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Friday, December 10, 2010

Ogden House Tour a Trip Back in Time

Ogden House Tour 
a Trip Back in Time
(Appeared on 12/10)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – As homes in Fairfield go today, the Ogden House would have construction code issues with the zoning board, but in its day, it was considered a stately residence owned by a well-to-do family.

The historic saltbox with its hand-planed shingles at 1520 Bronson Road held a candlelight open house early evening Dec. 10. It was hosted by the Fairfield Museum and History Center and featured a team of docents in period costume giving background about the house and its owners and a glimpse of life back in 1750, when the home was constructed.

A front walkway lined by paper bags containing candles led to the entryway of the home. Just inside, docent Barbara Lucia greeted visitors and collected a $3 admission fee. “This is my second year doing this,” said Lucia. “I’m a newbie. History was always something I was interested in. At this point in life, as a retiree, you look for something constructive to do.”

In a front dining room, docent Patricia Rock pointed out features, like a gate leg table at its center. She explained that the table would normally be pushed to a corner to allow activities of the times like spinning yarn on a loom, working with flax to make linen and carding wool, which involves combing it to pull fibers into straight rows.

“Spinning was constant as all the clothing and bedding had to be made,” said Rock. “Flax growing was mandated and there were a couple of acres of the plants grown near the house.”

Rock mentioned that fellow docent Harry Audley grows flax to use for demonstrations. Standing nearby, Audley said, “It’s a long process. It’s seeded in March, pulled and dried in July, placed in a stream for 21 days in August to dissolve the gelatins around the fibers, then dried and hung in a barn. Then it’s brought down, put through a flax break to break the shell and pulled through a hetchel to straighten the fibers for spinning.”

In an adjacent back room, called the keeping room, docent Roberta Garbarini offered baked goods and piping hot apple cider from a long table. As people filed in, she went into action. “This is where the fire was kept,” she said. “David Ogden was gifted the house on his wedding night. The fire would have to be kept going all night as it would be difficult to reignite. A teenager would have tended it and slept down here. Jane Ogden would bake pies and bread over the fire.”

This small snippet of information was enough to gain an appreciation for the challenges of living in these parts 260 years ago when the home was built, suggested Bill Vogel, president of the Fairfield Museum. “This is a throwback to Colonial times right here in our neighborhood. It’s a great opportunity to see how tough it was to get by back then,” he said.

“The Ogdens were actually fairly well off,” added Vogel. “Most residences were half or a quarter of the size. You can see that even with their rudimentary tools, they built houses to last.”

Pooh Donahue of Fairfield, visiting with her children Andrew, 5, Tommy, 4, and Ronan, 5, were curious about the home. “I wanted to bring the kids to learn about history and this old-fashioned house.”

The family tromped from the back room into a north parlor on the opposite side of the house. Rock explained that the room was used for entertaining, and a small table for tea parties, card games, the drinking of rum and a smoke with clay pipes. There was also a desk here where Mr. Ogden did his accounting of trades – often his crops for the wares of a neighboring cobbler.

The upper portion of the home contained the family’s sleeping quarters, including a master bedroom with a four-post bed and fireplace, which was actually quite cozy looking.

Back down below, museum coordinator Walter Mathis spoke about how sugar was packaged, in a 4 to 6 inch cone. A small tool called a nipper would be used to break off pieces, though sometimes the children would sneak down and bite off a piece – hence the term “little nipper” -- a fact that delighted the little nippers in attendance.

Cosmic Cubs Site a Mother/Daughter Project

Cosmic Cubs Site a Mother/Daughter Project
(Appeared in the Fairfield Citizen news w/o 12/6)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – It was a labor of love that had its share of challenges, but the space-themed website the mother/daughter team concepted and developed was well worth the effort.

Interviewed recently at Fairfield Public Library, Fairfield resident Ann Kennis, 52, and daughter Alex, 13, talked about how their Cosmic Cubs Club was inspired, the road to develop it and some of the website’s features.

Though Ann was chiefly a model in her early years that had done fashion, catalog, cosmetic and hair work for leading agencies Ford, Kay and Elite, she was also a creative type with an interest in children’s toys. In her 30s, she introduced a line of plush toys called Space Bears. These were teddy bears that came from different planets, which she introduced through her small business Space World, working out of her New York City apartment. An initial production run of 1,200 quickly moved and she had thousands more produced in China for distribution to planetariums and specialty stores.

Two years ago, Ann began thinking of bringing back the Space Bears. Daughter Alex was a fan of websites Toon Town and Webkinz. The two thought of creating a website that featured the interactive fun of those sites and new, better Space Bears. The Cosmic Cubs Club was born.

