Happy 100th, Vivien Testa!

Vivien Testa turns 100 years young today.

In 1936 she began teaching art at Bedford Junior High School (now King’s Highway Elementary).

She moved to Staples (now Saugatuck Elementary) in 1948.

Vivien Testa

Ten years after that, she was part of the new high school campus on North Avenue.  (In fact — having minored in architecture — she helped design the place.  She has an enormous slide collection from that time, which she will donate to the Westport Library.)

Vivien Testa chaired the art department through the 1970s.

She is as sharp as when she ruled the 4 Building — and that’s saying something.

Happy birthday, Vivien!
Several years ago, while writing my book
Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education, I found an interview Vivien Testa had recorded for the Westport Historical Society oral history projectHere is an excerpt:

My family spent summers in Westport, so I knew the town in 1936 when I came to teach art at Bedford Junior High School.  It was the Depression, and my father said I was taking a job away from a man who needed one.

In 1936 the school had a place in the life of the community.  Teachers knew what they were expected to do and not do.  For example, teachers were not supposed to smoke.  But the faculty played basketball against the youngsters, and put on plays for them.  There was a feeling we were all growing and learning together.

The original Staples High School, on Riverside Avenue. (Located where the Saugatuck Elementary School auditorium is today.)

When Mrs. Holden, the arts supervisor, left in 1948, I took over.  We had a lovely art room in the building on Riverside Avenue.  It was good size, and well lit.  There were 15 to 20 students in a class, and I taught 4 or 5 classes a day. Westport was growing as an arts colony.

I still carried nearly a full teaching load, but I was given one or two afternoons a week to supervise.  There were three townwide directors in art, music and physical education.  Those were considered special subjects, and the principals were not trained in them.  But the Board of Education members and superintendent really knew teachers.  They came into the classroom all the time.

Pop Amundsen was the custodian, and his wife ran the cafeteria.  They set the tone for Staples.  If they saw youngsters doing anything out of line, they let them know.  Students respected them just as much as the principal.

Everything was in apple pie order.  No one dared mark a desk.  We were a small family.  Education at that time was a family business.  Teachers and students and parents all felt responsible for what was happening.  There was no closing eyes to what was going on.  Everyone respected what was happening.

We got help from a lot of places.  The Westport Women’s Club had a $350 art competition, and when Famous Artists School came in they gave scholarships.  Al Dorne [a founder of Famous Schools] always helped.  He’d produce booklets for new teachers or students. He underwrote hundreds of dollars.

I was involved in the plans for the North Avenue building.  I worked with the architects, Sherwood, Mills and Smith.  I minored in architecture, so I was able to lay out my ideas about what I wanted to have.  It worked nicely for me, except when they cut this, that and the other thing, and we ended up with just a mishmash.  That was kind of too bad.  But it was still better than you would find in many places.

The “new” Staples, circa 1959. The auditorium (center left) and gym (largest building in the rear) are the only original structures that remain today.

There were many bugs in the building that had to be taken care of.  A 3rd art room was cut out of the original plan, and a wing in the auditorium was cut.  We had to put all the crafts stuff – kilns, etc. – in 2 rooms designed for 2-D stuff.  Then when they added Building 9 a few years later, they added a 3-D room, and extended the stage.

Before they did that, a ballet company came to use the stage.  The stage had only been planned for lectures and assemblies, not theater – there was no room for stage sets.  As you face the stage, there was a brick wall on the right, and a passageway and electric panel on the left.  A handsome male dancer ran right into the brick wall.  Performers had to dress in the art rooms, too.  It was quite a mess.

There was one boys’ and one girls’ bathroom – none for the faculty.  I learned a great deal about youth by using that bathroom.  But we always took an interest in keeping our building beautiful, because art is beauty.

16 responses to “Happy 100th, Vivien Testa!

  1. Wonderful story about a long ago time that brought me back not only to Vivien Testa’s time, but my own school days at Bedford Elementary. I have many vivid memories from those days and every time I’m at a performance at Westport Community Theatre, I remember playing Four-Square and jump rope and riding the merry-go-round in the area that is now the parking lot in the back of town hall.

  2. Happy Birthday Vivien!

  3. Happy 100th Birthday Ms. Testa! I remember you well from Staples Art classes.

  4. Happy birthday, dear Aunt Vivien!

  5. Happy Birthday, Miss Testa. You were my home room teacher at Bedford Junior High in either 7th grade (1946-47) or 8th (1947-48) — I now forget the grade but I don’t forget what a great teacher you were! Best wishes on reaching this milestone. Tom Greene

  6. Mary Palmieri Gai

    Happy birthday miss T. I remember you putting those men under your supervision. They shook. Art was art when you had something to say about it. Thanks for a stellar education.

