American artist Nancy Chandler began creating unique maps, cards and gifts celebrating life in Thailand in the early 1970s.
A native of San Francisco, her unique style was influenced by her family, her early years in the design business in the US, and a year she spent in Nepal before moving to Thailand in 1969. In Thailand, her work took many forms, from t-shirt and logo design to the maps and cards she is recognized for today.
In her later years, Nancy spent much of each year in the US with her youngest daughter Kim, a high functioning Down Syndrome young lady who has won many Special Olympics medals and is an artist as well. Nancy returned to Thailand annually on research trips and to visit friends and family, including her two other daughters, Nima (now her business partner) and Siri (a mindfulness trainer and former international school kindergarten teacher).
Nancy inherited much of her sense of style and whimsy from her parents, interior designers Maurice and Winona Sands. She recalls them flipping through magazines with her, discussing not the stories or pictures, but good layout, colors and fonts. The family was also known for its witty, hand-lettered holiday cards, often incorporating personal touches in unusual ways. One year, for example, the family holiday card showed a traditional Christmas tree, with photos of each family member hung as tree ornaments.
Nancy also had an unusual favorite childhood pastime - studying cartoons in the New Yorker and trying to copy them. Today, she still describes cartoonists Saul Steinberg and Charles Addams as “the real masters”.
When Nancy entered the University of California at Berkeley’s art history major, she was somewhat disappointed as a result. While the great masters of art history may have been “creative”, they were never known as masters of humor.
She found an outlet for her whimsy in her first jobs. At the Student Art Bureau, she produced posters for student activities, and at a small print shop, Ed Kerwin Graphics, she learned the basics of printing.
In 1963, Nancy married Harvard Law School student Al Chandler. She moved with him to Massachusetts and later Washington DC, taking on art assignments along the way, including a stint with Art Designers of Virginia working on catalog design.
While she got on-the-job training and Al put in long hours at his first job as a lawyer, many of their law school friends were in Africa, having opted for international fellowships as their first work assignments. The postcards they sent the young couple planted a seed. Nancy and Al soon signed up for the same opportunity.
When the Maxwell Foundation-Syracuse University Public Fellowship Program took them on in 1966, however, it assigned the young couple to a year not in Africa, but to Kathmandu, Nepal.
After moving into a charming Nepali farmhouse with mud floors, Nancy realized several of her art supplies had gone 'missing' enroute. Turning to the local market for replacements, she discovered the bright hues of the puja powders, colors which influenced her work for years to come.
While not officially working, Nancy’s sketches of Nepalese characters and scenery caught the eye of other expatriates. This led to commissioned work, which was the young couple’s only income during the six months after Al’s assignment was completed. (They had decided to stay on longer for the birth of their first daughter before moving back to the US.)
When the couple left Nepal in 1968, two months after the birth of their daughter, they chose to travel home via India, Tanzania, Uganda, Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan. Once back in the Washington DC area, they realized something was missing in their lives.
Life in Thailand
Only eleven months after returning to the US, Al and Nancy moved back to Asia. Al had landed a job with a young law firm in Bangkok. In June 1969, with their second daughter well on the way, the family relocated to Thailand. Little did they know Al would decide to establish his own firm in Bangkok in partnership with a Thai colleague only a few years later, making Thailand the family home.
Upon her arrival, Nancy began illustrating for the American Women’s Club Sawaddi magazine as a volunteer. Her work was subsequently published in Living magazine and the Bangkok Post. In the early 1970’s, at the suggestion of a friend, Nancy began designing Thai greeting cards for expatriates. In 1974, she established Nancy Chandler Graphics Ltd. Her first map of Bangkok was published that same year and her map of Chiang Mai followed in 1981. While researching her maps was great fun (see photo at right), at the same time, Nancy was working on a variety of projects.
For the Royal Varuna Yacht Club, she produced t-shirts, brochures and humorous certificates for graduates of the junior sailing program. A job for the International School of Bangkok led to her signature series of murals depicting Thai temples and river scenes, which she would personalize for friends on special occasions - adding buildings, banners and silly comments representative of their time in Thailand. For others, Nancy created area maps, moving and birth announcements, anniversary cards, advertising art, logo and package designs.
“The joy of working in Thailand was the huge variety of jobs I was able to do,” said Nancy. “If I had been in America, I would have had to have been specialized.”
In the late 1980s, Nancy began experimenting with new styles and methods, including etchings, watercolors and collage. She teamed up with other artists to establish the Inky Fingers Inc. collective, exhibiting locally.
Associations she was actively involved in, besides the American Women’s Club, were the International Women’s Club, the Bangkok Women’s Forum, Soroptimists International Bangkok, the National Museum Volunteers, the Neilson Hays Library and the International School of Bangkok board.
More Recent History
Since returning to spend more time in the US in 1987, her work has been exhibited at the College of Marin and the Bay Model. In 1993, Nancy was chosen to design the official Sausalito Art Festival t-shirt. In the new millenium, however she spent most of her time working on her collection of Thai designs, new map artwork as needed, and lots of special personal projects.
While Nancy and Al divorced, they remained friends. Al’s law firm, Chandler & Thong-ek, continues to represent Nancy Chandler Graphics in Thailand and provides invaluable assistance.
Nancy’s two eldest daughters made Thailand their homes, Siri a mindfulness teacher, Nima managing Nancy’s business since the late 1990s.
Thailand is, as a result, home to the family and a continuing source of inspiration for the team that will continue Nancy's legacy.