Unlike their ancestors, the Cosmic Cubs are bears that travel to planets, and each has a favorite. The leader of the pack is Ertle, who loves Earth. Others include Sammy from Saturn, Marvel from Mars and Merky from Mercury. Luna, who likes the Moon, is one little girls seem to like best and is white with a pink costume.

“We mocked up some of the bears I had when I was little and used them for inspiration,” said Alex about how the bears got their look. “The lady at our local drycleaners made the initial costumes, so we could visualize them.”

Rather than create plush toys as before, Ann decided to pursue a website. “That’s what the kids want these days,” she said, though added that a plush toy introduction is ultimately planned as a limited edition run.

Why the space theme? “It’s endless, timeless… you can keep exploring,” Alex commented. “It also allowed us to bring back Space Bears,” said Ann.

The site’s target is boys and girls 4 to 12, but with a focus on girls ages 5 to 10. Features include the ability to customize your own cub, learn all about the Solar System, engage in space trivia, decorate your own spaceship, create stories and play cool games.

“We created potential ideas for what could be games, but mom came up with the ultimate ideas,” said Alex.

“Girls like to collect and decorate, like in Webkinz. We developed a lot of accessories,” said Ann.

Two key collaborations, though, really helped the pair get liftoff. The first was with Paul and Cindy Wentzell, website gurus that helped them design the site. Working from prototypes, the Wentzells created illustrations of the Cosmic Cubs and did all the information sheets, space quizzes and other text elements.

Realizing a game developer would be needed, in early 2009, Ann scoured the world’s talent but ended up with a Torrington, CT based group, Left Brain Games, to help. At that time, Ann had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and had lost all her hair from chemotherapy treatments. She went to the initial meeting wearing a wig.

“My husband Jeffrey couldn’t believe it,” said Ann, about her willpower. “I just felt I had to do it. I was really self-conscious about the wig and tugging on it, and then just told them what I’d just been through. They were like ‘Whoa.’”

Even through therapy, Ann went up for meetings once a week to work on all the elements and by Sept./Oct. 2010, had a good working model of the site. She was actually surprised it took the amount of time it did to develop but attributes that to the legal aspects, privacy policies and other compliance issues that are required.

The final part of the puzzle was how the site would be funded. Looking at other site models, Ann decided to make it subscription-based, with time terms of one month, six months or a year.

The website officially launched Nov. 23 and Ann and Alex’s hopes for success are high. They also hope to get schools involved and have had initial interest.

“The site, particularly the story-making aspect, is unique and educational and I think that’s our point of differentiation,” concluded Ann.

To visit the site online, go to

Man About Town: Sitting in a Circle

Man About Town:
Sitting in a Circle
(Column appeared in the Fairfield Citizen newspaper 12/10)
By Mike Lauterborn

At the join of the Old Post Road and Post Road beside the Fairfield Inn on the outskirts of Fairfield’s downtown sits the Circle Diner. For nearly seven years, the family-friendly eatery has been dishing out hearty breakfast, lunch and dinner fare seven days a week. It seemed a good place to roost for a spell on an early December Sunday morning.

Signs of the holiday season were evident here including twinkling Christmas trees at the front entry, delicate countertop displays, garland and wreaths in appropriate spots and striped red bows adorning overhead lighting.

Hostess Danielle was manning the front desk this morning, with managing partners Gus Tsilfides and Maria Lalvay providing oversight. Gus and Maria are two of six partners in total of the nearly 3,000-square-foot restaurant.

A crew of 13 waitresses, all dressed in blue polos and black pants, worked the deck, shuttling steaming plates of omelets, stacks of pancakes and towers of waffles to the hungry masses that steadily streamed through the door.

The place was as toasty as the piping hot bran muffin that waitress Elena delivered tableside and abuzz with conversation, laughter and the clinking of silverware. It was a happy, welcoming environment reflected in the faces of patrons.

At one adjacent table, a group of seven spoke about a big upcoming football game.

A couple and their infant daughter, who was propped in a high chair and tapped a sippy cup on the table, happily chatted with another couple that had joined them. Soon, blue-eyed Elena delivered Cokes and egg sandwiches to them.

A family of six packed into a front booth near the door tackled their breakfasts. One little boy, with a Red Sox t-shirt and sporting close-cropped hair, crammed a burger into his gullet while stirring a hot chocolate.

A pair of seniors nestled into a corner booth and considered items on the menu. They engaged each other in conversation and seemed quite happy in the twilight of their lives.

