By Dianne Ballon
Located on the second floor in the old high school in a corner bordered by windows, the art room was a refuge. The class of 1971 was the last class in the old high school before the new high school was built. The art program was outstanding.
The art room was open anytime during the school day to use without interruption. Chris Gilbert recalls: “I remember being up in the art room any free time I could get. You could breathe easy. You could be yourself. You could create and shut everything else out. I also did this at home. We always worked around the kitchen table. I would always get my sketchbook and draw. I didn’t have to worry about bills or life in general. It was just like the art room.”
“My only memories are personal,” said Chris (Toto) Zaremba. “I was really good at math and always questioned the math teacher to explain how in life we would use what he taught us. Sometimes to quiet me he would say that I knew the lesson so I could go to the art room instead of interrupting his class. The art room was a safe haven for creatives. Always open even if a class was taking place.”
“I spent most of my four years in high school in the art room,” Billy Duffy remembers. “Once as a freshman, I was doing a carving out of stone, and Mrs. Marvin was showing someone the art room and she said, ‘This is Bill Duffy and he’s going to go to art school.’ And I said, art school? So from the very beginning Mrs. Marvin was a mentor.”
Many of us were given our own desk space. It was like having your own studio. “Mrs. Marvin gave me, Billy and Jeff (Weaver) our own little space,” Bob Swift recalls, “I was sitting behind her desk, and Jeff and Billy were at the windows on the other side. She gave us our own space that we could return to and pick up where we left off. In the photograph of the class artists in our yearbook, we are all standing around my desk. If you look behind us, there are all my batiks hanging on the wall.”
Billy called it a mini Renaissance: “If you look at our yearbook, there’s a picture of all of us together as the class artists. They used to have one artist and that would be the class artist. But we were the class artists.”
“We were our own little niche at the back end of that upper corridor,” Joanne (Fogerty) Vigneau recalls. “There was Bob Swift and Billy Duffy. There were a huge number of us, so it was inspiring for everyone. It got all of us engaged into looking at things differently.”
The art program at Burlington High School (BHS) was advanced for its time. As Bob recalls, “The depth of our exposure to the media was incredible.” We had separate classes in painting, drawing, photography, ceramics, sculpture, illustration, graphic design and printmaking. We had a printing press and were taught etching, woodcut, linocut, drypoint, intaglio and silkscreen. We had a kiln and could fire and glaze pottery and sculpture.
“For a small, suburban, conservative sort of town, Burlington had a rich program in the arts,” Joanne recalls. “Not only in fine art but in stage and music. We were really privileged to be a part of that.”
Phil Young taught art at Burlington High School from 1969-2002: “What a program we had! The class of 1971 was in the early stages of the art empire being developed at BHS. Great administration and community support provided students with an outstanding array of course offerings that blossomed in the next few years.”
Aleta (Piantedosi) Devaney remembers the art classes: “I took art with Miss Kilgore and sculpture and ceramics with Mrs. Marvin. Mrs. Marvin’s class was fairly small— 10 to 15 students. I liked art, but I planned to major in journalism in college, so I really didn’t identify as an ‘art kid.’ From Miss Kilgore, I learned to love contour drawing. From Mrs. Marvin, I learned to love clay and the sculptor, Louise Nevelson. I also remember keeping a sketchbook and having to do homework, which gave some validity. Art was important enough a subject to think about after school. It wasn’t just a hobby.”
Many of us shared a love for the pastoral and coastal areas of Concord, Gloucester, Rockport and Plum Island. “During our senior year, Mrs. Marvin would take us to Gloucester every now and then,” said Billy. “That’s where Jeff and Don (Gorvett) ended up.”
Once we drove to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island — in a blizzard. It was Bob Swift, Jeff Weaver, Brenda Andruske, Billy Duffy and I. We brought our sketchbooks. I told my mom I was just going out with friends for the day. Conditions were whiteout.
When we arrived, we all got out and went our separate ways. I tried to shelter beneath the scrub of a sand dune with my sketchbook. The paper got soaked and the pencil wouldn’t write. Eventually, we all managed to find each other for the rendezvous home.
