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University of Texas at Austin

Nancy Renfro:

An Inventory of Her Papers and Art Works at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Renfro, Nancy, 1937-1993
Title: Nancy Renfro Papers and Art Collection
Dates: 1938-2010 (bulk 1976-1992).
Extent: 23 document boxes, 1 half document box, 1 oversize box (11.47 linear feet), and 16 electronic files (583 KB)
Abstract: The career of artist Nancy Renfro is documented with drawings, photographs, writings, and printed ephemera relating to her work as a painter, sculptor, puppeteer, and art educator.
Call Number: Art Collection AR-5047
Language: English
Access: Open for research. To request access to electronic files, please email Reference.
Restrictions on Use: Certain restrictions apply to the use of electronic files. Researchers must agree to the Materials Use Policy for Electronic Files before accessing them. Original computer disks and forensic disk images are restricted. Copying electronic files, including screenshots and printouts, is not permitted.

Administrative Information

Acquisition: Gifts, 2007, 2012 (G12532, 12-05-009G)
Processed by: Nicole Davis, Mary Alice Harper and Michel McCabe Hughes, 2012. Born digital materials processed, arranged, and described by Chance Adams and Brenna Edwards, 2015-2022.

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Biographical Sketch

Nancy Renfro was born in Mineola, New York, on 13 December 1937 to Ragnar William Winberg and Helen Gensheimer. Born with nerve damage causing partial deafness, Renfro claimed this disability made her more visually astute. She studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she earned a Bachelor of Industrial Design in 1959. She preferred industrial design over other arts because of the 3-dimensional aspects of it. After earning her degree she worked as an architectural and interior designer in New York. She also worked on projects with the theme the "House of the Future" sponsored by General Motors for the 1964 World's Fair.
In 1964, Renfro began volunteering as an after-school teacher at a library in Connecticut where she taught a puppetry class. This volunteer position led to a part-time job, and Renfro was so taken with puppetry that she began making her own puppets. She created puppets that could be used for storytelling and educational purposes in order to make learning a exciting and engaging experience. Having grown up deaf, she knew the importance of inspiring children visually. In 1969 she published her first book, Puppets for Play Production, and in the 1970s she started a puppet loan program at a local library. By 1977, she had established Nancy Renfro Studios, her own puppetry business. Her mail-order company offered over 300 puppets and books on puppetry written by her to clients around the world. By this time Sesame Street had become a popular educational television show using puppets, and Renfro found that there was a market for puppets in libraries and schools as well. In addition to running her supply company, Renfro also taught puppetry workshops across the country and she spent two summers teaching in Japan. In 1978, she received a Citation Award from the Puppeteers of America for her outstanding contributions as a teacher.
In the 1970s, Renfro expanded her interest in elementary education beyond puppetry to art and architecture as well. In 1975, she received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to teach architectural design to children, and in 1978, she received a $5,000 grant from the NEA to lecture at schools on architectural design. While living near Philadelphia, she developed her "Kids Only Architecture" lesson plans for area schools. These lessons often asked children to think about what kinds of houses different animals would need, encouraging students to use their imaginations.
Renfro moved with her husband Robert, an architect, to his hometown of Austin, Texas, in 1979. At the age of 47, Renfro decided to take up painting, eventually hiring a manager for her puppetry business so she could paint full time. Her artwork, which sometimes took the form of painted sculpture, included large, bold forms and a theatrical manner, and was influenced by her architectural and performance backgrounds. She cited Honoré Daumier as an influence, calling him one of the greatest character inventors; she also admired Jean Cocteau and Robert Wilson for their ability to create drama. Renfro took inspiration for her paintings from the people, places, and events in Austin, which she called a "fun-loving town that loves any excuse to celebrate an event." For example, her painting "The Marriage of Dominique and Joel" illustrates her neighbors, and "The Spirit of Big Bend" reflects the surrounding Texas landscape. Renfro's brightly-colored, imaginative paintings and sculptures often included animals as subjects, such as in "The Monkey King" and "Panda Dance." She also painted many food-themed works such as "Spaghetti Dance" and "The Mad Radish Chef," and she received commissions from restaurants to create installations and murals. Renfro exhibited her work in galleries in Austin, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and other cities, and her work is found in many private collections in Texas. In 1984 she was named a Notable Woman of Texas. Renfro died on 23 July 1993, in Austin.


