Portraits, Pensacola and the Blue Angels—these themes feature prominently in the work of local painter, Nina Fritz. Nina’s uniquely intimate and whimsical style has garnered her fans around the world. Her portraits capture both the physicality and the personality of her subjects, while her beach scenes, landmarks and landscapes capture the beauty and joy of life on the Gulf coast.
Born in Philadelphia, Nina’s family moved to a farm when she was very young. After graduating high school, Nina went to work for RCA Records where she met her husband of 62 years, Norman Fritz. Norm served in the Air Force and the couple traveled all over the world, most notably a two-year stint in Japan where Nina fell in love with painting.
Nina credits the support of her husband and mother for her long painting career. Norman insisted she go to college to study art—at a time when many husbands may have resisted. He also supported her frequent overseas travels to study with the great masters of painting around the globe.
After decades of painting, Nina Fritz isn’t slowing down. In fact, she’s painting more than ever and she’s having the time of her life.
Where you were born?
I was born in Philadelphia. I was the eighth of nine children. When I was three and a half, my dad bought a farm in New Jersey and moved us all there. We all had to work on the farm. Being the youngest one, I got off pretty easy. I got up in the morning before I went to school to milk the cows and feed the animals. We worked very hard. A lot of that work ethic is still with me today because I love producing. All my friends in school thought I was living a dream life on the farm. I always thought they were living a dream life because they were in town. My friends would come to the farm. They loved riding the horses and milking the cows and feeding the animals. To them, it was play, but to me, it was work. Of course, they were there for only a few hours at a time.
Did you have a favorite animal?
A horse of course, but I even loved the chickens. I had chicken pets. They follow you around. We always had pets, and it hurt me when my dad would call the vet and he would have to shoot a cow or a pig. That was always a sad thing for me.
What were you like as a child? Shy? Outgoing?
I have to admit, I was a very good kid. I really was a good kid. I always wanted to please my parents and they would even say to me, “You never gave us any trouble.” I was pretty quiet.
Were you creative as a child?
My teachers always called on me to do anything artsy because they knew I had maybe a little something. But I want you to know this—that little something doesn’t mean anything, if you don’t use it. And through the years, I’ve taught some very talented students. Some with much more ability than me. But, they never did anything with it. It never blossomed. So, beside the talent, you must love it. No talent will survive the blight of neglect.
What did you do for fun?
In grammar school, not too much. When I got into high school, I was a cheerleader. I went out for sports. I was even on the basketball team—as short as I am. But I never played. I always kept the bench warm during games. I came out of my shell when I was in high school. It is one of my favorite times of my life.
What did you do after high school?
I went right to work at RCA Records. I was secretary there. That’s where I met Norman. I worked in the blueprint department in the factory in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
How did you and Norman meet?
Norman was going to school there. He was in the Air Force, and they sent him to school at RCA. I was walking down the hall at work, and he stopped me to ask for directions. So, I gave him the directions. And then the next day, he said, “Can I take you home from work?” Well, my mom and dad were born in Italy, and my dad very strict—especially with my older siblings. I told Norman, “I have to ask my family first.” I did, and then he took me home and met everybody.
What did you do on your first date?
He took me to a movie in Philadelphia—The Man of a Thousand Faces with James Cagney. The first night, on the way coming home, he stopped somewhere and he said, “Will you marry me?” I just laughed. I was 21. And Norman was 24. He had to leave in about six weeks. Before he left, he asked me again. He said, “Will you marry me?” I said, “No way.” So, he left and then we wrote back and forth. He was stationed in Washington State. He asked me to come to Washington and marry him. I said, “No.” So, he said, “Well, can I come there?” I said, “Yes” He left in August, and we wrote until January when we got married. I have five older sisters, and they put together our wedding overnight. We got married at the Catholic Church, and then we had the reception at the farm. The next day we had to fly out because he had to be back in Washington. He had the house and everything ready. It was so cute. About a month later, we drove down the West Coast to Santa Ana, California, to meet his family, and they gave us a wedding reception.
So now you are married and you’re an Air Force wife. How was that?
I loved it and I miss it. I miss the travel and the people. For 20 years, we were in the Air Force. It becomes a family of sorts.
How long did you stay in Washington? Where did you go from there?
Now this gets complicated. We stayed in Washington for a little over a year, and I was very homesick. I’d never been out of the state of New Jersey, practically. But we stayed there for about a year. Then Norman got called to go on this traveling team where he taught a six month course on radar systems to students. So, every six months, we would move. We did that before we had children.
What were you doing during that time? Were you working?
I never worked outside the home. I was a mother and a wife. I started painting when we went to Japan.
Tell me about that. Were you excited?
Oh, yes. We were stationed near Tokyo. We had two children then, and we had two more children in Japan. I made announcement cards with a little naked baby, and they said “made in Japan.” It was in Japan that you became interested in painting.
Tell me about that.
Well, at that time, everyone had a maid in Japan. When the maid came, I would go out. I was interested in ceramics, so I went to the school on base. One day, I was there doing my ceramics, and I peered into this room where they were all painting. It was so quiet and peaceful. They were all just painting, and a light bulb went off. It seemed like a turning point for me--just watching them paint. I joined that class, and I never stopped from that day on. The first contest I entered was there at the base, and I won an award. I even forget what the painting was, but I still have the little, silver cup.
Did you eventually go to school for painting? How did you decide to do that?
