We’ve given a lot of attention to Mary Emma Showalter in recent weeks with an article in The Mennonite about how she came to compile Mennonite Community Cookbook, our own blog post “What Would Mary Emma Say,” and ongoing tidbits on the Facebook page. Newspapers are running stories about the cookbook’s revival as well.
But a second major player in the success and look of this famous cookbook was artist Naomi Nissley.
Both Mary Emma and Naomi were relatively young and new in their fields—in fact both were still graduate students as they worked on the book. The great part is that Naomi’s husband Alexander “Sandy” Limont is still living and happy to talk about the book, and has been most helpful in our research into the history of the book, the covers, and the artwork. I was able to ask him and Naomi’s brother some questions about Naomi’s life and process in working with Mary Emma in creating the signature look of Mennonite Community Cookbook.
Naomi went to Eastern Mennonite College for a time and her brother Lowell Nissley felt sure that was how Mary Emma was acquainted with Naomi and her artwork. He recalled that Naomi was offered the opportunity to receive royalties from sale of the book, but took a cash payment instead: likely a big mistake considering the longevity of the cookbook. But as a grad student she likely needed the cash. He recalled Naomi as being self-depreciating but very enthusiastic about the opportunity to work on a cookbook of this scope. She couldn’t have realized at the time it would become the work for which she was most well known.
Naomi worked in careful concert with Mary Emma, corresponding back and forth. In one case, a detailed letter from Mary Emma gave gentle nudges toward tweaking drawings to better match Mary Emma’s considerable vision and opinion.
The drawings included the ordinary things of daily life, the quotidian (double click on any of these to get closer up),
and much more. Many were on-the-spot sketches drawn from Mennonite communities in central Pennsylvania.
Naomi’s professional bio includes that she dreamed of becoming an artist as a child, and studied painting and drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). She enrolled at additional art and graphic schools and her work was exhibited by invitation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Yale and Rutgers Universities, and Tyler School of Fine Art, in addition to PAFA and others. She once wrote about her work, “For me art is a constant dialogue between experience and artistic creation.”
Her husband Sandy was also an illustrator and graphic designer. He worked as an art director for an ad agency for a number of years. They were married for 55 years until Naomi died in 2010 at age 91. She was a member of the Highland Presbyterian Church in Lancaster and the Germantown Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
All of Naomi’s drawings that were used in the original 1950 cookbook are used in the 65th anniversary edition, published in February 2015.
Today I touched a bit of this history. In the humble way of an amateur blogger and photographer, I headed over to Eastern Mennonite University’s Menno Simons Historical Library, where I had made an appointment with the special collections librarian, Simone Horst, to haul out boxes of these framed and matted prints from the archives. Neither she nor I were sure when and why they were framed. Perhaps they were for a special display and celebration that happened at the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, Pa., while Naomi was still living, when she was asked to sign copies of the cookbook for those who attended.
The drawings are even more delightful in person than reprinted in the book. Perhaps we’ll have to work on getting these intriguing glimpses into heritage and history on display somewhere again.
We’ll continue to share more behind-the-scenes stories, photos and looks that you won’t find anywhere else. So do share this with any of your friends who are Mennonite Community Cookbook aficionados so they can sign up to receive our periodic blog posts!
Did you ever meet Naomi Nissley? Have a copy of the cookbook signed by her?
Don’t miss the new edition: A great gift for any fan whose own copy likely looks like this.
Melodie Davis, Managing Editor