Artist Nancy Hemenway Barton; Known for Tapestries

Nancy Hemenway Barton transformed fabric into highly original and greatly admired tapestries.
Nancy Hemenway Barton transformed fabric into highly original and greatly admired tapestries. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008

Nancy Hemenway Barton, 87, a Washington fiber artist whose highly original tapestries attracted critical acclaim, died Feb. 23 of complications from Alzheimer's disease at a Sunrise Senior Living community in the District.

An artist who transformed fabric -- lamb's wool, linen, mohair, alpaca, karakul -- into intimations of sweep and movement, she drew inspiration from her peripatetic existence as the wife of a diplomat posted to the Dominican Republic, Bolivia and Mexico. She also lived and worked in Washington and Maine and lectured in Africa and Europe.

"Movement," a Christian Science Monitor reviewer noted in 1995, "has long been the very weft of Nancy Hemenway's life."

It wasn't just movement for movement's sake. She responded to each individuated environment in which she found herself with the preternaturally sensitive eye of the artist.

In a profile for her "Textures of the Earth" catalogue (1978), Benjamin Forgey, then the art critic for the Washington Star (and later The Post), wrote: "Painstaking observation of specific visual facts; careful nurturing of authentic personal experiences; skilled translation of these visual and emotional impressions into new tactile forms -- these are the essential facets of Nancy Hemenway's art-making. It is a skilled, poetic enterprise that produces the evocative resonances we can find in these unusual tapestries."

Many of her works suggest the patterns and textures of nature -- a flowing stream, ruffled waves, scudding clouds, a mountain's uplift. The rugged Maine coastline, the rock formations of the Pacific Coast and the flow of the Potomac were sources of inspiration.

Her works are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine and other public and private collections around the world. Under the auspices of the Bolivian government, she became the first U.S. artist to have a solo show at the Pan American Union. It became the subject of a 1970 U.S. Information Agency film.

She was born Nancy Hemenway Whitten in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and was the valedictorian of Foxboro (Mass.) High School when she graduated in 1937.

She received a full music scholarship to Wheaton College and graduated in 1941. She studied music composition at Harvard University's music school with Walter Piston and received a master's degree in Spanish lyric poetry from Columbia University in 1966.

In 1942, she married a childhood friend, newly commissioned Marine Lt. Robert D. Barton. After World War II, he joined the Foreign Service, and Mrs. Barton accompanied him to Uruguay and Argentina and later to Spain.

"Art became again a focal point and the steadying force in my life," she wrote in her journal. "Spain was the country where art finally surfaced to demand time and space."

In Madrid, she studied drawing and watercolor portraiture, producing dozens of likenesses of embassy children and the Spanish countryside.

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