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Late artist Cassle remembered for passion, words of encouragement


Charleston Gazette-Mail

BECKLEY, W.Va.  — Christine Keller remembers the first time she applied to be a juried artisan at the Tamarack Foundation.

“The very first time I juried in [2009], I did get turned down,” said the jewelry maker.

Lifelong artist Stephen Cassle works on one of his paintings. He died June 15. (Courtesy photo)

And that could have been that. Then, Stephen Cassle — the man who delivered the difficult news — offered a ray of hope.

“He arranged for me to be able to get mentoring,” Keller said. “So I got mentoring through the Tamarack Foundation, which took my jewelry and my craft to a whole new level. When I came back and rejuried in six months, they couldn’t believe it was the same person and work.”

As a painter himself and the Director of Artisan Services for Tamarack, Cassle was involved with the planning, coordination and implementation of jury sessions, and was a mentor and promoter to artists across the state through the Tamarack Foundation, Mountain State Art and Craft Fair, FestivALL’s Capitol Street Art Fair and Beckley Art Center. He was in a position to impact a large number of would-be artists like Keller, who said her jewelry has since become a top-selling product from Tamarack and has been picked up by an Asian company, making her an international designer.

“It all started here with Steve’s encouragement to move forward and to believe in yourself enough to go for it,” she said. “He always checked in with you and wanted to know how you were doing and if there’s anything he could do to help. He encouraged you to do certain shows and how to get into them, who to talk to. He would talk to them on your behalf, and that type of deal. He just went out of his way to make every artist feel special.”

Keller was among the many West Virginia artists who said they otherwise would have been discouraged by Tamarack but didn’t give up after one unsuccessful jury process because he coached them to try again.

“He would say ‘You know what, this is awesome but we need a little bit of this or a little bit of that.’ And he did it so it wasn’t an insult. He did it so you were excited to go try and do it,” said another jewelry maker, Merideth Young. “He taught me how to be a baby version of him. So now I tell people, ‘that’s totally awesome.’ ”

Painter Larry Wolfe was ready to call it quits a day after he was rejected from his first jurying process.

“I was ready to give up and Steve talked me into coming back and jurying again,” said Wolfe.

That level of encouragement, and the difference it made to scores of artists across the state, is now part of Cassle’s legacy, said family members, friends and colleagues who gathered to remember him a few days ago at the Tamarack facility here.

Cassle was just 66 when he died on June 15 after a brief illness that proved to be metastatic esophageal cancer.

“He really loved to help people,” said Teresa Cassle, Steve’s sister. “Of course, he’s a great artist but when he first started working for Tamarack, he was so happy. He found his niche and he loved to be involved with all of these other artists and that’s all he talked about. He loved his job.”

He also understood the creative angst an artist can feel. His earlier paintings were typically of landscapes and nature, but progressed to people and things of his imagination.

He definitely evolved, Teresa said.

His paintings have been in several juried exhibitions, including three West Virginia Juried Exhibitions at the Cultural Center, the Crosscurrents 1989 exhibition at Oglebay Institute, Stifel Fine Arts Center in Wheeling, and the 1987 Exhibition 280 “Works Off Walls” at the Huntington Galleries in Huntington, according to a news release.

In 2004, he was named the Tamarack Artist of the Year and years before, in 1987, he won the West Virginia Juried Exhibition Award of Merit.

He started at Tamarack in 2007 and was on the initial planning committee before Tamarack was built, and helped recruit the first artists who were part of Tamarack.

To Jim Browder, executive director of Tamarack, Stephen Cassle was known as “Stevie-Pooh.”

“Steve was caring, friendly, thoughtful, humble, he looked for the best of people, always had encouraging words, and went out of his way to be helpful to everybody,” Browder said. “Whenever you were around Steve, he made you feel good. He’d make you feel special, he’d make you feel important. There’s only one character that I’m aware of that shares all of Steve’s wonderful traits, and that was Winnie the Pooh. Winnie once said — and I think this is true of Steve — ‘We didn’t realize we were making memories. We just knew we were having fun.’ ”

Two large projector screens flashed a slideshow of memories of Cassle and his work. Photos showed him — always with a toothy smile — at Tamarack, dressed as “Stonewall” Jackson for Civil War reenactments, and spending time in the great outdoors, often the subject of his paintings.

Cassle lived in Dunbar his whole life, was never married, and left behind four black Labrador retrievers: Maggie, Comet, Carmen and Lucy.

His work may be found in private collections around the world, according to a news release, including a former United States President and West Virginia Governor. He was honored twice at receptions at the White House, where he met former First Lady Laura Bush and was commissioned to illustrate the cookbook of former West Virginia First Lady Joanne Jaeger Tomblin, the release said.

Cassle also was known for not just his love of art, but his love of history. He was an expert on Civil War Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson. He performed reenactments of the late general throughout the state and in Virginia.

“He was a Civil War buff,” Dana Baker, Cassle’s niece, said. “He was fascinated with Civil War history. He became Stonewall. When he put the suit on, he became Stonewall.”

His brother, Frank Cassle, called himself Steve’s number one fan. Frank, the older of the two, took art classes in school. When he would show Steve what he did, Steve could always do it better. So eventually, Frank became his student and learned skills from him. They spent many hours over his lifetime discussing art and techniques, Frank said.

“The first painting Steve ever painted was in the seventh grade when he was about 12,” he said. “He painted a painting of the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay on an old window blind and it was awesome. But I can’t remember a time in his life where he didn’t have a pencil or paintbrush in his hand.”

There also wasn’t a sport that his brother wasn’t good at, Frank claimed. He could have played football at the college level, but instead chose a path in art, he said.

“He’d get a football under his arm and no one could touch him,” Frank said. “But I knew he would never pursue it. There was only one thing in life that he was interested in and that was art, and it was a huge passion. He will live on through his art.”

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