Stonington's poster man retires paintbrush

Stonington — There will be no more of those iconic Village Fair posters, the simple silk-screened images depicting more of a feel for Stonington borough than the actual place, with the retirement of artist William Connell.

Yes, the poster man is putting down his brush.

For the first time in 38 years, Connell, who's moved to Florida, will not be creating art to promote this summer's annual Village Fair — hosted by the Stonington Community Center and always held in Wadawanuck Square on the first Saturday of August.

The fair dates back to 1952, and includes many traditions, like the used book sale, soup garden, massive white elephant selection, grilled burgers and lobster rolls, a pie contest, fresh flowers arranged by garden club members, crafts and boutique items, children's games, and from 1978 to 2015 — the popular silk-screened posters designed, created and sold by Connell.

A former borough burgess, Connell lived in the village from about 1960 to 2000, before moving to Massachusetts.

But even while in the Bay State, he continued to create the annual fair promotional poster, as he had every year for almost four decades.

But Connell, who's now residing in Sarasota, Fla., will not be crafting a fair poster for 2016.

Over the winter, he told the COMO (what everyone in town calls the community center) that he was giving up the responsibility, and the COMO has announced that local artist Susan Scala now will design and paint the billboards that have featured the annual fair poster images throughout the year.

Scala, who is known for her pottery painted with whimsical and historical images of Stonington village, said it's too soon to say what art project she may do for the fair, but she said she will paint the fair billboards.

Located on the top of an annex building belonging to the COMO that is situated alongside the village viaduct, or bridge, into the borough, two sides of the three-sided billboard have featured Connell's poster image every year since 1980.

Like the idea for the promotional posters, the notion for the billboard just occurred to him one day, Connell said.

He proposed the poster in the late 1970s, after seeing a black and white, mimeographed sign in the window of the village news stand, advertising the upcoming fair. 

It was dull, with no art, and wasn't inspirational, and Connell thought he had a better idea.

He contacted the folks who were in charge, and offered to show them his journal of images inspired by the village, and, well, one thing led to another, and thereafter Connell was charged with designing and producing the annual fair poster.

In 1980, the year he was working on the third poster, he noticed the billboards, prominently located at the entryway to the borough and, fortunately, on a building now owned by the COMO.

Why not put the posters up there?

And so began another tradition. 

In late June or early July each year, Connell would climb on top of the building and paint two of the three sides of the billboard with the image of that year's poster.

The first year he painted the scene on Masonite panels and mounted them on the billboards, but the night of the fair, the panels were stolen —  a mystery that's never been solved.    

There will be no more climbing up on buildings for Connell, who's getting along in years now.

Asked for his age, he replied, "Never mind that, OK?"

But he will always treasure the sentiments that people have shared with him over the decades about the posters he's created, and which today hang framed in homes and businesses around the region, the country and the world.

"It's been the most gratifying experience, and the feedback from people over the years has been incredibly wonderful," Connell said from his Florida home last week. "It's the thing that kept the posters going, that wonderful feedback from people."

He said except for a few rare instances, his images are not concrete places in town, but a feeling for what the village is about.

"Well, you just get inspired," he said. "Somehow the poster designs would come to me, rather than me out searching for them so much."

He said his wife, Jacqueline, was a collaborator on the images, especially when it came to mixing the right colors. 

"She has always been my best helper and critic," he said.

The images are clean, some just three colors, the more elaborate six or seven at most.

They feature boats, beaches, the water, sun and moon, fish and gulls, and occasionally cattails, or a picket fence, and once, the Old Stonington Lighthouse Museum and another time, the United Church clock tower.

Does Connell have a favorite?

He thinks a while before responding and finally answers, "Not really, all of them have a story to tell, so not one specifically."

He recalled all the regulars who sought him out at the Village Fair to buy a copy of the poster year after year.

One collector, he said, said he had to build an addition on his home so he could hang them all.

And another tried to buy past years' posters after he lost his collection in divorce proceedings.

But Connell said he made just a limited number each year (he wouldn't say how many) and once they were gone, that was it.

The silk-screening process was laborious, and he recalled how he and his wife would clear a room of furniture in their borough home each year to lay out the posters as one color dried and before the next was applied. 

In 2007, on the 30th anniversary of his Village Fair-poster making, Connell produced a book that featured the posters and included comments he had gathered from unnamed collectors and townspeople.

"Looking at the posters is like looking through a window into past summers — a kind of idealized summer or the way we idealize summers," said one.

And another, "The posters give us all a sense of peace."

"It is a wonderful place," Connell said of Stonington borough. 

And his advice for Scala, who will paint the 2016 fair promotion billboards?

"Have fun!" he said.



COMO honors Bill Connell

"The COMO wishes Bill well on his decision to retire as the artist behind the annual Village Fair billboard image and poster," said Beth-Ann Stewart, COMO executive director. "He has made his mark as an artist for the past 38 years, capturing the essence of Stonington through his silk screens. His work has held much personal meaning for many of his collectors. As such, as a means to celebrate his success, we encourage the community to post images from their own Connell collection to the COMO Facebook and Instagram accounts."

People who possess the posters are invited to send photos of them hanging in homes or offices to the COMO at 28 Cutler St., Stonington, CT 06378; or to post them to Facebook or Instagram with the hashtags #BillConnell and #StoningtonVillageFair and to tag the COMO on Facebook or @stonington_como on Instagram.

Stewart said local artist Susan Scala, "whose work also resonates an appreciation of Stonington's history and charm," will create this year's fair billboard, which is scheduled to be installed before June 1. Scala is a longtime COMO supporter who has donated her time and artistry in support of the center, said Stewart.

The 64th annual Village Fair, which serves as a major fundraiser for the COMO, will be held Aug. 6 on Wadawanuck Square in Stonington Borough.


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