Bob remembers hail: “We were blinded by that hail. We were all hunkered down in what used to be a sand dune but was now a snow drift. We were so naive, thinking everything was fine and dandy, and then we step off the threshold into a roaring nature.”
“I remember it clearly,” said Billy. “All of us out there, freezing. Later, we started a fire in some brush between the dunes— a small fire— to stay warm.”
The Large Canvas
In an era of Abstract Expressionism, artists moved away from small canvases and traditional frames. Under the direction of Mr. Young, we learned how to make and stretch our own canvases. As for the frames, instead of the highly ornate old masters, gilded frames, we used a thin 1/4-inch strapping all the way around. This new, somewhat frameless idea revealed the shape of the canvas nicely.
I asked Joanne if she remembered how we stretched our own canvases: “Yes I do. And I still do it that way— from the middle out to the corner and fold it over. You can buy pre-stretched canvases but if I’m doing an odd size piece, I stretch my own. I have things upstairs in my son’s old bedroom that I used as a studio. I will get back to them when I retire.”
Mr. Young remembers stretching canvases. “What a pain— but valuable to learn the process, knowing full well that anyone going on to art school would need to know how to save a dollar!” He also remembered coming to New England: “Not being a Massachusetts native, I was amused at the Boston accents from most of my students. I couldn’t believe some of their sounds and new phrases, like ‘wicked awesome’ or ‘shua’ for ‘sure’.”
During my senior year, I was painting a large canvas of a sunset. The painting measured 3 feet X 3 feet. In the foreground is a meadow. I remember Mr. Young suggesting that I take a big brush, like a house painter’s brush, and use large brush strokes. That’s how the foreground came into being.
My dad hung the painting in our living room. Every time I came home, I cringed to see my orange sunset clash against a pink living room wall. Finally, when we added an addition to the house, the painting moved to another room.
Now that the large sunset resided in the den, my dad replaced it with another smaller painting of mine— another sunset. Without a nod to Modernism, he replaced the 1/4-inch frame with a highly ornate wooden frame painted gold. What with the gaudy gold frame and the pink wall, the painting was pure kitsch!
The Nordquist Painting
At the same time I was painting the orange sunset, Joanne was working on a large painting— a figure study of a student lying on the floor. The student was Joanne’s neighbor, Dennis Nordquist. Joanne said, “Dennis, you can be a model. Lay down. Put your feet up [laughs]. I remember somebody asked me— why did you put him in that position? I said because I never had a class in the study of the face. I remember thinking, I’m so tired of seeing high school faces with a death glare or a comic grin. So I said to Phil Young, how about if he lies back and I do a foreshortened viewpoint? And he said, ‘Sure.’”
The Scholastic Art Awards
Burlington High Students would go on to win many gold keys, blue ribbons and honorable mentions at the Scholastic Art Awards competition. The awards were announced in the Boston Globe alphabetically by town, high school and student. Burlington always had a long list of awards.
Chris Gilbert recently found a watercolor that she did of one of the students: “And that was a blue ribbon finalist. I also got a gold key. The awards were very special. They validated both you and your work.”
Joanne’s Nordquist painting would go on to the national Scholastic Art Awards: “Back then when you sent in an artwork to the Scholastics regional and then if you got beyond that, you lost ownership of the work. I never got the painting back. I didn’t go to the awards ceremony because I hated the idea of going up on stage and I didn’t want to drag my parents to New York. So I said, ‘I don’t want to go, Ma.’ We were six children, and I knew it would cost us money, so we didn’t go.”
“But if it wasn’t for Elinor Marvin, I’d never see that painting again. She went down to see all the works in New York, and took a slide of my painting. That was the only remaining image of it. She gave me a copy when she returned. Nowadays, there’s a new technology of printing images on canvas. As a present, my son had the slide printed on a canvas the exact size of the painting. I’m looking at it right now.”
Bob Swift would remember one particular blue ribbon winner: “Every free period I had, I was always in the art room. I remember once, there was an opportunity for me to play dodgeball during one of Mrs. Marvin’s scheduled classes, so I skipped the class. I just blew it off. When I came back, she gave me detention! And I couldn’t believe that she put me in detention because I was always in the art room. I was so mad that I locked myself in the supply closet and I drew a football player smashing into someone else. I got a blue ribbon for the drawing [laughs].”