In addition to materials in the collection, the following sources were used:
Keller, Marily Hodge. "The Puppet Magic of Nancy Renfro."  Austin. August 1981.
"Service to Remember Artist Nancy Renfro,"  Austin American Statesman. July 28, 1993. Accessed April 2, 2012.

Scope and Contents

The career of artist Nancy Renfro is documented with drawings, photographs, writings, and printed ephemera relating to her work as a painter, sculptor, puppeteer, and art educator. The collection spans from 1938 to 2010, but the bulk dates from 1976 to 1992. The collection is organized into seven series: Series I. Artistic works, 1983-1993, undated; Series II. Photographs of artworks, 1983-1992, undated; Series III. Puppetry, 1969-2010, undated; Series IV. Art and architecture education, 1975-1989, undated; Series V. Design projects, circa 1960s; Series VI. Career-related ephemera, 1972-1992, undated; and Series VII. Personal, 1938-1993, undated.
Original artworks by Renfro are located in Series I. Artistic Works, and include sketchbooks organized chronologically and ruled notebooks and loose drawings organized by title. Subjects include figure studies, sketches of events and places, and imaginary scenes. Series II. Photographs of Artworks documents other artworks by Renfro through numerous color slides as well as color and black-and-white photographs and negatives dating from 1983 to 1992. Images of a few drawings are located at the beginning of the series, but the bulk of the series consists of photographs of paintings, arranged alphabetically. Following the section on paintings are images of restaurant installations and then images of sculptures. At the end of the series are folders of assorted works which include portfolio pages, indexes from Renfro's original slide trays, and images of exhibitions.
Prior to her career as a painter and sculptor, Renfro was an avid puppeteer. She taught puppetry and also sold supplies for home puppet making. Series III. Puppetry documents this aspect of Renfro's career with books on puppetry written or co-written by Renfro; articles about her puppetry; brochures and catalogues for her puppetry business; photographs of her puppets and of her teaching; and copies of puppet plays and patterns that she created.
Renfro's interest in teaching art and architecture to elementary school students is documented in Series IV. Lesson plans, articles, and essays by Renfro are found at the beginning of the series. These are followed by numerous photographs (including prints and negatives but mostly slides) of students' artworks and candid images of students at work, the bulk of which date from 1976 to 1978. At the end of the series are magazines and a book related to Renfro's teaching.
Series V. Design projects includes early architectural and interior design projects by Renfro dating from throughout the 1960s. These include a proposal for the General Motors Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair consisting of photographs of models she had built; blueprints, designs, and photographs of scale models of "Tomorrow's Home by the Sea," another 1964 World's Fair submission; floor plans and schematics for a museum; and photographs and collages of assorted retail interior design projects.
Series VI. Career-related ephemera consists of clippings, electronic material, grant proposals, and exhibition and auction catalogs and press materials.
The last series, Series VII. Personal, includes some correspondence and diary entries, but it primarily consists of personal snapshots, including candid images of Renfro, her family, her friends, and the memorial service for her at Barton Springs pool. Also included are images of Renfro with various works of art.
The materials are physically arranged by format as follows:
  • Boxes 1-18: manuscripts and prints
  • Boxes 19-24: negatives and slides
  • Box 25: oversize items

Related Material

Renfro's painting "The Spirit of Big Bend" is housed in the Center's art collection.
The Center's performing arts collection holds several of Renfro's puppets along with related sketches and patterns.

Separated Material

The following items have been removed from the archive and housed with the Center's film recordings:
  • "Nancy Renfro solo show [at] Jack Meier Gallery, November 1991"
  • "Mr. [Jeggers?]," undated
The following items have been removed from the archive and housed with the Center's sound recordings:
  • Psychic readings of Renfro, 1989-1991
    • Martin, Nan, channeling, 1989-1990 (2 audio cassette tapes)
    • Murray, Sylvia, readings, 1990-1991 (13 audio cassette tapes)
    • Nicols, Joe, reading, 22 February 1990 (3 audio cassette tapes)

Index Terms


Renfro, Nancy


Architecture--Study and teaching (Elementary)
Art--Study and teaching (Elementary)
Puppet making

Document Types

Black-and-white photographs
Color photographs
Color slides
Electronic documents.
Printed ephemera

Container List