Nancy Kenealy

Erin Dowding

“I have seen Nancy and she considers India the greatest experience of her life,” Dorothy Liebes relayed to her friend, Gira Sarabhai, in December 1957. “You were all so kind to her and she became very fond of a great many special people and grasped the design feeling of the country.” [1] Weaver and textile artist Nancy Kenealy [Soper] (1928–2022) worked in Dorothy Liebes’s New York studio in the mid-1950s before traveling to India on a Fulbright grant to study weaving and textile design. On her way back from India, Kenealy had paid Liebes a visit to tell her of her experience abroad before heading back to California to spend time with her family and eventually settling in the Bay Area.

Based at Baroda University in Gujarat, the only university in India at the time to offer a course in textile design, Kenealy’s research was supplemented with time spent in prominent textile institutions throughout India. Kenealy was welcomed at Calico Mills and the Calico Museum of Textiles, established by the Sarabhai family in Ahmedabad, and was provided space and access to conduct her research. [2] Although the documentation has not yet been uncovered, it is easy to imagine that Liebes both encouraged Kenealy to apply for the grant and was influential in garnering a placement for the young weaver in India. Liebes was well aware of the research and creative work being done in Ahmedabad and beyond through Gira Sarabhai and her brother, Gautam. [3] Friends since the 1930s, when Liebes met Gira Sarabhai at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin East in Wisconsin, it would have been characteristic of Liebes to write on Kenealy’s behalf, understanding how the Sarabhais’ cultural influence and prominence in the textile industry would benefit the young weaver (Fig. 1). [4] By late January 1957, Kenealy had an invitation from the All India Handloom Board, an organization supported by the government of India, to work in their Textile Design Center in Bombay. The All India Handloom Board, a division of the All India Handicrafts Board (AIHB), was an initiative of craft advocates and social activists Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar, and played a part in revitalizing handweaving in India in addition to advising the Indian government on traditional craft industries throughout the country. Liebes and Jayakar met in 1957 when she traveled to India to visit textile mills with the Ford Foundation, and the two had much in common as they worked to develop ways for India’s handloom industry to engage with markets in the United States (Fig. 2).

On April 25, 1958, the exhibition Fulbright Designers opened at New York City’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts with opening remarks given the prior night by Senator J. William Fulbright himself. Promoted the “first real opportunity to assess the work of designers and craftsmen who have won Fulbright Awards to study abroad,” thirty-six grantees’ work was selected by guest director Edgar Kaufmann Jr. to represent Americans furthering their craft in nine European countries, Japan, India, and the Philippines. [5] Organized jointly by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Institute of International Education, the exhibition was a commemoration of the awards’ tenth year and went on to tour the country in promotion of the Fulbright program. Among the ceramics, furniture, silver, stained glass, and industrial design on view, the woven and printed textiles of Nancy Kenealy were displayed both in the galleries and in the accompanying catalog (Fig. 3).

Kenealy’s impressions of her time abroad were also included in the All India issue of Craft Horizons magazine, published in the summer of 1959 (Fig. 4). Credited as “primarily the work of New York craftsman and photo-journalist Oppi Untracht,” who was in India on a Fulbright at the same time as Kenealy, the issue gives an enthusiastically broad and wide-ranging account of Indian crafts of the day. The issue, with its content falling under the title “India’s Crafts Today,” had the lofty goal of creating a deeper understanding and appreciation of a place unknown and foreign to a US audience at the time, aligning itself with the goals of UNESCO. [6] Photo essays by Untracht were accompanied by written pieces from notable Indian scholars and activists. Social reformer and “grande dame of Indian crafts” Chattopadhyay wrote an essay titled “A Forceful Art” and writer, cultural activist, craft advocate, and textile scholar Jayakar wrote on weaving. Additional texts were contributed by the economist and Secretary for Industries and Cottage Industries in West Bengal, Ashok Mitra, writing the piece “In Quest of Authenticity”; Shriman Narayan Agarwal, specialist on cottage industries, writing on textiles; and Untracht contributing a piece on the art of metalwork. Kenealy’s contribution was a beautiful essay on color, giving an appreciative and observant account of the role of color in dress and how it corresponds to life in the varied regions of the country.

