In the Club

E rnst Weber has been posing on the dais for almost three hours. He’s dressed in a blue vest and topcoat with a lace collar underneath, matching blue britches and shiny black shoes. His black tricorn hat is edged with a jaunty metallic trim. He rests his hand on the hilt of a sword, looking every bit the part of a Colonial merchant, government official or ne’er-do-well. Or maybe just a guy who’s dressed up this morning for fun.

Weber is modeling for the New Haven Brush & Palette Club, an intimate group of like-minded artists who are the creative descendants of a lineage that reaches back to 1908. Every Tuesday morning they enter the Ely Center of Contemporary Art through a weathered back door that bears the club’s name on a neatly lettered sign. Inside, in the old home’s converted kitchen, their easels are arrayed around a low platform where a live model like Weber always poses—the same one for four weeks, to give the painters plenty of time to draft and refine their images.

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After each break in the three-hour session—both Weber and the painters need a chance to move and stretch—the group chatters for a few minutes before settling back into their work. Eventually, there’s just the sound of feet shifting on the wood floor, paint knives ticking on palettes, pencils scratching on paper and faint music in the background. The room is cozy, even cramped. (It’s “our clubhouse,” jokes member Todd Lyon.) The blinds are shut to block out capricious daylight in favor of adjustable track lighting. Hanging high on the wall by the pantry, a painting by Ethel Bennet Schiffer (1879-1956) that was likely done in the 1920s depicts a group not unlike today’s: in the foreground, her back to us, a woman in bibbed overalls with a kerchief on her head, brush in one hand and palette in the other, painting another woman who’s seated on the dais, resting her arm on a low stool.

The painting’s setting is similar to the club’s current digs, but not identical. The Brush & Palette Club didn’t arrive at Ely Center until 1961, after arts patron Grace T. Ely willed her house to the local arts community, specifying the Brush & Palette Club, along with the New Haven Paint and Clay Club (founded in 1900), as organizations to be given space. Before that, the peripatetic Brush & Palette Club had been meeting since 1948 or 1949 on the second floor of the Palladium Building on Orange Street (now home to G Café, The Devil’s Gear and Tikkaway) and prior to that had occupied spaces at 153 Court Street, 59 Center Street and 242 Orange Street. From the club’s founding until 1925, they apparently had no space of their own, at least not according to city directories.

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“You will be interested to know that our studio in The John Slade Ely Center is finished,” club president Elizabeth S. Horn wrote to members in a letter dated September 25, 1961. “We have a large well-lighted room, plenty of storage space and our own entrance. We are fortunate that the remodeling of the kitchen was done so promptly.” The group’s Annual Spring Exhibition that year featured 71 works of art by 46 artists, most of them watercolors and oils, ranging in price from $20 to $300. A New Haven Register article from September 1975 gave a plug for the club’s annual Collector’s Market, a sale of the work of “more than one hundred New Haven area artists and craftsmen” to benefit local art scholarship funds.

The Brush & Palette Club is decidedly more low-key today. There are no classes as there were in decades past; pretty much everyone already has formal art training. But the painters say they still learn from one another and value the experience of working together. “A lot of times one of us will say… ‘There’s something wrong here. Can you give me some feedback? What do you think it is?’” says Diane Chandler, the group’s current president. “We’ll do that all the time.”

Over the years, member Liz Scott says, “you see people making progress, too. You know, they get better and better… You can learn a lot from what other people are doing.” It’s good discipline, she adds, to come every week. When the session ends, she and several fellow painters will head over to another group that paints from live models: Artclectic, a much younger organization meeting weekly at Erector Square. Brush & Palette also hosts a live nude model session one evening a week.

“It’s so much fun to see how everybody’s so different,” Lyon says as she makes the rounds when the morning’s session is done. Weber circulates, too, snapping photos of the works in progress. A pencil drawing takes in the full length of his pose and is beginning to flesh out as a painting. A sepia-toned painting focuses on his profile. A head-and-shoulders work in pastels flips the colors and favors more abstract blocks.

Palettes and brushes are cleaned and tubes of paint sealed up in boxes and bags for next time. It’s a routine that, like the practice depicted in Schiffer’s painting, hasn’t changed much in 112 years.

New Haven Brush & Palette Club
51 Trumbull St, New Haven (map)
dchandler1@snet.net

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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