"It became an event. People would come to the school and watch him paint," said Kathie Bennewitz, Westport's first town art curator.
Since then, Westport has amassed a public art collection of more than 1,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, etchings, photographs, cartoons and comic strips. The works are on view in the hallways and offices of all Westport's schools and public buildings, creating a visually stimulating artistic environment for students, Bennewitz said.
Rarely are these works of art accessible to the general public. The Westport Arts Advisory Committee and the Westport PTA Council co-sponsored a guided tour Saturday to four schools to view artwork included in the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection. The event attracted about 50 people.
"The tour allowed us to be a museum for the day. We're a museum without walls," Bennewitz said.
They saw lithographs of Alexander Calder in the Bert Chernow Gallery at Greens Farms Elementary School, paintings by Works Progress Administration artist Ray C. Strang at Kings Highway School, bronze medallions of Connecticut's founders made by Eugene E. Hannan at Bedford Middle School, and Howard Munce's "The Cleansers" oil on wood board at Staples High School. Viewers also saw the works of Robert Motherwell, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ralph Boyer and Lynsey Addario.
Maija Krasts of Westport called them "treasures hidden in plain sight."
"We're fascinated with all the art in Westport and the artists who have been here and how they have contributed to the community," said Paul Delano of Westport, who took the tour with his wife Roberta.
Dorothy Francis, a former teacher in the Westport public school system, said many local residents can afford -- and probably have -- art in their homes but to be surrounded by it in the schools as well enriches students' lives and adds an important component to their developmental appreciation for visual art.
"One of the challenges of art for a school is to find age-appropriate art," Bennewitz said. The committee also selects for each school artwork that could augment the academic curricula.
At each location, representatives from the committee offered details about the art and artists. At Kings Highway, Christie Stanger said that school is still in the process of having its art returned. It was all removed during renovations to upgrade the school's HVAC system. "We were artless for a while," Stanger said.
The artwork there includes preparatory studies that Curry did for his frescoes, which Bennewitz called "a real trip down Memory Lane," with images of Mickey Mouse, Charlie Chaplin and kewpie dolls in "Comedy."
Claire Hertan, the representative at Greens Farms School, said the "Modern Masters" whose works are on display there were "amazingly prolific creators and multi-disciplined people ... They loved the combination of technology and art."
One of the most unusual pieces in the permanent collection is a multi-media installation at Greens Farms School that takes up an entire stairwell. It was created by Robert Garret Thew, a Westport WPA artist and includes a stepped fountain, chandelier, bronze sculpture and wrought iron railings made to resemble reeds.
The plumbing has failed but Bennewitz suggested the possibility of a fund-raising effort "to make this vital again."
Tour participants heard that some of the Depression-era paintings could have been lost because of mold and mildew in the basement of a closed school, but they were salvaged because of the efforts of a group of Westport art lovers.
Also rescued were the Hannan medallions, which were "found languishing in the basement of Bedford Middle School. They were green with oxidation," Bennewitz said.
The high school gallery currently displays 40 student-curated works with recorded audio commentary, which is downloadable to a Smartphone. The commentary was written by students in the 10th-grade English honors program, and all the artworks were donated by the artists and collectors.
Sandy Lefkowitz of Westport, a member of the committee and a friend of the late Bert Chernow who founded the WSPAC, said the tour should make people aware "of the legacy that we can offer up to our town by supporting the conservation of what's here in the collection. It won't last if we don't continue to support it," she said.