Who is Julia Birch? Sculptor Nancy Frankel, 92, killed by roommate she was mentoring
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, MARYLAND: A 26-year-old woman was arrested in Montgomery County, Maryland on Wednesday, July 28, 2021, after she confessed to killing famous sculptor Nancy Ann Frankel. Julia Birch was a family friend of Frankel and had been staying with her as a roommate. Around 8:20 am on Wednesday, police were called to Frankel's home in Spruell Drive, Kensington. As they arrived at the scene, they found Frankel's dead body inside while Birch allegedly confessed to the murder. It was not revealed how Frankel died, but charging documents cited by The Washington Post said she was allegedly suffocated.
Birch is currently held in custody without bail and her court appearance is scheduled for August 27.
Born in 1929, Frankel was a renowned sculptor, hailed for her work around 'organic geometric' forms on a wide variety of media like wood, steel, design cast, Plexiglass, and Hydrocal. The Washington, DC native learned painting from German painter Hans Hoffman and was inspired by abstract impressionism. She had rendered many masterpieces throughout her career that spanned decades, starting from the years after World War II. Her tragic and horrific death was mourned by her followers on social media.
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Who is Julia Birch?
Birch was an acquaintance with Nancy Frankel's family and she arrived at the latter's home to be mentored under her expert guidance. Over the years, Nancy Frankel had mentored many young women, most of whom resided with her at her home. Julia Birch had been living with Frankel since January 2021.
She was described as 'unfriendly and disconnected' by one of Frankel's neighbors. The neighbor, who resides a few doors down the sculptor's yard, said, "I only saw that girl maybe three times, but when I saw her, she seemed, like, disconnected. Here, everybody says, 'Hi' and 'Bye,' but I said, 'Hi,' and she just looked at me and kept going."
She also elaborated how many women had lived with Frankel in the past years. "There were other people living there on and off...[Frankel] was exposed to several women mentors while she was at Columbia University, and I think she was trying to repay that by mentoring young women," said neighbor Julia Yost.
Meanwhile, she described Frankel as a "very friendly and compassionate" person, who would speak with her almost daily during afternoon walks.
Frankel started her career as a waitress while she supported herself through Tyler School of Art at Temple University. She later attended Columbia University where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree. Frankel learned welding at the Sculpture Center after gaining her MFA degree and started practicing regularly. She later described her initial years of work as "invisible", since she gained prominence only after her interaction with other women artists at the 1972 Conference of Women in the Visual Arts. The historic conference allowed women artists to navigate slide registries, through which an artist's work is discovered by local galleries.
After marriage, she moved to Germany with her husband where she continued her art education at the Munich Art Academy. However, her husband died at a young age after the couple returned to the US, leaving her alone to support two small children. Presently, her son is an established architect and her daughter is a peace activist. Frankel was also a proud grandmother.
In 2018, on the occasion of her 90th birthday, Nancy Frankel published a book titled 'Nancy @ Ninety: Seven Decades of Sculpture by Nancy Frankel'.