Westport’s WPA Art: Still For Everyone

When we think of Westport as an “artists’ colony” — which, hopefully, we still do — certain names leap to mind: George Hand Wright. Harold von Schmidt. Stevan Dohanos. Hardie Gramatky. Howard Munce.

They spanned the 20th century, and helped launch Famous Artists School. Their work lives on, in catalogs, galleries and the memories of art lovers around the world.

But Westport has another arts legacy: WPA paintings. And back in the 1990s, much of it was in danger of disappearing.

The Depression-era works had hung for years in the post office, schools, Town Hall and other public buildings. Gradually, however — during renovations, moves and other events — WPA art was removed from walls, and never replaced. Important pieces of history gathered dust in storage closets, attics and basements around town.

“Pageant of Juvenile Literature” — a 1934 work by Robert Lambdin — hangs in the Westport Library’s Great Hall. This is part of that mural.

Mollie Donovan and her sister Eve Potts scoured — sometimes on their hands and knees — those nooks and crannies, searching for lost art. They were guided by hearsay, intuition, and a handwritten list of commissions compiled decades earlier by the magnificently named Henrietta Cholmeley-Jones.

Mollie and Eve didn’t find everything. Some works had been destroyed when buildings were torn down. But the ones they rescued were restored — thanks in part to Mollie and Eve’s fundraising efforts — and they’re now an important part of our town’s artistic legacy.

The other day, Westporters Kathie Bennewitz and Carole Erger-Fass traveled to Waterbury’s Mattatuck Museum for the opening of a new exhibit. Called “Art for Everyone,” it celebrates the 1,700 paintings, murals and sculptures created by 173 Connecticut artists, thanks to government support during the 1930s.

Robert Garrett Thew’s street sign was a WPA commission. Apparently, Westport drivers were not so careful in the 1930s, either.

Ralph Boyer’s “Westport WPA Art Committee, 1939” usually hangs in the selectman’s conference room at Town Hall. Now it’s on loan to the exhibit — and is the 1st painting visitors see as they enter the gallery.

Eve Potts was at the opening reception. She had great stories to tell about Henrietta Cholmeley-Jones, who was instrumental in assigning WPA commissions to Westport artists.

Seventeen Westport artists were put to work from 1934 to 1937. They produced 34 artworks and 120 photographs. All the materials, plus framing and placing of the murals, casting of the sculptures and film for the photographs, cost Westport a total of $3,020. For her work as “local supervisor,” Henrietta Cholmeley-Jones earned $1 a year.

But she made it into the painting on exhibit at Mattatuck (below). She’s wearing pearls.

Thanks to Mollie and Eve, Westport’s WPA works are on display year-round, throughout town. Like the Mattatuck exhibit, they are truly “Art for Everyone.”

13 responses to “Westport’s WPA Art: Still For Everyone

  1. Wonderful story Dan — thank you! Didn’t the Three Bears Inn have a sign very much like the “iron Please Drive Slowly” sign? I wonder if the same artist created it?

    • That’s a possibility as 3 Bears was a very regular meeting place for a few of the people that formed the nexus between the federal funds by which the artists were commissioned and Westport.

  2. Growing up in Westport, we all knew about Mrs. Cholmeley-Jones (she pronounced it “Chumley-Jones”) so this is fun to find out her connection to WPA art (now overseen and restored by the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection).

    And my husband and I have a weathervane and a sundial made by Robert Garrett (“Bob”) Thew, a longtime neighbor on Roseville. His son, John Thew, is about 85 and still makes beautiful, authentic weathervanes up in Norfolk, CT. It’s great to see that the artistic talent went on to the next generation!

  3. Kathie Bennewitz

    I am going to ask for a “Press/News” button on our blackboard page too.

  4. Thanks Dan, for sharing this great story and helping to preserve Westport’s art legacy for future generations to come!

  5. Loved that story Dan. Just a thought on another one….you know that big scarry birch tree cut into a giant circle around the wires? The one that looms over Long Lots Road? The one that everyone thinks will finally come down in the next big storm…but it never does. I wonder how old that tree is and if it has seen the Battle of Compo?

  6. Thanks, Dan–a great plug for Westport’s art! I’ve been a member of the Wspt Schools Permanent Art Collection committee for many years. Our schools & town buildings are full of original works of art–mostly but not entirely by Westport artists of the past & present. In addition to Eve Potte & the late Mollie Donovan we also have the late Burt Chernow to thank for accumulating most of this art–and Ann Chernow continues to help with this.

  7. Kings Highway Elementary alums no doubt remember those astonishing frescoes that flanked the stage in the auditorium…amazingly, the work of John Steuart Curry, the great Kansas Regionalist (w/ Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood) who apparently lived in Westport in the ’30s. The two works linked thematically…Comedy and Tragedy, and featured “cameos” of his acquaintances locally as well as being inspired by his time traveling with Barnum circus. Are these still in the auditorium…in good shape? Any other background info on them?….they really lit a kid’s imagination, who otherwise was disengaged from what it was that might have been transpiring on stage!

    I took a screenshot of Comedy and posted here: http://assets4.pinimg.com/upload/42291683971934776_GgpbYu78.jpg

  8. Jay Dirnberger

    There are three beauties depicting the origins of fire in the stairwell of our Fire Department on the Post Road.

  9. Who did the large paintings in the Westport Bank and Trust Building?

  10. I think I recognize “Pageant of Juvenile Literature” from Saugatuck El (and recall spending a little time as a child wondering why dinosaurs were mixed in with the pretty horses and stuff).

  11. The Curry works are indeed still at Kings Highway, and they look great. I believe they were restored in recent years. They still spark conversation among the kids!

  12. Have very fond memories of the literature mural from Saugatuck elementary. I used to guess where each character belonged in “bookland”. Wish they had work like this in all public buildings now!