Every year on Martin Luther King Day, I tell the story of the civil rights icon’s 1964 visit to Westport. I note that local artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.
The artwork — once believed lost — has been preserved. When King’s house opens as a National Park Service site, Halper’s carvings will be back in their prominent spot.
Another civil rights-era work by Halper already hangs in Westport. All you need to see it is to be sent to the principal’s office.
Shortly after being named Staples High School principal last year, Stafford Thomas learned that the piece was part of the Westport Public Art Collections.
The 5-foot tall wood carving was another work in Harper’s 1963 “Birmingham Series.”
Burt Chernow had selected it for the collection, when he began it decades ago. For many years it was displayed at Coleytown Middle School (Halper’s 2 children went there, when it was a junior high).
When CMS was closed due to mold, the carving was removed and refurbished. Thomas heard about it, and asked town arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz for more information.
She asked if he wanted it, to display in his office.
He calls it his favorite piece.
The other day, Halper visited Thomas. She described the background of her work, and elaborated on the other carvings in the series.
When King visited Westport in 1964, Halper said, she was invited to Shabbat dinner with him at the home of Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein. She brought some of her work, inspired by the March on Washington several months earlier. She told King to choose whatever he wanted.
After the artist sent him the 3 wood carvings, Halper and her husband Chuck visited King and his wife Coretta at their Atlanta home. Coretta explained that the works could not hang separately, as was planned, in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offices of King, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. She brought them together again, in her house.
Art has been Halper’s life work. She majored in art education at Skidmore College, and after moving to Westport in 1960 began drawing and working with wood. She worked in her basement studio while raising children, and was heavily influenced by events like the civil rights movement.
Halper did wood carvings until 1990, when the physical toll on her back became too great. Now 83, she teaches gifted high school students 3 hours a day, twice a week.
Chances are they won’t get sent to the principal. But if they’re in his office for a meeting — or any other reason — they’ll see their teacher’s work on his wall. Like all good art, it impresses and inspires him every day.