In 1965, Ruth Steinkraus Cohen began organizing a community-wide arts council.
But the Westport philanthropist/activist focused primarily on music. Noted illustrator Leonard Everett Fisher urged her to include the visual arts.
Cohen had been invited to testify in Hartford, on hearings about establishing a statewide arts commission. She invited him to come along.
Those discussions led to the formation of the Westport Arts Council — one of the first in any town, anywhere. Cohen served as chair. Fisher was an original board member, and its 2nd president.
But the executive director was “a total failure,” Fisher recalls. “We never got much traction.”
He turned his energy to the Westport Library. He served 3 terms as president, and helped plan the “new” building, on the landfill site near the Levitt Pavilion.
Leonard Everett Fisher
The Westport Arts Center, meanwhile, developed and grew on its own. Fisher — busy with his professional and personal life — had little to do with it. He showed his works occasionally. But, as he admits, “I was not a great contributor.”
A while back, then-director Helen Klisser During offered Fisher a one-man retrospective. It was well deserved. In his 70+ year career, Fisher illustrated 250 books for young readers; designed 10 US postage stamps, and had his works shown in the Smithsonian, the New York Public Library, Yale, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and in museums around the world. He’s listed as one of the 2000 Outstanding Artists and Designers of the 20th Century.
The show brought him closer to the WAC. But he still had no time for the board.
A year ago, artist Ann Chernow called. She said that 1st Selectman Jim Marpe had a plan for Golden Shadows — the main house on the town-owned Baron’s South property.
Marpe asked 3rd Selectman Helen Garten to head up a committee to explore restoring the decrepit house as a Westport Artists Museum. Other groups had their eyes on the property too.
The Planning & Zoning Commission eventually gave tacit approval to an arts campus on Baron’s South. But commissioners did not want to deal with multiple entities.
Golden Shadows: the centerpiece of the Westport Arts Center Baron’s South plan.
The Westport Arts Center agreed to take over the museum plan. Who better to help than Fisher?
So — at 93 years young — Fisher has joined the Westport Arts Center board.
If all goes well, he says, the WAC/Baron’s South project can be completed a year from now.
Fisher is in excellent physical shape. His mind is clear and sharp.
“So long as I put one foot in front of the other, this gives me energy and excitement,” he says.
“What we’re doing is wonderful for the town. I think people will be very surprised at what they see.”
At which point Leonard Everett Fisher will do what he’s done ever since moving here, more than half a century ago. He’ll turn his attention to a new project, benefiting the arts and all the citizens of Westport.