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Popular Mother and Child Artist Irene Spencer Dies

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Popular Mother and Child Artist Irene Spencer Dies
Courtesy of Susan Elliott
Updated January 20, 2006

Perhaps best known among collectors for her timeless portraits of mothers and children, artist Irene Spencer died in mid-January at her California, home, just a few weeks before her 90th birthday. In 1980, Plate World described her as “one of the most prolific and popular of women plate artists since Sister Berta Hummel.”

Spencer helped define the plate industry in the 1970s and ‘80s, becoming widely recognized at collector conventions and open houses around the United States. She created her first plate series for The Franklin Mint in 1972, designing five Mother and Child images for a sterling silver Mother’s Day series. This was just two years after The Franklin Mint commissioned iconic artist Norman Rockwell for his first collector plate.

In a 1979 interview, Spencer remembered when Franklin Mint founder Joseph Siegel contacted her to create her first plate. “I felt like Cinderella; the glass slipper fit my big foot. It really did. It was so thrilling.”

When full-color designs came to art plates in the mid-seventies, Gorham made the “Spencer’s Annual” series on porcelain with the pioneer women of Dear Child and Promises to Keep. Fairmont China completed the series with Patient Ones and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Her popular “Special Requests” series depicted mothers cradling their pajama-clad babies in Hug Me and Sleep Little Baby. She soon joined Pickard China, another major American producer, to create innovative, high-end plate series heavily ornamented with 24-karat gold. The “Mother’s Love” series featured her award-winning Miracle painting. “Symphony of Roses” from Pickard merged Spencer’s love of flowers with memorable portraits of young women and “Let’s Pretend” showed children as heroic figures from history.

She also created numerous lithographs, figurines, bells, art pendants, ornaments, dolls and plate series for Goebel, Roman, The Danbury Mint, and her own company, Irene Spencer Inc.

Award programs in the industry debuted in 1980, just in time to honor Spencer’s Miracle as both Plate of the Year and Lithograph of the Year. The National Association of Limited Edition Dealers also recognized her in 1991 with an Award of Devotion.

Spencer began art lessons at age 9 at the Art Institute of Chicago, before her father’s death when she was 11. During the Depression, she ran away to join the circus and spent two years traveling as the glamorous girl on the elephant. (She once swapped stories with comedian/artist Red Skelton about his days as a circus clown and hers as an elephant girl.) During World War II she drew maps for Rand McNally that pinpointed the locations of German armaments for bombing runs. In the 1940s, she wrote a script that aired on the popular radio show, “The Shadow.”

She also worked as a newspaper cartoonist and a commercial artist, which she said prepared her well for the fine art career she began in 1964. As a commercial artist, she designed campaigns ranging from pickle labels to Bonne Bell cosmetic ads. A billboard Spencer designed for Donald Duck Peanut Butter featured her daughter Jeanne and a neighbor child. She did everything from lettering to writing copy and jingles, later using that experience to design her own ads and plate boxes for the plate series she produced.

“Commercial art was a fantastic way to touch on other fields of art besides painting,” she said. “It all helped, just as living helps your artwork. Actually, artwork isn’t the right word. It isn’t really work to me, but everybody has to have something they call their work; so even thought it’s mostly fun I call it my work.”

When her vision deteriorated, Spencer gave up oil painting and focused on writing and illustrating children’s books. Subjects such as Something Nice Will Happen Today and Mama Loves Me drew upon her quirky sense of humor.

An avid gardener, Spencer tended three-and-a-quarter acres of land on a hilltop north of San Diego. She enjoyed growing roses, camellias, orchids, avocados, and had a large orchard of lime trees. She loved animals, and through the years lavished attention on various Siamese cats and Dachshunds.

“My art is so much a part of me that I don’t think of it as work anymore than I think of myself as having two feet,” she said.

Once asked what she would have been if she had not been an artist, Spencer replied, “There’s no second choice. The fact that I’ve always known what I wanted to make my life’s work and that I’ve always been able to do it in one way or another, to me that’s success. And to have people enjoy your work, that’s especially gratifying. But my goal now is the same as when I was 9 years old. It’s really very presumptuous, but: I want to be the best artist in the world. It simplifies my life to have that goal. I don’t have to worry about any other.”

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