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Woog's World / Westport as 'Artist Colony' now little more than memory

Updated 5:07 pm, Sunday, September 15, 2013
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Nearly 20 years ago, Burt Chernow, John Simon, Ann Sheffer and David Rogers -- four Westporters with lifelong commitments to the arts -- founded the Westport Arts Advisory Committee. The organization was committed to increasing public awareness of our town's cultural resources: Our artists, artworks and institutions.

One of its first acts was establishing an annual Westport Arts Awards ceremony. In the two decades since, the WAAC has honored hundreds of visual artists, musicians, dancers, actors, playwrights, writers, rising young artists and "champions of the arts." This year's celebration -- set for the entire month of October -- features a special partnership with six important arts groups in town: the Westport Library, Westport Historical Society, Levitt Pavilion, Westport Arts Center, Westport Cinema Initiative and the Westport Country Playhouse.

Exhibits, panels, screenings and tours will highlight our century-old tradition as an "artists' colony." Events have been designed with care; they'll educate, entertain, and -- hopefully -- motivate Westport residents to appreciate our artistic heritage.

But at the risk of sounding like a skunk at this great garden party, I have to ask: Is Westport still an "artists' colony"? Or are we clinging to a quaint, romanticized view of ourselves that has already faded into history?

The 20-year list of Westport Arts Awards honorees is stunning. Visual artists include Western illustrator Harold von Schmidt, and his son Eric von Schmidt; John Steuart Curry, whose iconic paintings of his native Kansas were created in his Westport studio; Stevan Dohanos, Saturday Evening Post cover illustrator and designer of 46 U.S. stamps; social justice activist Tracy Sugarman; Life photographer George Silk; "Little Toot" creator Hardie Gramatky; illustrators Howard Munce, Leonard Everett Fisher, Ed Vebell and Bernie Fuchs; architect Frazier Peters; cartoonist Mel Casson; photographer Tyler Hicks, and filmmakers Frank and Doris Jacoby.

The list of theater honorees teems with famous Westport names. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; Bette Davis; Mason Adams; Eva LaGallienne; Sandy Dennis; Hume Cronyn; Gene Tierney; Lucille Lortel; David Wayne; June Havoc; Christopher Plummer; Imogene Coca; David Marshall Grant; James Naughton; Joanne deBergh; Hal James; Keir Dullea; Dorothy Bryce. All called Westport home, while entertaining the world on screen and stage.

Music and dance awardees include Ted Shawn; George Balanchine; John Corigliano; Fred Hellerman; Jonathan Sheffer; Igor Kipnis; John Hammond and Paul McKibbins. Literary lights range from F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Hersey, Ring Lardner, Peter DeVries, Max Shulman, Rod Serling and Evan Hunter to Howard Fast, Cathleen Schine and Frank Deford.

The WAAC has also cited teachers. Jim Wheeler, Joe Ziegahn, George Weigle, John Hanulik, Dorothy Straub -- these legendary art and music instructors were instrumental in inspiring many of the 21 "Horizon Award" winners.

That honor is given to rising artists under the age of 32. The list is impressive indeed. World-renowned photographers Lynsey Addario and Spencer Platt; musicians Charles Carleton, Igor Pikayzen and Drew McKeon; conductor Russell Platt; director Ari Edelson; composer Justin Paul; filmmaker Daryl Wein; actress Leslye Headland; writer Peter Duchan -- and more.

It's clear that Westport's support of the arts continues to be robust. All of these young artists had plenty of innate talent. But it was nurtured by our schools, and the community in which they grew up.

Yet look at that list of "Horizon" honorees. Except for McKeon -- who recently completed an international tour as Michael Bolton's drummer -- none of them live in Westport.

Part of the reason may be their age. It's hard these days for anyone to afford to be here, let alone "rising artists" in their 20s and early 30s.

But part of the reason may also be that young people no longer see this as an "artists' colony." The crowd of illustrators from the 1930s through the 1960s -- men (primarily) who commuted to New York for advertising and magazine jobs, and had a (very) active social life here -- has vanished.

The writers who lived here, and occasionally ("Rally Round the Flag, Boys"; "Last Stop: Willoughby") used Westport as inspirations, have not been replaced by a new generation.

The actors and actresses: Gone. Dancers: Ditto.

There are still some actual artists, working in basement, backyard or rented studios.

But, though we have a vibrant Westport Arts Center, it lacks the working studios that were so important back in the 1980s when the WAC was housed in then-shuttered Green's Farms Elementary School.

The Westport Country Playhouse thrives -- year-round now, thanks to a fantastic renovation spearheaded in part by Joanne Woodward. But she's aging, her husband has died, and no renowned actor has stepped up to take their place. Gone too is the White Barn Theater, that little gem off Newtown Turnpike.

October will be a great month for the arts in Westport. As Westport residents enjoy it, though, they might ask one important question: What happened to our artists' colony?

For information on the October Westport Arts Awards events, visit www.westportartsawards.org.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.