When we think of Westport as an “artists’ colony” — which, hopefully, we still do — certain names leap to mind: George Hand Wright. Harold von Schmidt. Stevan Dohanos. Hardie Gramatky. Howard Munce.
They spanned the 20th century, and helped launch Famous Artists School. Their work lives on, in catalogs, galleries and the memories of art lovers around the world.
But Westport has another arts legacy: WPA paintings. And back in the 1990s, much of it was in danger of disappearing.
The Depression-era works had hung for years in the post office, schools, Town Hall and other public buildings. Gradually, however — during renovations, moves and other events — WPA art was removed from walls, and never replaced. Important pieces of history gathered dust in storage closets, attics and basements around town.
Mollie Donovan and her sister Eve Potts scoured — sometimes on their hands and knees — those nooks and crannies, searching for lost art. They were guided by hearsay, intuition, and a handwritten list of commissions compiled decades earlier by the magnificently named Henrietta Cholmeley-Jones.
Mollie and Eve didn’t find everything. Some works had been destroyed when buildings were torn down. But the ones they rescued were restored — thanks in part to Mollie and Eve’s fundraising efforts — and they’re now an important part of our town’s artistic legacy.
The other day, Westporters Kathie Bennewitz and Carole Erger-Fass traveled to Waterbury’s Mattatuck Museum for the opening of a new exhibit. Called “Art for Everyone,” it celebrates the 1,700 paintings, murals and sculptures created by 173 Connecticut artists, thanks to government support during the 1930s.
Ralph Boyer’s “Westport WPA Art Committee, 1939” usually hangs in the selectman’s conference room at Town Hall. Now it’s on loan to the exhibit — and is the 1st painting visitors see as they enter the gallery.
Eve Potts was at the opening reception. She had great stories to tell about Henrietta Cholmeley-Jones, who was instrumental in assigning WPA commissions to Westport artists.
Seventeen Westport artists were put to work from 1934 to 1937. They produced 34 artworks and 120 photographs. All the materials, plus framing and placing of the murals, casting of the sculptures and film for the photographs, cost Westport a total of $3,020. For her work as “local supervisor,” Henrietta Cholmeley-Jones earned $1 a year.
But she made it into the painting on exhibit at Mattatuck (below). She’s wearing pearls.
Thanks to Mollie and Eve, Westport’s WPA works are on display year-round, throughout town. Like the Mattatuck exhibit, they are truly “Art for Everyone.”