WPA artist's works donated to town collection
Updated 12:47 pm, Saturday, October 20, 2012
A table in a Town Hall meeting room Friday was laden with a visual feast of framed paintings and prints by members of a notable Westport family of artists.
The 21 works of art were donated to the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection by former town resident Rebecca A. Merrilees, 93, who now lives in Northfield, Vt. Merrilees is the daughter of acclaimed painter and Works Progress Administration artist Ralph L. Boyer (1879-1952). Included in the art donations are works by her father -- among them a self-portrait -- as well as by her mother Rebecca Hunt Boyer (1889-1984), and Merrilees' own work.
Also included was a copper etching plate depicting a scene of Nash's Pond by the Boyer's Coleytown neighbor and nationally acclaimed etcher Kerr Eby. "He was represented by a number of significant, first-tier galleries in New York City during the heyday of his career," said Mark Waskow of Barre, Vt., an independent curator, who recently put together a retrospective of Merrilees' collection. Those art works that were not sold or promised to family members, museums and historical societies were the ones that were donated to Westport, at her request.
Some might call it an early anniversary gift. The Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2014.
"What a gift. How generous of the family to donate these," said First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. "It is a treasure that will be valued by current residents and future residents," he said. Perhaps the art work will inspire young children to become artists or at least to appreciate art, he added.
The schools' art collection was established in 1964 by the late Burt Chernow as a unique community resource while he was working as an art teacher at Greens Farms Elementary School. Today, the WSPAC is supported by each school's PTA and town funding to continue Chernow's vision of art as a part of children's lives and cultural education, according to Kathie Bennewitz, co-chairwoman of the WSPAC.
Representing the Boyer family was Ron Slater of Westport, Merrilees' nephew, and Ralph and Rebecca Boyer's great-nephew. "Becky (Merrilees) was the first female to do a cover of Readers Digest," he said.
After viewing the donated art at Town Hall, Slater, Waskow and members of the WSPAC visited Westport Fire Department headquarters on Post Road East and several public schools to view other art work in the town's permanent collection.
At the firehouse, Slater viewed for the first time eight WPA-era paintings that date back to 1934 done by his Boyer, which are on permanent display there. All of the work is centered on the theme of fire.
"It's a little overwhelming. They're fantastic," Slater said as he looked at the paintings titled, "The History of Fire and Heat." They were created for the first Staples High School, which is now Saugatuck Elementary School, and were found by Mollie Donovan and Eve Potts in 1974 in that building's basement.
Slater said he was also proud to see his great-uncle mentioned three times in Westport News columnist (and former editor) Woody Klein's book, "Westport Connecticut, The Story of a New England Town's Rise to Prominence."
Merrilees' donation was the first of three major art gifts to the town's art collection Friday. "We also received this week two additional gifts," Bennewitz said.
Ann Chernow, the widow of Bert Chernow, was at Town Hall to symbolically present the additional gifts of art work. Not all of the 33 works, however, could be brought to Town Hall on Friday because of the rain.
Chernow donated three works on paper from her own personal collection by Victor Brauner, Luigi Lucioni and Rolf Scarlett. The Chernows had previously given many other works of art to the collection, Bennewitz said.
Chernow also donated nine works by Mark Greenstein of Bethesda, Md. Greenstein is a longtime patron of the town collection and since 1998 has donated 107 works of art to the WSPAC, Bennewitz said.
"This gift includes an oil painting and an etching by Ann Chernow, prints by Westport artists Stevan Dohanos and Kerr Eby, and works by internationally acclaimed printmakers Jose Luis Cuevas, Seymour Lipton, Kathy Caraccio, Pierre Oster and Sugai, and Louise August," she said.
According to a WSPAC document, "The collection has grown from its first donation -- Singing Policeman, a pencil sketch donated by the renowned artist Ben Shahn -- to a collection now numbering over 1,100 pieces. More than 150 local artists, past and present, are represented by paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures."
The committee works to collect, conserve, study, catalog and display the artwork throughout Westport's schools and public buildings.