  7. Amazing 100th birthday! Love nephew Don Testa from California.

  8. Happy Birthday Ms. Testa. I remember both you and Ms. Koenig fondly! My time spent in Art classes at Staples were amazing and influential. I just retired from teaching Art in high school, and loved every moment. Thank you! Thank you!

  9. Wendy Crowther

    Happy Birthday, Ms. Testa. In the only year I spent at Staples you were my art teacher. I have an oil painting hanging over my fireplace today that I painted in your class. You made excellent suggestions as to how I should use a palette knife to create some nice effects. I think of you every time I look at it. You were an inspiration to me as a teacher and artist, and you helped this shy, newbie student feel welcome and talented. Forty years later, that still means a lot to me.

  10. Eric Buchroeder

    Ms. Testa,
    Happy Birthday. I had no interest in art classes and didn’t take one of them in high school. I do remember however, classmates who raved about you and even my mother, who didn’t have many good things to say about anyone, mentioned to me that you were an excellent teacher when she was in school. Congratulations on 100 years of youth and best wishes for continued long life.

    Best wishes,
    Eric Buchroeder SHS ’70

  11. Dear Ms. Testa, I am so happy to wish You a happy 100, and many many more! I would never have gone to Cooper Union without your intervention and belief in my potential. I had a pretty rough senior year, but you were there for me,.. much more tuned into what was going on with me and the direction I needed than my parents. I continue to paint and have done some filmaking animation and videography… I have a lot to thank you for…I look forward to showing you some of my work. Hugs and Kisses

  12. HAPPY 100th BIRTHDAY, MS. TESTA! You believed in me and my artistic ability when I was having trouble believing in myself! So many ‘if only’s’ back in those days. You so wanted me to go to Art School and I wanted to go so badly. If only my father had understood and I had more courage to go against him. I should have done so many things differently. But I always remembered you with such fondness. My art classes were my salvation at Staples. Thank you so much for being you! Wherever you are – a big loving hug comes your way on your special day! Affectionately, Wendy (Powers) Ahrensdorf, Staples Class of 1969

  13. Lynn Lucke Lutkin

    Dear Ms, Testa,
    I was exposed to art and artists early on growing up in Wilton, CT. My parents always encouraged me. I remember you so vividly during my years at Staples and although I wasn’t a star art student, the experiences have held on throughout my life. I studied art in college, worked in the art field in NYC, became an art educator and art coordinator in Fort Collins, CO and then taught for several years at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. I have my own business, Lucky Break, starting with tile murals and then painting murals and faux painting in private homes. Like you, I found my career working with and teaching students from pre-school to senior citizens, the most rewarding career I could have ever chosen. I can only hope that I have been able to positively
    instill the love of art to as many students as you have. Thank you so very much and I wish you a very happy belated 100th birthday!

    Lynn (Lucke) Lutkin, Fort Collins, Co, Staples Class of 1952

  14. Miss Testa
    Not only did the joy of your class inspire me to lifetime engaging in the arts – but we share this birth date of April 29th! It is because a handful of unforgettable classes and teachers, of you are surely one, that I was inspired to a late career as a teacher. I’ve lived my life in arts related fields, and now I try to bring the same passion for creativity and the arts to college students that you once instilled in generations of your students.
    On display in my house is a now 45-year old sandstone sculpture and a clay head that I created in your class. So I think of you often, and am so happy to hear that you are celebrating your 100th birthday! I’ll be 100 on April 29, 2049. Let’s hope that by then there will be generations upon generations inspired by the what you did for so many years.
    Good health to you!!!
    Tim Jackson
    Staples Class of ’67

  15. Happy Birthday, Ms. Testa (we never called you by your first name, of course). Wonderful news that you are still around after 100 years…! You were one of my favorite high school teachers. I’ve never forgotten you. (Shame on us students… we go through life remembering all of you because of the great influence you had on our young “skulls full of mush”, but seldom seem to reach out after graduation just to say hello and to thank you: “How are you, Ms. Testa, and do you remember me…?”)

    Not sure you remember me (class of ’55 along with Leann Walker and others–I know this because I still have a charcoal I did of her in your class). However, our yearbook said (at least one of the editors so opined), that I had to be one of your favorites due to the straight-‘A’ grades I got in your class… :o)!

    Wholly undeserved, assuredly.

    Hope you get to read this. A bit tardy (as were my frequent class arrivals…). God Bless and many more birthdays to come. I am so glad that–once upon a time–you were my teacher…

    George (“Cliff”) Clifford
    Hendersonville, NC
    February 10, 2013