Remembering Vivien Testa

Vivien Testa died 2 months ago. Until today, there has been no public notice of her death.

That’s astonishing. Vivien Testa was 102 years old. For decades, she was a legend in Westport. She was a superb art teacher, townwide director of art, and a mentor to countless students and teachers.

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 donated to the Westport Library.)

Vivien Testa chaired the art department through the 1970s.

Several years ago, while writing my book Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education, I found an interview she recorded for the Westport Historical Society oral history project. Here 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.

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.

The original Staples High School on Riverside Avenue.

The original Staples High School on Riverside Avenue.

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 1st version of the North Avenue campus: 6 separate buildings.

The 1st version of the North Avenue campus: 6 separate buildings.

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.

9 responses to “Remembering Vivien Testa

  1. Bruce Fernie - SHS 1970

    She was something!

  2. I know this comment is on a very,very minor aspect of the article, but when I read it, it brought back memories of a custodian from Greens Farms School in the mid 1950s named “Pop.” Does anyone remember him? Maybe students at one point of time used to call the male custodians “Pop?” His last name could have been Robbling. Does anyone rememeber a “Pop” Robbling?

  3. I remember Vivien Testa. She was my art teacher for the three years I was at Bedford Junior High in the 1940s. With both my parents artists, I was already programmed to be in the arts but Miss Testa introduced a number of things that were new to me. There was also a book called “Art Appreciation” that she used in the class and in it was a reproduction of a painting called “Rain In The Jungle” by Henri Rousseau. The picture was less than half the page and in black and white, but it made such an impression on me that I asked Miss Testa if the school could order a copy of the book for me. And they did. And I still have the book. But it was 40 more years before I saw the painting in color – that was when it appeared on an LP record album by Michael Franks titled “Tiger In The Rain.”
    Some time later, my daughter Dorrie found a large color print of the painting in Boston and this has been on the wall in my studio ever since.

  4. Thank you, Dan, for this post. You must have mentioned “Mrs. Testa” a couple of years ago on 06880 and that gave me the impetus to search her out (on Juniper, the road parallel to Gorham) and see if I could visit her. She remembered me (and my dad and mom) and we had a lovely chat. I believe she was 100 at the time, but her memory was sharp. A lovely, talented lady who was a great art teacher. RIP, “Vivian”!

  5. I was one of Vivian Testa’s art students, Staples class of 1960. My family moved to Westport when I was entering 7th grade, and Ms. Testa, along with Mr. Rapisardi and Ms. Salmon, got me to focus on my art, which helped me with the transition from California.

    Ms. Testa later guided me through my college applications, steering me to Carnegie Tech where her friend Norman Rice was Dean of the College of Fine Arts.

    I moved back to Westport in 1998 and occasionally wondered if Ms. Testa was still active. Then I saw an article announcing her 100th birthday on ‘06880’. I am happy to report that I was able to visit her, introduce her to my wife, who I had met while at Carnegie Tech, and give her copies of children’s books I had written and illustrated. She hadn’t changed one bit – she was just as feisty as I remembered.

  6. She was instrumental in making Westport, not just Staples, what it is today. She was a moving force in the arts when Staples was first regarded as one of the best public schools in the country and won every award that was possible to win in the arts. When she walked into a room, everyone knew it. RIP Miss Testa, Job well done.

  7. Wendy Crowther

    Miss Testa was my favorite art teacher, not just at Staples (1972) but also before and beyond. Even as a H.S. kid, I respected her know-how and talent. To this day I remember her helping me with one particular oil painting that I wasn’t happy with as I painted it in class. She made a suggestion and then demonstrated the technique that she thought would help. That suggestion made all the difference. For decades, that same painting has hung proudly above the fireplace in my living room. In the past, whenever I’ve gazed at it, I’ve thought of Miss Testa. That won’t end – she’ll always live there for me.

  8. beth@devolls.com

    I learn more history from your blogs than I do at work! Where do you get all your information? I wish you worked at the Historical Society!!!!! Thank You!!!

    ElizBETH DEVOLL