Tuesday, January 13, 2015

An Art Lover’s Haven in the Midst of the Greenwich Library: The Flinn Gallery

In the spring and fall of 2013, two interviewers from the Greenwich Oral History Project conducted interviews with two Flinn Gallery volunteers having a wealth of knowledge about this very special non-profit education space. The first was conducted with Betty Burke (Elizabeth Hourigan Burke). As a former library trustee, her involvement with the gallery goes back to the days when it was known as the Hurlbutt. The second interview, with Sandra Herman, is equally insightful. Her involvement with the gallery also goes back to those early days.

The following is a composite summary of the interviews with these two volunteers whose contribution to the gallery’s growth and development has been critical:

What do LEGOS, TIME Magazine covers, cutout artwork and contemporary Japanese antiques have in common?  All have at one time been featured exhibits at the beautiful Flinn Gallery, located on the second floor of the Greenwich Public Library.

The Flinn Gallery is a haven for Greenwich residents to visit and become educated about and exposed to a multitude of different artists, methods and mediums from around the world.  The diversity of the Gallery’s past exhibits ranges from shows featuring flower paintings or Jim Henson’s Sesame Street, to features exhibiting personal portraits or private art collections gathered from Greenwich residents themselves.
The Flinn on the second floor of the library 

While every show varies in terms of theme and structure, one can typically find the featured artist or artists giving talks at the opening reception on a Sunday afternoon to guests eager to learn more about the inspiration, medium and development of their artwork.  Hors D’oeuvres might be passed or one might find a buffet of doughnuts and cider, with the spirit of each exhibition being echoed throughout the six week long show.  For those who are unable to attend the opening day of any given exhibit, there are often placards or even short videos accompanying the featured artwork in the gallery, offering a deeper understanding of what is being presented.

Behind every featured show at the Flinn Gallery is a group of about 60 active and hard working members, whose love of art has brought them together to share in the joy and gratification of educating the Greenwich public about various art forms.  For each of the 6 shows held every year, a Chairman and Vice Chairman are elected to organize and run the show.  Volunteers sign up to cover a variety of tasks such as hanging, painting pedestals, organizing papers and artwork and manning the desk during exhibitions.  While the end-result is rewarding for members, it is the deeply held friendships and connections that most reverberates among them.

For those wondering how artists are selected to be featured at the Flinn, the answer lies with the Selection Committee.  Planning for each show begins at least 1-2 years out.  Artists from around the world apply, and every strong contender is visited by at least one member, who evaluates the artist’s work and makes a recommendation to the committee.  The diversity of the Flinn’s past exhibits reflects its mandate: education of the Greenwich public. 

While the Selection Committee is certainly not against featuring local Greenwich artists, there is a focus on bringing in outside artists who are not as familiar to the Greenwich audience.  Artists have come from as far as Austrailia, Brazil, Norway and Scotland and have used mediums ranging from the traditional paint, clay and photography to the more avant-garde Legos and cutouts.  Each show is unique.  Sometimes the work of a single artist will be featured, and other times artists will be grouped together by theme.

The Hurlbutt Gallery, predecessor to the Flinn, was named after a well-liked, longtime librarian and was originally located in the Franklin Simon Building.  After construction of the Peterson Wing, the Flinn Gallery opened in 2000 and was named after Larry and Stephanie Flinn, whose generosity, in part, made construction of the gallery possible.  The very first show featured at the new Flinn Gallery featured pieces from the private collection of Walter and Molly Bareiss, local Greenwich collectors of over 60 years.

Designed by architect Cesar Pelli, the Flinn Gallery is a beautiful space, constructed specifically for the purpose of featuring art.  Its movable walls have hidden storage bins to hide pedestals not in use, and the fabric-covered walls are perfect for hanging artwork in many different layouts.  No detail goes unnoticed, with special emphasis being placed on the lighting and layout of each exhibition.  The gallery truly strives to make each show the best that it can be.

Pelli, an architect known around the world for the design of large scale projects including hospitals, schools and hotels, was convinced to take on designing the Peterson Wing by then-head of the board, Henry Ashforth.  As the story goes, upon Pelli’s visit to the library, the elevator doors opened on the 2nd floor revealing the huge glass walls of the Hurlbutt Gallery standing before him.  Intrigued, Pelli inquired about the gallery, and returned later for a tour when it was open.  In his own words, the idea of a free art gallery inside of the library was “fantastic” and Pelli’s design for the Peterson Wing reflected that sentiment by including plans for a proper art gallery – what would later become the Flinn.

