Spotlight Iowa City: Down to the river

BY SAM LANE | NOVEMBER 10, 2009 7:20 AM

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Nancy Purington found her wave of inspiration at the confluence of two rivers.

As a girl, the view from Purington’s home overlooked the Wapsipinicon and Mississippi Rivers. The now-62-year-old swam, boated, and fished all summer. This scene later inspired the woman’s work, focusing on the movement and changes of the water’s surface.

“I think I had very good eyesight,” said Purington, an accomplished local artist who wears round, wire-rimmed spectacles. “I spent a lot of time by the river, on the river, and observing all the changes.”

The rivers caused the grandmother of four to think about the concept of infinite change, infinity, and “where we are and how we got there.”

“The river is connected to all the other major bodies of water in the world,” Purington said. “It provided me a place to think about the world.”

To put those abstract concepts to canvas, she isolates herself in her cavernous studio, which is stark white with indigo and gold paintings and photographs dotting the walls. Dressed in all black, she shuffled gracefully across the heated concrete floors, trying to estimate the magnitude of her collection.

“I’m losing track,” she said, ultimately deciding somewhere in the thousands is closest.

While studying painting at the Kansas City Institute of Art, Purington heard about the school’s newly created textile department. She immediately began painting and dyeing directly on canvas, which reflected her passion.

“Repeat patterns in textile arts are dealing with the same repetition and changes as the water patterns,” she said.

After working in New York City for a year as a textile artist, Purington wasn’t satisfied. She came to the UI in 1976 to study with Naomi Schedl, a professor emeritus in the textile-arts department.

“She had a good ability to use design,” Schedl said. “She is quiet and creative. She has certainly grown professionally.”

In 1982, while she worked toward an M.F.A., Purington dabbled in teaching at the UI.

Since then, in the silence and solidarity of her naturally lit studio, she has continued to produce works representative of her Iowa heritage and placement among some of nature’s most idyllic elements. Her biggest achievement is a grant awarded from the Iowa Arts Council, which funded the touring exhibition of her collection Twelve Views of Water.

Whether she’s immersed in the calming world of watercolors, the difficult adhesives of gold leaf, or her newfound passion for photography, Purington’s work has garnered fame beyond the Iowa City community.

“She grabs a moment in nature and portrays it so beautifully,” said Chris Gnade, Purington’s friend and the owner of Design Ranch in Davenport. “She has a real ability to capture fleeting, urgently passing moments.”

Mark Tade, Purington’s husband, says when the two met in 1977, he was attracted to her independence — and the 1947 Oldsmobile she painted white to reflect a cloud.

“I’ve always thought of myself as her support crew,” Tade said.

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