Tag Archives: Kathie Bennewitz

The Good Old Days?

As Westport battens down for our 792nd snowstorm of the winter — and we check our batteries, rock salt and (of course) milk, bread and eggs –let’s remember that this is New England, and sometimes we get bad weather.

Town art curator Kathie Bennewitz plowed through the Westport Historical Society archives, and dug up 3 shots from over a century ago.

This one, from 1890, shows the “State Street [Post Road] bridge looking west during a snow storm.” Taken from near the current site of Starbucks, facing Norwalk, it shows National Hall on the right. Note the overturned carriage (or structure) in the middle of the bridge.

WHS ice - 2

This shot, from the early 1900s, shows an ice jam “south of State Street” (same bridge). That sure is a ton of ice. And check out the trolley car on the bridge.

WHS ice - 1

Finally, here’s a circa-1900 photo of the “swing bridge” — the Bridge Street bridge? Looks like a lot of people came out to see the frozen Saugatuck River.

WHS ice - 3No word on whether school was canceled or delayed during those very tough winters.

Ice Cream Parlor Games

On Sunday, “06880” reported on the return of an ice cream parlor to Westport. The post was illustrated with a snippet of a menu from the old, much-loved Ice Cream Parlor downtown.

Two days later, I added Tracy Sugarman’s 1950s drawing of teenagers inside the popular hangout.

Now — thanks to Kathie Bennewitz — I’ve got an entire front cover of the menu.

Ice cream Parlor menuBut not just any menu. Kathie — the town’s art curator — says this one was signed by dozens of actors.They performed at the Westport Country Playhouse. After shows, they crossed the Post Road for a treat.

Among the names: Elizabeth Taylor. Mike Todd.  Claude Raines. Sid Caesar. Eli Wallach. Kirk Douglas. David Wayne. Dorothy Gish. Gene Tierney. Bert Lahr. Doris Day.

Imagine the stories they could dish.

(The menu is now part of the Westport Historical Society archives.)

Susan O’Hara’s “Strokes Of Genius”

Reports of the death of Westport as an artists’ colony are greatly exaggerated.

Over 1500 paintings, photos and etchings comprise the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection. They hang in every school, Town Hall, the library — even the fire station.

Until now, though, all they’ve done is hang.

Since February, 2 sophomore Honors English classes have given life and meaning to nearly 4 dozen pieces. They’ve culled their favorites, researched the art and artists, learned how galleries work, written in-depth analyses — even recorded audio commentary, downloadable with smartphone apps.

The result is a remarkable show that sprawls through 3 Staples High School floors. It’s a superb example of kids making connections between many disciplines. And of teenagers understanding the rich history of the art they never realized surrounded them all around town.

(From left) Kathie Bennewitz, town art curator; English teacher Susan O'Hara, and illustrator Leonard Everett Fisher are eager to tour the show.

(From left) Kathie Bennewitz, town art curator; English teacher Susan O’Hara, and illustrator Leonard Everett Fisher are eager to tour the show.

Susan O’Hara — who teaches the 2 classes that dove into this project — wanted her students to realize the importance of writing about and for their community.

Their work was intense. They explored over 400 works of art in the Permanent Collection. They visited the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art. They met with museum educators.

They organized their final 47 selections into 11 thematic groups. Before writing they interviewed artists, researched scenes they recognized, delved into town history, uncovered documentaries made about local artists, even interviewed art teachers to learn about techniques.

Katharine Ross and Miggs Burroughs -- 2 of the artists featured at Staples High School.

Katharine Ross and Miggs Burroughs — 2 of the artists featured at Staples High School.

Some artists’ names were vaguely familiar to students when they started. Others were completely unknown. Now they are intimate parts of the teens’ lives: Lynsey Addario, Ward Brackett, Miggs Burroughs, Burt Chernow, Ann Chernow, Stevan Dohanos, Leonard Everett Fisher, Isabel Gordon, Robert Lambdin, Howard Munce, Katherine Ross, Tracy Sugarman, Al Willmott, Lucia Nebel White.

