By Meg Barone

For decades, Westport has been a magnet for some of the best visual, literary and performing artists. The community has also recognized the importance of supporting the arts, and its own contributions have helped foster the creative talents of its native sons and daughters.

On Sunday afternoon, the town honored the careers and contributions of 16 artists, six of them posthumously, among them lifelong Westport residents and those who have adopted the town as their own, in a Town Hall ceremony that attracted about 250 people. The honorees joined the ranks of some heavy-hitters who received Westport Arts Awards since 1994 including George Balanchine, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Max Shulman, Rod Serling, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Bette Davis, Eric von Schmidt and Fraizer Peters.

The 18th annual Westport Arts Awards Celebration shone a spotlight on those people from Westport and Weston whose careers have spanned decades, like actor Frank Converse, artist Naiad Einsel; actress and concert pianist Millette Alexander, and those whose careers are only just beginning.

"I love that we have a mix of the up and coming -- artists just starting out in their careers and we foresee great things in their futures, and we celebrate lifetime achievements of Westport and Weston people in so many fields and people who contribute time, talent and other resources to the town's arts community," said Leslie Greene, co-chairwoman of the Westport Arts Advisory Committee.

The Horizon Award, which recognizes the achievements of young, emerging artists, went to ballet dancer Katrina Gould, whose love for ballet began at age 2 at the Westport Academy of Dance; Drew McKeon (Staples High School Class of 2000), a professional drummer who has toured nationally and internationally with Hall & Oates, Jimmy Buffett, the Samples and others; and Nick Ordway, a freelance filmmaker, assistant director, sound recordist and editor who worked on "God of Love," the 2010 Academy Award-winning Best Live-Action Short.

"Whenever I did anything for the arts it made me happy. That is made other people happy is wonderful," said Mimi Levitt, president of the Mimi and Mortimer Levitt Foundation. Levitt and her late husband Mortimer were avid supporters of Westport's arts organizations and they were the major benefactors of the Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts.

While all of the honorees in attendance Sunday thanked the town and the Westport Arts Advisory Committee for embracing the arts and singling them out, Ordway, in his acceptance speech, turned the spotlight back on Westport itself.

"When a community supports and fosters the arts, it's as if it's planting a new stand of trees. Everyone can see that trees are beautiful, but what people forget is how much vital oxygen they provide for everyone," Ordway said. "The arts produce a different kind of oxygen, absolutely essential and yet equally invisible," he said.

Ordway said the arts have a worth beyond the quantifiable, and a beauty and truth that serve as a constant reminder of what matters in life and what it means to be human.

"Being honored here is a reminder of the support and great memories I had living here," Ordway said. He thanked his parents, teachers, friends and "other members of this vital community ... I only hope that through my art I can continue to give back what you have given to me."

The audience was treated to a sample of Ordway's work, viewing clips of some of his projects.

Gould and McKeon offered live performances. Gould donned pointe shoes to dance two solos, and McKeon, now a Fairfield resident, demonstrated his drumming prowess.

Prolific children's book author and illustrator Hans Wilhelm thanked the Westport arts community for his wife Judy Henderson, with whom he celebrated 13 years of marriage Sunday. Wilhelm, author of "I'll Always Love You" and "Tales from Under the Land Under my Table," said the temporary closing of the Westport Arts Center years ago led him to find studio space in Weston. He eventually married his landlady, Henderson.

"When one happiness ends another begins," Wilhelm said.

Alexander, who appeared on the television soap opera "The Guiding Light" for 14 years, said her ties to Westport began early in her career when she performed in the play "A Shot in the Dark" at the Westport Country Playhouse. Years later, when she had traded in television and stage scripts for sheet music, Alexander said she practiced playing piano so frequently that a neighbor in New York City complained.

"That's how I found Westport," she said.

Einsel and her late husband Walter stumbled upon the town, too. The New Yorkers, both artists, had chosen Sherwood Island State Park as a first date destination back in the 1950s. On the way their found Compo Beach and they picnicked there instead. "It opened a magical chapter in our lives," said Einsel, who has lived in Westport since.

In addition to their impressive body of professional work -- including being the first husband-and-wife team to design stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, she and her husband created Art from the Heart, hand-made gifts to each other for birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, that incorporated a heart in each.

Graphic artist Miggs Burroughs, a 1963 graduate of Staples High School, received the Mollie Award, so named for Mollie Donovan, is known for many high-profile projects including the Westport town flag, logos for the Levitt Pavilion, the buttons for the town's annual First Night, Westport Historical Society, Westport Weston Family YMCA, and the birdhouses he has created for Project Return fundraisers.

"I always thought `pro bono' was Latin for boat-loads of money," Burroughs joked, adding more seriously that the best payday is work he enjoyed with people he enjoyed, including Donovan, who was named to the Heritage Honor Roll along with Stanley Bleifeld, Keith Conant, Tony Marino, Abe Rothenberg and Max Wilk.

Converse was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Theater/Film, along with his wife Maureen Anderman, who was unable to attend the event.

Following the Town Hall ceremony a reception was held at the Westport Historical Society.