In 1960, Fay Chandler was “Approaching Forty,” as she announced in the title of her first self-portrait, painted that year.
“I thought the time had come for me to learn to pray,” she later wrote, and that spiritual longing brought her to the philosophy of Paul Tillich, whose writings inspired her to want to look at life more closely.
Becoming an artist in her late 30s was a way of sharply observing the world.
“I’m still learning to see,” she wrote more than a half-century later in an autobiographical sketch for The Art Connection, a nonprofit she helped found in 1995. “I’ve come to feel that, in a sense, my paintings are my prayers. I don’t understand them, but the process makes them real to me.”
For more than 50 years she distilled life’s experiences into works of acrylic, charcoal, ink, oils, pastels, watercolors, and enamel spray paint, sometimes in combinations. She also assembled small figurative constructions from objects friends gave her or items plucked from trash others tossed.
“In the paintings, people are amorphous, wiggly blobs that fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,” Globe art critic Christine Temin wrote of Mrs. Chandler’s work in 1986. “In the constructions, little metal thingamajigs line up like anonymous attendees at a cocktail party or a political rally where everybody thinks the same way. The images are goofy, but they’re also refined.”
Eight years ago, after her husband died, Mrs. Chandler moved from their Cambridge home into a converted Brighton firehouse. Officially, her studio was on the upper level of two floors connected by a compact elevator, and her bed was below, but works she created were never more than a stride from wherever she stood or slept. Mrs. Chandler kept painting in her artist’s quarters until going into St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton a couple of days before she died March 3, at 92, of complications from a heart attack.
An enlivening figure among Boston artists since the early 1970s, when she began painting in a Boston Center for the Arts studio in the South End, Mrs. Chandler also took a singular path toward supporting the arts.
“I think you would have to say she has been a pivotal figure in arts philanthropy in this city,” said Paul S. Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation. “Certainly she was one of the most active and generous of donors.”
She gave away more than $1 million annually, spreading donations among more than 200 organizations over the years, including many in areas other than the arts. Mrs. Chandler’s impact reached far beyond those agencies, however, when she and a few friends launched The Art Connection. The nonprofit invites officials from organizations, along with patients or clients they serve, to choose from among hundreds of works artists donate. Their choices are then displayed free in the agencies. Since its inception, The Art Connection has placed 6,745 works by 409 artists in 369 agencies.
“She really was the heart and soul of what we do,” said Susan Collings, executive director of The Art Connection, which is based in Boston and has sister sites across the country and in South Africa. “It’s such a win-win both for the artists who want to find a home for their work and the recipient agencies that are absolutely delighted to make the selection.”
Mrs. Chandler “believed that art could ignite hope and save lives, and she was right,” said her longtime friend Swanee Hunt, a former US ambassador to Austria who is a philanthropist and public policy lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“She would often make the point that most people go through their whole lives without direct exposure to art,” Grogan said of Mrs. Chandler, “and she was going to fix that for an awful lot of organizations, and she did so.”
The younger of two sisters, Fay Martin grew up in Norfolk, Va., in a family of integrationists. Her father was a banker, and an uncle and a grandfather each served as the city’s mayor. She graduated from Sweet Briar College, a couple of hundred miles west, where she studied sociology. During World War II, she met Alfred DuPont Chandler Jr. They married in 1944 and he became a respected historian of American business, teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard Business School. In 1978, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business.”
“Luck does count,” he wrote in 1965 as he described his life in an anniversary report of his Harvard class, and added: “My greatest piece of luck, however, came long ago when Fay Martin agreed to marriage.”
The Chandlers lived in Brookline while he taught at MIT, but Mrs. Chandler found her calling when he moved to Johns Hopkins. She graduated with a master of fine arts in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art.
“Someone asked her to do a self-portrait,” said her son Alfred “Appy” Chandler III of Rowley. “She was just beginning to read Kierkegaard and all the great Protestant philosophers. She did this painting, which is a skeleton filled with sentences.”
That was “Approaching Forty,” a work winking with wry humor, such as the title of a book by the skeleton’s hand: “Six Easy Steps to A Pleasant Life.” During her career, she had numerous shows at galleries and museums including Danforth Art in Framingham, where she was honored at a reception last fall.
“Her art was totally quirky,” said Clara Wainwright, an artist and a founder of Boston’s First Night celebration. “She liked to make assemblages that brought diverse things together, and I think that’s the way her life was: She liked to bring all kinds of people together.”
Wainwright added that Mrs. Chandler “was just a model for the way to live. She enjoyed life to the hilt, and I’m sure Fay didn’t have an enemy in the world. It’s very hard to say that of most people.”
“She was poetically plainspoken,” said Hunt, who recalled bringing items to Mrs. Chandler “like broken plastic spoons or hair curlers, and they would appear in her next piece of art. She had that kind of imagination.”
A service will be announced for Mrs. Chandler, who in addition to her son leaves two daughters, Alpine “Dougie” Chandler Bird of Annapolis, Md., and Mary “Mimi” Chandler Watt of Dinas Powys, Wales; another son, Howard of Cambridge; five grandchildren; two step-grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Chandler “was in many ways a straightforward and uncomplicated person,” her son Appy said. “She loved to walk barefoot. She liked to be direct.”
Near her functional single bed, which was only partly guarded by standing screens, a sign over a doorway informed visitors: “If you’re not barefoot then you’re overdressed.” She often dined at Big Daddy’s, a pizza joint a few steps from the converted firehouse, where one of her paintings adorns a wall.
After losing sight in one eye about a decade ago, Mrs. Chandler sported an eye patch, which delighted children and her adult friends as well.
“All of my life, I’ve been sort of an oddball,” she said in a 2012 interview with Sweet Briar College Magazine, a publication of her alma mater. “I think it’s just been my life to be that way and not really mind it.”
On Sunday mornings Hunt picked up Mrs. Chandler, clad in a hat and three scarves, and they drove with the top down to and from services at the Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain.
“It was so much fun,” Hunt said. “On the way home, she would deliver a sermon to me. As you can imagine, she would be shouting over the traffic. She would be shouting about whether she believed in God, and saying, ‘I’m not sure God cares, one way or another.’ ”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.