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Pandemic Draws Former Shillito's Fashion Illustrator Back To What She Loves

shillito's
Courtesy of Mary Jean Megginson
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Mary Jean Megginson at Cincinnati's Shillito's department store in 1956.

Before the pandemic, Mary Jean Megginson was a thriving 89-year-old fashionista and social butterfly living in Dayton. So when she transitioned to quarantine life, it was rough, especially since she lives alone.

"I was getting really bored and going crazy," Megginson says. "I was doing my exercises in the morning like I always did. And then I was reading and watching television all day. And it just was really getting to me. It was just not me."

And her family was worried for her.

mary jean megginson
Credit Courtesy of Caitlin Nystrom
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Mary Jean Megginson

"It had only been two weeks and I was like, what are we going to do with her?" says Caitlin Nystrom, Megginson's granddaughter. Nystrom lives in New York City. Since she couldn't stop by to visit, she came up with another idea to help. She talked to a friend about art projects.

"I was like oh my gosh, art supplies; grandma, duh."

Decades ago, Megginson had been a fashion illustrator in Cincinnati. Nystrom encouraged her grandma to start drawing again. Megginson was apprehensive.

"I said, 'Caitlin, I have a tremor in my hand.' And she said, 'I knew you'd say that. It doesn't have to be perfect,' " Megginson recalls. "So I thought, well, let's try this. And it's something I never thought I'd do again."

However, the next morning, March 29, 2020, Nystrom got a text message from her grandmother which had a photo of the first sketch.

Then, Megginson started drawing every day, just like when she was a young woman in Cincinnati decades ago.

fashion illustration
Credit Courtesy Mary Jean Megginson
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As a teenager, Megginson knew what she wanted. "All I wanted to do was draw," she says.

So she enrolled at the Central Academy of Commerical Art in the '40s. Then her dad had an idea.

“I went to Shillito's, which was one of the big department stores here in Cincinnati," Megginson recounts. "I took some sketches and the advertising manager said, 'Well, I'll tell you what. If we can use your sketches – because you don't know how they're going to reproduce – we will pay you. If not, we won't.' "

Megginson accepted the deal and Shillito's took all her sketches. Eventually, she left art school and worked full time illustrating mostly women's fashion for advertisements in newspapers. She also learned the tricks for men's and children's fashion, as well as the other departments. Eventually she worked for Pogues, another department store. Then, once she married and had children, Megginson was freelancing overnight.

"At that time, I was driving from Hamilton, Ohio, 30 miles down to Cincinnati to pick up merchandise, quick come home and do it and then take it back because it's always a rush job," she says.

However, Megginson couldn't maintain the grueling schedule and gave up her fashion illustration career around 1970. Years later, her hand tremor stopped her drawing altogether. That is until her pandemic sketching diary began. Now she sketches with ink and colored pencil about three or four hours a day, in between doing aerobics and cocktail hour at home.

"It's slower basically, but it's been going great."

One of Megginson's earliest sketches was a woman wearing a giant hat of candles to commemorate her 90th birthday. Her granddaughter loves the whimsy. "She has the coolest style and there's so much movement and emotion in her pieces," Nystrom says. "So it's just fun to see what she comes up with."

fashion illustration
Credit Courtesy Mary Jean Megginson
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Megginson is inspired by magazine and newspaper cutouts she's saved for years. She even sketched an inauguration series that featured Vice President Kamala Harris, former first lady Michelle Obama, and Lady Gaga.

While most of the sketches are finished in a day, Megginson has some favorites that take a little longer. Like one of a woman in a colorful turban that took days to finish the detailed lines.

"The detail takes more time, and a lot of times I think, 'I don't know why I started this.' But then I'm – I like the challenge and I'm happy when it's done. I think, 'Well, I got through that one…' " she says laughing.

fashion illustration
Credit Courtesy of Mary Jean Megginson
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To show off her grandma's work, Nystrom started an Instagram account called @90andsketching.

"It's been really a treat for me to know that other people are enjoying it. It makes it worthwhile," Megginson says. "Thanks to Caitlin, it saved my life during this pandemic."

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Credit Courtesy of Ryan Nystrom
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Megginson's granddaughter Caitlin Nystrom was recently able to visit from NYC. Since Megginson is vaccinated, they had their first high tea, a tradition of theirs, in public together since the pandemic began.

This past March 29, Megginson completed a year of illustrations and on April 6, she turned 91. Once it's safe, she's looking forward to filling her social calendar again.

She plans to keep drawing – though maybe not every day.

A previous version of this article misstated where Megginson attended art school. She went to the Central Academy of Commerical Art.