Dan Moser Long piece, on view until January 21, 2015
Shows continue to be held at the Flinn Gallery from September to mid-June.  For those interested in learning more about the Flinn, visit the Greenwich Public Library or go to Flinngallery.com.

The two interviews, “Flinn Gallery at the Greenwich Library,” with Elizabeth “Betty” Hourigan Burke, April 29, 2013 and “Flinn Gallery Participation,” with Sanda “Sandy” Herman, September 18, 2013 are available through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the library or in the reference area on the first floor.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Hidden Among the Hemlocks

In a wood off Valley Road, on Lia Fail Way, to be exact, is a wondrous place, well known once but now hidden. It may be the most well known yet now obscure place in all of Greenwich. It is listed in the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places and was part of this year’s Connecticut Open House Day.

The once lauded now hidden place is the O’Neil Outdoor Theater, and it is the subject of a Greenwich Oral History Project interview published in 1977. The interview, conducted by Nancy Wolcott, was with Horton and Madelyn O’Neil, each with an interesting story to tell.
Madelynn O'Neil

Horton O'Neil
Horton O’Neil, an architect and son of David O’Neil, recounts the story of how his father and he came to build the theater. David O’Neil was a lumberman by trade but an actor by avocation, having played in productions of Shakespeare, Shaw, Galsworthy, and others. During his years as an actor, he performed in several outdoor theaters, an experience Horton O’Neil believes may have provided the inspiration for the outdoor theater they would build together in Greenwich from 1934 to 1937.
The marble stage

His father’s dream, according to his son, was to act in his own theater, for the love of it and not for financial gain. Additionally, he hoped to give readings of his own poetry, known as he was in the community for his poems, having published a book of poetry in 1918, A Cabinet of Jade.

The design of the theater, which was Horton O’Neil’s doing, was unique, a marble outdoor amphitheater designed to hold an audience of seven hundred, surrounded by junipers, yews, and hemlocks. Rose-colored Tennessee marble was used for the pit and in the pattern in the stage. The concept was of a pool in a forest, the concentric tiers of steps serving as a series of echoes. Horton describes it:

The swirl pattern of the stage is Celtic…a design that generated movement about a still center. The other Celtic motif was in the Druid stones around the stage, consisting of five-ton marble monoliths, and in the upright shafts in back of the auditorium.

The construction, a massive undertaking, was done without bulldozers, any heavy machinery, or blasting. The construction team consisted of one mason, one laborer, and two stonecutters with credentials including work on the Lincoln Memorial and the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. Horton O’Neil helped with the manual labor as well as being the designer and superintendent, along with his father, of the project. While the theater was designed originally for dramatic productions and poetry readings, the first event held in the completed space was with Quinto Maganini and his orchestra before an audience of invited guests.

According to Madelyn O’Neil, After World War II, the theater was used most effectively for
Young dancers on the marble stage
dance recitals. Trained as a dancer, she had taught for many years and had become involved with the Greenwich Academy where she was in close contact with jean Pethick, a teacher there. As a result of their association, from 1949 to 1959, the theater saw numerous well-attended (with as many as 550 audience members) dance performances. The first of these was a lavish Midsummer Night’s Dream production with none other than a young Jane Fonda performing as one of the fairies, according to Ms. O’Neil. Another well-attended dance performance was created from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” accompanying the dancers in what must have been a stunning performance.

In 1959 The Pied Piper of Hamelin was presented. Ms. O’Neil describes the way in which the Piper very dramatically led the children off among the hemlocks and into the surrounding woods until they were out of sight. An appropriate ending to a ten-year period of creative, expressive dance performances, it appears. The Pied Piper was the last production mounted by the Greenwich Academy. In fact, the piper might just as well have led the audience out, too, as he led the children away, and turned off the sparkling outdoor lights that illuminated the theater while he was at it.

In 1960 the neighbors, in effect, put an end to further use of the theater for any type of performance. With the help of an attorney, the theater was closed on a technicality. It lost its “nonconforming use,” which it had enjoyed since it had been in existence before zoning barring such use had gone into effect. The loss of this status was owed to the theater having been out of use for a period of one year, which it was during the war. Alas—no more O’Neil Outdoor Theater productions, no poetry, or readings of Shakespeare, no music or dance or any kind. But the Theater is still there, at least.

For further information about the O’Neil Outdoor Theater, contact Randy Fiveash, Director of Tourism, 860-256-2769 (Randall.Fiveash@ct.gov) or go to the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places, http://www.cultureandtourism.org.

