Interview of Wilma Keyes

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

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 38, No. 2, April 2002

Excerpt from an interview with Wilma B. Keyes by Roberta Smith, on May 7, 1988

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.

She was the author of several publications, including George Freeman, Miniaturist, The Beach Memorial Collection of Art and History of the Society of Connecticut Craftsmen – 1935-55. She was also the co-author of Styles of Furniture and Furnishings: European and American.

Miss Keyes donated her personal collection of modern design to the Yale University Art Gallery, the William Benton Museum of Art, the M. Estelle Sprague Historic Collection, and the Homer Babbidge Library. She was a member of the Connecticut Water Color Society and the Connecticut Historical Society. She was also an enthusiastic member of the Mansfield Historical Society. She died in 1993 at the age of 91.

Wilma Keyes
Wilma Keyes, c. 1925

Smith: Were you a native of Connecticut?

Keyes: No, I grew up in Westchester County, New York, in Bedford……..After I graduated from high school I went to New York City, and I graduated from Parsons’ (School of Design) at the time that Mr. Parsons was there. He was a real innovator. It had been at art school where they just taught painting at first, and he was the person who introduced, as a pioneer, design in art.  And it was the beginning of that long period that most people don’t remember, of getting better design in the home, getting better design for the person, teaching people to look at art, where before it had only been hung in museums. People didn’t patronize museums much in those days, but it became a popular thing about the time I was growing up…

RS:  Tell me about how you happened to come to Connecticut Agricultural College to teach.

WK:  I had had two years of college teaching out in Ames, Iowa where I taught in the art school…..I came to Connecticut and applied for the job. I can remember coming up on the train for that interview and taking the bus from the Willimantic Station to this little, small, country college that had less than 500 students in it. I met the president of the Agricultural College, Charles Beach, and he was kind of a Lincolnian style person, very easy to meet, with a beautiful smile.

He told me he thought I had the attributes for the job, but he told the dean that he thought I was pretty young. When we discussed the job, he said, “I’d like to see an Art Department here, but we have no place to put you except in Home Economics.” …..I accepted, and the classes were taught in Holcomb Hall, a new dormitory for women. …….I don’t think any young beginner could have been more fortunate than I was in having Charles Beach for the president. …………It was a very small college with a wonderful spirit of pioneering and everybody giving everyone else the benefit of each other’s ideas. Mr. Beach never wanted to be called President Beach or Dr. Beach. He was Mr. Beach, and he wanted everyone to do their best and to make the Agricultural College proud.  He had lost his wife before I came, and he was very interested in collecting art in her memory.

RS: So you left and went back to New York.

WK: I stayed at Storrs for two years….I felt I couldn’t give the students much beyond what I had learned when I was in art school. I’ve always said that Lindbergh flew over the Atlantic in May that last year I was at the Agricultural College, and we all climbed Horse Barn Hill to see if we could see him. The idea was that if Lindbergh could do it, I could do it. I think New York was pulling me. I wanted to go and make a name for myself in New York City. So I told the people in the Agricultural College that I’d had a wonderful time, but I was going to go on and do something else. I didn’t know what.

I explored things around New York and went into the Art Education Press and told them I’d like a job there, and they said, “We work with schools.” I said, “Well, that’s what I would like to do.” I stayed with this company for ten years. It was owned by Potter Palmer of Chicago, and he was the president of the Chicago Art Institute (and the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago). He wanted to do something with his wealth to help spread art around the schools of the United States. In that day art was considered a frill, and Mr. Palmer thought it was high time that it became a part of the schools. We distributed color prints of famous paintings that were studied in the schools and colleges. We were the first people to bring them out in color…this was a pioneering thing that later turned to color slides. I thought I’d be there for years until they went though the depression. I was there from 1927 to 1937, and then the business was sold, and I was sold with the business….and I got out and went back into teaching. 

And Storrs called me back. I was in Michigan State at the time and Storrs had always been a place I came back to. In 1938 I had to come late, the 10th of October, but I had a telegram from Mildred French when I had accepted, saying, “It’s all right for you to be late because we’ve had a hurricane, and all the students have had to go home to help their fathers rebuild their barns.” So I came in 1938, and we didn’t start classes until the 10th of October, and then I stayed 25 years. 

RS: When you came back, Wilma, what changes did you find?

WK: The college was now called Connecticut State College, and I was being brought on to develop an Art Department, but the funny thing about it, there was that same little room in the basement of Holcomb Hall and the same group of people just as though nothing had happened. The limitation was 500 students for the college, but we had a new president, Albert Jorgensen, and he was promising a great future for this college.

RS: Was there a change in the size of your classes?

WK: When I came back in 1938 it was still women, but the new Home Economics Building opened in 1941 with our own art rooms and art lecture rooms, and the men began to come in. That wasn’t too long before the war began, and then we would have G.I.’s which really crowded things.

Enjoy! – Wilma Keyes’ reminiscences will be continued in the next newsletter.

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