Not all drawings won blue ribbons. Aleta remembers the fate of Jeff Weaver’s drawings every football season: “There was a tradition that when the players came into the field, they ran through a drawing of a football player. The drawing was made on butcher paper and supported by wooden posts, like a gesture drawing. The players would actually run through it! I couldn’t believe that he made that drawing and they ran right through it!”
Burlington High students would go on to produce Collab, an art and literary magazine. The very first edition was published in 1970. Bob Swift created the cover: a drawing of a bird breaking out of its shell. The drawing marked the birth of the magazine which continues to this day. In 2016, Collab was awarded the Most Outstanding High School Literary Art Magazine by the American Scholastic Press Association.
Many of us would go on to study at Massachusetts College of Art (MassArt) and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (Museum School). Aleta and Joanne would go on to teach art and know Mrs. Marvin and Mr. Young as colleagues. They called them Elinor and Phil, respectively.
“I was a late bloomer in the game,” Aleta recalls. “I took art because I liked art and I definitely gravitated toward ceramics but, I was going to be a writer. I went to UMass-Amherst to major in journalism. While there, I took a drawing and a ceramics course. After that, I wanted to transfer to MassArt. I felt comfortable going back to BHS for help. Elinor and Phil helped put my portfolio together. They were very supportive, and that’s how I ended up at MassArt.”
“When I was at MassArt,” Joanne remembers, “I didn’t have any money, and I needed some canvas, so I found an old high school painting of mine that my mother hung up in her living room. It was one of those abstract landscape studies where you divide the space into background, foreground, and middle ground using big brush strokes. I found this painting and said, ‘That’s terrible, Ma. Let me have it, and I’ll just paint over it.’ In the meantime, I was graduating and my aunt said, ‘If you do me a painting, I’ll type your final paper.’ So I took the canvas, and I painted over it. My aunt still has the painting, and I got my paper typed!”
While other art teachers may put their own work on the side while teaching, Mrs. Marvin continued her work as an artist during her years at BHS and after. Bob remembers, “I know she did this figure of a nude and Miss Kilgore didn’t appreciate that she had it in the art room. She did a lot of silkscreens at the time, drawings, pots on the wheel, and sculpture.”
Aleta recalls, “Later as a high school art teacher myself, I was thrilled when I was enrolled in the same ceramics class at the DeCordova Museum with Mrs. Marvin. We loved the teacher and took several classes with him. I also ran into Phil Young at various shows throughout the years. I was hiring an art teacher for my department at Bedford High School, and Phil recommended one of his masters students from the Tufts/Museum School program. I had already flagged her. She did get the job, and I like to think that Phil and I had a similar mindset, having both been involved in art at Burlington High School.”
Joanne would go on to teach art at the new high school in Burlington: “In the mid-seventies after I got out of MassArt, I taught design at BHS, and Elinor taught ceramics next door. When I left to have my first child and then came back, she had retired. I took over her ceramics department. As a colleague, she was very helpful, a real sweetheart. There are still works at the back of the kiln from the samples that she did on the wheel.”
Dating back to ancient times, kiln gods are the safe keepers of the pottery. Because anything fired in a kiln has the potential to crack or explode, an artist creates a little figure made out of clay to watch over and protect the firing of the kiln.
“We had a huge array of kiln gods,” said Bob. “Mrs. Marvin would always create a kiln god to protect our firing. Then, we all got into it. Jeff would make one, and I would make one, and Billy and whoever else would get into the spirit of things. I remember looking up and seeing a couple dozen kiln gods lined up on the top of the kiln. There were so many that one day we decided to glaze and fire them all. These little kiln gods protected us well.”
“Kiln gods were kind of like gargoyles. They chased away the evil spirits of the firing,” said Billy. “So Mrs. Marvin would always say, make sure you make a kiln god. — Here’s a kiln god sculpted by me and a portrait of me sculpted by Mrs. Marvin. The ceramic portrait was created some time in 1997. The kiln god was created in the art room, circa 1969.”
