Dorothy Gifford was interviewed by Mary Giles on September 21, 1976. She spoke at length about her involvement with the Westport Art Group, of which she was a founding member and the president.
Interviewer – I’ve always wanted to tape you because you have been the spearhead of so much that we’ve done with the Bi-centennial in 1976 and always you have been such a backbone of the Westport Art Group. How long have you been president of the Westport Art Group?
I don’t know – it’s been so long, I’ve lost count. I wish I could find someone else to take it on. I think some new blood would be a good idea. The art group started back in 1957 with four of us who were painting in the mornings just for the fun of it, and we did quite a bit of work and we thought it would be nice to see what else was being done around town – so we thought it would be nice to have an exhibition. It seemed kind of loose jointed to say, ‘Let’s just have an exhibition’ so it developed into the Westport Art Group. The first exhibition was certainly interesting. We advertising it in the New Bedford and Fall River papers and around town with posters and notices, and we had quite a surprising response. Some of the work shown was very good and all of it was interesting.
Can you remember, by any chance, who the first three or four members were?
Yes, there was Ethel Gifford, Alice Danhauser, Helen Wilkinson and myself. We were the four founding members. We got some others to help. It’s grown and grown and more and more people exhibit and come to enjoy. This year we had to cut down on entries because last year it was so crowded that we literally had to hang things from the ceiling. Every year people tell us it’s the best show we’ve had. It’s not a juried show. It’s wide open.
How many members to you have now? What are your plans for the future?
Oh, 150. Members come from Bristol County, Newport County. It’s not a juried show because a juried show can cut out much good material – what is shown can depend on the opinion of a few people.
In the early days, the crafts were in the south room of the Point School and paintings in the north room. Then, when we got more screens, paintings were hung in both rooms. Ted Mead and Herbert Hadfield built the screens for us. Ethel Gifford, Willa Brown, Alice Danhauser, Helen Wilkinson and others have been president.
What are some of your plans for the future? I know you were given a nice big lot (of land) by Betty Booth in memory of her father and mother-in-law, Julia and Edward Yeomans.
We have a nice big flat-faced rock telling about that gift of the late 60s. We needed a building and we had a chance to buy this house at a very good price, and we did, and we moved it up onto the land. Now, as it stands, the building makes a good place for storage of materials we would have no other place to put. We’d like to build on to each end, having the rear end for a workshop where members could come and paint when they wanted to and come for classes.
At the front end, we’d like to have a place for a meeting room and a gallery. I’d rather not talk about the other plans until they’ve jelled.
Well, I think this is great. In other words, we’d use this for anything that was needed, then if we get a bigger building, I’d like to see a paid director, because the president’s job and the secretary’s job, if they do it right, can take up practically full time. A director could take the load off many people. Then we could use that little building as a piece for them to live if they didn’t have one.
At this point it’s a daydream.
The proceeds from each year’s exhibit go towards the art scholarship of a high school student – first choice, one from Westport; second, Little Compton; third, Dartmouth – as well as books and magazines for the library and a building fund.
What you need is a grant.
So many people have been willing to give money for projects, but so far no one wants to donate to a building. We’ve inquired and always have the response that there’s money for a project.
Maybe you need a good fundraiser.
That’s what we need. We don’t have anyone in our organization who likes to go out and ring doorbells.
Not only ring doorbells, but contact and make a study of possible donors government wise.
We’ve had someone doing that. So far we’ve not had the success we’d like.
Well, Dorothy, you’re an interesting person yourself. You like to paint. What else have you done in the arts except paint? And, when did you move to Westport?
I guess I grew up in a trunk. We moved some 20 times – came here in 1923 to the Corellda Cory Hubbard apartment on Thanksgiving Lane. I was in the 7th and 8th grades here, and then I went to Westport High School for a year, spent my sophomore year at Southern Seminary in Virginia, then I came back to Westport and graduated from high school, and then I went to Bradford Junior College and graduated there and went on to Pratt Institute and graduated there. I did a little textile design, some furniture design and a little interior decoration, and at the time it was the depression, so I was thankful to have any job I could get in New York. I think I worked in three or four textile studios for about a year – some forgot to pay me, some couldn’t pay me, either couldn’t or wouldn’t – anyway they didn’t.
You were doing textile design?
Yes, and after about a month, I think I had one check in about a month, I decided I’d had enough of that and so I got a job doing handkerchiefs. The boss had ideas that I really didn’t think I wanted to go along with – the leering eye every time I went in.
How old were you then?
Oh, in the early twenties.
So you, as a very attractive young woman, were not to be a part of whatever his plans were. What did you do then?
