Susan O’Hara’s “Strokes Of Genius”

Reports of the death of Westport as an artists’ colony are greatly exaggerated.

Over 1500 paintings, photos and etchings comprise the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection. They hang in every school, Town Hall, the library — even the fire station.

Until now, though, all they’ve done is hang.

Since February, 2 sophomore Honors English classes have given life and meaning to nearly 4 dozen pieces. They’ve culled their favorites, researched the art and artists, learned how galleries work, written in-depth analyses — even recorded audio commentary, downloadable with smartphone apps.

The result is a remarkable show that sprawls through 3 Staples High School floors. It’s a superb example of kids making connections between many disciplines. And of teenagers understanding the rich history of the art they never realized surrounded them all around town.

(From left) Kathie Bennewitz, town art curator; English teacher Susan O'Hara, and illustrator Leonard Everett Fisher are eager to tour the show.

(From left) Kathie Bennewitz, town art curator; English teacher Susan O’Hara, and illustrator Leonard Everett Fisher are eager to tour the show.

Susan O’Hara — who teaches the 2 classes that dove into this project — wanted her students to realize the importance of writing about and for their community.

Their work was intense. They explored over 400 works of art in the Permanent Collection. They visited the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art. They met with museum educators.

They organized their final 47 selections into 11 thematic groups. Before writing they interviewed artists, researched scenes they recognized, delved into town history, uncovered documentaries made about local artists, even interviewed art teachers to learn about techniques.

Katharine Ross and Miggs Burroughs -- 2 of the artists featured at Staples High School.

Katharine Ross and Miggs Burroughs — 2 of the artists featured at Staples High School.

Some artists’ names were vaguely familiar to students when they started. Others were completely unknown. Now they are intimate parts of the teens’ lives: Lynsey Addario, Ward Brackett, Miggs Burroughs, Burt Chernow, Ann Chernow, Stevan Dohanos, Leonard Everett Fisher, Isabel Gordon, Robert Lambdin, Howard Munce, Katherine Ross, Tracy Sugarman, Al Willmott, Lucia Nebel White.

Yesterday, many of those artists attended an opening reception for “Strokes of Genius.” They toured the halls, and admired the walls.

They peered in to read what the students had written. Monique Medina, for example, noted that Dohanos’ downtown scene was called “Crisis on Main Street” not only because a little girl’s ice cream cone was dripping; more ominously, World War II loomed.

Amy Perelberg described Willmott’s drawing of the Compo Beach playground as conveying not just the relaxing, light spirit of the shore, but also representing colors that make our entire town brighter.

90-year-old Lucia Nebel White and Linda Gramatky Smith -- daughter of the "Little Toot" artist -- admire Al Willmott's Compo Beach playground painting.

90-year-old Lucia Nebel White and Linda Gramatky Smith — daughter of the “Little Toot” artist — admire Al Willmott’s Compo Beach playground painting.

In our security-conscious world, Westporters can’t just stroll into Staples to see this great show. However, in October — as part of the 20th anniversary of the Westport Art Awards — the public can tour it.

An online version is being developed, so the project will live on once the show closes in December.

Just as — thanks in part to Susan O’Hara and her multi-dimensional sophomore students — Westport’s arts heritage continues to live.

Staples principal John Dodig uses his iPhone's QR code reader to listen to audio commentary on Stevan Dohanos' "Crisis on Main Street."

Staples principal John Dodig uses his iPhone’s QR code reader to listen to audio commentary on Stevan Dohanos’ “Crisis on Main Street.”

15 responses to “Susan O’Hara’s “Strokes Of Genius”

  1. Werner Liepolt

    Inspired and inspiring work. Way to go!

  2. Maggie Mudd

    How marvelous! There is so much home-town talent to inspire our kids.
    We are lucky to have such a rich artistic heritage.

  3. We have the heritage, the kids, and the staff at our schools to make such a wonderful project to enrich our town. Bravo to all!!

  4. Fred Cantor

    Great concept. Perhaps this exhibit, in part, could be transferred to the Westport Historical Society or the Westport Arts Center.

