During the later years of World War II, Greta Kessler studied at the Rhode Island School of Design – though when the war ended and US servicemen returned from duty, her son Alex Kessler recalls, she was told she’d have to leave to “make room for the real students. ”
His mother was undaunted: She moved on to study elsewhere and to work as a jewelry designer for Coro, a leading company in Providence, Rhode Island, at a time when many women were confined to secretarial positions. She was the only female jewelry designer at Coro from 1946 to 1957.
And when Kessler, who died in her Northampton home in late March at age 95, was operated on for cancer about a year ago, she didn’t stop making art.
“She came home and recuperated and was like ‘OK, I’ve got stuff to do,'” Alex Kessler said. “She was working on papercuts during the last couple weeks of her life.”
Kessler and his sister Deena Sarvet, both of Northampton, recently recalled their mother as both a dedicated and talented artist and as someone who excelled at taking up new challenges and making friends. She was making art right up to the end – and in fact she did not live long enough to see her last exhibit, which is currently on view at the Woodstar Cafe in Northampton until May 8.
Greta Kessler, born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1926, put her hands to many types of crafts: paper cutting and collage, printmaking, needlepoint, fiber art, origami and jewelry design. Much of it she learned on her own or took up after getting some basic lessons from other artists and craftspeople, her daughter and son said.
“She wanted to do everything,” Sarvet said during a recent tour of her mother’s house. “She had this lifelong drive to be creative, and she wanted to learn new skills and do things herself.”
Just in the past year, Kessler had exhibits at Click Workspace in Northampton and in February at Hosmer Gallery at Forbes Library. The latter show, which featured her papercuts and collages, also included papercuts by her son, who learned the skill from her and studied art himself at Cooper Union in New York before developing a career as a printmaker, photo editor and event planner.
Their mother was such a dedicated artist, her daughter and son say, that she insisted on having a small bed in her studio, even though her home had a comfortable bedroom with a larger bed.
“She’d stay in [the studio] late at night, then just sleep in her bed for a while, and roll out of it in the morning to get back to work, ”Alex Kessler said.
And Greta kept busy artistically on other fronts. She curated exhibits and taught crafts and arts in a number of places in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Israel, and here in the Valley, where she led workshops at the Northampton Senior Center and JFK Middle School in things such as origami.
Her artwork remained an important part of her life even after she got married and raised four children, Alex Kessler said, who noted that his mother continued working as a professional jewelry designer in Rhode Island through parts of her first two pregnancies.
“She was fired when she first got pregnant, but was rehired after she gave birth,” said Kessler, who noted the same thing happened the second time she became pregnant (she eventually had four children).
“Through charm and pluck and hard work she made it,” he said.
Sarvet, who has lived in Northampton since the late 1990s, said she urged her mother to move here after Greta’s husband, Irving Kessler (the children’s father) died. Greta came to Northampton in 2011, and it didn’t take her long to start making friends, discovering other area artists, and getting involved in teaching and staging exhibits, her daughter said (her mom was also an avid gardener).
“She had a real zest for life,” Sarvet said.
As her obituary noted, much of Greta Kessler’s art “was Judaica themed. As a young artist, Greta was told there was no such thing as Jewish art. She made it her mission to prove that untrue. ”
Indeed, many of her artworks, both personal and commissioned, “were inspired by the Hebrew Bible, Jewish prayers, and her many visits to Israel.”
Her papercuts and collages could display an incredible level of detail. She used some of those skills for making hand-designed greeting cards as well, such as for the Jewish New Year.
Making and sharing her art was a key means for his mother to keep connected to other people, Alex Kessler noted. “She was pissed by the pandemic,” he said with a laugh, recalling his mother’s irritation at having to be isolated.
In a eulogy he read at her memorial service, Kessler celebrated his mother’s spirit, love and her “beautiful hands [that were] … Carved with the efforts of creating: with paper, with scissors, with thread, with ink, with fabric, with an Exacto knife, with a loom, with beads, and with a shovel. ”
He also remembered how his mother had long made it clear that in life “you should always keep moving, always keep doing, and always keep making… And you knew that anything can be made into soup.”