Gus plopped down for a bit to talk about Circle. His enthusiasm was obvious.

“The kids bring the parents in and when they’re done eating, they love to get their lollipops at the front counter,” he said.

Gus mentioned there are 300 items on the menu and that anyone can get anything at anytime. The partner also spoke about the good community work the diner performs such as hosting a Kennedy Center fundraiser breakfast every September.

As we spoke, more faces, more families, more sports logos and more excited bits of chatter merged collectively in this delightful detour. There seemed to be no end to the assault and one wondered if the official capacity limit of 210 would be tested.

The wait staff kept their cool through the bustle and din, wearing a path to the kitchen and all its stainless steel equipment and activity. There, the cooks worked grills and pots and skillets in a measured methodical way, knocking out orders as quickly as they were submitted. It was clear the owners had cottoned on to a formula that worked well here.

As Danielle grabbed stacks of bright yellow menus and led the continued arrivals to their tables, Gus worked the register and bundled up and passed off to-go bags containing food that had been too overabundant to consume in a sitting. A generous helping at a good value was certainly part of the successful gameplan.

“Goodbye, thank you!” Gus called to a departing couple.  His adieu reminded me that I had best giddy-up as well, though I would have been perfectly content lingering through the lunch hour in this pastel-hued, chrome-trimmed emporium. With reluctance, I removed myself, pondering where I might drop in next in my “Man About Town” adventure.

Art Imitates Life: A Portrait of Gallery Owner Russell Jinishian

Art Imitates Life:
A Portrait of Gallery Owner 
Russell Jinishian
(Appeared on the front page 
of the Fairfield Sun 12/9)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – A connection to water and an involvement with art. From an early age, these were the two things he was sure would be constants in his life. Fifty-eight years later, Russell Jinishian is not only still tied to these passions, but literally showcases them for all to see.

Jinishian is the owner of J. Russell Jinishian Gallery at 1657 Post Road in downtown Fairfield and considered to be the leading specialist in Contemporary Marine and Sporting Art. Interviewed recently at the gallery space, he spoke about his boyhood days by the sea, mother’s environmental work, his climb through the art world and the establishment of his unique facility.

A Shore Thing

Jinishian was born in Essex, CT in 1952 and, during his first 10 years, moved around quite a bit, from Cos Cob and Glastonbury to Fairfield.

“In the 50s, my folks built a house on Fairfield’s Colonial Drive,” he recalled. “It was one of the first houses on the street and there were no others between it and the beach. Only a meadow.”

His father was employed by U.S. Plywood, which figured into the construction of the home. “Houses weren’t being built from plywood back then. My dad and the builder designed it on the top of the builder’s pickup. My dad got him all the plywood he needed.”

In 1962, the family moved to Old Greenwich, which Jinishian described as “a beach town.” For him, life there was spent boating, sailing, fishing, swimming and anything else water connected.

“My father was an ex-Navy guy and sailor, so we always had boats in the family and cruised up and down the coast,” he said.

With regard to his mother, Jinishian said she is best described as an environmental activist, who ultimately became the Shellfish Commissioner in Old Greenwich.

Jinishian is quite proud of his mother’s work and explained, “She engineered reopening and restocking the oyster beds that had been closed for over 30 years and implemented a process of monitoring the water quality and maintenance of the beds, which residents continue to enjoy today. Along the way, she got to know all the oystermen. When they first opened the beds, the oysters were huge, as they hadn’t been harvested. My dad, who’s 90, still goes down to dig them to this day.”

Schools of Learning

Jinishian first imagined himself as an artist and went to Cornell University in 1976, pursuing a B.A. in Fine Arts. He traveled for a spell after graduating then landed a position as a Programs Director at Silvermine Guild of Artists in New Canaan. The Guild was started by a number of artists that lived in New York City, including Solon Borglum, whose brother Gutzon carved Mt. Rushmore.

Of the Guild experience, Jinishian said, “I got to know a lot of artists and wide range of styles and topics. I cut my teeth there.”

During this time, he met wife Patricia Warfield, who was teaching at the Guild and is a practicing professional artist, and they had two children together.

Along the way, he also began writing art reviews for publications that included Art New England, Fairpress and the Connecticut Post. The pursuit exposed him to a lot of exhibitions, more artists, venues, etc.

“I’m not sure anyone read my stuff other than my mother and the artist I was writing about, but it probably honed my critical skills,” joked Jinishian.

