Behind Closed Doors

From the outside, Westport looks like a typical suburban community. A bit more McMansion-y now than in years past, but a suburb nonetheless.

Gone, we think, is much of the “artists’ colony” vibe that made this place special back in the day.

But there are still plenty of studios, tucked away in basements, cottages and carriage houses. A lot of art still goes on behind closed doors. 

Sometimes, that art takes extra-special form. Alert “06880” reader David Meth recently forwarded a post from HowlRound, an artists’ blog. In it, actor/ singer/dancer/puppeteer Emma Wiseman writes:

I grew up an hour outside New York City in Westport, Connecticut. The house I lived in my whole life was built in the 1930s on several hundred acres of land bought by John Dorr, a wealthy mechanical engineer, and his wife Nell, a photographer whose work was included in the 1955 landmark exhibition The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art. The Dorrs were attracted to the vibrant arts community that existed in Westport in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Emma Wiseman

Emma Wiseman

Today Westport has one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States. A hedge fund responsible for $120 billion of the world’s money is nestled in the woods there….The Dorrs’ land was long ago divided into 2-acre chunks that can barely fit the mansions built on them.

In this gilded environment, my family has always been slightly out of place. We inherited Nell and John Dorr’s offbeat cottage from my grandfather, who came to town in the ‘60s to serve on the faculty of The Famous Writers School, a wildly popular — and ultimately controversial — correspondence course.

Though now winterized and expanded, our house is one of a dwindling number of non-mansions on the street. My parents, too, are unusual in that they have both made lives for themselves in the arts, and while they haven’t seen the financial success of many of their fellow townsfolk, I think they would argue that they are spiritually rich.

I was lucky enough to be (spiritually) supported by my parents as I struck out for New York after college to pursue a life in the theater. One of the things that keeps me in the Big Apple — despite soul-crushing rent and constant questioning of a sustainable artistic life — is the proximity of that support, both spiritual and physical. The house is for me now not only a place to see family, but also to write, to make giant puppets in the yard, to generally spread out. I have begun to think of my house as a legitimate artistic resource.

Recently, my parents and I decided to experiment with sharing that resource, thinking other artists might also benefit from the opportunity to get away and spread out. We invited 2 dear friends of mine to stay for a week-long, makeshift residency. Each individual artist, myself included, would have a bed, a desk, and a door to close. We would all have dinner together, but the rest of the day was ours. The 3 of us were working in different disciplines: screenwriting, puppetry, and visual art.

The arts house on West Branch.

The arts house on West Branch.

A residency is an opportunity for a young artist to come face-to-face with his or her process in a vacuum. While ours was a pretty casual enterprise, being alone in a room with your thoughts for 5 days straight is incredibly daunting. It is also a privilege, and we were all excited. Instead of squeezing art-making in around the margins of our New York City work lives, we had a chance to view it as an actual job.

There were no showing or performance requirements for the “West Branch Residency,” as we called it. We all came with our own private plans and goals for the week, and were under no obligations to share them, or even accomplish them. The point was just to give this side of our lives our undivided attention.

While all 3 of us got a lot out of our time alone, I was surprised at how non-monastic the experience felt. As the week went on we started organically congregating in the kitchen at the same time in the afternoon.

A shared table for artists.

A shared table for artists.

It might sound like we ran away from our responsibilities, but I think we stopped feeling as if we were under the gun. One of the residents spoke to me about feeling constantly burdened by a vague feeling of guilt that I think affects many artists; the “art” we always think we should be making but have no time for follows us around like a storm cloud. During our week together that guilt was alleviated somewhat; a new normal was created in which everyone was confronting their own personal storm cloud. The social moments between the 3 of us were evidence that we had let go of some of that ongoing artistic anxiety.

Recognizing your own community of artists and making space for that community to grow together is just as much the responsibility of an artist as the creation of individual work. I am lucky enough to have access to a physical space outside the city, which is an amazing resource to be able to share. If we cultivate a broader understanding of what our “work” really is, we can all create space and opportunities for one another, whether they be large or small, in the city or out.

My dad described Westport in the ‘30s to me as a “romantic refuge” for New York City artists. It’s a less hospitable place for the creative class nowadays, just as New York City is, but artists will always be welcome at our house.

West Branch arts house 3

8 responses to “Behind Closed Doors

  1. elaineclayton

    A wonderful post! There is still
    a strong art energy vibe here in Westport, I agree. I also feel a sense of
    spiritual abundance in this town, in spite of some of the more materialistic overtones. So much is possible here for artists in my own personal experience, this place has some magic in it. Thanks for this inspiring post and for developing the residency.

  2. This piece really perked me up this morning. Thank you!

  3. David Rubinstein

    What a wonderful piece by Emma.It proves once again the old adage that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. Emma’s mother Eileen is a catalyst for the arts,having been Director of the Westport Arts Center at a critical moment of transformation;she now works her wonders at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven.Emma’s father Carter was President of the MacDowell Artist’s Colony and is a distinguished architecture critic and historian.To say nothing about her creative brothers!It’s an incredible family who have enhanced our cultural life in many ways.

  4. Eric Buchroeder SHS '70

    Westport will always love and honor culture but the market for artists that spawned the original “artists colony” is long gone. Those artists that remain are heirs to a proud legacy. Thanks for keeping the memories alive.

  5. This is a hedge fund colony now….all of the artists except those who inherited property will be priced out of town soon….sadly.

  6. What a moving and thoughtful story Dan. As an aside, Violet Lane was once home to a number of Westport’s best known artists. Today it perseveres in the heart of downtown Westport – most of the modest, Colonial Revival homes, though completely updated in terms of systems and amenities, appear visibly unchanged from the late 1920s. Of course, there is a simple reason for that; in 2005 the people who live there read the stiches on the development fast ball and made it a historic district. Food for thought, Westfair.

    • John McCarthy

      same for the Gorham Avenue and Evergreen neighborhoods, glad to be protected now as part of an historic district.

  7. Amy Schneider

    Interesting Tidbit about John Dorr from Philanthropy Magazine, January, 2011: Everyone in the country benefits daily from the Dorr Foundation’s daring grant. In 1952, John Dorr of Westport, Connecticut, wrote the Connecticut highway commissioner urging him to paint right-hand white lines on the Merritt Parkway. Dorr, a retired engineer, had built a company and a foundation but focused on traffic safety when his wife complained that bright oncoming headlights caused her (and others) to steer toward the shoulder. Dorr hypothesized that a white stripe on the outer edge of the pavement would guide drivers to see the center of their own lane and stay in it. While Connecticut dithered, Dorr’s foundation funded independent testing in four states monitored by the National Highway Safety Board. We are all safer.
    —Claire Gaudiani
    Author, Generosity Unbound