Camaraderie and creativity: Westport Artists Collective has found formula for success
Published 12:00 am, Friday, July 14, 2017
They wander in on a warm April night, holding canvases and sculptures, smiling as they see friends and acquaintances.
“I love your piece, that’s why I am following you,” Nina Bentley says, just in case Lucienne “Lu” Buckner, of New Canaan, is getting creeped out by the Westport resident’s proximity. Both artists fall into a quick conversation about Buckner’s “Indoor Campfire,” a three-pronged standing, working light complete with black tulle and fabricated “logs.”
Both are members of the Westport Arts Center Westport Artists Collective, which meets monthly at the center. Artists are encouraged to show a work, socialize and talk about creative inspirations, challenges and aspirations. It’s where they learn about future exhibitions and opportunities, share tricks of the trade and plan for the collective’s shows at the center. The successful mix of affiliation and autonomy has made it a popular group in an area rich with artist organizations.
“I am never going to leave the Westport Artists Collective,” says Buckner, who is happily a member elsewhere, including the Stamford Loft Artists Association, the Silvermine Arts Center artists guild and 3rd Rail Studios in New Rochelle, N.Y. But the mix of social, artistic and public outreach opportunities is distinct. “I can’t even explain what their formula is, but I love it.”
Helen Klisser During, the center’s artistic director emeritus, remembers the balance she and the five founding artists she hand-picked sought when it came to the group’s inception. There were no studios to inhabit or classes to teach. It would be centered on serving an artist’s needs, from socialization to exhibition. It has become a forum where art is discussed, created and developed.
Several pop-up exhibitions — short bursts of creativity — are planned each year, including one for all members and others that feature 15 artists (selected by the 15 artists from the previous show). They are wedged between the center’s long-term exhibits. The nitty-gritty aspects of an artistic life, as well as the erudite and esoteric musings that fuel creative work, have equal credence in the collective.
“We wanted to find a way to best include the artists and the people who love the arts,” Klisser During says. “That is the key to the arts center; a key thing, really, for any art space.”
Along with Miggs Burroughs, Bentley, Tammy Winser, Duvian Montoya and Jahmane, who hail from the Westport and Norwalk area, Klisser During started the group three years ago. It has grown to about 150 members from across Fairfield County, with a lengthy waiting list. All members must be a member of the Westport Arts Center and pay a $25 fee.
The founding members, who determine admission, value professionalism and a serious approach to one’s art, but they keep their perspective wide.
“We try to be very welcoming and fair,” Bentley says.
“We wanted it to be Westport-centric, and there are a lot of Westport artists … but we have people from all over and they tell us they have nothing like this and love it,” Burroughs says.
The artists’ stories on the collective’s website reveal interesting tales on how they got into and remained in the profession. Some are more well-known than others, but all benefit from the camaraderie. Artists learn new skills and get practical answers to such questions as how to get certain supplies or how to achieve certain techniques.
“The artists have been very open and are happy to share,” Burroughs says. It reminds him of earlier days in Westport, when his late father, commercial illustrator and artist Bernie Burroughs, was president of the Westport Artists Club. The precursor to the Westport Arts Center, the group’s meetings were as much social affairs as they were professional gatherings.
“It’s not particularly structured, which keeps it spontaneous,” Burroughs says. “There’s something for everybody.”
“I wanted to get to another level in my art,” says Dale Najarian, a Westport artist and collective member, who spent nearly 10 years as an arts center board member. Though she was exhibiting her work, the collective’s knowledge helped her to build a professional presence, from business cards to a website. “It is a huge leap between the hobbyist artist who paints for themselves and give pieces to their friends … and take that work, sell it and get on social media and all that. It is a totally different beast. The collective, for me, is invaluable. This is really an impressive group, with a lot of seasoned, working artists and they are very inspirational.”
Too often, artists only get to catch up at openings, but Stamford’s Karen Kalkstein likes connecting in a more meaningful way to talk about the art; it’s more a conversation than critique. The center’s patrons also are quite social and involved, she says. Opening night of the members’ show in April was hopping with an eclectic batch of work and energetic crowd. It makes one wish the shows ran longer than a few days.
It is a nimble group, in that it is affiliated with the center, but has an identity of its own. Small subsets of artists sometimes show elsewhere under the collective banner, or the group might be tapped for an artistic event. For those who want to be a part of it, perhaps the easiest way is to attend a show, but as members drop out, there are opportunities for others to get in.
“Perhaps, (the collective) no longer fits an artist’s needs. So, we ask them if they are willing to make room for someone else,” Bentley says.
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