Artist Rosalie Ann Cassell, a longtime resident of Berkeley and teacher at Berkeley City College for 25 years, died on September 27 at age 63 after a brave battle with cancer, her partner John McCord at her side.
“The local art world has lost one of its loveliest lights,” said McCord, a musician who lived with Cassell during the last twelve years, one of the most productive periods in her long career as a painter.
“She was a dedicated and inspirational teacher who first and foremost was committed to her students and to their art education,” wrote BCC Vice-President Krista Johns, “She influenced many lives using creativity, imagination, and an unshakable devotion to artistic expression.”
Cassell also taught painting, drawing, color theory, and art appreciation for fifteen years at Los Medanos Community College in Pittsburg, where she ran the art gallery and displayed her work in the annual faculty show.
A memorial celebration will be held on Sunday November 14 from 1-4 PM at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church Parish Hall at 1501 Washington Avenue in Albany, near her Neilson Street home. An exhibit and sale of her paintings will be on display at Nielsen Arts, 1537 Solano Avenue in Berkeley, from November 6 through 19 with an opening reception on Saturday November 6 from 7 to 9 PM.
Cassell’s widely exhibited acrylic paintings fell into two rough categories: the purely abstract, often flowing and fractal-like forms that she termed “cellular abstraction” and figurative studies, usually nudes taken from studio models set within an abstract landscape, which she said represented “us and the cosmos.”
Having worked as an artists’ model herself, Cassell celebrated the human body in a color intense context that elicits multiple meanings and emotions.
Her signature style was forged in the crucible of the women’s movement of the 1970’s, when she collaborated with influential feminist artist and educator Diane Rusnak and others in collectives and salons that not only raised the consciousness but also freed the creative energies of women artists who had been taught traditional male dominated methods and modalities.
Rusnak, who remained a close friend, recalled Cassell’s contributions to the women’s art community in a graveside eulogy at Rolling Hills Cemetery on September 30th. “She introduced us to Emily Carr,” said Rusnak, remembering the Canadian painter and Cassell’s annual summer pilgrimages to Alert Bay in British Columbia, a source of inspiration for both artists.
Cassell was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 23, 1947 in a working-class Jewish family. Her father Frank was a foreman in a plumbing warehouse, and her mother Lillian, an immigrant from Lithuania, was a bookkeeper. Rosalie’s older brother Michael Benjamin, a photographer and Army veteran, who also lived in Berkeley, died in 2008.
Cassell attended PS 269, Walt Whitman Junior High where her high IQ placed her in the special progress program, and Erasmus Hall High School, where she flourished until graduation in 1963 at the age of 16. At nearby Brooklyn College, she held down a double major in art and education to qualify for a New York City teaching certificate. As an art student, her emphasis was sculpture and black and white photography.
After four and a half years of living at home and earning her Bachelor of Arts degree, she moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village and taught art in a high school.
Seeking broader horizons, Rosalie took off for Europe in the spring of 1969, traveling in Spain, France, Italy, and Germany, where she met Nick Pashley, a young Canadian writer, at the Lowenbrau brewery in Munich. Together they explored Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete. The couple lived in London and New York, where Rosalie studied Shoshu Buddhism. Although she eventually gave up Buddhist practice, she incorporated aspects of meditative spirituality within her work.
After the death of her father, Rosalie and Nick drove to the West Coast, and many adventures later, settled in the East Bay. In 1972, Pashley returned to Canada, remaining a friend over the years.
The early 1970’s were the hey-day of feminism in the East Bay. One day Rosalie responded to a poster inviting her to a women’s art gathering, and she joined a collective and a salon. Caught up in the creative ferment, Cassell pioneered women’s art courses in adult education and extension programs throughout the Bay Area.
These contacts led her to community college teaching, which became her passion and means of support, teaching for Vista, now Berkeley City College, and at Los Medanos. In 1983 she earned a Masters degree from JFK University, writing a thesis “Feminist Consciousness and the Making of Art.”
Over her long career, Cassell taught thousands of students and produced several hundred paintings, most of which remain uncollected. “There are three aspects to being an artist,” she once said, “Doing the work, paying the rent, and engaging in the business of art. I only had time for the first two.” In the upcoming show, art-lovers will have an opportunity to view a representative group of paintings by Rosalie Cassell, including some of her last works.
Toni Mester has been a friend of Rosalie Cassell since 1971