Kent Art Association
Celebrating its 95th Birthday
Almost as soon as the earliest European settlers moved into New England, they began to seek greener pastures. By the mid-19th century farmers were in full flight from the bony hillsides of the Northeast, seeking the broad, fertile expanses of the Midwest.
In their wake they left abandoned homesteads and forests eager to reclaim the fallow fields. But nature abhors a vacuum and, with the advent of railroads that eased travel from metropolitan regions, a new migration began—this time of artists lured by low real estate costs and the beautiful landscapes of Connecticut’s northwest hills.
More than elsewhere in the Northeast, artists attracted to Connecticut's northwest hills bought homes here. With an easy commute by train to metropolitan art markets, they remained active in New York while engaging in year-round activities in Connecticut's rural communities. As they settled into their rural homes, their very presence drew other artists to the region, creating culturally rich art colonies.
But creating art is only half the problem for professional limners—what is painted must be sold. Soon the growing colonies formed associations that their exhibited works in an effort to lure buyers out of the cities. One of the earliest colonies formed in Kent and there 95 years ago established the state’s second oldest art association—antedated only by Old Lyme’s.
“We have a long and interesting history,” said Karen Chase, publicist for the KAA. “At first, the nine founders held an annual show in which only their work was exhibited. Later, more artists were accepted and others were made associates.”
She said the KAA gallery is venerable, formerly the front part of the old Kent Inn. In 1956 the Inn property was purchased by the Sunoco Company as the site for its Patco Station. The front of the building was donated to the KAA, cut off of the building and moved it to its present location.
Today, the Kent Art Association is thriving, exhibiting an ever-more eclectic selection of art while maintaining its identity with its founders. “We’ve opened our aperture quite a bit,” said KAA Executive Director, Michael Hunt. “Originally all we showed was representational art, but we have shifted out focus and it is very gratifying and exciting to get diverse work into the gallery. Over the past several years, we have been allowing non-representational art into our shows and in the last two years we have been accepting photography.”
“We’ve broadened the scope of our membership,” he continued, “and it is fascinating to see what artists in different mediums are coming up with. It is extremely diverse now.”
But this fundamental shift in focus does not mean the founders are forgotten. This spring the KAA will kick off its 95th season with a big Roaring ’20s reception on April 28th from 2-6 PM, recalling the era when the association was formed.
“It will coincide with our spring juried show,” Hunt said. “We encourage people to come in costume. There will be a band, fun events and champagne. It’s our kick-off in celebration of the founders and it’s going to be quite fun.”
That will be followed throughout the season by a series of Founders Talks—schedule still to be announced—and a special Founders Exhibit, which will feature works from the nine original artists.
And what artists they were. “It’s amazing how much art activity there was here in the past,” said Hunt. “This is an opportunity to create an awareness of what has been here before. There is a lot of history.”
A lot of human history. The first artists were drawn here by the economics of the region and its all-embracing beauty but there were subtexts to their life stories that brought them here as well. Robert Nesbit, for instance, is credited with being the cornerstone of the KAA but he came to the region under a cloud. A member of the Old Lyme Art Colony and a winner of three National Academy awards, he ran off with his instructor’s wife and moved to Kent.
Other artists, such as George Laurence Nelson—one of the preeminent society portrait artists of his era—were riding high in New York City but tired of dealing with their demanding clientele. Nelson withdrew to a rambling old Colonial-era building that he dubbed Seven Hearths and spent much of his later life painting flowers and his beautiful wife, Helen.
Self-taught Rex Brasher spent his life in a quest to portray from life every native bird in the United States. In 1911 Brasher spent the $700 commission he received for illustrating a book to purchase a 150-acre farm in Kent, and it was there, in 1924, after 47 years of work, that he finished his task. His paintings included 1200 species and sub-species of birds listed on the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) Checklist of North American Birds.
Eliot Candee Clark, on the other hand, was a child prodigy. Son of American artist Walter Clark and Jennie Woodruff Clark, he submitted his first work to the New York Water Color Club at age 9 and, in 1896, at age 13, to the National Academy of Design where he exhibited almost annually until 1980. Following his marriage to Elizabeth Trowbridge Eggleston in 1921, Eliot spent the winter painting in Kent.
It might seem odd to find James Floyd Clymer, known for his sea and cityscapes, in rural Northwest Connecticut but he had married Gwenyth Waugh, daughter of the renowned marine painter, Frederick Judd Waugh, which drew him to the community. Waugh spent much of his distinguished career in New York City, Kent and Provincetown MA after he returned from his prolonged residence in Europe.
Francis Luis Mora also traveled far to find his home in Kent. Born in Uruguay in 1874, his parents moved to the USA when he was young. An illustrator, Mora handled assignments for magazine such as Collier's, Sunday Magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, Century, Harper's, as well as books.
One of the first Kent area artists, he and his wife, Sonia, bought land in Gaylordsville in 1913 where he painted everyday life in the countryside. The family camped in the area until 1923 when he completed his summer home and studio.
Tragedy brought Spencer Baird Nichols to Kent. His son, Mather, died of typhoid in 1922, which led the family to move to Kent. A prolific and popular artist in his day, he continued to be dogged by misfortune and in 1932 his uninsured home and studio in Kent burned, destroying much of his artistic legacy. The artist colony rallied to support the Nichols family and a new cottage was constructed for them.
From the beginning, sculpture was part of the KAA. Willard Dryden Paddock was both a painter and sought-after sculptor. He was among the earliest of the KAA founders to land in the community, settling with his wife in South Kent in 1913. “We still have sculpture in our shows, although there are size restrictions because of the size of the gallery,” said Hunt. “When we find people whose sculpture works well, we do outdoor sculpture on the lawn.”
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