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Woven Together

How Art Created in Central America and Maine Found a Home in Birmingham

On February 26, 2020, Ambassador Frederick “Rick” D. Barton visited Birmingham to give a lecture on his book “Peace Works: America's Unifying Role in a Turbulent World” to the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations. Barton’s long diplomatic career culminated in his serving as the State Department’s first Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.

Prior to his visit, I’d asked him about his interests and hobbies outside of his work directing the “Scholars in the Nation's Service Initiative” at Princeton University. I absolutely love showcasing our city to foreign policy experts and diplomats—many of whom have never stepped foot in the South, much less Birmingham—via personalized itineraries.

Rick mentioned that his late mother was an artist, and, if possible, he would like to see the Birmingham Museum of Art. As always, the BMA delivered—Rick received a personal tour of the museum’s collection with chief curator Anne Forschler.

In speaking with Rick, we learned that Nancy Hemenway Barton was no ordinary artist; she was a renowned textile artist and painter who had enjoyed one-woman shows at institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and had exhibited as far away as Botswana. Rick mentioned that he and his brothers were in the process of giving a number of these important works to public institutions across the country—perhaps the BMA would be interested?

Rick left us with a catalogue of her works, created for a recent retrospective in Portland, Maine. Then the pandemic happened, and the idea was put on the back burner until October 2021, when Anne took a trip to Boothbay, Maine to see the studio and works of Nancy Hemenway Barton.

“Since her death, she kind of fell off the radar, which isn’t unusual for women artists,” Anne noted. “She was quite well known in her day.”

Speaking of her trip to Maine, where the Barton family maintains summer homes, Anne said, “it’s really magical up there. Her studio was on the water with huge windows. I’m already looking at real estate!”

Anne spent time with the Barton family, learning about Nancy’s life as an artist. Nancy painted, wrote poetry and “was very much an artist all around. She embodied the soul of an artist, and she shared that—she wanted to raise up other women artists and makers. That became her purpose in life,” Anne mused.

Like many women, Nancy put her work on hold to raise three sons and follow her diplomat husband around the world. In South and Central America, she was exposed to different materials and became very interested in textiles. She started working with women, helping them form collaboratives—she helped them organize, she mentored, and she helped them market their works.

“Our collecting plan focuses on women artists and other under-represented groups of artists. These artists deserve that recognition. Women were just not seen as equal in the art world at the time Nancy Hemenway Barton was active,” Anne noted. Representative of this fact, the artist often used only her last name to sign her art, so as not to be seen as a female artist.

As this magazine goes to print, three of the artist’s major works are now at home in Birmingham. One piece is reflective of pre-Colombian art and was created while the artist lived in Central America. The other two works were created in Maine, inspired by the diamond-like reflections of sun on the water and the extensive, rocky coastline.

“Bending Blue” will have its first showing this June, as part of a contemporary show centered on the theme of “light.”

“Confluence II” will be part of “Art in the Environment,” a show opening next year. The work incorporates the mossy colors of Maine’s coastline.

  • Confluence II