Yesterday, many of those artists attended an opening reception for “Strokes of Genius.” They toured the halls, and admired the walls.

They peered in to read what the students had written. Monique Medina, for example, noted that Dohanos’ downtown scene was called “Crisis on Main Street” not only because a little girl’s ice cream cone was dripping; more ominously, World War II loomed.

Amy Perelberg described Willmott’s drawing of the Compo Beach playground as conveying not just the relaxing, light spirit of the shore, but also representing colors that make our entire town brighter.

90-year-old Lucia Nebel White and Linda Gramatky Smith -- daughter of the "Little Toot" artist -- admire Al Willmott's Compo Beach playground painting.

90-year-old Lucia Nebel White and Linda Gramatky Smith — daughter of the “Little Toot” artist — admire Al Willmott’s Compo Beach playground painting.

In our security-conscious world, Westporters can’t just stroll into Staples to see this great show. However, in October — as part of the 20th anniversary of the Westport Art Awards — the public can tour it.

An online version is being developed, so the project will live on once the show closes in December.

Just as — thanks in part to Susan O’Hara and her multi-dimensional sophomore students — Westport’s arts heritage continues to live.

Staples principal John Dodig uses his iPhone's QR code reader to listen to audio commentary on Stevan Dohanos' "Crisis on Main Street."

Staples principal John Dodig uses his iPhone’s QR code reader to listen to audio commentary on Stevan Dohanos’ “Crisis on Main Street.”

Kathie Bennewitz: Westport’s First “Town Curator”

You never know where life will take you.

Who knew, for example, that swimming and lifeguarding would help propel Kathie Bennewitz — 35 years later — to her new position as Westport’s 1st-ever town curator?

Yet that’s what happened, after Kathie Motes moved to Westport in the summer of 1978 — just before her senior year at a new school, Staples High.

Kathie Bennewitz

Kathie Bennewitz

Kathie joined the swim team, took art classes, and befriended Ellise Fuchs, whose father Bernie was a world-famous illustrator. Kathie posed for him, pretending to receive a medal for an Olympic scene.

At Princeton, she majored in art history. “I’m not a fine artist,” she claims. “But I love the process, and the way art reflects who we are.”

One summer, lifeguarding at Compo, she met Scott Bennewitz. He was a beach security guard — and a fellow Princetonian.

They married, and lived in Dallas, Minneapolis and Holland. She’d earned a masters in art history. Everywhere they moved, she worked in museums.

Eight years ago, they came to Westport. Kathie volunteered with the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection. She says that meeting co-founder Mollie Donovan “changed my life.”

Kathie learned how deep and broad Westport’s arts history is. And she realized the impact of men like John Steuart Curry, and institutions like the Westport Country Playhouse, on this town.

"Blues Piano Players" -- one of the 7 wonderful works by Eric von Schmidt that make up "Birth of the Blues." They hang in the Staples auditorium.

“Blues Piano Players” — one of the 7 wonderful works by Eric von Schmidt that make up “Birth of the Blues.” They hang in the Staples auditorium.

She also met volunteers like Eve Potts — Mollie’s sister. “Their commitment, passion and enthusiasm for this town, and its arts community, is infectious,” Kathie says.

She worked professionally at Greenwich’s Bush-Holley House and the Fairfield Museum. A year ago, she became an independent curator.

She also was appointed tri-chair of the Permanent Art Collection, and served on the Westport Arts Advisory Committee. The 2 organizations gave her a broad perspective on the arts here.

So, when a group of people — including Ann Sheffer, David Rubinstein, Leslie Greene, Carole Erger-Fass and Joan Miller — floated the idea of a town curator, she was intrigued.

So was First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. “We already have a town historian, Allen Raymond,” Kathie notes. “This is a natural counterpoint.”

The doughboy statue on Veteran's Green is part of Westport's art and sculpture collection.

