Nancy Hemenway Barton: An enduring creative force

“She was all in. I don’t think I’ve met anyone else in my life so expressive creatively,” – Bill Barton
Posted:  Wednesday, October 18, 2017 - 11:00am
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716 Stevens Avenue
Portland  Maine  04103
United States

A classical pianist, painter, poet, sculptor, embroiderer, weaver. This was Nancy Hemenway Whitten Barton, Boothbay Harbor born and bred. Who could have predicted she would become a pioneer in the fiber art world, create an original art form, and be an inspiration to young artists into the 21st century?

Nancy’s sons Rick, Brad and Bill, collaborated for almost two years to present the 50-year retrospective of her work now being exhibited at the University of New England Art Gallery through Dec. 20. “Ahead of Her Time: The Life and Work of Nancy Hemenway Barton” includes early watercolors, portraits, oils, textile designs, wall hangings, and 3D works that are complemented by journal entries, poetry, memorabilia and videos.

Nancy started out painting in watercolor in the 1950s when the world of art was a man’s world – something Nancy was acutely aware of – and Nancy signed her work as “Bart Hemenway” when she wanted to enter a competition or show. Bill says it wasn’t until the early 70s, when the women’s rights movement was in full swing, that her work was signed Nancy Hemenway Barton.

A retrospective of their mother’s work was something they all felt strongly about, not only to honor Nancy’s artistic accomplishments, but because they feared her work was at risk of being left behind, forgotten.

“It’s been a great collaboration; a lot of fun,” said Rick. “We all had an unquestioning love of our mother that has been expanded somehow, which is a pretty big gift. Also, it’s given us a chance to work as a team, something we probably haven’t done since the days of our boyhood shenanigans … we were always scheming and had a lot of ingenuity, but in this case it was more constructively directed!”

Two years ago, Rick visited the Art Institute of Chicago, the largest venue of Nancy’s 40 solo shows, and met with the curator there, Christa C. Mayer to talk about how to go about organizing a retrospective. “Christa basically told us that if we didn’t do this we wouldn’t be honorable sons,” said Rick laughing. “She really raised the ante!”

Mayer’s  idea was to hold a retrospective in honor of what would have been Nancy’s 100th birthday in 2020. Rick and Bill also met with curators at Bowdoin College Museum of Art and with Mark Bessire at the Portland Museum of Art. Bessire suggested they contact Anne B. Zill at UNE. And they did. Zill had known Nancy and was aware of Nancy being a recipient of UNE’s Deborah Morton Award in 1979 - and Rick said she was “super enthusiastic.” They invited Zill to write the introduction for the retrospective’s catalog.

So, the venue was set. Zill and Rick came up with the name of the retrospective. The catalog was in the works. The 50 pieces in the retrospective had been selected by Zill from the storage unit in Portland – where the work was rolled up like rugs. The brothers also chose some of the works, in particular, transition pieces between creative periods, i.e. different techniques, explorations of the artist.

And then … as Bill says, “the mom hand reached out through time.” Two months before the show opening Sept. 28, Bill was looking through Nancy’s file folders, pulled one out, and opened it. It contained Nancy’s plans, explicit plans, for a 50-year retrospective of her work – conceived in 1988! “It was for THIS show,” said a still incredulous Bill. In fact, the schematic Nancy drew up for the placement of 10 works (not the 50 in the show) has been included with the UNE exhibition.

And, as if finding her exhibition drawings wasn’t enough of a mind-blower for her sons, Nancy had also selected UNE as the venue, and … are you ready for this … the name of the show. “Ahead of Her Time” being part of a Margaret Mead quote that resonated with Nancy. That quote has been included in the front of the retrospective catalog.

The “mom hand” occurrences continued – Bill would be looking for a specific file and his hand would come to rest on just the one he needed; when they were installing Nancy’s “Tipi Waterfall,” none of the boys could get it to set up correctly. No worries. One of Zill’s assistants just happened to be a pro at setting up tipis … what were the chances?

With the tipi, Nancy began working in multiple dimensions (and it would seem she still is).“Tipi Waterfall,” was created in 1992 and is 8’8” (h) x 6’4” 9w) – a copy of the original that was sent to China, but was damaged in the Tienanmen Square riots. Materials that comprise the tipi are karakul wool, mohair embroidery on handwoven wool and alpaca.

And those materials never came from a distributor. Traveling around the world was something the Barton family did. Their father, Robert Barton, an officer in the Marines, began a foreign service career at the end of WWII.  The family spent the next 20 years immersed in other cultures – Madrid, Spain; Africa, La Paz, Bolivia; Mexico, and many other countries. Nancy’s contacts and friends in these countries became her sources for materials including bayeta fabric from Bolivia, organdy from Switzerland, Kilkenny wool from Ireland, lamb’s wool from Guatemala, velvet from France, mohair from the Republic of Transvaal (South Africa) and karakul yarn from a farm in southwest Africa.

Nancy created an original art form she called “bayetage” (bay-ah-tahj), bayeta (handwoven wool) and collage, in 1967. The wools she used were Bolivian wildflower-dyed. An example of this is “Rock Lichen,” a 68” x 50” wall hanging. The fabric is a twill weave of lamb’s wool. Embroidery stitches are in stem, satin, chain, of lamb’s wool, mohair and karakul. It. Is. Gorgeous.

During her career, Nancy was always lending encouragement and sharing her artistic talents. During the years 1968-1972, while living in Guadalajara, Mexico, she founded The San Esteban Martir Embroidery School. Locally, Nancy showed her support for artist Paula Ragsdale during the early 1990s. Her sons say this was not unusual. Nancy was known for reaching out to struggling women artists.

“It was in the early 90s. Nancy had seen my work locally and was interested in what I was doing. She and her husband were collecting works by Maine artists and bought a major piece of mine,” said Ragsdale. “It meant everything to me. It was a huge thing for an artist of her accomplishments to show her support that way.”

Nancy also visited Ragsdale’s studio. “At that time I was struggling to be a serious artist while raising two boys and questioning whether I would be able to do it. Nancy said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: she said not to worry – she didn’t start really ‘digging into this artist track’ until she was well into her 50s.”

Eventually, recalled Ragsdale, the Bartons’ Maine artists collection grew too large and they donated the collection to various art galleries, The Farnsworth among them. Ragsdale’s painting is among the part of the collection in the Rockland venue. “I owe her for that,” Ragsdale said.

While working on the retrospective, Bill and his brothers uncovered endless records of exhibitions, notes, and journals of Nancy’s. What could they do with it all? As luck, or divine intervention, would have it, the boys ran into someone from Wheaton College where, in 1983, she received an honorary degree. An archivist from Wheaton came to the Barton home and ended up taking all of the papers back to the college where they will be used in the development of future curriculum. What a legacy.

During the run of this show, there will be a “trail” of other institutions featuring one or more of Nancy’s works: Bates College, The Farnsworth Museum of Art, the Portland Museum of Art, Maine College of Art, Wheaton College, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and Maine Fiberarts in Brunswick.

For more on this incredibly gifted and giving artist, visit “Textiles of Our Earth,” for a complete history of Nancy’s life and artistic adventures and accomplishments: http://digitalcommons.bowdoin.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1075&context=art-museum-exhibition-catalogs and www.nancyhemenwaybarton.com for videos, and much more.