Interview of Wilma Keyes (continued)

Historical Article Series April 6, 2020 > Interview of Wilma Keyes (continued)

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 38, No. 3, May 2002

This oral history interview was conducted by Roberta Smith on May 7, 1988.  The first part of the interview was published in the April 2002 issue of the Society newsletter. 

Miss Keyes lived most of her adult life in Mansfield.  She began teaching at the Connecticut Agricultural College in 1925.  After two years, she became education director of the Art Education Press in New York City. She returned to Storrs in l938 and taught art at the college for 25 more years.

In this conclusion of the interview she discusses her career at the University from the mid-1940s through her retirement years.

RS: And what was the attitude in those early years toward women professors?

WK: There was a tendency on the part of the administration to think that we were going to be a great university, and we would all break our necks to introduce courses that were needed to help us do it.  But somehow the women of my day were not given the same consideration that the men were, and you would never find a man and wife coming into the university and both teaching……

The administration did everything to get men instead of women as teachers.  It seemed to signify to them their chances for getting recognized as a university were better with men rather than women. So this was a struggle for me all the time I was there.  But I always felt that the student were with me, and what  really matters is if you have the students with you and they know what is going  and going on………….  That is a very happy circumstance to live through.  I don’t think there is anything more satisfying than to be a pioneer in something that you can see growing and where you are given every opportunity to do it in any way you want to. I never in all the years I was there was ever restricted, told what I should teach or interfered with in the slightest way.  I think I was lucky in choosing the type of people that came on the staff.

The deans, though, changed every two years the whole time I was there, those 25 years.  So it was not very easy to keep the understanding of one dean after the other. But the Art Department rolled on merrily and smoothly, and I just sat back and let it roll.

Wilma Keyes Block Print
A wood block print by Wilma Keyes – Mansfield Center, 1959

RS: Well, your career of 25 years there certainly covered a tremendously interesting and fascinating period of growth.

WK: It certainly has.   I think the first dean of Fine Arts said something to me about – I had retired at that time when the Fine Arts Department was started – and he said something to me about how I was such a part of the university that it was flowing through my veins. (Chuckles)  That’s the way he put it, which I thought was pretty cute….

RS: Well, shall we go on to your retirement years?

WK: Retirement years, I wish there was some way I could make anyone who hasn’t retired yet realize what it can mean to you. Twenty-five years of teaching kept me breathless most of the time. There wasn’t time to do the things I wanted to do. And all of a sudden everything stopped.  I was retired.  You have to be honest with yourself about what you’re going to do with those retirement years.  There’s an explosion of things that can happen once you do retire……..But I do think that the happiest thing of it all was to have time to paint.  That was something that I had always wished for.  I never could do it when we were planning all those courses.  And on a lovely spring afternoon to put something to eat in a crockpot and climb in the car and go out somewhere up and down our beautiful Mansfield hills and do a little local watercolor and come back feeling wonderful. It was such a joy to be free to do it.  I stuck those things in a folio under my bed until there were two large portfolios that I called my “Helga collection” under the bed. …Then I began to think that I had to begin giving things away. I gave my 20th century design library to Yale University because their doctorate students are in the decorative arts, and they are the one school that does it.  And then there are those paintings.  I never have sold paintings, but I  gave them away……You know, I have so many people I’m indebted to now that I have been forced with arthritis to say home and not be able to do anything, let alone not be able to pain, I thought this is something I can do for my friends.  So I began to venture when these friends came in and brought little homemade goodies or did something for me in the house, well, here’s a chance for me to do something to show my appreciation of their friendship.  I had the fun of seeing people going through those folios and seeing the kind of pictures they chose and then I would take them to the framer, Donat E. Champagne.  And he began to enter into the spirit of it so we had a good time all this past year.

RS: What were some of your favorite subject for painting, Wilma?

WK: Mansfield is the most wonderful area to live in. Get in the car and drive around Mansfield…..the spirit of the hills and the ponds and the lovely New England houses and churches and river, you just never can stop it….it’s just a painter’s paradise.

RS: Will you comment upon your long time interest in the crafts movement, Wilma?

WK:  …..The Connecticut Craft Society was in a post-depression period where many people were without jobs. This organized in 1935 as something to keep people who were unemployed busy.  It was a wonderful outlet to learn a craft and to make it available for sale.  But the Craft Society has grown  in a national and international way – and I’ve been to a number of their conferences around the world to see this…that now the price of crafts are on a level with the price of fine art.  I was one of the directors from, I guess, 1940, until I retired in 1963.  I wrote a little booklet called A Handbook for Craftsmen, and also wrote a history of the Society of the Connecticut Craft from 1935 to 1955, which is on Record.

RS:  You’ve also done some writing during your retirement years.

WK: I was fortunate to be in the Mansfield Historical Society from its inception. It was discovered that a very famous miniaturist, who was a farmer’s son by the name of George Freeman (born in 1789) was a self taught miniaturist who went to London and lived there for 21 years.  I spent ten years doing research on George Freeman.  It was a real experience to get George Freeman’s letters together and put out a publication.

RS: You did some other writing, too?

WK: Well, I did a small amount of it. When the University of Connecticut celebrated its centennial in 1981, the art museum asked me to write up Charles Beach. That was a real joy to me.

RS: You have certainly had a very exciting career, Wilma.

WK: I have had fun, and I feel very grateful to the people that have given me the opportunity to work with them……… But I do want to say that retirement opens a whole new world from the work-a-day world.  Having to be responsible for yourself everyday for how you live is something that makes you what you are. ……….. When you speak of art, it is something that expresses you, and I have joy working with my material.

RS: Wilma, I wish to extend a big thank you, to you, for this interview.  It’s been a great pleasure for me.  Thank you so much.

End of interview.

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