Oh, I went somewhere else. I don’t remember where. Then I went to Florida the next year to help run a hotel that my aunt had, and I redecorated that place. I worked in a pottery studio painting those little statues, pottery figurines – dull – but it was a little cash coming in.
Your mother – your family – were here?
Well, we moved down here from Attleboro where my father had the Robbins Company, and after he retired, he didn’t know what to do with himself. We lived in several places – a couple of years in Florida and a couple in West Harwich, where we’d summered. That was about 1917.
It was about 1928 when you were in New York working. Was your mother living here alone?
No, she came to New York with me. She didn’t like living alone in dormitories, so we had apartments.
Did you have this place on the Main Road?
Oh, yes. This is the only place we came back to for vacations and weekends for a while.
So you were sort of summer people for a while, although you owned property?
Well, yes. When I was at Bradford, she was here alone.
Let’s get back to you for a moment. When did you come back here permanently?
After I was married. Well, I was working at Wing’s in New Bedford – that was a nice store and people still miss it – doing interior decorating. The pay was small, and during the war, I decided it was too small. I couldn’t get out and go around because of gas rationing, so I commuted to Providence and worked with the Army Engineers for a couple of years doing drafting. This was during the war. After the war ended, I was with the Advertising Agency for the Christian Science Monitor, then I moved up to Hingham for a couple of years, and then we were married and moved back here. Norman was teaching in Fairhaven, then in Dartmouth, then back in Westport.
I remember the first time I knew you. You reached out to people a great deal, always, and we knew very few people here. We felt very close to Jean and Ed Yeomans and had visited them and liked Westport – and that’s why we came here. You were living in the Corn Crib, which is in back of your present home and, which you now rent. One of our first evenings out in Westport was with you in the Corn Crib. We found someone to baby sit our children and we had dinner with you there in the Corn Crib. I don’t know how many years ago—it mush have been in the early 50s when we first came. That’s how we got acquainted, and I joined the Art Group and have been a faithful, or unfaithful member….
You’ve been a faithful member.
I couldn’t attend meetings regularly. I was teaching always at places where we seemed to always be having night meetings and night meetings, unless they are especially interesting, are an anathema to me.
You did a beautiful job when you did the crafts for the art show.
Yes, What I was hoping, in the back of my mind, since it was an historical crafts exhibit, to lead up to an historical society here. That was in the back of my mind. We have wanted one for a long time. Lincoln’s (Tripp) doing a beautiful job as president, and I hope he’ll stay on.
I do too.
What did you do when you first came here – you were 13?
I had been at summer camp and after camp closed, I came here. My parents were down here at Emma Manchester’s boarding house. It’s one of the big white houses that Dr. Holt now owns. It’s the house right behind the trees that are along the edge of the street. It’s the next one to Dr. Holt’s (the large yellow house with a porch along the side) and Emma Manchester had a boarding house for summer people, and she was a lovely person. She was as sweet as she could be and she was a marvelous cook. We had everything for breakfast. She didn’t think much of cornflakes, but she gave them to those who wanted them. She had fresh milk that was really raw milk with most of the cream in it. And there was a separate pitcher of cream for those who wanted it.
How many people would be living there?
Oh, you see, it was the end of the summer when I was living there, and there must have been a half dozen people. We had fish cakes and Johnny Cakes, and sliced meat – oh, it was terrific.
What about lunch and dinner?
There wasn’t much difference between them. There were three big meals a day because the farmers liked their dinner at noon, and the summer people liked their dinner at night – so they compromised and had big meals all the time.
How long did the boarding house last?
Quite a few years I think. I can’t remember just when they closed it. It got to be so popular and big, that she just couldn’t handle it.
You were a child, what did you do for fun?
I was brought up as an only child, which sounds strange when I say that I had two brothers, but they were half brothers, and older and not at home much, and my sister died when she was about four. I was almost eight, so for all practical purposes, I was an only child, and I grew up as such and I entertained myself. I loved to read, and I pretended to write poetry, which was pretty awful when I look back on it.
Did you draw, paint, model and sketch?
Not very much, not until I was in high school when I think I was one of the starters of a newspaper – the school paper. I did the drawings for that and one other girl also; I think it was Mary Vinson. We had no art teacher. We just did it on our own. Norman Gifford was teaching English and he was a tremendous help. He was one of the best teachers I ever had in any school and we got out a pretty good little paper on the whole.
You were much younger than Norman – you married him later. Do you think that at that time there was any romantic interest?
