Sweet Old Song

PBS Premiere: July 30, 2002Check the broadcast schedule »

The Artists

Barbara Ward

Barbara was born in 1940 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her parents were musically talented and she fondly remembers sitting between them at the piano while they played and she pounded on the keys like a drum. Her mother was a great dancer and scat singer, and she would dance from room to room while doing chores around the house.

Barbara's father died suddenly in 1947, leaving her mother alone with five children. Barbara wasn't allowed to go far from the house, so she set up a "store" on the front porch to sell things she made, mostly stories and dolls. The first person to buy one of her dolls was a Harvard student from Holland who took an interest in Barbara and helped her enroll in art and music classes.

After Barbara graduated from high school in 1957, she studied dance and theater in New York. In the 1960s, she toured for four years as the lead dancer in the Billie Pope Dance Company and then became a dance teacher and choreographer. During this time she also worked as a set and costume designer.

Barbara's fabric art first drew attention in the mid-1970s, when the black dolls she had been creating for friends were shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She had been working with fabric since her great grandmother first taught her to sew as a child, but it wasn't until this exhibit that she began to think of herself as a visual artist.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, Barbara worked as an artist-in-residence at Northeastern University. She learned that her work had strong similarities to West African ceremonial masks, and received a grant that allowed her to go to Nigeria to learn more about the Okakagbe tradition of fabric applique. She then developed a method of teaching this tradition in art centers and schools in the U.S.

In the 1980s, Barbara's sculptural figures became more abstract and monumental. Some incorporate cloths from different countries, creating a multi-ethnic "everyperson." Barbara explains that her work celebrates cultural differences and questions, as she says, "the masks behind which we all hide." Two important works celebrate the strength of African American women in the 19th century. One of these, "Let My People Go," is dedicated to women who helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad.

In the 1990s, Barbara began managing Howard Armstrong's band and later became a back up singer and percussionist. She also began archiving his lifetime of visual art, biographical stories and photographs. In 2002, they were collaborating on a children's book. Barbara was writing the story based on a traumatic time in her childhood, and Howard was illustrating.