It’s been 120 years since “a small group of aristocratic ladies” started meeting in a Bridgeport art studio to paint china.
The group soon became known as the Bridgeport League of Keramic Art, which over the years became the Bridgeport Art League, and was incorporated in 1916.
The organization still is in operation today, conducting monthly meetings in the Parish Center of St. Paul’s Church on the Huntington Green in Shelton.
“We’re very proud of our longevity,” said Susan Zelanakas, the art league’s president.
Zelanakas specializes in decorative painting on trays and plates, following the tradition of the League of Keramic Art. She also teaches decorative painting classes for members in the spring and fall.
When she joined the art league 24 years ago, members met at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Stratford.
First met in people’s homes
In its early days, the league conducted classes in members’ Bridgeport homes before a permanent exhibit space — the Anne Hathaway Cottage in Beardsley Park — was built.
The cottage succumbed to vandalism, and members moved to another location in Bridgeport and then the Stratford church.
An art league member attended St. Paul’s Church in Shelton, Zelanakas said, and members began meeting at the Parish Center and have been meeting there ever since. “It suits our needs,” she said. “They are very nice to us.”
A trend continues
Through the years of World War I and World War II, art league membership dropped, Zelanakas said, because women entered the workforce. And that trend has continued.
A membership that once totaled 400 members now stands at 56. Eleven members hail from Shelton. Some other nearby towns represented are Easton, Monroe, Trumbull, Stratford, Milford, and Oxford.
“It’s a struggle to keep going in today’s world,” said Zelanakas, a North Haven resident. “We pay rent. We are struggling. Most women work. That’s the problem. We’re a daytime club.”
The club welcomes new members, including younger people, and hopes to increase the number of men. “It’s time to bring them in,” she said.
Art League member Diane Napolitano, a self-taught artist and 35-year Shelton resident, teaches oil painting, drawing and watercolor in art league classes.
Only art league members may take the classes, she said, and there are also classes in porcelain painting.
Napolitano, who serves as publicity chairperson, is one of many members who say they value the camaraderie the league offers. “I meet fellow artists,” she said.
Shelton resident Dolores Herlihy has been a member for 14 years. “I’ve learned so much here,” she said. “I like decorative arts and oil painting.”
Napolitano heads up the Ways and Means Committee and is the auditor of the books.
‘I love the camaraderie’
“I love the camaraderie,” said Helena Swatt of Shelton, a 25-year member who takes classes in oil painting.
The art league is “a very close-knit, caring group,” said Joyce Pedersen, a longtime member who specializes in watercolors and exhibits in the members show each year.
Pedersen, an Easton resident, said she learns a lot from the demonstrations offered by area artists each month during the general members meeting.
“We have wonderful artists who come to demonstrate,” Zelanakas said.
At the April meeting, pastel painter Alain Picard was the guest artist and presenter.
Annual members show
The annual members art show took place this year in early April at the Milford Public Library. “The art show was very successful,” with 62 entries, Zelanakas said.
To raise funds, the group has a Christmas crafts table at a Milford church, participates in an annual tag sale, and conducts raffles at its two yearly luncheons. The group also conducts fee-based workshops.
Former league President Inge Weber chairs the Community Service Committee, which collects food for schoolchildren and toiletries for military veterans.
Membership in the Bridgeport Art League, a nonprofit organization, is $30 a year.
The group meets on the third Monday of the month, September through June, at St. Paul’s Parish Center, 25 Church St., Shelton. For information on membership, go to www.bridgeportartleague.org or call Diane Napolitano at 203-924-6074.