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First "Art in Waterford" festival happens at Jordan's Green next weekend

Civic pride is always a good thing. Might as well be colorful, too.

In that spirit, the inaugural, pan-dimensional "Art in Waterford: Past + Present + Future" takes place Saturday and Sunday on the town's historic Jordan Green. Hosted by the Waterford Historical Society, the event will feature work from nine of Waterford's premiere historical artists (Past); over a dozen contemporary artists with Waterford connections (the Present, in a juried competition and featuring many works for sale); and paintings and drawings from current students in the Waterford school system (Future).

But this is no mere art exhibit. "Art in Waterford" also features live music and food, arts and crafts, tours of the rennovated historical buildings on Jordan Green including the blacksmith shop (which will be up and running for the occasion), art-in-progress courtesy of en plein air painters throughout the grounds, and the opportunity for folks to create artwork on-site.

"We live in a very fertile region for fine art, but I don't think people in southeastern Connecticut maybe know as much about the rich history of Waterford art," says Kristin M. Widham, president of the Waterford Historical Society, Inc. "About five years ago, a group of us in the community started a conscious effort to refurbish and renovate the buildings on Jordan Green, and the goal was to increase interest and membership in the society.

"One offshoot of that is to celebrate and educate about the artistic legacy, and this is the result — an event that will hopefully continue annually as an educational and fun event. You know how people go to museums and galleries to look at and learn about art? We're doing that. But we wanted an exhibit that's more participatory than just visual."

The historical artists around which the event include land- and seascape painters Nelson Cooke White, Henry Cooke White, Burtus Anderson Brooks, Gershon Camassar, Roger Wilson Dennis, and Willard Leroy Metcalf. Also a big part of the proceedings are examples of work from Martin Michael Branner, who started his art career as a dancer in the early 20th century and, after serving in World War I, found big success with his comic strip "Winnie Winkle the Breadwinner," a visionary concept in which Winnie personified the emerging role of women working in society. At its peak, "Winnie Winkle" ran in more than 125 daily newspapers in the U.S. and Europe — with a readership of 40 million.

Puppeteers Margo Skewis Rose and Rufus Rose will also be spotlighted. The couple, who met working for the Tony Sarge Marionette Company in 1927, started and toured the country with their own Rufus Rose Marionettes. The pair suspended the troupe during World War II, when Rufus worked at Electric Boat and Margo volunteered with the Red Cross. Afterwards, they settled in Waterford, where Rufus grew up, and expanded their puppetry reputations with design work for "The Howdy Doody Show." In 1965, the couple was pivotal in founding the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and the National Theater of the Deaf in Hartford. After Rufus died, Margo and others at the O'Neill established the center's annual puppetry conference.

"To have work from both 'Winnie Winkle' and the Roses adds a very special element to what we're doing, not just in terms of exhibiting historical Waterford art but also in an educational context," Widham says.

Probably the best known of the historical painters in the show are the Impressionists/Tonalists Henry Cooke White, an early member of the Lyme Art Colony, and his son Nelson Cooke White. Nelson H. White, the grandson/son, respectively, is also a prominent international artist who has three works that are part of the contemporary section of "Art in Waterford."

Nelson H. White, in a release, says, "The light and subjects in Waterford have been a great inspiration to artists: Long Island Sound, inland waterways, marshes, and the four seasons ... When Pietro Anngoni, the famous painter from Italy and my teacher, visited our family in Waterford for the first time, he walked to the door, looked out a window and immediately said, 'I want to paint.'"

Widham acknowledges the influence and contributions from the White family.

"It's almost impossible to overstate how important the Whites are to Waterford, as civic and community leaders and as artists. We're fortunate to have works from all three. And George White (brother of Nelson H. and founder and former executive director of the O'Neill Center), too, has been an incredible resource and a supporter of this project," she says.

A lovely setting

That the festival takes place on Jordan Green is no accident. It's a lush and highly attractive area at the intersection of Rope Ferry Road and Avery Lane, with a sprawling meadow and a backline of tall trees that are particularly notable in the fall when their intense colors clash dynamically.

Each group's work will be featured in a different location on the green. The historical pieces will be housed in Beebe-Phillips House, with its sculpted garden courtesy of the Thames River Garden Club.  And the Jordan Schoolhouse museum will, appropriately, feature art from students. The artwork for the juried "Present" exhibit will be on display in the Rumrill House.

"We've done a lot of restoration and work here over the past few years," Widham says. "We want this to be a destination. A historical society should be more than old buildings and records. And I think the people who come to this or participate in this will enjoy that."

Connecticut Impressionist Leif Nilsson, whose studio is in Chester, has strong ties to Waterford and is pleased to be part of Art in Waterford.

"My grandparents settled in Flanders/Niantic, and it's a special place for me," Nilsson says. "Plus, I like the fact that this event benefits a cultural organization. As an artist, it feels good to be part of something like this, and that I happen to have a painting of Hatchet's Point (in Waterford) seemed ideal."

New London artist Mark Patnode, who has work in the show, plans on being there and — if the weather's nice — possibly setting up an easel and doing some work, spoke about the idea of community for "Art in Waterford."

"The beauty of the artistic experience in this region is that it crosses effortlessly from one town to the next," he says. "The artists in this region tend to show across the town lines, so to speak. The cross pollinization is remarkable, and I'm delighted to be part of this exhibit. There's so much beauty and inspiration in Waterford. I'm in Harkness Park often and was easily able to pick a few appropriate paintings for this."

Similarly, Widham is lavish in her praise of the Lyme Art Association, the Mystic Museum of Art, and the Lyman Allyn Art Museum for their help and guidance as the historical society worked on "Art in Waterford."

"So many people have done so much. This has been an illuminating and fun experience, and I hope we're doing something new with the idea of a community art show," Widham says. "We began to feel like this was something we had to do, that we were privileged to do. This filled me up." 

If you go

What: Art in Waterford: Past + Present + Future

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (rain or shine)

Where: Jordan Green, Rope Ferry Road (Route 156) at Avery Lane (Route 213), Waterford

How much: Free; some paintings and for sale, and charges for select activities

For more information: (860) 389-7529, waterfordhistoricalsociety.org

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