Westport's rich soil once supported a strong agricultural community. Farms growing onions and other crops dotted the local landscape decades ago.
The town's rich cultural "soil" has produced a prolific harvest of talented artists, illustrators and photographers -- 49 of them from Westport and Weston have been recipients of the annual Westport Arts Awards over the last two decades. In a new exhibit at the Westport Historical Society's Sheffer Gallery, "Framing the Past, Present and Future: 20 Years of the Westport Arts Awards," 43 of those artists are honored.
Organized by the historical society and the Westport Arts Advisory Committee, which selects the annual award recipients, the retrospective, which opened Friday, features more than 45 original works including paintings, drawings, illustrations, comics, etchings, photographs and sculptures. The art is on loan from museums, private collections, the town of Westport, Westport schools' permanent art collection, and the artists themselves.
"The diversity of the art in Westport is pretty remarkable. People should pay more attention to it because of the historical context," said Leonard Everett Fisher, 89, a Pulitzer Prize-winning painter, author of about 250 children's books and illustrator of about 90 of them. Fisher's acrylic on canvas titled "Celebrants" is included in the exhibit.
The art and artists were celebrated Friday at an opening reception that attracted several hundred people.
"When we moved to town in 1963 from Queens my family knew of Westport's reputation for the arts and it was a very progressive community, an open community, and that was attractive to (my parents)," said Fred Cantor, who no longer lives in Westport but returned for the exhibit opening. He said the historical society exhibit recognizes "the long history of wonderful art and artists that the town has had."
Kathleen Motes Bennewitz, the newly named curator for the town of Westport, and guest curator for this exhibit at the historical society, said the exhibit "embraces the vitality of our community; its heritage, its present day and its future."
The past really does meet the present and future at this exhibit. Kristin Fox of Orf Art Technologies introduced viewers to an "augmented reality experience." She instructed viewers in the use of an "app" that allows their smart devices, including cell phones, to call up video interviews with each artist by pointing the device's viewfinder at the artwork.
The past is also juxtaposed with the present on the gallery walls. A 1944 drawing of French resistance fighters and Spanish border guards in "No Man's Land" by combat artist Ed Vebell hangs below a November 2012 photograph of an injured man being helped moments after three bombs exploded in Gaza City, Palestine. It was taken by New York Times staff photographer Tyler Hicks. Next to Vebell's work is a June 2013 photograph of Syrian refugees in Lebanon taken by Spencer Platt. Both Hicks and Platt are graduates of Staples High School.
Another Staples alumna, photojournalist Lynsey Addario, is represented in the exhibit with a photograph of a child born of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It "echoes the beauty of a Vermeer painting, but its subject reflects the scars of modern life," Bennewitz said.
Susan Gold, executive director of the Westport Historical Society, said she thinks of the institution as "a community resource that invites people to share their talents and ideas and to feel connected to their town."
Roger Reed, the son of Westport illustrator and art historian Walt Reed, said it was great to see illustration side-by-side with fine art in the Sheffer Gallery and in the historical society as a whole. A simultaneous exhibit in the historical society's Mollie Donovan Gallery, titled "A Westport Original: Walt Reed's Illustrator in America" pays homage to Reed and his encyclopedic work, "Illustrator in America."
There's not much of a divide between the two art forms in Westport. Reed said there is a "wonderful fraternity" in Westport rather than separate camps. "That tradition continues here integrating the work of illustrators with the work of fine artists," he said.
"Westport is really special in art history. It was the capital of art history. Many illustrators set up studios out here in the country. They lived and worked here and sent their work to editors on the train to New York," Reed said.
Back then illustrators' work appeared in national magazines and those artists were as well-known and respected as movie stars, Reed said.
A painting by artist and stamp designer Stevan Dohanos, which become a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1943 is included in the "Framing the Past" show. It depicts an elderly sign painter adding the names of Westport's World War II veterans to the Honor Roll outside the former Town Hall.
The art exhibit runs through Jan. 4 in the Westport Historical Society, 25 Avery Place, and will be accompanied by lectures, films, interviews with the artists and other events. Westport arts organizations will also celebrate Westport's artistic history with events throughout the month, including the annual Westport Arts Awards on Oct. 27, 2 p.m., at the Town Hall.
"Framing the Past, Present and Future: 20 Years of the Westport Arts Awards" and "A Westport Original: Walt Reed's Illustrator in America" exhibits run through Jan. 4 at the Westport Historical Society, 25 Avery Place. For information, call 203-222-1424 or visit www.westporthistory.org
For information about events sponsored by other organizations in conjunction with the exhibit, visit the Westport Arts Awards website, www.westportartsawards.org