  5. Margaret Hart Rynshall

    Such an incredible idea and execution! Al Wilmott was my neighbor and he and all the other artists deserve this recognition. Thank you to Susan O’Hara and your students.

  6. Awesome! Mom (Mollie Donovan) would have been so pleased. One of her goals was to bring the rich history of Westport’s artists and incredible art collection to Westport students hoping to inspire them. Now the students she hoped to inspire are completing the circle.

  7. Don Willmott

    Let me echo Dan D. by noting that my late mother also worked on the Permanent Collection committee for many years, and that’s my late father’s work hanging on the wall. Though they’re both gone now, it’s great to see this living legacy. Makes me wonder what my legacy will be!

  8. This exhibit is what teaching is all about. With this lesson plan, Susan O’Hara had a “Stroke of Genius.” Kathie Bennewitz , as curator, is an incredible addition to the Town and schools. We are very fortunate to have both of them.

  9. Kathie Bennewitz

    This student-curated exhibit was a joy to support and help develop with Sue O’Hara. It was also a thoroughly collaborative project, with the Staples PTA Senior Internship Project, English Department, Westport Arts Advisory, WSPAC, the Cultural Arts Committee, and Write to Change who generously provided support. SHS parents and students in Ms. O’Hara’s class and members of the the student Art Club also helped with hanging and graphics.

    In late October 2013 the public will be given an opportunity to tour “Strokes of Genius” along art on view in other schools and town buildings as part of the Westport Art Advisory Committee’s 20th anniversary celebration. WSPAC is also developing an online version of the exhibit so that this student project can live on after the show comes down in December 2013.

    And yes, our beloved and longtime WSPAC members–the late Helenann Willmott, Mollie Donovan and founder Burt Chernow–continue to inspire us to keep the students in the forefront and to embrace our town’s rich heritage.

  10. Howard Udell

    What a wonderful idea. This is so exciting. I can’t wait to see it, and to look at it online. Congratulations to all who participated in the creation and execution of this project. They’ve given Westport another wonderful thing to be proud of.

  11. Steve Baumann

    As a kid growing up on Loren Lane in the late 50″s and early 60’s all we knew about Westport artists was the presence of the Famous Artists School. What we did know was a very special artist, Al Willmott, lived across the street. Within three houses on either side of the street there were 20 kids under the age of 10. Al and Helenanne were dear friends of my parents and the neighborhood kids couldn’t wait for the first big snow of the year when like magic giant snow sculptures would appear in the Wilmott’s front yard. An enormous elephant, a giant grizzly, a leering lion, and a magnificent mermaid. We were mesmerized by his talent and I know his creations were my introduction to the world of art. Al and Helenanne were at my wedding in 1974 and to this day the Wilmott’s very special wedding present hangs in out den.

  12. Scott E Brodie


    I vaguely remember signed drawings by Hardie Gramatky (Little Toot and ?Hercules the steam-powered fire engine) as permanent fixtures in the Burr Farms School Library. Do you know what became of them? Are they part of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection — it would wonderful if they are still enhancing the Library experiences of Westport children.

    Scott E. Brodie (Burr Farms School ’57-’64)

  13. Lisabeth Comm

    Congratulations to Sue O’Hara and her students for creating a project that exemplifies the 21st century skills that inform the Westport Schools 2025 initiative. The art show is a beautiful example of how students can be offered the opportunity to work on a real-world project that is engaing and requires them to be creative, communicate effectively, think critically, and explore multiple prespectives.

    This project required students to learn about what goes into curating a show (through visits to the Yale Art Museum and other museums), conduct authentic research to learn more about a work of art of their choice and the artist who created it, write an introduction placard, and create a QR code that leads to additional information about the piece and the artist. Students had the opportunity to “give back” to the town of Westport by putting an informed spotlight on some of Westport’s greatest artists and their works.

    Lisabeth Comm

    Director of Secondary Education
    Westport Public Schools

  14. Edward Gerber


    Do you know if they studied and featured the “dean ” of Westport Artists -George Hand Wright whose longtime home is now my home ??? The collection includes many fine examples of his work .

    Thanks Ed

    Sent from my iPad