On Colony Street in downtown Meriden, Connecticut, local artists teach classes to each other at Gallery 53. The redbrick, three-story Romanesque-revival building, formerly known as the Butler Paint Company, is home to the Arts & Crafts Association of Meriden, or ACAM. Gallery 53’s volunteers, mostly local, talented women, have witnessed the social changes in this former mill town’s artistic history.
A painting of the ACAM’s first director, Indiana Thomas, watches over the gallery’s first-floor gift shop. Sandy Goodyear, a retired schoolteacher and the newly appointed director, reclines in her seat discussing the nonprofit organization. Her bracelets jangle as she laces her hands in her lap; her sleeves are rolled up a bit as she shares the origins of the ACAM. “Meriden was basically an artist colony back in its early days. The association was run by the doctor’s wives, the lawyer’s wives, the banker’s wives, so they could be on the society page all the time. They would have the artists do demos and, you know, have tea and crumpets.” Goodyear mimes holding a cup and saucer before being candid about the difficulties of running a nonprofit organization.
Throughout its history, Meriden’s women have been the champions of creative development, namely, the Arts & Crafts Association of Meriden. Founded in 1907 by Thomas, a vivacious renaissance woman, ACAM sponsored exhibits and hosted lectures on art at what used to be the Curtis Memorial Library, a neoclassical structure made of Vermont marble. A couple of world wars suspended the frequency of ACAM’s exhibits, but still, the women persisted, building upon what was becoming a Meriden tradition. In the early eighties, the association’s president at the time, Irma Morse, a gifted artist as well as a prominent local banker, found the gallery’s home at the center of downtown Meriden.
“You know, it’s a whole new game. We are basically run by volunteers. The last director was here for thirteen years, and I get paid, like, minimum wage [laughing], but it’s okay.” A longtime resident, Goodyear has helped Meriden culture sustain since her days in the school system. Goodyear is partly responsible for elementary schoolers learning about the legend of The Black Dog from a videotape circulating through the local school system. Goodyear and the ACAM continue connecting Meriden with its deep artistic roots.
Meriden, the Silver City of Connecticut, sits today mostly unknown to the world as a former metropolitan vestige of artistic expression and booming silver industry. From the legend of The Black Dog looming among the daffodils from Hanging Hills to iconic steamed cheeseburgers, little attention is left for pastels and mosaics, made and curated by the city’s humble art community. Meriden’s rich art history is often overlooked by the busier towns of New Haven County. Today the Urban Dictionary credits Meriden for its “homely or ghetto atmosphere,” and having not produced silver since the eighties, the city’s reputation is only burnished by its nickname. A typical Winesburg, Meriden is better known for its townies than its artists.
On a clear, brisk Tuesday morning, Ellie Bender’s class is starting in the second-floor studio. The train station and Meriden Green, two recent developments that have added color to the leaden red brick landscape, are at eye level with the studio’s wide windows. Bender wears a paisley turtleneck under a relaxed green terrycloth sweater as she teaches portraiture to the sound of oldies CDs and organlike fermatas from passing trains. Her subject, Denise Breedlove, sits patiently while the students, Bonnie Potter and Theresa DiNicola, peek periodically over their canvases. DiNicola and Potter also teach classes at Gallery 53: mosaics and painting. It is a room of learning artists. A line of Bender’s portrait work hangs high on the western wall; she notes them matter-of-factly before offering decaf to the room. The women sit around a table sharing snacks they’ve brought from home: a small plate of quartered apples, a sandwich bag of blueberries, another with sweet peppers, and a plate with donuts that Potter warns have been there for a day or two.
The room is decorated with more local art hanging over chaotically organized art supplies. The wooden floor is spotted and lined with globs of dry paint. Bender sits with her legs crossed and her arms folded; her jewelry flickers at the light coming from the windows. She sips her coffee, recalling her involvement with Gallery 53. “I kind of got involved with them because, at that point, late into the 1980s, my career was going down the tubes as an illustrator, because I was working for all the department stores, G Fox, Brown and Thomson, Sage-Allen. They all went to photography and computers, and they didn’t need illustrators anymore.” The women around the table gesture in agreement; things have changed, not only for Meriden but for how art is generated and consumed. The women speak with conviction and reverence for the value of craft, yet impending thoughts on the shifting art industry loom over the conversation.
“I kept thinking I was too old to do computer work but too young to just stop working, so you just switch gears and [start] doing something else.”
Bender has been a citizen of Meriden, and other parts of Connecticut, since the thirties. Along her way, she met her colleagues, artists of a later generation, and now shares with them times before the developing medium. Bender gets up to find a green tote bag, sharing a thicket of fashion illustrations, magazine pages drawn for DiNicola’s former ad agency. She traces her eyes over her old drawings, doe-eyed models in regal garments, their limbs bent under fine material. Bender’s knotted hands point out the minor details. “Originally, almost everything had to be just black and white or ink and what have you, because there was no color. But if you’re looking close here, there’s a pattern of dots. You did the artwork, and then it went into a special feature where it all came down to the dots so that it could be printed by the newspaper.”
DiNicola, her solemn eyes magnified by her thick lenses, nods and shakes her head, lamenting the digitization of art. “In other words, before we used computers to design, we actually knew how to do it by hand.” The move away from sketched illustrations left artists without work and stinted their artistic careers. DiNicola is aggravated as she recalls the computer’s impact on her career; her cowl neck sweater drapes toward the table as she slouches to look over Bender’s drawings. She bows her head slightly and thinks aloud for a lost generation of people who have either passed or retired from the arts.
Regardless of the changes around her, Bender’s stoic attitude has kept her working. She is hopeful for the future of Meriden’s art community. “I kept thinking I was too old to do computer work but too young to just stop working, so you just switch gears and [start] doing something else.” By now, Bender’s illustrations are scattered on one-half of the table, and coffee cups are shifted around the papers. She speaks assuredly to the artists sitting around the table, then reminds them that their class must resume.
The women continue to reminisce. The students return to their easels, Breedlove poses in an armchair, and Bender conducts the class with her pencil. The class continues, and once again, the train whistles behind the building, reverberating through all three floors of Gallery 53.
As of late, like all cities across the country, Meriden is quiet with its people working from home. Yet, while the world has been postponed and awaits to be started again, Gallery 53 stands to remind Meriden that the arts are present, and they are handmade, a comfort currently missed by the socially distanced city. Now, gears are shifting, and, at home, Bender must be painting, while the world must also let time pass, just as it has for Meriden.
Samuel Sandoval is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Headline Photo Credit: Gaby Sandoval