Well, we came back to the states, and we no longer had a maid. I thought, “I’m probably going to have to quit painting.” If it wasn’t for my husband, that’s what would have happened. He insisted I go back to school. So, I enrolled in school everywhere we moved. That’s how I got my education. I also studied with the greatest masters in the world up until a couple years ago. I had to stop that. But everything I learned, I learned from the best. And I’m still learning.
How many children do you have?
We have five children--Norman, Jr, John, Paul, David and Nicole. Our oldest son, Norman, passed away. He would have been 61. He passed at Auburn University. He was running track there. He just collapsed and it was a huge shock. When Norman passed, Auburn accepted John and they wanted him to take Norman’s scholarship. It was very touching. Auburn is very close to our hearts.
You moved here in 1974, right? Why did you choose to come to Pensacola?
Norman had to finish his schooling here. We were in Panama City. We bought a home there and we thought we would be there forever. But then we came to Pensacola. We loved it here so much more. We sold our home in Panama City and moved here. We are so happy we did.
When did you discover that portraits would be a focus for you?
When I was in grammar school, I loved drawing people. I always was drawn to doing figures and portraits.
Is there a part of the body that is hardest for you to draw?
Hands. But, I just love doing the eyes, nose and mouth. This one master from Austria told me to have all the fun in the eyes. Do them as detailed as you want. Maybe a little less detail in the nose. Then the mouth, you leave it out. Now, that’s an exaggeration. But you don’t put too much detail into the mouth.
What artists do you admire? Who are your inspirations?
My biggest inspiration is Sorolla. He died in 1925. He painted figures and people on the beach. He is from Valencia, Spain. I love his work.
You’ve been married for 62 years. What’s the secret?
Well, we kind of like each other, and we kind of like being around each other. I don’t know if there’s any secret to that. We still like holding hands.
Tell me about the work you do with inmates.
For the past 10 years, I’ve been going to the jail once a week—before COVID. I would paint the inmates and give it to them. I was asked to come teach. I was at the point where I didn’t want to create a lesson plan. So I told them I would come and do a demonstration. I just wanted to paint. So that’s what I did. They would all sit around and watch, and they would choose a person to sit for a portrait. It took about an hour. That was it. They were absolutely wonderful. Whenever I had to miss a day, they would always have a little gift for me when I came back—always something that they made. One time, I did a painting of this young man. He was about 19 or 20 years old. He was about to get out and he wanted to take his painting with him, but there was some sort of red tape that he had to go through to bring his painting out with him. He said, “Well, I am not leaving unless I can bring my painting with me.” His friends, the other inmates, were saying, “Dude, just go. You can get that painting anytime. Just get out of here.” He said, “I am not leaving without my painting.” The next day they gave him the painting and told him to go. He was walking down the street and the guys were all looking out the window and he was dancing around with his painting.
You donate a lot of your work to local charities. Why is that important to you?
I feel like painting is not work. It’s a joy—and to whom much is given, much is expected. We are so blessed. Also you can’t out give God. It seems like the more you give, the more that comes back. You just cannot give enough.
How did you get into teaching painting?
Well, when our son passed away, I didn’t paint for seven years. My friend was a long time artist here in Pensacola who has since passed away. She was teaching at the college, and she called me and she said, “Nina, I am sick. Would you take over this class?” And so I said, “Sure.” It was all a plan for her to get me back into painting. That was the only time I’ve taught at the junior college level. From then on it was always private classes. I did that for a while, but then I got to the point where I just wanted to paint. I wanted to pull all the stops and just paint. I feel like this is the best time of my life. I can paint anything I want, whenever I want.
After seven years of not painting, how did it feel when you picked up a brush again?
Scary. I’ve always told my students that if you don’t paint or draw for one week, you notice it. If you don’t paint or draw for one month, your patrons will notice it. If you go for over a year, you have to start all over again. Losing a child is the worst kind of grief.
How did you travel through that grief and get to a place where you can live again and be at peace with his memory?
At the time, you feel like your whole world is shattered and it will never be back again. You look out at the world outside and you think, “Why are they doing that? Don’t they know? Don’t they know?” And you sort of bear it. I thought I was going to lose Norman because of his grief. It’s hard to verbalize. It’s very difficult. You just put one foot ahead of the other. Then time is your friend—because time does heal. It’s hard to tell that to anybody who is grieving because it doesn’t seem that way. But it’s true. Today, I’m able to talk about Normie. When his friends come over, we talk and laugh. I love it when they talk about him.
You’ve just finished illustrating a book. Tell me a little bit about that.
Angie Taylor and I have been friends for 40 years. She wrote some lovely prose, and she asked me to illustrate it. I’ve done things through my illustration that I’ve never done before. I’ve had to really think about what I’m painting in order to portray a message. I’ve never had to really delve that deep before. It was nothing but pure fun. The book is called, The Crab Dance.
What else are you working on? Any special projects?
Well, I just finished a project last summer with Trident Mortgage in downtown Pensacola. The owner, Marty, called me in the spring, and he said “I have all these white walls. I need you to fill them up.” So I did. I painted all summer, and I did nine large paintings of local scenes. I also show my work now at Just Judy’s. She’s a dear friend of mine. She handles the ornaments, cards and paintings. We have a signing session every Monday. I go down there and sign work for people.
Do you have any advice for young people interested in art?
You have to love the act of painting. You have to stay with it and nurture it. You can’t neglect it. I think that’s the key. I feel
like I’m having a love affair with painting because I just have to paint.
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