Quilt Woman: Nancy Mayer Allan
When we arrived to Nancy's colorful Pasadena home, we quickly gathered that she lives a vibrant life full of bright colors and fascinating experiences.
Being in the presence of a woman who knows herself as well as Nancy, is nothing short of aspirational. She's a painter, costume designer, photographer and creative beyond measure. Her curiosity for life is contagious and her genuine caring nature is what makes her an absolute gift to spend time with.
How has your background and upbringing influenced the woman you are today?
Wide-open West Texas skies and attitude. Loads of love, family, friends, and faith. I was taught to be anything I wanted, was given exposure to spirituality, sports, culture, arts, and music, so did it all! Life was not as “plugged in,” life was slower, so I had time to play in the afternoons, practice my piano, read books, in fact, we rarely watched TV (so when we did, it was a family affair and very memorable—LAUGH IN, SHINDIG, DISNEY FAMILY HOUR, THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW).
My parents were in love and it spilled over onto us—my father was sweet, gentle, kind; my mother was creative and fun-loving (she drove me 8 hours to Houston to see The Beatles when I was 11), welcoming (including all races). They taught me how to be a storyteller at the dinner table full of “company” (friends) and family and showed me the way to compassion by listening to others’ stories and embracing their differences. They were definitely unique in our part of the world—we had an unwed, pregnant young African-American woman live with us during her pregnancy; we entertained a young African-American military officer in our home on a regular basis; we included different Hispanic-American friends in our lives. This type of inclusion innately encouraged me to stand up for underdogs at school on a regular basis and for my little sister who was being bullied.
Also, my mother found a couture level seamstress in our isolated town and they spent many hours knocking off Chanel suits, Galanos evening gowns, etc., so I grew up around fashion creation...and good tea cookies (and I still have tea and cookies every afternoon)! This definitely influenced my choice of careers as a costume designer, when I discovered that such a career existed! I had naturally won costume party awards during boarding high school and at Stanford, so figured I could teach myself to be a designer, which is what happened.
All was not rosy in West Texas, however. When I was 5, I was sexually abused twice by a young teenage cousin, but because I had been learning that “God is good” at Sunday School, I instinctively knew these episodes didn’t seem right, so I told my grandfather who had been babysitting when they occurred. This stopped the abuse, but it wasn’t until I was a young adult that I really processed the event and was able to come to a state of complete forgiveness for my cousin. Because I feel my faith helped me heal, I continue to teach Sunday School 40 years later and hope it’s giving direction to other young people.
What advice would you give to your 30 year old self?
I had two of my four children by age 30 and did not discover my costume design career until I was 32, so I think I would remind my 30 year old self, who felt a bit isolated at home in the early 80s when many were not having children, that there are a lot of chapters in life, be present, and enjoy every moment of every day—stay in the now as much as possible. Enjoy what’s in front of you at any given time.
What are some tokens of wisdom that have stuck with you throughout the years?
Gosh, there are so many!
• Giving gratitude/giving back is huge and breaks pity-pot despair and whining.
• Look for the good in everyone even if it’s buried deep. You’ll be amazed at how often it sprouts in someone if you’re patient, expectant, and persistent. It’s helped me not write people off precipitously.
• Live the Golden Rule especially because every culture has a version of it—do unto others as you would have them do unto you.—so it’s something that can unite us instead of divide us.
• My husband always told the kids that the only constant in life is change, so learn to ride the wave of that and not despair by seeing it as a journey; there’s never really an arrival point!
• Actions speak louder than words. Such a simple truism that reveals much about a person’s character.
• What blesses one, blesses all—that helps us view things/behave from an inward +outward, me + them perspective.
• My aunt told me that the only difference between a rut and the grave is the depth. Yikes! Don’t want to be stuck in a rut!
• Try something new every year (that’ll help you not have ruts). We should expect progress/good so why not live it? As I said about change, life is an infinite journey, so we better keep learning as we go.
• Bloom where you’re planted. Don’t save up or postpone joyous living. Don’t think you can’t have as much fun doing errands as heading out on a spectacular voyage.
• Never limit/define yourself by age/time. Just because we circle the sun once a year and supposedly get “older” (who says?) doesn’t mean we suddenly stop being adventurous, expectant of good, compassionate, vital, full of possibility, etc.! I would also say this is true of our physical being—challenge prevalent assumptions about youth, mid-life, and older so-called limits for the body/brain.
• If I have to distill life down to one common denominator which transcends culture/ nationality/gender it is that everyone wants to be loved. It’s important to know that for better communication with each other because part of being loved is feeling you’re being heard.
• Live what you’re looking for. I say this all the time to people trying to attract a mate. Figure out the qualities you’re looking for and live them yourself!
• Our real job/meta-career is to figure out the spiritual/divine qualities we want to be and live them in every circumstance. So things like being loving, graceful, civil, compassionate, intelligent, honest, joyous, grateful, etc. are to be practiced at the grocery store, job, home, online. That’s what really defines us and our success and they’re not meant to be compartmentalized—e.g. nice at work, but a pain in the rear at home.
• If there’s a recurring pattern/problem in my life, I better look at it and fix it!
• I could probably keep going, but I’ll spare you more! Phew!
When was a time in your life that you went rogue and it paid off?
In some ways I feel most of my life has been rogue! I’ve never really felt that I was “mainstream” even though there is a core of me that has traditional values—I believe in manners, being married, attending church, for instance. But the most rogue thing really has been that all of my careers have been self-taught or DYI. For instance, I got a phone call from a friend asking if I would like to be a stylist for a new commercial director. I said, “Sure! I can do that!” I worked for that director for 20 years and learned so many amazing things about costume design because it was the heyday of commercials and he was a former art director who happened to love every detail of costumes, right down to the underwear, buttons, and cufflinks! It sent me spinning off into red carpet, movies/tv, and editorial with a thorough education.
How do you embrace uncertainty in life?
By embracing it and never allowing fear to motivate or limit! Fear is the first sign that you better snap out of it and find a solution. If you expect there will be a solution and a new, interesting chapter that is what will open up for you. It’s also incredibly important to be still, quiet, humble, and in LISTENING mode—what we need are fresh ideas and approaches so we have to be prepared to hear them. This is why it’s so important to unplug from social media/music/streaming and its attendant noise and distraction. I LOVE to think when I’m driving, not always blasting music. It’s amazing how much undistracted/uninterrupted thinking can happen that way! In fact, I always have my Moleskine calendar laying in the passenger seat, so I can jot down ideas that come to me.
If you have a difficult time making a decision, what do you do to find clarity?
More meditating/praying and listening to what I call, divine Mind...and when the heart feels right, that’s the answer! Head games (too much analysis) and pros/cons lists keep us confused and uncertain. I think you can get as much advice as you want, but ultimately, all individuals are required to take responsibility for their decisions. The other thing is understanding that it’s okay to change your mind if you start in one direction and it doesn’t feel right. The real enemy is not taking steps at all.
What is your favorite part of your home? Why?
My office/studio because it’s visually stimulating and everyone pretty much leaves me alone! I also love sitting at my vanity surrounded by family photos and tchotkes the kids have given me. I love our dining room because it is in a light-filled room with a soothing view of our garden/pool and one of my outdoor paintings and the dining table is the first piece of painted furniture our artist friend made for us. But honestly, I try to enjoy wherever I am, even if it’s plopped in the plastic Ikea chairs in the kitchen!