The O’Neil Outdoor Theater, transcript with Horton and Madelyn O’Neil, by Nancy Wolcott, interviewer, 1977, is available through the Greenwich Library’s Greenwich Oral History Project. The interviews are located on the first floor of the library and through the project office on the lower level. (Photos from the Greenwich Oral History Project collection and courtesy of the Greenwich Historical Society.)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Another Environmental Leader in Greenwich: Lucy Man Jinishian

In the summer residents of Greenwich enjoy any number of parks and conservancies offering a variety of leisure activities. In addition there are beaches and water sports to enjoy. These well-preserved outdoor spaces and clean waterways did not come without the tireless efforts of the town’s environmental leaders.

One community leader who over the years protected the town’s shoreline and waters is Lucy Jinishian. Her work in establishing the Greenwich Environmental Action Group and her efforts to reestablish shellfishing in Greenwich after years of dormancy have had lasting impact.

There are two interviews in the Oral History Project collection with Ms. Jinishian, both helping to tell the story of her stewardship of the town’s environment. The first is “The Greenwich Environmental Action Group,” conducted in 1975, and the second is “Shellfishing in Greenwich,” conducted in 2006.

Ms. Jinishian’s environmental activism goes back to late 1970 with a letter to HELCO (Hartford Electric Light Company, later absorbed by Connecticut Light and Power) executives about plans to build an 800-megawatt power plant that because of large amounts of heated water flowing back into the Sound would create a potentially tremendous threat. The plan also included an oil-unloading platform near Tod’s Point, which, according to Ms. Jinishian, was “not to be borne without a struggle.”

Out of this struggle came GEAG, the Greenwich Environmental Action Group.

She and other volunteers spent nearly six months researching and attending meetings, gathering reports and informing the public about the proposed plant. Approximately five thousand fact sheets spelling out the air and water pollution effects on Greenwich were widely distributed throughout the town.
Photo from Friends of Greenwich Point

After repeated correspondence and meetings with company executives, plans for the plant were finally dropped. Ms. Jinishian and the volunteers did not take full credit for the change in plans, but they certainly played a major role in reversing them.

The GEAG played a significant role in many other environmental decisions in town. They were so influential that in January of 1975 the group decided to suspend activity. That may sound counterintuitive, but the reasoning behind the decision was sound. The organization was so well organized that all environmental issues found their way to the group’s doorstep, meaning that other volunteer groups supposedly active in environmental concerns were taking a back seat to GEAG. Since their aim was and had been from the start to involve the community, they believed the best way to get others involved was to take a step back themselves. Their plan was to become active again when the issues were large enough that the town would benefit from their background and extensive experience in successfully fighting battles worthy of the struggle.

Another Good Fight:

In the early 1980s, after the town’s shellfish beds had been closed to recreational shellfishing since 1960, oystermen began coming into Greenwich Cove, taking oysters out to a “mother ship” and whisking their haul away for commercial gain. According to Ms. Jinishian, “They sort of cleaned the Cove out of a lot of oysters.” This practice did not sit well with her. As a result, she and other concerned citizens, including Dan Barrett, took steps to remediate the situation. Out of this, the town of Greenwich Shellfish Commission was formed in 1986.

Photo from Shellfish Commission, Town of Greenwich

After repeated water sampling conducted in approximately thirty-five sampling stations over a period of years, the Commission was able to reopen the beds to the public in the fall of 1991. Since that time the commission has been active in overseeing the status of the beds, replenishing them as necessary after population-threatening disease and after catastrophic storms, such as Hurricane Sandy.

At the time of her interview on the Shellfish Commission in 2006, Ms. Jinishian had retired but promised to stay active in an advisory capacity, and so she has.

It is because of the commitment and involvement of community leaders like Lucy Jinisian, the residents of Greenwich can enjoy a multitude of summer activities, including visiting the Seaside Environmental Education Center at Tod’s Point to learn about the shellfish beds of the area. Then, from mid-October to mid-May, when the beds are open, for a modest fee to purchase a permit, Greenwich residents can enjoy the pleasures of recreational shellfishing.