No, I was impressed with him. When I came back from Virginia, he had gone into the Westport High School. He was staying down at the beach that year, having come back to Westport from California. Milton Earle was impressed with him and got ahold of him and asked him if he’d come down to Westport Point and take the job of English teacher that was open. Norman said he’d never thought about teaching – that he didn’t think he wanted to – but Milton kept after him and…
Now, this was when the High School was down at the Milton Earle School?
Yes. Well, he finally said he’d fill in the spot for a while, which he did for 15 years, and during that time, he taught lots of things besides English because he was a linguist and he also taught math and whatever was needed. He was a Latin scholar. He spoke German fluently and a little French, and I remember that when I came home from school after I’d first seen him, I said to Mother, ‘We’ve got a new teacher in town, and he’s not a bit like the others.’ He was more sophisticated – more polished, but there was no thought of romance at all.
How long after this pupil-teacher relationship did you marry?
About 20 years later. I was working in Hingham on the Monitor at the time, and I cam home for the weekend and stopped at Perry’s store. I heard a voice behind me, and it was Norman. Well, he showed considerable interest and I said, ‘Well, I’m in the telephone book.’ He called the next week. That was the mid to end of August. I think we were married at Thanksgiving.
That was a very brief courtship, I’d say.
I’d known him three or four years at school, and now and then around town.
In order to be near your mother, you moved into the ‘Corn Crib.’
I knew that later I was going to have to look after her and I thought it would be a lot easier if I was near and didn’t have to go any distance. Fixing it up for living was simple. We had turned it into a summer cottage, and all we had to do was put heat and insulation in it. That was in 1947 or 1948.
In other words, you have only been married about six or seven years when we came down to have that nice dinner with you.
Yes, about that.
I’d like you to talk a bit about your painting.
It’s grown each year. It’s become a very personal thing.
You don’t paint the way anyone else does – you’ve become a real painter. You have your own style, your own way of work, which distinguishes you as a person who has evolved.
Well, after leaving Pratt, I studied with an Oriental painter. I’ve always liked Chinese painting and I learned a lot from him.
Your mother always liked Oriental Art.
Yes. And I studied with Harold Kenworthy in New Bedford. He worked with big broad strokes. And I think I took some classes with Dennis Broadbent and now with Steve . And Steve is great; he brings you out. He doesn’t make you paint his way, which is good. This one (painting) up here of the dune with the fog behind it, and this one received very favorable comment in The New York Times in it’s review. My painting has had to be just by stops and starts. I couldn’t work full time and do very much painting.
Let’s talk a bit more about your development as a painter.
Well, I’ve done mostly watercolors, which I enjoy. I like oils, but I don’t have enough patience. I like to get things done and behind me, although there are some things that are better done with oils than with watercolors. I’ve also done block prints and silkscreen prints for fabrics, and a few other things.
You’ve never done anything with sculpture?
No, I’ve thought about it, but I can’t get warmed up to it.
What about your life as a sportswoman? Did you have many close friends?
We moved too often. I had playmates. I think the longest we ever lived in any one place was four years, and that was in Attleboro. Then, we moved to another part of town and then we came down here. I used to wonder what it was like to live in a place long enough to know people. Now I’ve been here for about 30 years steadily and it’s great. I love it! The town has grown tremendously in the last 20 years.
Now you are so involved, you never have a free moment.
Catherine Hall lived up on the hill and she was a marvelous person, very thoughtful. She had a beautiful garden and she loved to have people come and see it. She was one of the nicest people I have ever known.
She did such thoughtful things – for Mabel Crosby – for me. The year when I was ill, she came around with a Christmas tree with little bitsy Christmas gifts, and it was so lovely and so unexpected. She was a most thoughtful person.
At high school, we had a group who ate lunch together. There was no cafeteria and everybody brought their own lunch, and we drove to school from here in Johnny Fish’s truck. It had curtains that rose on the sides and pulled down when it rained. It was an open truck. I think the Harbor had a real bus for the children over there. Most of the children around town were picked up in whatever vehicle was available.
To go back further, when I was in the first grade in Grafton, I rode to school in a horse and wagon with side curtains. It was kind of smelly – smelled of children, apples and hay. I think ten or twelve children would pack in there. And there was no heat in that house, and it got pretty cold. Then we moved to Winthrop and I went to first grade there. I went to the same school in Attleboro up through the sixth grade. Though we had two houses, they were in the same area for school.
Here (Westport) there were friends – Clara Jennings, Della Hitt (Clara Jennings is now married to a George Hennessey and lives in Florida) and Della married Archer Tripp, and Mary Charlotte, who was a marvelous person in her own right – very remarkable. She married an Antonetti, I think, and they live in Plymouth – and Gladys Hammond – oh, there was quite a bunch of us. Our graduating class had nine girls and two boys and now the graduating class has something around 100. They (my friends) lived mostly at the other end of town – up around the Head. So I saw them at school, but there were very few children down here at the Point.
