A summer camp for more than roasting s’mores

The School of Creative Arts in West Chop, 1949–1968.


No one on the Island today seems to have ever heard of it. I’ve asked artists and dancers and theater people; in other words, all of the creative types for whom the summer school was intended, and they shrug or shake their heads. And yet this extraordinarily ambitious camp in an enchanting mansion on the bluffs of West Chop, touched everyone who taught there or attended. A reunion of many of its most devoted students, organized by three women with Island summer homes, Susan Kanowith Klein, Cynthia (Vanderhoop) Atkins, and Jillian Lamb Butchman, took place on the Island in August of 1999 to keep the memory alive.

At the heart of this institution was a captivating figure named Katherine Hinni, known to all as KT. At the camp, ballet classes were widely provided, but her own predilection was for “Duncan dance,” Duncan as in “Isadora,” replete with linen tunics, bare feet, wide arms, sprawling legs, essentially everything but the neck scarf caught in the wheels of a Bugatti.

A memory book compiled for the reunion is filled with recollections of the former students, and yet KT remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Her camp music teacher Blanche Altshuler wrote, “I was able to talk to KT about anything. She didn’t listen, but I could.” From camper Mickey Jay, now living in Nevada: “KT scared me. She never laughed or hugged me. I was pretty sure she hated me.” Beth (Harwood) Kastanotis, on the contrary, wrote, “My memories of KT are many very fond ones.” She recalled, “KT [picked] through our little heads when someone so generously shared their cooties with the rest of us.”

A picture arises of a tall, glowering, ropy-muscled dancer. Students remembered a constant cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth, with a one- to two-inch tube of ash hanging from its end. No one ever saw her eat. “Give! Give of yourselves!” she would shout as her main choreography point. She called all her students, even the young girls, by their last names: “Good, Goulding!”

Long-ago students credited her with spoon-feeding them a love of the arts. If they had even a flicker of a talent, she let them know it. Everyone seemed to have sailed off into the world with some creative influence insinuated into their jobs, even the more business-oriented ones, and many became dancers, choreographers, actors, writers, painters.

KT had a positive genius for running a camp for 100 or so girls, ages 7 to 20, like a well-oiled machine. Schedules were grueling. The eight-week curriculum included two classes for every student in art, ballet, creative writing, dramatics, French, modern dance, and music. There were four classes weekly in swimming. One could also count on regular outings (Wednesday was beach day, involving a bus ride to South Beach with picnics of peanut butter and orange marmalade sandwiches). There were guest artists, group tennis, and folk dancing. For an additional cost beyond the $600 fee for the full eight weeks, kids could enroll in riding, sailing, piano, voice lessons, and tennis.

The ferocious director also saw to it that the students had gentler souls to offset her withering glares, shouts, and hard words. Groups of six girls were handed off to a counselor who shared their room with them, and a saintly grandma type named Olma — a Russian Jewish WWII survivor — was on hand in her cabin for hugs and a shoulder to cry on. Alumna Karen Beck Piet, sent to camp at age 6, wrote, “I cried every night for the first week. More than once I woke up to find a handmade fairy or clown pinned to my pillow, put there by Olma. I was sent to Oma’s cabin regularly for hugs and one of her special oatmeal cookies. She always made you promise not to tell anyone, especially KT, or she would get into big trouble! My lips were sealed.”

KT’s stance with parents was a little like J.F.K.’s with the country: Ask not what the camp can do for you, but what the parents can do for the camp. She strictly prohibited visits by moms and dads until the last weekend, when a festive weekend filled with performances was arranged. On one occasion, a student’s mother turned up in July to take her daughter on an outing. KT warned that if she insisted upon this rule breaker, her child’s trunk would be set outside and banishment imposed. No one ever tried that again.

KT wrote directions to parents advising them to send letters, appealing to their sympathy for their own kids on a Monday-morning mail call with no correspondence from home. And an intensely important rule for her was that campers NEVER shuffle around in wet bathing suits, believed in the early ’50s to be a cause of the much-dreaded polio. While this panic of KT’s can probably be chalked up to urban myth combined with her own particular neurosis, she did stay up until all hours washing and drying bathing suits and towels. And in the interest of further sanitation, a weekly shower was mandated, for which each student was handed a bar of green disinfectant soap.

The camp disbanded in 1968. Her dedicated teacher Lana Gerhardt longed to take up the torch, but KT thought the school should fade away with her. She went on teaching all over the Eastern Seaboard, then died in a nursing home in Bradenton, Fla., in 1996. Former camper Jessica Andrews, now with a house in Waterview Farms, grew close to the ringleaders of the first reunion, and maintains that talk of a sequel has been floated.

In the meantime, a new school of creative arts would not go unappreciated. All the artistic Islanders I asked about the camp, who’d never heard of it, also declared they would have loved a place like that for themselves.


To find out more about the School of Creative Arts, you can go to the School of Creative Arts, Martha’s Vineyard Facebook page.