Once Mrs. Marvin asked me what was a favorite work of mine. I showed her my block print, Lobster Traps at Rockport. Later she would incorporate the drawing of my lobster traps into a ceramic and present it to me as a gift for my senior year.
The atmosphere in the art room wasn’t all work. “I had a reel to reel tape recorder and Mrs. Marvin would allow me to play it very loud,” Bob remembers. “So we’d be up on the tables, dancing to In A Gadda Da Vida. I remember at one point, we’re dancing around the art room and Mrs. Marvin is enjoying it. She’s sitting at her desk drinking her thermos of tea. She always had a thermos of tea. I can still see the little tag hanging out of the cup.”
The caption for this photo from the 1970 yearbook reads: Is it soup yet?
The New York City Field Trip
Mrs. Marvin and Mr. Young took us to New York on a one-day field trip by bus to visit the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art. Here are the boys in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art, looking like they just stepped into a Federico Fellini film. The archway is a sculpture by Henry Moore.
The boys also had time to check out the nearest package store. Bob titles this photo: Eighteen and legal in NYC.
Stay in Touch
Many of us would stay in touch with Mrs. Marvin throughout the years. “I used to spend a month with her every summer,” said Billy. “When Mr. Marvin died, Don (Gorvett) became the executor of the estate and took care of her. She was lucid until probably her early nineties. She lived to be 100 years old.”
“Don reached out to Aleta and me for her birthday, so we got to see her,” Chris recalls. “I think it was for her 90th birthday and that’s why Don had us come.”
“I saw her over the years,” said Bob. “I’d go kayaking with her and Don. In fact, being a mover, I moved her to the house in Oqunquit, Maine. She kept all this art from her students over the years. She wouldn’t let it go.”
“I was always delighted every time I came to the door and Mrs. Marvin would put out her arms and say, Bob! The very last time I saw her, Don was having a show. She looked up and said, you must be one of my students. She had to scramble to remember me, but eventually she did.”
About twenty years after I graduated, I saw her at the house in Ogunquit. She showed me the art she saved from all of us with the same joy, as if she were viewing the work for the very first time.
“We were the cockiest kids in the hallway,” said Bob. “I remember the custodian Harold Borgeson. He used to look at us and chuckle and say, ‘You know boys, it’s later than you think.’ And we always would just laugh at him. But as the decades have rumbled by, I always remember him saying that. I can see the smile on his face now. He knew… It’s gonna go by fast, boys. It’s gonna go by — and it’s always later than you think.”
“I’ve had a little too much training in the arts [laughs],” said Billy. “I have a PhD in art history. I’ve been through art school and graduate school. But I’ve never had the same kind of intensity with a teacher, especially professors, than with Mrs. Marvin. She was extraordinary. She drew talent. She could identify it and then draw it out of you.”
“She worked with anyone who had an interest or a talent,” said Bob. “I remember Paul Mac did a sculpture of Jim Morrison. Mrs. Marvin appreciated and really encouraged it. I’ve seen Paul over the decades and he’s never forgotten how she made him feel. That was her magic. Finding a little pinch of talent and blowing the flame.”
“I always thought my art was more in encouraging others,” Aleta recalls. “When I went on to study art education, the Burlington art department gave me the validation that it’s okay as your passion to support others and pave the way for them. I’m not sure everybody had to take art at BHS but those who did were often pleasantly surprised to discover their sense of design, drawing or sculpting ability. So for me, having taught art and ceramics for 32 years, that is my gratification. Just as Miss Kilgore, Mrs. Marvin and Mr. Young inspired, supported and rejoiced in my creative journey, I tried to do the same for my students. The Burlington art department not only turned out artists, but also encouraged people to share and pay it forward. That was a great part of the Burlington High School art department.”
The Catcher in the Rye
“I always called Mrs. Marvin the Catcher in the Rye,” Bob recalls. “Because if you know the story, all these sheep are flying off a cliff. And the Catcher in the Rye is directing them to the left and to the right— away from the cliff. That was Mrs. Marvin. She changed the course of our lives.”