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Feature

Mary Nagan

U alum Mary Nagan's handmade aprons are sold at the Weisman Art Museum store. The full and half-size aprons are made of designs from the 1950s, each one unique.

Never too late

Mary Nagan graduated at 82; began a successful business at 89

By Kristi Goldade

Ninety-year-old Mary Nagan lives in Northeast Minneapolis in a well-lit apartment with watercolors, dyed fabrics, and woodblock prints decorating the walls. She walks with her friends on Tuesday nights to help patrol her neighborhood. "We report any activity that might be dangerous, or if people aren't picking up their trash, or if there's an old clunk car sitting out front [of a house], " says Nagan. "Our neighborhood isn't the greatest, but we're working at it."

That's not the only thing Nagan does that belies her age. Always an artist, she finally got her B.F.A. in 2000 at age 82 from the University, after taking classes off and on for years. "When I went back to school [after quitting during the Depression], I could feel there was something else [in me] that had to come out," says Nagan. "And it did, of course. Took a while, but it did.

"I did the whole [graduation] thing," says Nagan. "Even went to the president's house for tea, plus about six of my kids with me. All of us went in a little group, shaking his hand. He [president] said, 'Which one is the graduate?' 'Well I am!' I said.

"I took classes from everybody [during my years at the U], but Curtis Hoard inspired me the most. He came down on me the hardest--criticizing my work and telling me I could do better. He never said, 'Oh, that's nice.' Never. We went through many years together--he taught and I studied. Now he's retired and I graduated!"

In 2007, with the help of her granddaughter, Meghan, Nagan opened an online store called Mary Jane's Handmade to sell the aprons she creates. The full and half-size aprons are made of designs from the 1950s, each one unique, "It's not a production line. When I want to sew, I sew," says Nagan.

And then there's a mysterious "hip" allure. "My two granddaughters from New York came during the last show," says Nagan. "They each took a half-apron to wear over their jeans. One took two: one for the front, one for the back."

Her aprons are also for sale at the Weisman Art Museum on the Twin Cities campus, sharing space with jewelry, high-end art books, and pricey handbags.

"I first ran across Mary Jane's work last December at my book club," says Vanessa Johansson, Weisman Store manager. "A friend of mine had given one of her aprons as a gift. Instantly this very cool apron became the envy of the entire group. Needless to say, I was even more in love when I heard the surprising and inspirational story of Mary Jane herself."

Nagan buys her fabric from a store in Montana that reproduces designs from the 1950s. "In the '40s, they had prints in dull colors: black, brown, navy blue," she says. "In the '50s, everything brightened. Not only were the designs bright, but also, the fabric had activity in the background, and designs on top of that. I was lucky to find an outlet with [those] patterns."

Most of Nagan's customers are younger women who are nostalgic for an earlier time in their lives. "They say, 'My granny used to have an apron just like that!'" says Nagan. "And she probably did!"

And then there's a mysterious "hip" allure. "My two granddaughters from New York came during the last show," says Nagan. "They each took a half-apron to wear over their jeans. One took two: one for the front, one for the back."

Her commercial Web site is through Etsy, a site specifically for artists to sell handcrafted goods. "The Internet has certainly helped us," she says." We never dreamed of having a business. Now, all of a sudden, we have."

As for the future, Nagan doesn't know where her creative streak will take her next. "Right now, it's the aprons," she says. "They're easy to make, it's fun to sell them, and people get excited when they see them. But there might be something new, who knows."