Rowayton Arts Center at 50
It took a liquor store proprietor, a decorator, and an industrial designer to bring artists together
Certain milestones cause one to glance over one’s shoulder. Others, however, inspire an extended, meaningful look filled with equal parts nostalgia for what was and optimism for what will be. Such is the case for the fiftieth anniversary of the Rowayton Arts Center.
One night in January 1960, a group of exhibiting artists and authors gathered at Arno Scheiding’s home on Bell Island and hatched the idea of a central location for the area’s many artists. Scheiding (a painter and industrial designer), William Gray Schaefer (head of a noted decorating firm), and Don Craig (owner of the local liquor store) signed the Articles of Association, a formality for their altruistic endeavor, which they descibed as: “to provide a community cultural center for the study, creation and appreciation of the arts” (see black-and-white photo, opposite page). The group began by dusting off the second floor of Nelson’s Lobster House (now Brendan’s 101) and bringing on fellow directors Robert Course, John H. Obold, Claude Venon, James and Jane Flora, and Paul Nonay.
A tribute to the center, and to the many townsfolk who shepherded it through the subsequent decades, will take place as an invitation-only retrospective art show (September 12–October 3), showcasing works of nearly thirty founding artists, including Scheiding. RAC President Hu Lindsay says of the event, “We will be borrowing some of the work from various collections and the artists themselves. It’s great to look back, but we are also excited about a very bright future. We have a lot of newer artists and younger people getting involved. The quality of art and commitment to the community here is outstanding.”
Blending old and new, the center will host its golden anniversary Bal de Tete at the Tokeneke Club (September 19). This fundraiser is a nod to the great masked balls held by the RAC in the 1960s. Rowaytonite Nina Palleson Craig (who was raised in Darien) fondly remembers them in their heyday, when these events were thrown annually. “The original Bals de Tete were held at Golden Court, a private residence on Bell Island,” she says. Nina, an original member of the RAC, was married to the late Don Craig and worked for Scheiding. “We always had it on a night with a full moon, and there was a lot of really fantastic stuff—elaborate headdresses, a huge dance floor. It was held there through several owners until the final ones just couldn’t stomach it anymore.” She recalls when she attended in a headdress she created out of thin sheet metal done up to look like a moth and made her husband a flame complete with tiny illuminated flashlights. “We didn’t win a prize that year, but when you did, it was some funny little thing we artists had made ourselves.” For example, one coveted prize was called “Clammy.” Designed by Scheiding, it consisted of a cast of a clamshell imprinted with the RAC logo.
This year’s Bal de Tete is open to the whole community and will include several workshops to help attendees create their own headwear. (Those who can’t tap into their inner artist will be able to borrow something at the event.)
These days the little arts center that could boasts approximately 500 members, of whom 300 are exhibiting artists. The center exhibits and sells the work of its members and offers classes to students of all ages and levels of experience. Art shows are held monthly at its central location—145 Rowayton Avenue, a small building built in 1905 by Reliance Hook and Ladder Co., and home from 1926 until 1966 to the library. This landmark carries on its tradition of serving the community, beautifully and meaningfully.