The doughboy statue on Veteran’s Green is part of Westport’s art and sculpture collection.

In her new post, she’s responsible for advising the town on the care of its art and sculpture collection. Westport owns several hundred works of art, displayed in Town Hall, the Senior Center, Parks & Rec headquarters — even the Fire Department. Statues include the Minuteman and Doughboy on Veterans Green.

Kathie will also serve as liaison to the 1,100-piece Permanent Art Collection, and the Westport Library, with its own murals, paintings and illustrations.

“So many other communities lose their treasures,” she says. “But thanks to Burt and Ann Chernow, and so many others, we have ours. They’ve created a platform we can spring off of, and do even more.”

That “more” includes plenty. Kathie envisions self-guided tours of the schools’ collections. A “museum on the street,” with Howard Munce’s Remarkable Book Shop work displayed outside that old store (most recently Talbots). Robert Lambdin’s “Battle of Compo” mounted near the cannons.

She’ll be involved in the rehanging of art at Town Hall — something last done in 1976.

Kathie would also like to open up hard-to-see parts of the town’s art collection — like the amazing fire station mural — to the public.

“Pageant of Juvenile Literature” — a 1934 work by Robert Lambdin — hangs in the Westport Library’s Great Hall. This is part of that mural.

“Pageant of Juvenile Literature” — a 1934 work by Robert Lambdin — hangs in the Westport Library’s Great Hall. This is part of that mural.

She is eager to get started. But she won’t be alone.

“I’m a team player. I enjoy working with people in groups. We need everyone’s help.”

Among those helping: Marie-Neloise Egipto, a Staples senior who will do her spring internship with the Permanent Art Collection.

“I’m honored to serve the town,” Kathie says. “This is different from the other positions I’ve held. It really validates all the decades of work done by the Mollies, the Eves and the Anns who have advocated for, and celebrated, our arts community and legacy.

“Very few communities have the public, school and library collections that we do. Westport should be very, very proud.”

Just as we all should be proud that Kathie Bennewitz is our 1st-ever “town curator.”

Saving Mr. Staples

For a 208-year-old guy, Horace Staples looks pretty good.

Some say he’s never looked better.

For years his portrait — painted in 1934 by Samuel Brown, as a WPA project — hung in a deserted corner of the school he founded.

When the new building — a gazillion square feet larger than the one he donated in 1884 — opened a few years ago, Horace Staples was placed in a prominent spot. He smiled enigmatically — a philanthropic version of the Mona Lisa — right outside the main office.

Earlier this year, principal John Dodig — who loves the school as much as Horace did — noticed the founder was flaking. In fact, his paint had begun deteriorating in his “youth.” Previous conservation treatments failed.

Horace Staples, before undergoing treatment…

Dodig notified Carole Erger Fass, co-chair of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection. She and co-chair Kathie Bennewitz called Peggy Van Witt, an art conservator in Kansas City.

Peggy, a former Westporter, had recently conserved the damaged portrait of another, equally famous school namesake: Edward T. Bedford. She was happy to help. Off Horace Staples went, to the Midwest.

Peggy unpacked him, and was not pleased.

“I just removed Mr. Staples from the box, and examined him closely,” she wrote to the WSPAC. “He is severely delaminating.”

Doesn’t it suck to delaminate?

“In a previous restoration the tacking edges were trimmed,” she explained. “He was glued to a panel which was then nailed to a stretcher bar. This makes it more complicated.”

Peggy had 2 choices: “inject him with an adhesive from the front, or remove him from the panel and put him on the vacuum table.” She ran a battery of tests, then treated him.

…and Horace Staples today.

Soon — all spiffed up — Mr. Staples was back in Westport. Once again, he hangs proudly outside the main office.

And — just like Horace Staples 128 years ago — Peggy Van Witt is a very generous soul.

She waived her $1,247 conservation treatment fee.

All of Westport — and the no longer delaminating or flaking Horace Staples — thank her.