Jim Stidfole, long a fixture in New London arts scene, dies at 74
New London — Jim Stidfole, a founder of Hygienic Art and one of the behind-the-scenes movers and shakers who seemed to be involved in every element of the local arts community, died Wednesday at age 74.
Stidfole was a longtime supporter of seemingly hundreds of local projects, serving as technical director for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Theater Institute and the Garde Arts Center, as well as head of the Waterford High School Drama Club for many years. In addition, he was an artist in his own right, working at one point with famed sculptor David Smalley at Connecticut College and helping to install a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum.
The wooden bowls he made became famous locally for their craftsmanship, inspired initially by the death of a large copper beech tree at the O’Neill after a lightning strike. Stidfole, in true make-something-out-of-disaster fashion, used the bowls he made out of the tree’s wood as a fundraiser for the theater, which went on to win the National Medal of the Arts in 2016.
Derron Wood, founder of Flock Theatre, was one of many who counted Stidfole as a mentor and an inspiration, and Stidfole acted in several of the group’s early productions.
“If it was new and it was happening ... you knew he would support it 150 percent,” Wood said.
Stidfole was known for his booming bass voice and mane of unruly white hair, which he shaved off at interludes to help raise money for the Hygienic. The downtown arts gallery and performance space may be his most lasting legacy, said Vinnie Scarano, president of the Hygienic’s board.
Scarano recalled that Stidfole, the Hygienic’s longtime treasurer, several years ago went to the attorney general’s office in Hartford to try to save the historic building, promising on the spot that the organization would turn the space into galleries and studios. The pitch worked, saving the National Historic Landmark from demolition.
To keep the Hygienic going, Stidfole contributed both money and time, serving for quite a while as the organization’s bookkeeper and as liaison with the building’s artist residents. He was also a big mover behind the Hygienic Arts Park and the new amphitheater that was erected last year to great fanfare.
“When he finds a vacuum, he fills it; that’s what he did for the Hygienic,” Scarano said.
He did much the same for the O’Neill, helping the organization through some of its darkest days in the 1980s, when he took on a variety of roles, including writing grants to help the financially strapped organization survive.
But David Jaffe, Connecticut College professor and former director of NTI, remembered him most as the technical whiz who would stay up all hours and go to any lengths to make sure the O’Neill’s student productions had a polished presentation.
“He just would always say, ‘Yes, we can do it,’ ‘Yes, we will find a way,’” Jaffe said.
Stidfole also left a lasting impression on nearly a decade of students at Waterford High School, where he was known for daring and innovative shows that included a student-written musical. In the eight or so years Stidfole headed the drama club, current WaterforDrama director Shane Valle recalled, his students put on more than 40 shows.
“He was a force to be reckoned with,” Valle said. “He knew his stuff, and he had his way of doing things. A consummate professional.”
Valle recalled that Stidfole always was looking beyond his own purview to how he could connect various facets of the drama community. At one time, he said, Stidfole had advocated that the O’Neill, Williams School and Conn College all buy the same type of light board so that if anything happened to one, there would be a backup at another school nearby.
“Who would think of something like that?” Valle said. “Jim did.”
Valle and others commented on the close relationship Stidfole had with his wife of 51 years, Sherry, a longtime director of music in the Waterford school system. The pair worked tirelessly for decades on the holiday Make We Joy program that now performs at Mitchell College, and he also was supportive of her other musical inspirations, including local Hootenannies and folk music groups.
“Sherry is an amazing musician; he was an incredible storyteller,” Wood of Flock Theatre said. “He had an amazing voice but he’d always say just don’t ask him to sing.”
George White, founder of the O’Neill, found Stidfole “very reliable, very determined, very committed to the community betterment in every way. ... He was a wonderful friend of the O’Neill and a friend of the arts.”
He also got involved in other community projects, including Fiddleheads Food Cooperative, and as a stagehand and frequent narrator for Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra concerts.
“He always had new ideas to add to the scene,” said Steve Sigel, managing director of the Garde. “He loved the arts. It wasn’t about any particular institution.”
He also was a big believer in the dignity of every person, at one time defending a student who wore mismatched shoes to school by doing the same himself, Sigel recalled.
“There was no job he wouldn’t do if it needed to be done,” he said. “He was a great writer and teacher and might direct a play — or he might happily serve as a stagehand.”
Stidfole worked a wide range of jobs, from arts editor at The Norwich Bulletin to English teacher at Mitchell College and timekeeper at the Millstone Power Station. He also had been an engineer for Westinghouse.
He earned a degree in engineering from Clarkson College of Technology in Potsdam, N.Y., and a master’s in English from the University of Hartford.
His only son, Dylan, a talented musician, died in an accident in Boston in 1988 at the age of 20.
“He was one of a kind and a totally unique personality,” said Rich Martin, longtime former manager of Hygienic Arts. “I just really enjoyed seeing his hair coming down the street. That meant good things were going to happen.”
Kim Abraham, a former resident artist of Hygienic Art, said Stidfole talked her into showing her work. “I’ll always hear his voice in my head: ‘Ruthless self-promotion, Kim,’” she said. “Of course what he was doing was ruthlessly supporting all of us. ... He and Sherry were like home; they were parents to the whole community.”
Mayor Michael Passero called Stidfole “an ambassador for the arts in New London and an outsized personality who really captivated people.”
The mayor recalled a time when Stidfole had his hair shaved off completely after the City Council awarded $30,000 for a Hygienic sculpture garden. In 2011, the Stidfoles moved from Quaker Hill to New London Harbor Towers and became a constant presence in downtown, walking everywhere.
“He was a driving force of the arts community and arts revival in New London right up to the end,” Passero said. “Between him and Sherry, they really epitomized the arts together.”
And the Hygienic, said Conn College professor Jaffe, “was absolutely groundbreaking” in bringing life back to downtown.
“That was really forward thinking,” he said. “That’s a real legacy.”
Day Staff Writers Rick Koster and Benjamin Kail contributed to this report.