The walls of Lillian Peters Nimtz’s condominium in Grafton are filled with paintings – the 94-year-old artist’s memories of a rich, well-traveled lifetime.
“Ideas just come to you,” said Nimtz, an accomplished oil painter. “You get an idea from it and say, ‘Oh, I’d like to paint that.’”
Now Nimtz’s well-illustrated reminiscences are being shared with members of St. Joseph Parish, Grafton, where she has been a member since the early 1960s. Throughout September, about a dozen paintings from her 50-year artistic adorned the walls of the gathering space at the church.
Nimtz began painting as a teenager growing up on a farm in Arkansas.
“I didn’t think anything of it – it was just an activity, something I liked to do,” she said.
“I had an aunt who lived in Chicago and she came down to Arkansas during the Depression and she lived with my mother and my dad, and she was an artist. She used to give me her brushes and oil paints and while she was painting, I would sit and paint with her, so I thought I was an artist then, too!”
At the time, Nimitz was inspired to “just paint things around the farm where I lived.” Even today, the farm lives on in several of Nimtz’s works displayed at St. Joseph – including a depiction of two blue jays in a birdhouse, surrounded by autumn leaves.
At 21, Nimtz married Ralph Peters, a West Allis native stationed near Little Rock during World War II. Peters was also a woodworker, and began to take Nimtz with him to art shows in 1965.
“I started seeing all the other art pieces that people had done and I said, ‘I’m going to see if I can do that!’” she said. “I started going to the art shows then and people started buying my artwork.”
She moved to Crivitz in the Green Bay Diocese with her husband in the 1980s, where she opened a craft store and continued to sell her paintings.
“I really love to paint flowers, but people always wanted woodland scenes up there,” she said.
Nimtz returned to the Ozaukee area after Peters’ death, and subsequently married Donald Nimtz in 1996. The two shared a love of travel that would serve as further inspiration for Nimitz’s art.
“We traveled a lot when I first met Don,” she said. “I had never seen the ocean, either one of them, and in one year I saw both of them! We just traveled all over. We took a cruise to Alaska, and I just saw a lot of things to aid me in what I wanted to paint. We took a trip up to Mackinaw Island … I told my husband, when I get home, I’m going to paint a picture of this.”
These trips are also represented in the exhibit at St. Joseph – a sprawling southwestern vista is depicted in one painting, as well as a Tennessee watermill scene and an entire series of paintings inspired by her travels in the Amish countryside. One of her depictions of Crivitz is still hanging above the fireplace in the parish gathering space, where it will stay until the parish’s 165th anniversary celebration on Nov. 9, said parish volunteer Kathy Davies.
It was Davies who initially suggested to parish staff an exhibition of Nimtz’s work. To commemorate St. Joseph’s 165th anniversary, Davies has been writing short biographical sketches of parish members over the age of 90, which are then published in the bulletin during their respective birthday months. During her interview with Nimtz – whose birthday was on July 11 – Davies discovered her past as an artist.
“She has such a range of subject matter,” said Davies. “The ones that I really am very fond of are the smaller ones … little Amish scenes with little children, and they’re just stunning.”
“Lillian has an incredible use of color and perspective in her work,” said Randy Hilgers, St. Joseph’s director of liturgy. Hilgers selected the paintings for the exhibit, and said he feels especially moved by the “comfort and peace of mind in her paintings.”
Hilgers and Davies hope to do another exhibit of Nimtz’s work later this year featuring winter scenes.
With limited sight due to macular degeneration, Nimtz can no longer paint. Carrying on the family tradition of passing down both art supplies and talent, she gave all her brushes, paints and canvasses to her recently retired son, who lives in South Milwaukee. To her surprise and delight, he has become an avid portrait painter.
“I didn’t know that he would be interested in art, but I thought it would keep him busy while he was retired. He started painting and the first one he did, I thought it was just beautiful!” she said.
Despite her son’s enthusiasm for her work, she modestly claims that her family – which includes three children, 10 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren – “doesn’t think much of it – oh, they just think that’s Grandma and her painting!”