Barbara Ward Armstrong, 73; many artistic talents

Barbara Ward Armstrong used a life-size doll she created to teach other aspiring artists.
Zara Tzanev for The Boston Globe
Barbara Ward Armstrong used a life-size doll she created to teach other aspiring artists.

The swirl of cultures Barbara Ward Armstrong expressed in her soft fabric sculptures had its beginnings in her Cambridge childhood as she sat on the steps of her home, watching foreign students stroll by.

“My mother would never let me go past the boundary of the front of the house,” she told the Globe in 1992. “And the home I grew up in was directly behind some of the Harvard University dormitories. That was the whole world to me, because in front of my house passed every student from all over the world — Chinese, Asian, African — and I used to sit there and talk to everybody.”

Forty years later, her cloth sculptural figures “became more abstract and monumental,” according to a short biography of her on the PBS website for “Sweet Old Song,” a documentary featuring Ms. Ward Armstrong and her late husband, the musician Howard Armstrong. Some sculptures “incorporate cloths from different countries, creating a multiethnic ‘everyperson.’ ”


“I learned quickly by that world that passed in front of my door that there was more to life than the boundaries of that little neighborhood,” she said in the 1992 Globe interview.

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Ms. Ward Armstrong, who previously was a dancer and choreographer, and who sang and played percussion in her husband’s band, died of cancer Wednesday in her Boston home. She was 73.

Zara Tzanev for The Boston Globe
Ms. Ward Armstrong used cloth and buttons from far off places to create her soft sculpture dolls.

“By wedding her eye for daring combinations of colors and materials to her gift for capturing the expressive character of her subjects, Ward has birthed what she aptly calls a ‘new race,’ ” Edmund Barry Gaither wrote in an essay about her work, which appeared in Callaloo, a journal of arts, letters, and cultures of the African Diaspora published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

“Her intention was not that the sculptures should be entertaining and pretty, but rather that they should force a delightful but lasting dialogue between themselves and the viewers,” Gaither wrote.

Also present in the work was a dialogue between the artist and herself, between the woman whose creations were celebrated and the child whose circumstances were less pleasant.


One of several children, she learned from her grandmother how to sew and quilt, and her mother showed by example how to conjure something special from troubled times.

“Initially, my inspiration comes from my grandmother, the way I was raised, and I guess coming from a family of working-class people, survivors,” Ms. Ward Armstrong said in the 1992 interview. “My father died when I was 7 and I think it was out of the struggle — watching a young, beautiful mother raising her children — that I got a deep appreciation. . . . Seeing her make use of ugly things, creating beauty in my home with ugly things.”

Born Barbara Ward in Cambridge in 1940, she recalled for the PBS biography a childhood that included sitting on a piano bench between her musical parents, Richard Ward and the former Frances Cole, and watching her mother “dance from room to room while doing chores around the house.”

As a teen, Ms. Ward Armstrong taught dance at a community center. After graduating from high school, she went to New York City, where she studied dance and theater, toured with a dance company, and designed sets and costumes, according to PBS. Then in her 30s, some dolls she created became part of an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“I always made clothes and dolls, and it was nothing new,” she told PBS. “I was focused on dance and theater and never in my wildest imagination did I take what I was doing as an ‘art form.’ And all of a sudden, the dolls that were sitting in my backyard appeared in the Museum of Fine Arts and they had a new term, ‘soft sculpture.’ ”


Her work soon began to attract notice, such as when she was part of a show the Boston Visual Artists Union and the African-American artists-in-residence program at Northeastern University staged in a Northeastern gallery.

Of the 13 artists whose work was featured, “Barbara Ward is the only one interested in the lighthearted approach,” Globe critic Christine Temin wrote in February 1981. Temin added that “Ward’s soft sculpture has more punch . . . mainly because of her eye for anatomical whimsy. ‘Many Voices,’ for instance, has two legs and four oblong heads, all with mouths open as if singing at the top of their lungs.”

For material, Ms. Ward Armstrong used cloth and buttons from places as distant as Africa and India, Guatemala and China. A figure might have purple hair and turquoise skin.

The significance of the sculptures “derived from Ward’s perceptive grasp of human character and her ability to express that character through gestures, poses, attitudes, and garments,” Gaither wrote in the Callaloo essay. “So astute an observer of human spirit is she that with the mere turn of a head or the addition of a political button, her figures attain highly individual personalities. Like characters in a Brueghel painting or a Spike Lee movie, they are instantly identified.”

In the 1980s, she saw a concert by Howard Armstrong, who performed as Louie Bluie. Adept on more than 20 instruments, he was known for his virtuosity as a string-band fiddler and mandolinist, and also was an artist who painted.

“I think I was just attracted to his energy, but it frightened me,” she said in “Sweet Old Song,” Leah Mahan’s documentary that had its premiere broadcast on PBS’s POV series in 2002. “I watched the show and I observed this wild, totally unruly, funny, talented man.”

Their romance was a lesson in the mysteries of perception.

“When he saw me, he thought I was about 25. I was then 43,” she said in the documentary. “And I thought he was 50, and he was 73. And I think he was afraid to really approach me. So the rest is history.”

He lived in Detroit and wooed her with letters tucked into envelopes that he painted and turned into small works of art so remarkable that the security guard at her building showed them around before delivering the missives.

They settled in Boston and married, living in the South End’s Piano Factory building, which offers housing and studio space to artists and musicians. He also illustrated her autobiographical children’s book, “I Never Asked to Go There in the First Place.” Mr. Armstrong died in 2003.

Ms. Ward Armstrong leaves her partner, Salim Abdul Rahman of Roxbury, and six siblings, Gene Ward, Robert Ward, Paul Ward, Steven Ward, Jackie Terry, and Marlene Crawford.

At noon Monday, friends and family will leave Davis Funeral Home in Boston in a procession to a graveside service in Forest Hills Cemetery. A celebration of her life and work will begin at 2 p.m. in the National Center of Afro American Artists in Roxbury.

With her work, Ms. Ward Armstrong told PBS, she aspired “to use soft sculpture imagery to visually state our experiences, to expand the knowledge about ourselves and others from different racial backgrounds. My inspiration comes from living.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at