal grandfather—who was still throwing backyard birthday parties for himself at 95—his unequivocal answer was “Goat’s milk!” (He drank it as a child.)
Nonagenarians seem to be having a significant cultural moment. Legendary journalist Daniel Schorr continued his weekly news analysis for National Public Radio until his death last year at 93. In November, The New York Times Magazine ran a story about 91-year-old Canadian shot putter Olga Kotelko. Physiologists are hooking up Kotelko, a record-breaking track and field star in her age group, to electrodes to measure the power of her heart and find out what makes her go. In its October 4, 2010, issue, New York ran a feature headlined “Nine Over 90”—nine New Yorkers who continue to influence media, art, law, and politics. They included Robert Morgenthau (91), who retired from his position as Manhattan District Attorney in 2009 and now works in private practice; painter Carmen Herrera (95), who sold her first painting at 89; and author Albert Murray (94).
So Wainscott is in good company, even though she’s seen her share of the not-so-good times, too. “Everyone has experienced tragedy,” says Holley. “Certainly if you live to 93 you’ve seen a lot of sad things. But she isn’t there. She lives in the present.”
Perhaps that’s the secret—the ability to renew, reinvent, and live in the moment. Certainly it helps to have projects, and these days she has plenty of those. When I last saw her, at the end of summer, a gallon-sized lavender plant fresh from Funke’s nursery was sitting on her front porch, waiting for a permanent home. Oh, and the bulbs still needed to go in. Says Holley, who plans to host Wainscott’s 94th birthday party in her new house on Dayton Street in February, “She’ll say, ‘If only I was 85 again, I could get so much done!’”
Photographs by Ryan Kurtz
Originally published in the January 2011 issue.