Staples Students Take Over Town Hall

For a town that celebrates arts in every way, our Town Hall has been a bit art-free.

Until now.

For the past few weeks, Sue O’Hara’s English 3A students have worked on a multi-disciplinary project. All year long, the Staples High School juniors studied the intersection of literature, art and life. Now they’ve put their knowledge, insights and research skills to the test.

Noah Staffa, Daniel Perez Elorza, Graham Gudis, senior intern Allie Benjamin and Staples English teacher Sue O'Hara describe the research and writing process. The

Noah Staffa, Daniel Perez Elorza, Graham Gudis, senior intern Ale Benjamin and English teacher Sue O’Hara describe the research and writing process. The “Westport scenes” shown behind them are located just inside the entrance to Town Hall.

They scoured the town’s vast art database for intriguing paintings, drawings and photographs. They plucked their favorite pieces from wherever they were — storage, private offices, whatever — and installed them in Town Hall corridors.

But that’s not all. They dug deep, to learn about each artist and piece of art. They delved into history, culture and social development. They figured out which works would be appropriate where. And they designed multimedia effects — narrations, poems, songs, sound effects — to go along with each, via QR codes.

Liam Abourezk, BK Browne and Jack Sila, with superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon, using QR codes on their smartphones to access more information on the illustrations outside the educator's office.

Liam Abourezk, BK Browne and Jack Sila, with superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon, using QR codes on their smartphones to access more information on the artwork outside the educator’s office.

For example, the Town School Offices on the 3rd floor are now graced by 2 Stevan Dohanos Saturday Evening Post covers — both drawn in Westport, one of the 1946 Staples High School band — as well as a number of photos showing children playing.

Two 1946 illustrations by Stevan Dohanos -- both using Westport models -- hang on the 3rd floor of Town Hall.

Two 1946 illustrations by Stevan Dohanos — both using Westport models — hang on the 3rd floor of Town Hall. “Star Pitcher” shows a gang of boys waiting for their friend to finish mowing, so they can play baseball. “Big Game of the Season” shows the Staples band in action. Both were Saturday Evening Post covers.

Around the corner on the 3rd floor, outside the town’s Finance Department, the art is different. “Westport is about politics, culture and money,” say students in the group overseeing this section — and the art there shows it.

Of course, Town Hall was not totally artless before yesterday. Several large murals already hung above the auditorium, and outside the first selectman’s office and Westport Community Theater.

O’Hara’s students researched each mural, and wrote in depth about what those murals mean to Westport.

Thanks to the Stapleites, Town Hall looks a lot jazzier today than it did before.

And that’s fitting. The nerve center of town — housing not only our chief politicians and educators but also planning directors, engineers, election clerks and the tree warden, among others — was not always municipal offices.

For decades it was Bedford Elementary — a school.

[UPDATE: As Thomas Greene notes in the “Comments” below, he was the boy mowing the lawn in the Stevan Dohanos illustration. All the boys used as models were 6th graders at Bedford Elementary School. So that piece of art now hangs in the building where it began.]

14 responses to “Staples Students Take Over Town Hall

  1. Claire Hertan

    Hooray for Sue O’hara! My son’s class did something similar under her guidance at Staples a few years ago. Labeling the town’s art is the key to making it accessible to the public. With close to 2,000 pieces of art in the collection there is a lot of work to do. Hooray too for Joan Miller who has assiduously catalogued every piece of art in the town’s collection for twenty plus years in her fabulous database and gave the database to the town last year. Amazing labor of love.

  2. Thomas Greene

    I was the boy mowing the grass in the cover of the baseball team. All of the boys were members of the sixth grade class of Bedford Elementary School in 1946. We posed on the lawn in front of the school and Mr. Dohanos took many photographs that he used later in his studio to compose the cover.

  3. Kathie Bennewitz

    As always thanks Dan for coming to the “opening’ and this great story.

    The power of the students’ eyes and voices is impactful, married with Sue O’Hara’s educational vision and support of WSPAC, along with the invaluable help of SHS intern Ale Benjamin and SHS alum ’11 Kim Snow . This show created a buzz around Town Hall as it was being hung, not only with comments “How beautiful!” but also with requests of “Can we have art too?” Thank you Sue, the Westport Schools, the Town of Westport and our PTA and town reps who brought works from other schools and public buildings over for the show.

    And yes, If we didn’t have the rich collection database, created and managed for decades by Joan Miller and now housed online by the Westport Schools, the kids would never have had the opportunity to access and to select the works from their classroom. Joan’s contributions to this critical foundation was a key reason Westport Arts Advisory honored her a few years ago with the Mollie Award, named after longtime WPSAC leader Mollie Donovan.

    Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection is in its 50th year and many dedicated volunteers have helped to care for the art and and grow the Collection into the cultural and educational resource it is today. Today, nothing is better than to see our students now contribute to this effort, as their research, label writing and exhibits are a lasting and critical contribution as well.

    The public can view these exhibits during Town Hall public hours.

  4. Marcia Wright

    Hats off to an outstanding teacher. It was my pleasure to work along side Sue during my years in the SHS English Dept.

  5. What a great project.

  6. Thanks not only to Kathie Bennewitz, who impresses me with the respect she has for students and student ideas, to intern Ale Benjamin and to alum Kim Snow, but also to all the people behind the scenes who have helped out. This is the second time that I have worked with the collection, and I continue to be amazed at the generosity with which people simply show up and help. Also, I need to thank Jen Cirino, Coordinator of Information Technology and Literacy, who helped us link the art to media. I encourage you all to try the QR codes to see the creativity of this class.

  7. Gloria Gouveia, Land Use Consultants

    Town Hall wasn’t always “art-less”; quite the contrary.
    Some history: The former elementary school was converted to Town Hall in the late 1970’s, inspired and financially enabled by a Small Cities Grant. First Selectman Jackie Heneage worked closely with design professionals and others to meet the community need for both centralized municipal offices AND a center for the arts. The former Bedford Elementary School repurposed to serve as the Westport Town Hall and Arts Center.
    To fulfill that objective, every space in the building that could serve these dual purposes was thoughtfully designed to do so.
    For example:
    The broad hallways on all three floors were trimmed with picture molding for easy use as gallery space for both a permanent art collection and an ever changing array of exhibitions and installations for community use.
    It was a “given” that the auditorium when not in use for public meetings would provide a venue for entertainment, (not that public meetings aren’t entertaining).
    A jewel in the building’s cultural crown: the facility now devoted to the Westport Community Theater, tucked beneath the auditorium in a “bonus” space that might have otherwise been relegated to storage. Across the hall, The Green Room is by day a lunch and break room for Town employees, originally outfitted with a kitchen sink, a stove and a refrigerator.
    These and other features designed for multi-purpose use are still in evidence at Town Hall today — the enduring if under-appreciated legacy of First Selectman Jackie Heneage’s well-developed sense of Yankee thrift and service to the whole community.
    How do I know all of the above? I was there.

  8. Gloria Gouveia, Land Use Consultants

    P.S. And speaking of service to the community — kudos to all involved for their important achievement and many grateful thanks.

  9. Carissa Baker

    Another reminder of the meaningful learning experiences that are provided to Westport students by their outstanding teachers! And these teachers are a reflection of the interesting an talented members of this community. I loved every minute I lived in Westport starting in fifth grade at Bedford Elementary! Soaking up the culture, art, and challenging learning opportunities was a gift that has influenced my entire life, as I am sure it has the lives of the students mentioned here. We’ll done Westport!!!

  10. Staples, its students and staff, truly are incredible.

    I recently saw their production of Sweeney Todd, and it was astonishing. I’d seen the original, and always wondered how it would play if unencumbered by all that overwrought Harold Prince blowhard-ry. This was IT, just right. No stagehands bursting onstage to switch the sets before a scene had time to settle. The direction was terrific without calling attention to itself–only in service to the actors, story and music. And that student playing Sweeney! Wow. Big voice, big talent!

    Of course, no one, not even Patti Lupone, can possibly match Angela Lansbury. You just have to give it your all, and Staples’ Mrs. Lovitt sure did!

    I did wonder why they felt they had to pull out that anachronistic killer-head-twist trope, but hey–this isn’t a review. I just meant to say, the quality of the Staples production was extraordinary.

    Obviously, something special going on at Staple. Watta school!

  11. I too want to thank Joan Miller for all her service to WSPAC over the years. I know that having an accurate database is the bedrock of having an accessible collection. And what a fabulous project Sue O’Hara’s English 3A students created! I remember the exhibit in Staples’ halls a couple of years ago (also from one of Sue’s classes) but this is wonderful having it in Town Hall for everyone to be able to see. I can’t wait to try the QR codes. And thanks to Gloria Gouveia for the history about First Selectperson Jackie Heneage and the Bicentennial Collection that hung for years in the lobby and other floors of Town Hall. Shirley Land headed up the committee to commemorate the USA’s bicentennial in 1976, and the art was purchased and donated. All that art is now part of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection and is in public schools and buildings around Westport.