Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Van and Gert Kaufman: 
Successful Persuaders
Van and Gert Kaufman were persuaders, but they used different tools for different aims. Both were very successful at their crafts.
Van Kaufman was an artist whose work was seen by millions of people and who probably helped persuade many thousands of them to buy a Pontiac.
Gert Kaufman, an environmentalist in the days before the term was commonplace, used well-chosen words to persuade not only local, state and federal officials, but also ordinary citizens to
support innovative ideas about the environment and recreation. She was the moving force behind a pedestrian path from Norwalk to Danbury — what she and others called the “Linear Park” and what a half century later is being developed as the Norwalk River Valley Trail.
A native of Georgia who grew up in California, Van Justin Kaufman was born in 1918. He loved painting from a very early age and by 10, was taking lessons at Otis Art School — a fresco he created as a student still exists on a wall of his Beverly Hills high school. By the late 1930s, he was working for Walt Disney studios, drawing the animation cells and layouts for such cartoons as Fantasia and Dumbo. “He worked on the famous dancing hippo sequence in Fantasia, and actually created the scene in Dumbo where the gorilla tries to escape his cage — which earned him a bonus,” said his son, Kris Kaufman.
In the late 30s, while attending what is now the California Institute of the Arts, he met fellow student Gertrude Hollingsworth. A native of Glendale, Calif., who was also born in 1918, Hollingsworth was studying dress design. The two were married in 1940.
During World War II he became a sergeant in the Army Air Corps’ First Motion Picture Unit,
working with such veterans as  Clark Gable, William Holden, Alan Ladd, Clayton Moore, and Ronald Reagan — his family has a weekend leave pass for Kaufman to visit his wife, signed by Captain Reagan. Among other projects he designed approximately 100 war insignias.
Around 1948, the Kaufmans moved to Ridgefield to be close to the large colony of artists that existed in Fairfield County. Van freelanced, worked for Esquire magazine and in the 1950s moved to automobile advertising in the days when both promotional brochures and magazine ads for cars
employed paintings instead of photographs. He started out with Mercury, moved to Buick, and finally settled in for many years at Pontiac.
     Art Fitzpatrick, who had begun his career as an automotive designer (he helped design the 1940 Packard sedan, among other cars), asked Kaufman to do the scenics for his car ads. The two became widely known in the business as “Fitz and Van,” with Fitzpatrick painting the cars and Kaufman doing the backgrounds.
     “These lush images depicted scenes of glamour and sophistication populated by suave,
well-attired cosmopolitan characters, always accompanied by a larger-than-life Pontiac with shimmering chrome and glistening paintwork,” said automotive writer James M. Kraus. “These were images that the aspirational car buyer could fantasize inserting himself into, and they nourished the idea that maybe he himself could gain access to this beautiful and exotic world if he went out and bought a new Pontiac.”
Kaufman and Fitzpatrick would regularly fly off to visit many of the world’s most glamorous
places — Rome, Paris, Monte-Carlo, Acapulco, Hawaii, Caribbean island, and the like — looking for inspiration and taking pictures to work into the backgrounds of paintings.
“These international locales were a departure from the conventional advertising practice in the
U.S. at the time and occasionally met with resistance in the insular world of 1960s Detroit management,” Kraus wrote. “An executive once groused to Fitz that a couple of the backgrounds looked a bit too foreign. He ended up with a tinge of red in the face, however, as the locales of the two images that he objected to were actually Upper Manhattan and Washington, D.C.”
Today,  their automobile advertising paintings — often signed “AF VK” — can bring
thousands of dollars at auctions. Hundreds of them can be viewed online.
“The reign of Fitz and Van at Pontiac coincided with the pinnacle of the era of Jet Age glamour and sophistication — an age they exquisitely grasped and captured,” Kraus observed. “Their images remain today as frozen moments in time, reflecting the spirit of idealized gracious living, 1960s style.”
Kris Kaufman once asked his father how long it took him to paint the scenes for the auto ads.
