A legacy of art benefits library

Eighteen years ago, a five-year-old girl visited the Branchville SoHo Gallery with her mother, a reporter who went there to talk with its owner, Paula Reens.

Reens gave the girl a pencil and paper, sat her down, and told her to draw what she saw while the women talked. When they were done, Reens looked at what the girl had done and talked about it with her.

That “assignment” crystallized Reens’ ideas about art.

“I look for uniqueness, not realism,” Reens told the reporter. “If they could have taken a photograph, I don’t want it. It hasn’t been interpreted. It has to go through their mind,” she said of the artist, “and be interpreted emotionally and with color … and composition is very important.”

Reens, who died April 22, owned the gallery by the railroad tracks in Ridgefield with her husband Louis from 1980 to the early 2000s. Before her death, the couple had decided to donate 50 paintings from the gallery to be sold to benefit Wilton Library. There will be an opening reception Friday, June 9, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the library.

The paintings had been kept at the Reens’ home here in Wilton. The collection is diverse, reflecting Reens’ preference for what an artist had to say, not a particular theme or genre. The artists are, in her words from 1999, “museum artists, not Sunday artists. I have big names and little big names,” she said at the time.

The collection at the library includes oils, pastels, watercolors, and prints. Artists include Gabor F. Peterdi, Ben Benn (1884-1983), Marvin Hayes, Robert Heindel, and Glynn Sineat.

Benn was born in Ukraine in 1884 but immigrated to the United States with his family when he was just a few years old. New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer wrote in 1967 of Benn’s work, “There is a wonderful vigor, an exemplary professionalism and elan, that has been characteristic of his art for many decades.”

The collection includes several of his paintings of birds and horses as well as a portrait of a child.

Seventy-seven-year-old Marvin Hayes lived in Wilton from 1965 to 1991 and was an active member of the community, including being a member of the Kiwanis Club. He moved to New York City to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An award-winning illustrator, the Reens collection includes six of his animal prints.

His masterwork is a 1977 book called God’s Images, which contains 53 of his Biblical etchings. Coincidentally, a copy of the book was donated to the library last week for its annual book sale. Ed MacEwen, the library’s art chairman, said he will include the book with the collection.

MacEwen has been preparing the collection for several months with the help of volunteer Petra Saldutti. The works of art had been carefully stored but they were dusty and some of the frames were damaged.

MacEwen pointed to Heindel’s paintings of roses, Garden of Eros I and Garden of Eros IV. They both had had pink frames, but one of the frames was damaged so MacEwen replaced it. He searched high and low for the original color pink — “I went to paint shops, hobby shops, all kinds of shops,” he said — but to no avail, which is why one now has a cream-colored frame.

Heindel’s works are featured in public and private collections globally including The National Portrait Gallery in London and The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Saldutti, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business but has started her master’s in art history, worked for a time at the Museum of Modern Art assisting curators with research, pamphlet writing, and editing books.

She did a little detective work when she and MacEwen could not identify the signature on one of the paintings. It had a sticker from the Doyle auction house and through some numbers on the back of the canvas she learned it was by Peterdi.

Born in 1915 in Hungary, he immigrated to the U.S. and died in Stamford in 2001. His work hangs in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among other institutions.

One painting Saldutti likes is a playful take on a rhinoceros called Spiny Rhino.

“It’s what I like about art,” she said of the canvas by Glynn Sineat. “She painted a rhino but didn’t look at a book. It’s how she felt about it.”

Paula Reens

Reens grew up in Greenwich Village and was immersed in art from her childhood. The artist Mark Rothko was a family friend and her best friend was the daughter of artist Milton Avery.

“I knew the Museum of Modern Art collection before I went to college,” she said in 1999.

Although she minored in fine arts history at the College of Architecture and Design at the University of Michigan, she worked for many years as housing director for the Connecticut Housing Investment Fund and for Dr. Appleby’s Action Housing organization for some 15 years. According to her obituary, she helped some 3,000 minority families into housing using conventional financing.

All the while she collected art, and at one time was a trustee for the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield. Through Larry Aldrich she met a group of SoHo artists, and her gallery started off with a SoHo flavor, but it did not translate into many sales, she said.

That’s when she began offering the work only of artists who have shown in museums. Thus, the collection to be sold by the library is made up of those artists.

The exhibition will run through Thursday, June 29. The Reens were hoping that each painting would go to a home or office where the art could be appreciated. To accomplish that goal, the paintings and prints are being moderately priced. Unlike other exhibitions, the library will receive 100% of the purchase price of each artwork.

Information: www.wiltonlibrary.org or 203-762-6334.