Artists in Residence

N ot much is known about the life of Grace T. Ely. She grew up in Manhattan and moved to New Haven in 1897. She was widowed young. She had a beloved dog named Happy. She dyed her hair red, played badminton into her 70s and invited her friends over to learn folk dancing. An undated photograph shows her in an armchair in the second floor sitting room of her elegant Trumbull Street home with a book in her lap, a fire in the fireplace and Happy at her feet.

Today that fireplace is hidden behind a false wall, which is just as Ely would have wanted it. In September, the wall was hung with artist Anne Doris-Eisner’s large-scale black-and-white acrylic paintings. Doris-Eisner is one of six artists whose work was recently on view at Grace Ely’s house, evidence of the ongoing legacy of the woman, who, upon her death in 1959, left her home in trust to become a center for contemporary art, calling it the John Slade Ely House after her late husband.

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Creative Arts Workshop was born there. The 119-year-old New Haven Paint and Clay Club was based there for decades. The Brush and Palette Club still meets in the old kitchen twice weekly to paint portraits and nude studies from live models.

The fact that New Haven has such a strong arts community has a lot to do with Grace Ely’s legacy, says Jeanne Criscola, who served as one of the John Slade Ely House’s curators, from 1984 to 1987, and is now the chair of its board. Deborah Hesse, board vice president, agrees. “This was kind of the hub before there was an Audubon Street or a Ninth Square [arts district] or different parts of the city that we really associate with the arts,” she says.

But the evolution of the house from an artists’ space administered by a group of three trustees chosen by Ely herself into its current incarnation as Ely Center of Contemporary Art (ECOCA) was not always smooth. For many years, the trust ensured that the home would be cared for and the artists welcomed. A curator was paid to oversee operation. Curator Paul Clabby, who stayed the longest and actually lived in an apartment upstairs, shepherded exhibitions of an “interesting combination of traditional, cutting-edge, all kinds of artwork,” Hesse says. “He did an amazing job.”

The original three trustees died and were replaced by bankers at the local Union and New Haven Trust Company. But bank acquisitions and mergers in the 1990s and 2000s eventually put the Ely House’s trust in the hands of corporate, out-of-town bank Wells Fargo, and things began to fall apart—literally. Eventually, Wells Fargo decided it was time to sell the building.

Criscola jumped into action. She and two other former curators contacted the state attorney general to lodge a claim that the local arts organizations that had occupied the house for years had an important stake in its future. Ultimately, they organized as Friends of John Slade Ely House of Contemporary Art and were granted a voice in the process.

The building was purchased from the bank by Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES), which has applied for state funding to renovate the house for eventual use by the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) in New Haven. In the meantime, the John Slade Ely House arts organization was renamed ECOCA and began renting the space from ACES. “The idea of attaching ourselves to the building in the [new] branding just didn’t make any sense, but tying ourselves to the Elys [did],” Criscola says.

Today, the organization is thriving again. It has started to collect state and national arts grants and has hosted a workspace residency for artists during the past three summers. It’s launched a series of exhibitions and events around “contemporary creative collisions”—“where a bunch of artists are working together in relationship to the spring lineup of shows,” Hesse says. In addition, ECOCA shows are mounted at the Perspectives Gallery at the Whitney Center senior living community in Hamden. The current show there, Dreamscaping, is on view through January 5.

A walk through the Ely house and its polished stone fireplaces, patterned wood floors, octagonal entry hall and parlor ceiling with a starburst design of molding is a delight in itself. But it’s the ever-changing walls that speak to the house’s most contemporary appeal. Through the last weekend in September, they displayed a vibrant, diverse and compelling collection of work by select members of the New Haven Paint & Clay Club. John Ely’s former doctor’s office, to the left of the front door, housed Michael Quirk’s dark, war-themed paintings as well as a huge grid of one-of-a-kind postcards by local artists for a joint ECOCA/NHP&CC fundraising sale. In a back room on the first floor were Nancy Lasar’s paint and pencil still lifes, while upstairs, Diane Brown’s ethereal, brightly colored oil and cold wax paintings occupied one gallery and Oi Fortin’s shapely, colorful monotype prints another. Doris-Eisner got the old sitting room, and all spilled out into the upper hallway. In a stand-alone show titled No Rose Without a Thorn, Jeanne Ciravolo, who sits on the boards of both ECOCA and NHP&CC, exhibited compelling collages, many of them on unusual cloth media such as reclaimed tea towels, which took up a front gallery on the first floor and another upstairs.

One painting stood out from the rest, and that’s on purpose. It’s a portrait of John Slade Ely in a gilded frame, stipulated to be hung in a “prominent place” in the house by his wife’s last will and testament. While exhibitions come and go—an opening reception celebrates four more this weekend—the portrait remains on the wall above the first landing of the home’s dramatic wrap-around staircase. “She was definitely deferential to her husband’s memory, and she was not … someone who was out in front,” Criscola says. The youthful doctor, who would die at age 46, gazes out with a slight look of concern, as if he knows his days are fleeting. Not so fleeting is the legacy he and his determined wife left for the arts in New Haven.

Ely Center of Contemporary Art
51 Trumbull St, New Haven (map)
Mon & Sat-Sun 1-4pm, Wed-Thurs 5-8pm
[email protected]

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1 and 2 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 3 derived from Google Maps.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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