Artist Profile: Nancy Arbuthnot


Nancy Arbuthnot is writing and painting the poetry of existence. It is about the sounds and images we often ignore in our daily hustle, especially birds and insects … and frogs.

A raven roils the air around him and sparrows are depicted as almost invisible to the city. Nancy loves fusing poetry and painting so that the voices and visions of the living are seamless.

There are butterflies in the air and frogs in the ponds of Rock Creek. Nancy, a “citizen-scientist” with the Department of Energy & Environment, inscribes the poetry of the park, often written on the watercolor paintings. She will also be an artist in residence in the Catoctin National Park in western Maryland this year, creating teaching materials for school children.

Teaching is what Nancy Arbuthnot has done most of her life. She taught English at the US Naval Academy, beginning in 1981. Recently retired, she has published books of original poetry and translations from the Aztec and Vietnamese, as well as works on naval art in World War II.

She has written “Guiding Lights: Monuments and Memorials of the United States Naval Academy,” which showcases some 60 monuments with photographs, descriptions and her own “poetic meditations.”

You will love “Wild Washington, Animal Sculpture A to Z,” an alphabet of animal sculptures in DC. She includes her descriptions and poems along with photo-illustrations by Cathy Abramson.

Nancy lives in Washington and is a member of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. You can see her work this month in the Hill Center virtual show. (See At the Galleries.) She has also joined the exhibit at the Annmarie Sculpture and Arts Center in Solomons, Maryland, which runs through September.

Whenever there is a chance to inhabit the natural world, Nancy Arbuthnot will be there, watching, listening, painting and writing. 

Jim Magner’s Thoughts on Art
Nancy Arbuthnot is just as busy after retirement as she was before. Passionately. She’s intensely painting, writing, teaching.

How does she stay so enthused? By doing what she really wants to do: writing poetry and painting the denizens of nature. And by “just getting started.”

I can identify with that, but I have to admit I don’t have the mental energy that I needed when I was raising kids and doing four things at once. And painting. Always painting, except when I hit the dry stretches.

You know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s making art or writing music or poems. Sometimes nothing comes. Inspiration goes belly up.

One of my heroes, Charles Burchfield, was one of the most prolific painters in the 20th century. He grew up in the woods of Ohio at the turn of the century. He was always of nature and not just in nature. Everything moved. Everything was alive. Everything was sensed – seen, heard, smelled. The seasons and even the days had their own feelings. It was his passion. Yet, he hit dry spells, times when his senses went cold and he couldn’t put a brush to paper. He wrote about that in his journal.

But then nature would sing and dance and the sun would light up his mind. In his late years, the 1950s, 60s, he entered into a natural world of fantasy – soaring with the pure energy of seeing – flying through the perceptions of reality, entering the woods joyfully.

What happened? Just getting started. To start was to let the magic flow, let the natural world surround him with all of its sights and sounds and feelings.

That is what Nancy Arbuthnot says. It is all about starting.

At the Galleries

Hill Center
At the Old Naval Hospital
–March 31
This is the annual Hill Center Galleries and Capitol Hill Art League (CHAL) Juried Exhibition and includes 94 works by nearly 50 artists. It will be restricted to online viewing only. It was juried by Hill Center Galleries Director Nicky Cymrot and artist Alan Braley. As usual, these works feature a wide variety of mediums and viewpoints and are very, very good.

The show includes Nancy Arbuthnot. (See Artist Profile.)

Hester Ohbi
Foundry Gallery
2008 Eighth St. NW
March 5-28
Hester Ohbi is a painter of “abstract landscapes and inner transformation.” In this show, called “Transitions,” she approaches the changes in life and “how thoughts and feelings come and go until we reclaim a calm oasis.” She reaches beyond her more recent “meditative blue” to larger works, including a series of tall narrow paintings that lead you to the heavens or to a watery reflection.

Mary Ellen Mark
National Museum of Women in the Arts
1250 New York Ave. NW
March 3-July 11
Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015) is one of the most celebrated portrait photographers of her generation, and this exhibition features 30 images that cover her 50-year career. Known for her compassionate depictions of girls and young women in a variety of conditions and circumstances, she has traveled the world simply to capture reality. Not interested in stereotypes or stage settings, she doesn’t photograph children as children. “I like to see them as adults, as who they really are. I’m always looking for the side of who they might become.” 

Renewal 2121
1238 Maryland Ave. SW
March 15-Sept. 6
The fourth annual Cherry Blossom-inspired installation takes on the subject of climate change. The immersive 3-D art installation will transport you 100 years into the future. You will explore four galleries, traversing through a “cyberpunk cityscape, an interactive market, bustling alleyways and an abandoned rooftop, finding nature blooming in the most unexpected places amidst this industrial future.” There are three themes of renewal: the city, nature and ourselves.
A Capitol Hill artist and writer, Jim Magner can be reached at