“One of the first things a visitor notices in India is color, which is everywhere in all variations of dress and landscape,” Kenealy writes in the first line of her essay. “The full importance and power of color in Indian life, symbolically and psychologically reflected in design, cannot be overestimated,” she continued. “Applied without inhibition, pure hues give India a radiant vitality.” [7] This was true for Kenealy as she traveled, taking in how life was lived in appreciation of and relation to color in India. This thorough embrace and celebration of the endless color combinations and its joyful application was also inspiration for Liebes’s work. “Color, as you know,” Liebes assuredly, enthusiastically declared in a lecture to Parsons School of Design students, “is the magic elixir, it’s the alchemy of life. All people love color.” [8]


[1] Dorothy Liebes, letter to Gira Sarabhai, November 26, 1957. Series 5, Box 11, Folder 18, Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[2] A letter from Isabella Thoburn, Executive Secretary of The United States Educational Foundation in India, to David Wodlinger on January 19, 1957, regarding Kenealy’s placement and her association with various institutions, facilities, and groups in India that “will add prestige to the program” and how visits to these centers are “pertinent to her work.” Series 5, Box 10, Folder 8, Dorothy Liebes Papers.

[3] Starting in the 1930s, Liebes and Gira and Gautam Sarabhai exchanged letters on design trends, business matters, and their mutual interests in furthering the field of textiles. Emily Orr, “Modern Weaving’s Global Ambassador,” in A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes, eds. Susan Brown and Alexa Griffith Winton (New York: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2023), 67.

[4] Ibid., 65.

[5] Press Release of the exhibition Fulbright Designers, developed in cooperation with the Institute of International Education and first shown at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City from April 25 through June 1, 1958. The exhibition was later circulated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Service. American Craftsmen’s Council, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, 1958:

[6] The issue on India was “Dedicated to the UNESCO Major Project on Mutual Appreciation of Eastern and Western Cultural Values.” This was outlined in the introduction to the essay as well as written on the first page of the thirty-one-page spread. Craft Horizons 14, no. 4 (July–August 1959): 1, 9.

[7] Nancy Kenealy, “Color,” Craft Horizons 14, no. 4 (July–August 1959): 29–30.

[8] Dorothy Liebes, “Mary Brandt Memorial Lecture,” Digital Archives, The New School.

Fig. 1 A page of Liebes’s scrapbook featuring a clipping stating, “Mrs. Dorothy Liebes, celebrated textile artist, shows an original fabric to Gira and Getta [sic, Gita] Sarabhai, members of a family prominent in Indian textile production”; From Kirkeby Hotels Magazine, January 1947, n.p.; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

A black and white photos of two Indian women in saris standing withthe woman on the left talking to the woman on the right who has a serious look on her face.

Fig. 2 Gira Sarabhai (left) with Pupul Jayakar, 1962; Photographed by Dashrath Patel (Indian, 1927–2010); National Institute of Design Archive, Ahmedabad, India

Cover of an exhibition catalogue that says “Fulbright Designs in black text across the top and has a graphic abstract print of yellow rectangles running vertically down the left side.

Fig. 3A The cover of Fulbright Designers exhibition catalog that includes Nancy Kenealy’s woven and printed textile. American Craftsmen’s Council, Museum of Contemporary Crafts,

Fig. 3B The page of the catalog for Fulbright Designers featuring Nancy Kenealy’s woven and printed textile. American Craftsmen’s Council, Museum of Contemporary Crafts,

Cover of Craft Horizons magazine with the title “India’s Crafts Today” written at the top. The majority of the cover is given to a color photograph of three Indian women sitting on the group in brightly colored headscarves with silver bangles on their arms.

Fig. 4 Cover of Craft Horizons July–August 1959 issue featuring “India’s Crafts Today.” American Craftsmen’s Council, Museum of Contemporary Crafts,

Erin Dowding

Erin Dowding is an MA candidate in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program at Parsons School of Design. She is a curatorial capstone and research fellow in the Textiles Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.