“20 years and three days,” his father replied. “Three days to paint one and 20 years to learn how.”
The Kaufmans lived at 100 Cain’s Hill Road (now the home of Howard Sanden, noted
American portrait artist). “It was love at first sight,” Gert Kaufman said in a 1975 interview. “The mountains, the valleys, the trickling streams — it was beautiful. I was so awed.”
A few years after they moved here, she learned that the state planned not only a four-lane “Super 7” highway up the Route 7 valley near her home, but also a flood control project that would take some of their land. Instead of simply opposing the projects, however, she studied them to determine how they could be accomplished with the least impact. She then successfully led efforts to modify the path of the new road and to eliminate a planned Super 7 interchange at Florida Hill Road. 
The state took an acre of their land for the Norwalk River Flood Control Project, which had
been inspired by a disastrous 1955 flood. She did not oppose the acquisition and instead joined Ridgefield’s Flood and Erosion Control Board (now merged into the Conservation Commission) to help oversee flood control efforts throughout the town. “She was a dedicated person when it came to flood and erosion control — things people didn’t talk about much back then,” said fellow conservationist Edith Meffley, adding that research Kaufman compiled in the 1960s and 70s was still being used four decades later.
But perhaps she was best known for her tireless efforts to establish the Western Connecticut Linear Park, which she described in 1971 as “an attempt to preserve the state’s natural environment for recreation purposes along a major transportation corridor. The greenbelt concept for Route 7 will allow nature trails for hiking, horseback riding, bicycling, and cross-country skiing to be provided along the full 34-mile length of the new highway.”
Kaufman, who became chairman of the Western Connecticut Linear Park Committee, said the
34-mile, 1,000-acre park would serve an estimated 450,000 population by 1990 and cost only 3% of the total outlay on Super 7. She gained widespread support for the project and was, in the end, much more successful than were proponents of the highway itself — Super 7 was abandoned in the 1990s as too expensive and environmentally troublesome.
Nonetheless, her concept of a Norwalk-to-Danbury pedestrian park lives today in the efforts to build the The Norwalk River Valley Trail (NRVT),  38 miles of multi-purpose trail connecting Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk and Rogers Park in Danbury, passing through Wilton, Ridgefield, and Redding. In many places it would use state land acquired for Super 7 or flood control. Today, several miles of the trail exist in Norwalk and Wilton and another five or more may be completed this year.
“I won’t be able to ride a bicycle anymore by the time the bike trails are built,” Kaufman quipped in 1977. “But I’m not giving up. We’ve gotten too much, given too much.”
Her work on the linear park earned her much praise, not the least of which came from Richard M. Nixon. “It is a pleasure to learn recently of your efforts … to enhance the environment and provide additional outdoor recreation opportunities for residents of your community,” the president wrote her in 1972. “The successful results you have achieved I know will always be a source of great satisfaction to you and the members of your committee and, even more importantly, to countless Americans who in years to come will enjoy the legacy you have given them.”
Like her husband, Gert Kaufman was an artist — after graduating from art school, she had drawn Woody Woodpecker cartoons for Warner Brothers in Hollywood. Around 1960, Karl S. Nash,
Press editor and publisher, mentioned in passing that his newspaper needed a logo. “Mom happened to hear him and volunteered,”  son Kris recalled years later. “She drew the acorn that appeared on the papers for many years — for which she was paid $50.”
In 1976, after nearly 30 years in Ridgefield, the Kaufmans moved to the Los Angeles area where Gert earned a degree in landscape architecture. After Van died in 1995, she moved to Carmel, Calif.  She died there in 2002 at the age of 84.

In an interview in the 1970s, Gert Kaufman explained the drive behind her many years of fighting for the linear park and for conservation. “You can’t give up,” she said. “I think of Ridgefield as surrounded by dikes against which the developers are pushing all the time. They leak in, unless you keep your finger in. If you get tired and move away for just a minute, you’ve lost.”

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