TAMWORTH — Author Barbara Feeney Abendschein will be in Tamworth this summer doing research for an autobiography of her friend, Barbara WIlley Fromm, a professional artist who lived in Tamworth for many years. While she is here Abendschein hopes to speak with others who knew Fromm and collect their memories of the artist, who worked under the professional name Willey Fromm and was known for her wood cuts, portraits and landscapes.
Abendschein, a longtime friend of Fromm, has been around the world since she left New Hampshire to live in Austria in 1985. At that time, the New York native left a position with the New Hampshire State Arts Agency to live on the side of a Tyrolean alp with her husband, a recognized professional photographer who was also a retired U.S. Navy musician. During her idyllic years in Austria when her freelance non-fiction was published in Europe and the United States, however, Abendschein maintained active correspondence with her friend, Barbara Willey Fromm, of Tamworth.
"Many years ago, I promised Barbara that I would write her biography," Abendschein says. "She gave me access to her archives and spent hours discussing the early years of her career when she and her husband "Woody" traveled the Midwest: Woody working for the Navy and the Minute Man project, and Barbara studying with regional artists, teaching workshops and painting for love and profit. Her dry wit spiced the conversations."
The women had met in 1978 when Abendschein needed to find a painter to create a portrait of veteran legislator Hilda Brungot of Berlin. The resulting artwork may be viewed on the second floor of the New Hampshire Statehouse today. It was the first painting of a woman by a woman to be so installed in Concord. The project began a friendship that lasted until the artist's death and continues to this day in the writer's dedication to completing her biography.
"When I moved to Austria, we wrote to each other," Abendschein recalls, "and she told me about the ebb and flow of the North Country arts world. All of a sudden, it seemed we were both without our loyal husbands. Both Woody and Ken passed away in the 1990s. After that, I joined the Peace Corps which seemed the most logical thing in the world to me (what better way to stop crying than to try helping people who really need it). Most of my friends thought I was nuts. There were certainly days during my two years in the Philippines when I agreed with them. Rather than fly home through California (retracing my flying steps as it were), I spent time in Egypt and Europe on the way home, giving me the right to claim I'd been around the world.
"When I got back from the Peace Corps, I was unemployable. My resume was invisible. From my parents' Long Island home, I drove up to Tamworth to visit Barbara. Earlier, she had helped me put together a show of my husband's photography. Now, she encouraged me to believe there were interesting possibilities 'out there' and I just needed to have patience and persistence."
Most returned Peace Corps volunteers are offered the opportunity to teach English as a Second Language, usually as short-term employment before a real career opens up. When Abendschein did it, she realized she enjoyed helping recent immigrants overcome their language difficulties. After a few years, she went back to graduate school, earned a master's degree in linguistics, and began working as a writing adjunct teacher at a local community college. She looks back on this activity as "Peace Corps with indoor plumbing" and adds, "At least the people I helped here had a decent chance to improve their lives, unlike in developing countries where they really don't."
A few years ago, Abendschein moved to Florida to be closer to one of her brothers. Eventually, she secured an adjunct position (now full time), teaching international students at the well-respected Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. She visited Barbara Fromm in October 2009 and read a chapter about Fromm's mother giving an early portrait to FDR in the White House. The artist, whose ability to speak had been severely limited by a stroke, indicated enthusiastic approval. Nonverbal communication said, "That's the way it was!"
When she heard her friend Barbara Willey Fromm had died in 2010, Abendschein drove from Florida for the memorial ceremony. At that time, she spoke with some of the artist's closet friends and consulted material in the genealogy department of Cook Memorial Library.