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AuSable Forks artist shares a lifetime of stories

October 27, 2017
By STEVE LESTER - Correspondent ( , Lake Placid News

AuSABLE FORKS-As two huge personalities seemed to tug at her in opposite directions, one a wealthy Wall Street investor with a famous last name and the other an artist with a solid reputation, Susan Cassevaugh chose art and never looked back.

"Silly me. I could've been rich," she said.

While growing up in the same house in which she now lives, Cassevaugh had two neighbors who were very strong influences in her life: Joseph Pulitzer's great-grandson Seward Webb "Spike" Pulitzer and famed artist Rockwell Kent.

Article Photos

Susan Cassevaugh
(Photo provided — Steve Lester)

Pulitzer, she said, "didn't need to work. He had a ton of money."

Kent, meanwhile, was "probably the best known illustrator in his day," according to a Lake Placid News story published in October 2003.

"When it came time for me to pick a career, I didn't have a passion for much of anything," she said.

But Kent's influence prevailed to where Cassevaugh became one of six students selected to enroll at Buffalo State College's accelerated program, which included a semester in Siena, Italy, where she had her first experiences with creating fresco-style wall paintings, a style for which the earliest known examples date back to 1600 B.C. in Greece. It's the same style Michelangelo used to paint the Sistine Chapel in which the paint is applied to wet plaster so that it sinks in deeper. The paint itself involves no pre-mixing of colors, just the use of milk, eggs and pigment.

Cassevaugh, however, used a fresco style one might consider removable and transferrable. She painted her frescoes on a very fine silk-like wall fabric that she could remove, roll up like a canvas and transfer to another wall by unrolling it and then pressing it against the wall as if it were a large stamp.

While learning about fresco painting, she became so interested in the cleaning and restoration processes that they soon became part of a three-pronged approach to go along with her paintings.

Cassevaugh's career began after college when she taught public school art for a year, after which she applied to be a Department of Defense recreation specialist after serving on a judging panel at the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base.

"I fell in love with the military program, so I applied for a position, got accepted and then sent to Fort Campbell, Kentucky," she said, "which was where I met my husband."

Two years later, Cassevaugh's sister, Connie, offered her the chance to be in England for a month.

"I told her I can't just take a month's leave," she said. "So she said, 'Then quit.' So I did."

Cassevaugh returned to the North Country after her month in England and took a job teaching art to female criminal drug addicts at a correctional facility in Ray Brook.

"There were few facilities in the state that could handle them," she said.

Cassevaugh explained that, in theory, the inmates would kick their addictions and return home as productive citizens. In reality, however, it worked differently because of the high recidivism rate. She saw many of the repeat offenders coming back by design in order to receive free health, dental and optical care.

"It was an awful job," she said.

Cassevaugh kept it for just a year, during which she married her love interest she'd met at Fort Campbell. Then at about age 25, she took over the job as the arts and crafts director at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, the youngest such program director there, and took charge of the base's auto craft shop, wood shop and the arts and crafts center.

"I loved that job," she said.

In order to stave off the effects of budget cutbacks, Cassevaugh opened a discount frame shop on the base that generated considerable revenue, enough to keep the budget hawks at bay.

"Boy, do you know how much the markup is on frames? It's insane!" she said.

As 1990 approached, it became apparent the base was going to close, so Cassevaugh went to work for her sister making and marketing handmade soaps, bath cubes and decorative fans and other items.

"We did shows down at the Javits Center in New York," she said. "Meanwhile, I had a 30-foot Beneteau sailboat I kept in Plattsburgh. Fun stuff."

By this time, Cassevaugh had furthered her interest in art restoration after meeting Richard Scott Walker, who did such work for the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York.

"The man knew everything," she said. "English lit was about the only thing I could stump him on."

Cassevaugh said he figured out the medium the Dutch masters used during the days of Rembrandt, a concoction made up of lead and linseed oil.

"I have the recipe right here," she said. "It looks black when it's cooked. It's a very dangerous combination that cooks in a double boiler. If it gets too hot, it can explode. It's probably a 16th century recipe, something Vermeer would have used. Now it's sold online in little bottles for twenty buck."

By 1994, Cassevaugh had quit working with her sister.

"I can't remember why," she said.

And she moved back into her childhood home with her husband where she lives today. By this time, Cassevaugh's mother had died, so she helped her father manage his finances because he'd "never written a check and knew nothing about handling money. He earned it, and Mom spent it."

Around this time, Cassevaugh also started painting again.

"So eventually I had a pile of artwork, so Connie and I started doing shows," she said. "We'd get one booth, Connie on one side, me on the other, and were well received. My husband designed some very nice racks for our works that made things a lot easier for us. We started wholesaling prints and watercolors and did very well. Then a sales rep contacted me so she could represent me, and things went even better."

As life seemed to be settling in well in her new/old home with her husband and father, Cassevaugh's husband came home one day when she was about 58 after some 35 years of marriage and dropped a bombshell.

"He was having a midlife crisis, I guess, with a younger woman, of course," she said. "He just came home one day and said, 'I don't love you anymore.' And he left in two days. I had no clue. He was very abrupt about it. I just fell apart and had no creative energy. It lasted about a year."

But thanks to a friend who is an avid year-round Adirondack 46er, Cassevaugh got into hiking the High Peaks, which she said brought her out of her year-long funk.

"I've hiked 12 of the High Peaks," she said, "some of them frequently like Cascade because it's so glorious. Then I started painting and doing shows again. I actually have some wholesale accounts now."

These days, Cassevaugh still paints and does shows but not with the same energy since having had two back surgeries stemming from osteoarthritis.

"I just can't do the physical effort required anymore," she said. "So I guess that brings us up to the present."

Then a light bulb seemed to come on over her head.

"Oh yeah. Did I mention I used to have an art store in Lake Placid on Main Street?" Cassevaugh said. "Me and two others were in on it. People loved it. They'd come in and say, 'Every time we visit here we'll have to stop in.' Then the landlords after about two years told us we had to leave because they were renting it out to a family friend instead.

"Do you know of any places that are vacant on Main Street right now?"

There's one across from the bagel shop next to the Fortunes of Time building, the one that caught fire a few years ago.

"Really?! Hmm."



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