In the winter, we didn’t seem to have enough snow to go coasting.
That’s a different story from other tales I hear. A few years ago we had snow so deep, it covered the walls.
Well, that’s a different country. Norman was living at the beach one winter, when he was teaching and they had no snow over there, and at Central Village there were several inches of it. Down here at the Point, there’s very little. The nearer you get to the Gulf Stream and the water, the less there is.
So you didn’t go for winter sports.
I wasn’t a sportswoman. Norman was interested I sports and he brought the baseball team up until it was I the ‘Narry’ League, which for a little school like this, was quite a thing.
About how many children were there in the school?
Well, including the eighth grade, there must have been about 100 – about 1929 – this was high school and junior high – called Westport High – not called Milton Earle School until after the new high school was built. Norman ran the school for years without the title of Principal. Eventually, he was made Principal. During the Second World War, he went back into teaching. He was Superintendent (of schools) after we were married. When we were married, he wasn’t Principal. There was no social responsibility connected with the roles of Principal and Superintendent – no handling out the glad hand.
Entertaining was done on a purely social and personal basis.
Do you have any ideas – would Norman have had any ideas – about how Westport could improve its schools? We do have problems. We have problems of choice of Superintendent, of relations between the School Board and the Selectmen, etc.
Well, the Selectmen have nothing to do with it. The School Board is responsible to the State and the Selectmen are not their bosses in any way. They have something to do with funding the buildings through Town Meetings, but the School Department is an independent department as far as the town is concerned.
May I interrupt you just a moment to ask why it is that a good many people here in town feel that the School Board seems to be timid – at least that is what I hear when I speak to many people here in town.
Because they’re people, I guess.
Well, all people aren’t timid, and all communities aren’t timid.
Well, I guess it’s partly the time. There may be repercussions that are pretty unpleasant. That’s one reason why they hold back as much as they do in any department.
Yes, but other communities have not held back, in a way, as much as Westport has.
It’s because they have people with the courage of their convictions.
You don’t think Westport does as much as some communities do?
They feel the need to play it safe.
Now you don’t play it safe.
I’m not a political person. I’ve never been involved in politics. I’m not able to speak on the subject.
You have been more influential in the arts in this town than any other person, and here you are not timid. You are a very forward-looking person with many ideas.
Thinking about things we might do, doesn’t amount to anything until it happens.
Well, what support do you think the community could give the arts that it hasn’t given?
Well, we don’t want to go out and ring doorbells to get our money. We’d rather earn our way. So many organizations are forever dunning people.
Asking for community support is very different from asking for State or Federal funds.
We’ve done that. We’ve been working on that for two or three years, trying to get money for our building, and everywhere we’ve asked, we’ve been told. ‘Oh, we don’t give money for buildings, only for projects themselves.’ Special exhibitions, school, classes and that sort of thing, but just for a plain building, we get absolutely no help.
That’s too bad, because other places – California, Colorado…
Don’t sign off yet. You asked me about sports. Let me tell about swimming. I don’t want to sound egotistical, but I was a good swimmer, and I went down one day, and I won a race once too. I don’t know what it was. I think it must have been at Bradford. One day I was swimming down here at the beach and I saw someone who was apparently calling for help and I went in about up to my knees and decided that this was no place for anybody as there was a terrific undertow. So, I went back and got a rope and there were about a half dozen young men standing on the beach, looking rather stupid and I signaled to them to get the rope because it was further up the beach.
This is before there were beach clubs?
It was at Earle’s beach, but there were no lifeguards. So finally, I got it through their heads and one of them got the rope and that saved half a minute. He handed it to me and I took it out to the man who was floundering. He was pretty well out beyond his depth. He was not panicky; he got hold of the rope. There was a loop in it. I wanted to tie it around him, but he said he could hold on to it, so I just brought him in. When we got ashore, he was an elderly man, all the onlookers who were standing around doing nothing, crowded around him and began plying him with questions. He just needed to be alone and get his breath, so I ‘shooed’ them off. I just had to beat them away. After he got his breath a little, and got settled down, I went swimming. The nicest thing about this is that every year for about five years, he sent me a big five-pound box of candy. He was so grateful. Then one Christmas, he and his wife came down and brought me the loveliest old spoon holder that had been in her family since the Revolution. I still use that. It’s nice to do something when there’s so much appreciation.
I’m grateful to you for talking with me. You’ve presented your ideas and those of the Art Group very helpfully and very clearly.