Elena Ona Barnet died on Monday, Oct. 10 in Brunswick, Maine. A longtime resident of New York City, Elena had come to Maine – a second home – to spend her remaining time with family.
Born on July 24, 1923 in Kaunas, Lithuania to Jurgis Ciurlys, a government minister and scholar, and Elena Ciurlys, a concert pianist. Elena was the younger of two daughters.
In her late teens, at the height of World War II, Elena pursued a passion for dance, studying modern dance in Vienna, Austria. After the war, Elena’s parents were increasingly concerned about the danger represented by Soviet rule, and arranged for her to emigrate. She arrived in New York City in 1947 (passing through Ellis Island), and lived with her sister Janyte and brother-in-law, who had been living in the United States for over a decade.
In her early years in the country, Elena explored various occupations. These included work as a resettlement aid for fellow immigrants at the Lithuanian consulate, and as a waitress at Schrafft’s in New York City. A highlight of her first few years in the states came as Elena traveled the country as a member of a professional dance troupe, returning to her performance roots honed years earlier.
In 1953, her association with the Arts Students League in New York led to her initial meeting with artist Will Barnet, whom she would marry within three months. Ona Barnet, their only child together, was born a year later. Elena also became stepmother to Will’s three sons from his previous marriage.
As Elena raised Ona, she found herself drawn to the world of art that her husband inhabited. Surrounded by artists, musicians and writers, she found a home in the creative community of New York City and Provincetown, MA. She was also pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology from The New School, followed by a Master’s degree in social work at Hunter College. She worked at Memorial Sloane Kettering as a social worker for over ten years.
Summers in Maine would prove an enormous influence on her family’s life; the state becoming a major influence on Will’s work and eventually home to her daughter and grandchildren. The muse for many of her husband’s most iconic works, she was an equally strong force in the lives of her daughter and grandchildren.
As grandparents, she and Will would leave their artist residence above the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park, where they were active members, and spend each summer at her daughter’s inn on the coast of Maine.
After her husband’s death in 2012, Elena remained in New York City, becoming director of the Will Barnet Foundation. As director she took on the responsibility of advancing her husband’s artistic legacy, remaining close to Will and to the art world that had been their home.
Elena is survived by her daughter, Ona Barnet and husband Randall Gowell; stepsons Peter, Richard and Todd Barnet and their families; grandchild Will Porta and his spouse Roslyn Gerwin; grandchild Ellie Porta-Barnet and her spouse Andrew Rice, and great-granddaughter Willa Rice.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Elena’s memory to the Will Barnet Foundation. There will be a private service for family. Both she and Will are buried in Trinity Wall Street Cemetery at Broadway and 155th Street in New York City.
Will Barnet Three Generations, 1990, oil on canvas, 54 3/4 x 54 inches