Mary Close Oppenheimer Interview
This is file #26, cycle 4. Today’s date is October 16, 2019. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Mary Close Oppenheimer who is going to talk about the Salisbury Forum, the Salisbury Affordable Housing Commission, a public service documentary for the benefit of the Fire Department and the Ambulance Services, and her art career. But first we’ll begin with the hard stuff…
JM:What is your name?
MCO:Mary close Oppenheimer
JM:How did you come to this area?
MCO:My husband bought our house in 1982. We met in 1984 and used the house as a weekend home for many years. We lived in New York at the time. We moved up here to Lakeville between 2001 and 2004 when we were doing a major reconstruction project on the house. I have been a full-time resident since 2003.
JM:How did you get involved with the Salisbury Forum? (See Franck de Chambeau interview for early history of this organization and Donald Ross interview)
MCO:I knew a couple of people who were on the board: one of them asked me if I would be interested in joining them. I did. We were big fans of the Forum. We loved their programs. I thought it would be very interesting and a nice way to contribute to our community.
JM:How long were you on the board?
MCO:I got on the board I think in 2016.
JM:And you become President in 2018.
JM:They did not let you languish, did they?
JM:I did check the website (www.salisburyforum.org) to get your mission statement which I am going to quote” to bring experts speakers and documentary film that engages and informs people about topics in the news and in our lives.” You became President in 2018: may I ask who is your vice President?
MCO:Frank Fitzmaurice, Vice President, Jeanette Weber, Secretary, and Bill Littauer, Treasurer. (See Bill Littauer interview)
JM:Are there 8 other board members?
MCO:Well, we just brought in a new board member this month, Michael Duca, and we are hoping to bring in two more. We have interviews set up at the end of the month.
JM:When do you meet?2.
MCO:We meet on the second Monday of the month except for July at the Town Hall.
JM:Do you have an advisory committee?
MCO:Yes, we have one that has been established, faded, but we have re-established it more recently. There are about 10 people on it.
JM:What is its function?
MCO:The function is to give us ideas for speakers, potential contacts with speakers, to give us feedback on our programs. They may have suggestions for improvement or new ideas for programs. At our last meeting some people suggested some possible venues for a summer program which we have considered. We are trying to find the proper venue that is large enough and air conditioned which is a serious challenge.
JM:We live in New England!
JM:How do you get your speakers?
MCO:Often it is friends of friends, people that board members on our advisory committee know; sometimes we will see something interesting in the news or a lecture on a topic. Then we try to track down a speaker. For instance the speaker coming up in May 2020 will be Kurt Andersen who has published a book called FantasyLand. My husband and I listened to it as an audio book and were very impressed. We found the topic interesting and appropriate for the Forum so I went on line and contacted his agent. There are all different ways in which we get speakers.
JM:What venues you are using presently?
MCO:There are three venues: The Hotchkiss School, Salisbury School and the auditorium at the Housatonic Valley Regional High School.
JM:How to you do your outreach to make people aware of your programs?
MCO:It has been changing over the years as more and more people use E-mails. We always ask people for contact information at our Forums. The majority of people learn about us that way. We put up posters in neighboring towns to Salisbury announcing the talks and to remind people about the time and place. We use the “Salisbury Sampler” and the Lakeville Journal. We also have a website. We just added a Facebook page so we are hoping to increase people’s awareness of the Forum. It has only been up and running for a few months so it will take some time to get followers on that.
JM:What are your future goals?
MCO:Our main goal is just to do what we do really well. I think we have had some great speakers: we have some terrific ones lined up. That is really our goal. Because we are a volunteer organization, there is just so much that we can actually do. We may in the future look into seeing if any of our talks might be appropriate for radio or something like that. Mostly we just want to keep on doing what we are doing rather well.
JM:Wonderful goal. Is there anything that you would like to add to this portion before we go on?
MCO:Not that I can think of at the moment.
JM:Now we are going on to the Salisbury Affordable Housing Commission. What is its purpose?
MCO:The commission is an advisory group for the town government. (See Bill Morrill interview) We do not build or manage housing. The role of it is to facilitate housing organizations to do their programs and projects. Occasionally we get contacted by someone looking for affordable housing or someone who might need a little help with getting a new roof, or maintenance kinds of things that they don’t have the cash for. By helping them, they can stay in their home.
Mostly we are here to help 1. Salisbury Housing Committee which is a group that builds and manages rental houses, 2. Habitat for Humanities which builds houses which townspeople own their house and then there is 3. Salisbury Housing Trust which buys properties holds onto the land and sells the house to people enabling them to have the purchase price much lower that if they had to buy the land and the house together. Those organizations are geared to house ownership whereas the Salisbury Housing Committee is geared toward rentals.
JM:You did a wonderful job. I just want to connect organizations with people I have interviewed. Habitat for Humanity would be someone like John Pogue (See John Pogue interview) and Judi Moore. (See Judi Moore interview)
The Salisbury Housing Trust was started by Richard Dunham. (See Inge Dunham interview and Digby Brown interview) They own property on route 44 Dunham Drive.
MCO:They have properties outside of that. They made a huge dent in our affordable housing by developing the land.
