Cherry Hill resident finds beauty in nature, purpose in art

Ryan creates intricate pieces from simple tools in a simple space.

Edna Ryan isn’t slowing down at 93 years of age. Shown at her desk in her bedroom within her daughter’s sprawling rancher in Cherry Hill on Jan. 28, it’s here that Ryan meticulously plans and creates works of art showcasing nature, using pastel chalk and colored pencils.

Edna Ryan, an artist born and raised in Philadelphia but rooted in Marlton before a brief retirement in the South, hasn’t slowed down at age 93. She’s moving along at a perfect pace, which is what her art requires. 

Having taken up residence in a cozy room within her daughter’s sprawling rancher in Cherry Hill’s Barclay Farms section, Ryan is free to create unique drawings which focus and magnify the beauty of nature. 

“In 2013 my husband retired and decided we would sell the house in Marlton and move. We were down for three years in Rock Hill, S.C. It was beautiful. All of a sudden, we realized we missed (grandson) Nick so much, he was up here in New Jersey, trying to get a firefighter job up here, that we said ‘we want to move back,’” Ryan explained during a Jan. 28 conversation with the Sun. 

“My husband was so annoyed, but we moved back here four years ago. They’ve done a lot to it. It was quite a large rancher and it was just what we needed.” 

Ryan’s quarters include a desk, over which hangs five individual pieces of art created in the last few years since her return to the area. Her tools of the trade include various thick, colored pastel chalks, an array of colored pencils, and special paper called Pastelmat — a velvet-like card surface made from a fine coating of cellulose fibers, specially developed for those who work with pastels.

“I usually use pencil because when you get to a tight spot to paint or draw, you couldn’t use any bulky chalk like that. That’s why I use those two styles,” she said. 

Ryan estimated that a finished product would take four days to complete, working at least three hours per day to produce the detail and vibrant color which are her trademarks. 

“I’m not a speedy worker. I’m not as fast as some of the people you see on TV. I take my time and do it properly,” she admitted. 

Doing art “properly” has been a life-long pursuit. Ryan talked about her experiences in Catholic grade school, where the nuns would let her draw — with colored chalks as a treat — on a blackboard every Friday afternoon. When she was done, all of her classmates would copy the composition, and it served as the class art lesson for the week. 

Ryan continued as an art major at West Catholic, eventually serving as art editor of the yearbook. Her talent was such that, in addition to a $5 Art Prize presented at her 1944 graduation, one of the nuns there offered her a scholarship to what was then known as the Moore Institute of Art for Women. A tough decision on her future awaited. 

“That was tremendous, but I had already agreed to work for Smith Kline & French laboratories as a secretary because I had also taken office procedures as a major. And I knew four more years of my mother and dad taking care of me if I went to college, was going to be a job,” she revealed. 

“I thought, ‘I’m going to go for the secretarial work.’ I’m so glad I stayed with that job for 14 years. In the meantime, I was married, and (my husband) was there looking for a job and when he retired we got a great pension. If I had gone to the art school, I might never have met my husband. It was just a very happy ending.”

Francis Ryan, a veteran of two wars, passed away from cancer at the age of 94 last Father’s Day. 

“Every day you think about (him),” she said, matter-of-factly, on how the loss of her husband affects how she approaches her art.  

At the turn of the millennium, Ryan completed a series of six pen and ink drawings of historical buildings in Evesham Township, which were later donated to the Marlton Historical Society. In 2005, she received an Honorable Mention Award for her pastel work depicting dry iris pods in the annual Juried Oil/Pastel/Acrylic Exhibition at the Center for the Arts in Southern New Jersey. 

Ryan estimates that she’ll complete four or five pastel paintings each year. Some might go in ornate frames, some might be reproduced into smaller prints and given away. She’s not in it for the recognition, just for the satisfaction that creating something special provides the giver and receiver.