Artist Howard Munce‘s death at 100 leaves void in arts community
WESTPORT — The brightest crayon in the Crayola box could not hold a candle to the brilliance of Howard Munce’s artwork or personality, both of which were described by friend Wally Woods as “lively, youthful, colorful and fun.”
The town of Westport, the American arts community and, indeed, the world is a duller place without the iconic artist in it, according to his many friends, fellow artists and community members, who are mourning Munce’s death on Saturday. He was 100 years old.
“He was such a vibrant part of our arts community and very much beloved … This is a huge loss,” said Cynthia Armijo, executive director of the Westport Arts Center. “We are very sorry he has left us, but he leaves behind a critical legacy in the national art world as well as right here in town,” Armijo said.
Munce, a New Jersey native, who adopted Westport as his home and lived in town about 80 years, was “a man for all seasons,” who lived a long and interesting life, said Leonard Everett Fisher, 91, Munce’s closest friend and fellow Westport artist.
Munce was a Renaissance man, he said, with a broad legacy as an artist, illustrator, graphic designer, sculptor, cartoonist, copy-writer, advertising director, book author, teacher, community volunteer and World War II veteran, who rose to the rank of captain.
Munce is remembered for his talent, body of work, wit, generosity and his hands.
“He had wonderful hands, but hands don’t make art. It’s the intellect and the heart; it’s the passion and he had the hands to deliver it,” Fisher said. As an artist Munce was “one-of-a-kind, extremely creative,” he said.
The two men crossed paths, in a manner of speaking, even before they met in Westport. Fisher served in the U.S. Army as a mapmaker during World War II and one of the jobs he had involved drawing the beach of Iwo Jima. Munce was in the 3rd Marine Division, for whom Fisher made maps. That division was involved in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Throughout his century on Earth Munce garnered many accolades and honors, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his essay on the folly of war; he was honorary president of the Society of Illustrators in New York City, honorary board member of the Westport Arts Center, a professor at Paier College of Art and Fairfield University, and one of the founders of the Sanford B. D. Low Memorial Illustration Collection at the New Britain Museum of American Art, where he was also named an honorary trustee. Comprising more than 1,700 works, the Low Illustration Collection is the nation’s first museum-based collection covering the history of American illustration from the 19th Century to the present.
Lindsley Wellman, chairman of the Low Illustration Collection, said Munce served on the committee for more than 50 years and as chairman of the illustrators for about 30 years. Munce’s relentless passion to encourage famous illustrators from Westport and around the nation to donate a sample of their work to the LIC elevated that collection to the top three in the country, Wellman said.
“We have several of his pieces in the (museum’s) permanent collection,” Wellman said. Munce’s work is also included in the Westport School’s Permanent Art Collection.
Armijo said Munce was considered the “Dean of the Westport Arts Center,” and many in the local arts community referred to him as the “Dean of Westport Artists,” so for them his passing brings an end to the Golden Age of Art in town.
The honors bestowed upon Munce that would have made him most proud were “great family man, great friend, great human being.”
“It was my pleasure to know him all these years,” Fisher said, calling Munce a unique individual, a moral compass, a wonder, a gentleman and a gentle man. “I don’t think there is anyone walking the face of this planet that could compare to his persona,” said Fisher, who served with Munce on the Low Illustration Collection committee.
“He was such a lovely, lovely human being … You’re just happy that people like that lived and that you were able to be part of their lives. That’s the way so many people thought about him,” said Woods, 82, a longtime former co-director of exhibits for the Westport Historical Society and helped with A Centennial Celebration, an exhibit of Munce’s art and life last summer.
“We felt so happy that we were able to do an exhibit which made him feel over the top, and now we’re happy that we did it on time,” Woods said.
“Westport had the opportunity to praise his talent, perseverance and philanthropic nature, including celebrating his patriotism when he was the Memorial Day Parade Grand Marshal in 2008 … The town has lost a true patriot, artist and civic leader. Howard will be sorely missed, but his presence in our community will live on for generations,” First Selectman Jim Marpe said in a statement after Munce’s death.
“Sadness sweeps over me. Obviously it’s sad and obviously it’s inevitable because he was 100 years old but the good that he did, and stays on, far surpasses the sadness that we have,” Woods said.