JM:Then the Salisbury Housing Committee takes care of Sarum Village #1 & 2 and Faith Housing and that would be Anne Kremer. (See Anne Kremer interview and Barbara Pogue interview)
MCO:Anne is still the head of it, but for health reasons she is having more difficulty and Peter Halle is head of that. I think they are co-presidents, but I am not certain about that.
JM:Now you mentioned a documentary that you are doing as a public service for the fire department and the ambulance service. Would you tell me a little bit about that, please?
MCO:We are very good friend with Donny Reid who had been the chief of the volunteer fire department. He is still very active. His father and his son are also members. (See Darin Reid, Russell Hoage, James, Brazee, Chris Ohman, Jennifer Farwell interviews) By knowing his for many years and his family, we became aware of the incredible contribution they make to our town. The personal commitment that they make in going to fires, but also helping people who break their ankles on the Appalachian Trail, people who are at risk of drowning in the Housatonic River, going to automobile accidents and making sure that, if possible, people get out safely. There are all those activities and there is also a huge amount of training. Every week, I think, they have some kind of training exercise. They do fund raising, prime rib dinners, chicken dinners, and all those kinds of things. We just have a tremendous appreciation for their contribution to our town. A lot of people are not aware of this; we would not have been if it had not been for the friendship of Donny. We thought that a way that we could help would be to do a very short documentary to really inform people about what is involved and what these volunteers do. Hopefully they can use this documentary for fund raising. A huge challenge all around the area is trying to recruit younger people because there are fewer and fewer younger people in our community that volunteer. A lot of the volunteers are family members, they pass from one generation to the next being a volunteer fire fighter, but they desperately need younger people. The average age is about late 50’s. We are hoping that this will help with recruitment.
JM:How long, time-wise, do you think the documentary will be?
MCO:We are aiming for 10-15 minutes. There is a lot of information to try to get into that amount of time, but hopefully we can. We want it shorter so people can just fit it into their lifestyle and watch it. We want to make it available on YouTube and possible screening at the Movie House and wherever-schools, churches and whoever wants to show it. As we refine our idea we got together with people from the two volunteer services (fire department and ambulance Ed.) Guy Rovezzi is Head of the Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation in Torrington. We originally got in touch with him in order to set up a structure for funding this that could be tax deductible. When he heard about the idea, he said that every town in this area could use the film so the community foundation spoke about it and are going to produce a printed piece to compliment the film. People from a couple of other towns are included to show that it is a county-wide issue so people in other towns can use the film, so it is not just exclusively about Salisbury.
JM;When do you think it will be ready?
MCO:I am hoping by April 1st, 2020.
JM:That is a wonderful service project: I am sure it is going to be very beneficial.
Now we are going to go on to you artistic ability which I find absolutely marvelous. Where did you receive your training?
MCO:I went to the College of New Rochelle and got a Bachelor of Fine Arts. But most of my artistic training and abilities has just been from doing the work. In college I concentrated mostly in ceramics which I fell in love with, but it was also an opportunity to try lots of different mediums which included everything from printmaking, jewelry, painting, drawing, and all the different aspects of the arts, but not photography and film. In high school I took art classes. I always drew.
When I got out of college, I moved into New York right after college. I lived there until I moved up here. I had to make a living. I ended up in sales for a high-end framing company in New York City. The clientele were museums, galleries, dealers, and lovely decorators. I met some people there who were artists and friends of the guys who ran the showroom, Arron Shikler and David Levin. Arron was a pre-eminent portrait painter in America: he painted portraits of the Kennedys and the Reagans for the White House. David Levin, although a wonderful painter, is mostly known as a caricaturist. Both of them, unfortunately, passed away in the last few years.
Sometime in the 1960s they had organized a group of people. It has started out as a class, but ended out more as an artistic co-op of people who shared a studio, hired models once a week, and drew or painted from models. That kept my hand in the arts while I was working in sales. Eventually at night I took courses at the School of visual Art in New York City in what was then basic mechanicals and graphic design work. That is now all computer generated.
At one point I ended up getting a job at a design studio called Lukasiewicz Design which is still running. It is run by the children of the people I worked for. With them I started working in the graphics areas; their primary client was Avon, the cosmetic company. They used a lot of illustrations in their packaging: I was hired because I could draw. At the time I interviewed with them, I had just decided to leave my job in sales and had a couple of clients in doing little packaging designs. I didn’t have a formal portfolio at that time. Through someone I had worked with as one of my clients in sales, I was friendly with the owners of this design firm. Called them at home and said, “I have never seen your art work, but I have heard it is good and I can recommend you as a person. My friends are looking for someone who can draw and who can illustrate.” They were losing jobs because they did not have an illustrator.
JM:Do you define yourself as an illustrator?
MCO:I started out doing a little illustration and then some of the working with typography and things like that. As their clients got to know what I could do as an illustrator, they got more and more work. After a short period of time, that was all I did. I just did illustrations. I worked for them for about 5 ½ years.
JM:Where have you shown your work locally?
MCO:Locally at the White Gallery, and also the New Arts Gallery in Litchfield.
JM:Where is that located?
MCO: 513 Maple Street. I am not sure what is happening now, I think they moved, I just have not had the time to stay in touch so I am not sure where they are now.
JM:Is there anything that you would like to add before we close?
MCO:Not that I can think of.
JM:Thank you so much.