The Greenwich Environmental Action Group, transcript with Lucy Man Jinishian, by Marian L. Phillips, July 30, 1975, and, Shellfishing in Greenwich, transcript of Interview with Lucy Man Jinishian, by Annette Baker Fox, March 21, 2006, are available through the Greenwich Library, Oral History Project, sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. The interviews are located on the first floor of the library and through the project office on the lower level.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Daniel V. Barrett, Teacher and Conservationist

In keeping with the growing season, we at the Oral History Project continue our focus this month on community leaders who have contributed to the protection of our environment:
Daniel V. Barrett
To paraphrase an old adage about teaching a man to fish, “If you want community members to preserve and protect their natural resources, teach them about the environment, and they will be stewards of the land and sea for a lifetime.” If teaching is the key, then Daniel V. Barrett unlocked the door to environmental stewardship for the thirty-eight years during which he taught and led the science department at Greenwich High School.
The results of his efforts continue to this day. Many of the students who passed through his classes went on to careers of their own in the sciences. Many of the properties today preserved in the Land Trust of Greenwich were acquired during his tenure as both executive director and environmental director of that organization. Much of the background work that went into making the Innis Arden Cottage Research Center at Greenwich Point was completed with his help and insight. These are but a few of the ways in which Mr. Barrett has made a lasting contribution to the environmental health of our town.
Dan Barrett was interviewed for the Oral History Project in December 2007. That interview was published as a book, Teacher and Conservationist in 2009, and in it Mr. Barrett makes clear his lifelong commitment to both the sciences, particularly marine biology, and to teaching.
In addition to teaching, Mr. Barrett headed up the Conservation Commission for a time and, with Lucy Jinishian and others, he formed the Shellfish Commission, which was officially underway by 1986. The purpose of the Shellfish Commission was to prove to the state that the waters were clean and that the shellfish were save to eat. After a period of at least five years, the beds were once again open, after having been closed since 1960.
How does a teacher impart to his students the importance of clean waterways? He appeals to their stomachs, of course. And that is just what Mr. Barrett did in his classes. Along with the customary lessons in bivalve anatomy, he taught his students the wonders of mussel stew, steamers, and oysters on the half-shell.
Dan Barrett with students
Additionally, he often took them to the Fulton Street market, to see all the stalls, to haggle over price, to buy the fish, and to fillet them. And then back at school, in the two ovens in his classroom, they would bake the fish. According to Mr. Barrett, “It was a whole experience of knowing about fish, and their requirements in the ocean.” In other words, once the students knew and appreciated this vital food source, they would be more aware of the need to protect their habitat.
Of all the inventive and innovative teaching techniques Mr. Barrett brought to his students over the years, he is probably most remembered for the development of the oceanography program at the high school. Built with his vision and the support of town benefactors, he was able to accumulate the equipment and supplies necessary to develop a program through the Educational Oceanographic Foundation, Inc. that would enable students to obtain a rich background in marine science—at the high school level. The program was so successful there were four teachers required to accommodate the demand.
Mr. Barrett’s hand can be seen to this day in many of the innovations he first envisioned. Before the Innis Arden Cottage at Greenwich Point, there was the Queen Anne Building, in the same location. It was, at the time Dan Barrett first saw its usefulness, in a general state of disrepair. He remedied that by appealing to the First Selectman, allowing the building to be outfitted with sinks and heat in the winter. As our interviewer astutely observed at the time, it was Mr. Barrett who got the Queen Anne Building “out of mothballs.”
In recent years that old building has been beautifully transformed, becoming the new home of the Seaside Environmental Education Center, spearheaded by the Greenwich Point Conservancy, in collaboration with the Conservation and Shellfish Commissions and the Bruce Museum.
In addition to oceanic conservation and education efforts, Mr. Barrett’s work by no means slighted the land. In 1986 he was recruited to join the Greenwich Land Trust, becoming the Executive Director shortly thereafter. At the time of the interview, the trust had a hundred and nineteen properties under its care, over six hundred acres of property. It owned Shell Island, had eighteen meadows, and five apple orchards.
Greenwich Land Trust apple orchard
Over the years, this much and more is still true. The Land Trust has continued to grow. Mr. Barrett was honored for his work and contribution in 2012, and shortly before that event, he told the reporter covering it of the importance of cherishing the land for the benefit of future generations. He then quoted Ansel Adams:
"Let us leave a splendid legacy for our children. Let us turn to them and say: ‘This you inherit; guard it well, for it is far more precious than money, and once destroyed, nature's beauty cannot be repurchased at any price.’"
Therein lies the legacy of Daniel V. Barrett, teacher and conservationist.
The Oral History Project book, Daniel V. Barrett: Teacher and Conservationist, is available through the Greenwich Library’s circulating collection and is for sale through the Oral History Project office, lower level of the library.