In the early 80s, he heard about the Mystic Maritime Gallery, which had just opened, in Mystic, CT. “I thought to myself, I love boats, I like art, let’s go see what’s happening.”

Jinishian was hired as the gallery manager and relocated there in 1982. In 1985, he took over as Director and worked there until 1994.

He described the experience as a true eye-opener that helped shape his career direction. “Mystic is a unique place and Mecca for anyone interested in maritime history, maritime art and artifacts. In 1985, Rudolph J. Schaefer of the brewing family built the gallery wing that I came to oversee. It was the most significant marine art gallery in the country at the time. We worked with 300 marine artists from around the world. Its establishment also coincided with a whole renewed interest and growth in marine art.”

The gallery hosted notable exhibitions including the work of the British Royal Society of Marine Artists as well as leading celebrities with a passion for marine art such as Walter Cronkite, Bill Buckley, George Plimpton and Tom Watson.

Return to Home Port

During Jinishian’s Mystic days, entrepreneur Dave Usher was building up a limited edition art print business in Fairfield and, by 1994, it had grown into a multi-million dollar international company. He decided to branch out to selling one-of-a-kind original art through his own galleries. He called these Big Horn Galleries and recruited people with art experience to run them. Jinishian agreed to manage the gallery he established in Fairfield – Jinishian’s present-day space.

Since 1920, the building had been the Bonney Electric Company. Jinishian oversaw extensive renovations to transform it from an appliance store to a state-of-the-art gallery and opened it with a real cross-section of art from still lifes to fantasy art and Western themes.

Jinishian ran the gallery for three years. Unfortunately, the business model was flawed and Usher sold off all but the Fairfield location. By that time, Jinishian had decided he was really a maritime expert and wanted to have a marine gallery. He leased the second floor from Usher while Usher reopened the first floor as the Greenwich Workshop Gallery. Thus, J. Russell Jinishian Gallery was born.

“I decided to take the top slice of artists – about 75 in all – and display and promote their work,” said Jinishian. “Along the way, I ended up working with some of the top sporting artists, specifically fishing and hunting.”

In 2000, Jinishian started a magazine, Marine Art News, to help promote artists but also give inside information to help people learn about and evaluate marine art.

In 2008, the Greenwich Workshop decided to move its gallery to its corporate headquarters in Seymour and Jinishian expanded downstairs to fill the building’s entire 7,000 square feet with marine art. Jinishian now keeps about 500 works of art in the facility at all times, with about 300 pieces on display. These are price-tagged between $200 and $250K, offering a wide variety of subjects, styles, sizes and prices.

Jinishian said one of the most important roles he plays these days is in guiding collectors to artwork suited to their individual tastes. “Everyone knows how to buy a house, a car, a refrigerator… but when it comes to artwork, there’s no Consumer Reports to go to, and people often don’t know how to make a value judgment about purchasing. My job is to provide information to people about the artist, artwork and sense of value, so they can make a decision.”

“I can’t imagine being in any other line of work,” summed up Jinishian. “I am excited every time a package arrives as it contains some incredible new piece of art that I have the honor of seeing for the first time. And I really enjoy helping people find something they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.”


J. Russell Jinishian Gallery: Maritime Art and History All in One

Since its creation 13 years ago, Fairfield’s J. Russell Jinishian Gallery has grown to be the leading maritime art gallery in the country.

Owner Russell Jinishian says the gallery is a surprising and welcome find for many art enthusiasts. “Most people in Fairfield don’t realize you can’t go anywhere else in the country but this renovated appliance store and see the top marine artists in one place. People visit here and say, ‘Jeez, it’s like going to a museum.’”

The marine art collection includes every aspect of life on and around the sea, rivers and lakes including depictions of clipper ships, tugs, liners like the Queen Mary, America’s Cup yachts, gondolas in Venice, ports like New York, historical ships such as the U.S.S. Constitution, marine mammals and beach scenes. Jinishian says the broad content drives universal interest and that, each week, he receives new artwork from top artists that makes its world debut in his gallery.

Jinishian says the artists specialize in certain categories and are experts in their field, and that the accuracy of their work often makes for amazing interactions with visitors. A painting of the U.S.S. Enterprise aircraft carrier from a stern view inspired one visitor to relate that he was the captain of a ship that cruised behind it and that was his exact perspective.

“The gallery is really a treat and education in itself besides offering the opportunity to own a masterpiece with a maritime orientation,” says Jinishian.

The J. Russell Jinishian Gallery is located at 1657 Post Road, Fairfield. It is open to the public Tues.-Sat. 11-5. For more info, visit or call 203-259-8753.