Here I am, now 93 years old and trying to remember back 85 years ago and that is not that easy. However, I will share with you what I do remember plus what I have been told.
It all began in the early 1900's when my grandfather, Emil Weigert, came to the United States from Plauen, Germany. He came to set up embroidery machines in Guttenberg, N.J.(a small town across the river from NYC). A few years later, he brought the family to America.
My father, Ernst Laessig, came to the United States and there he met my mother, Martha Weigert, and later married. They moved to an apartment in West New York, New Jersey, which was where I was born on November 15, 1913. It was a very short distance from where he worked at my uncle's "Braendl Lace and Embroidery Works". All the relatives lived very close together. In fact, when we moved to Guttenberg, N.J. the factory was directly behind our house.
When I was 10 years old my father died and things changed dramatically. My mother got free-lance work from the embroidery factory and my sister Magda and I helped cutting the lace apart. Mother had to take in boarders to make ends meet.
As a young boy, I liked to pencil sketch from photo magazines and especially liked my rendition of Clara Bow. Right off the kitchen, I had my own little cubicle where much of this sketching took place.
I remember taking violin lessons for a short period from a very tough teacher. He used to bang me on my legs with the violin bow. I was so afraid of him that if I had to pass his house I would cross the street to avoid being anywhere near him.
Oh!! I had many fights with my sister Magda who was a couple of years older, and I used to chase her around. One time my sister and I tried to hypnotize a chicken. Family had several and we loved to collect the eggs. Magda and I used to play on our platform swing and watch our grandfather in his garden house, we had our own little garden growing cucumbers, etc.
I attended Hoboken Academy in Hoboken, N.J., which was a private school. I was very young but had to take the streetcar that made several changes to get from Guttenberg to Hoboken. While there, I did have a class in German. Because of my father's death, I had to leave private school, attend, and graduate from Guttenberg Public School.
After graduating grammar school I attended Demarest High School leaving after the first year because my mother needed help. While there though, my friend Oscar and I started a basketball team called “The Wanderers”.
I had to go to continuation school for a short time because I was under 16 years of age. It was a trade school and I learned to set type. While I was in school I worked at a stationary store in NYC delivering office supplies to the garment district and to several of the Nedicks hot dog stands. Later on my very good friend, Oscar, started a business, chrome plating door handles and security door locks. Occasionally I was able to help both physically and financially.
At age 16 or 17, my father's friend noticed that I had talent and suggested that I apply for a job where he worked at a textile studio. I did get the job, which turned out to be a real hassle, just mixing paint and painting backgrounds for textile designs. While working at the studio, I also spent time at home on weekends to make little textile drawings, and then put my initials on the back. If they were chosen, I would get $5.00 or $10.00. I saved all the money I could, even sold apples. This work at home was expected and so I developed a work habit, which continued throughout my years. This led me to convince my relatives to send me to Plauen to study textile design, which covered a lot of floral training.
My time in Germany. At this time I lived with my aunt, Marie Damm. While I was there I met a girl and later she came to live with my family in the U.S. I gave her my grandmother’s diamond and soon after back to Germany she went diamond and all. She was too homesick. When I first got there, before I started school, I bought a bicycle and this was my first taste of traveling around the country. One day I stopped at a vineyard and took some grapes, later the police came to my aunt's home to confront me. My aunt was very upset so I got a good scolding. My aunt owned a feed store. At another time, I went to Austria and stayed at a youth hostel but there was a war going on, and shooting, so I could not leave. I did not have any money so all I ate was oatmeal. Then I had to get back to Plauen and did so by hanging on to trucks instead of peddling. This was the beginning of my love for travel.
At school, I had to keep my mind on what I was doing because there were Hitler Youth Programs, which I was not interested in because my art was my only reason for being there. However, I had to make believe I was part of the group of boys with wooden hand grenades and pretend I was part of the movement. This was before the war even started. I remained at this school for 4 years. Keep in mind I was paying money to go to school to learn. While I was attending school I had to travel back and forth to the U.S. because my mother was ill. This later caused authorities to question this and put me in a detention camp.
After my schooling in Plauen and returning home I worked for a company designing drapery fabric and there I found not what I expected so I went back to Canal St. in N.Y. where I originally started. Eventually the war started and I was hopeful of getting a deferment so I went to school to learn drafting which eventually led to my job making drawings for snap gauges at Singer Engineering in Irvington, N.J.
I met my first wife, Isolda, at a church social. We attended the same church and eventually fell in love, were married and lived in her parents' home. We had a son, Thomas.
I was drafted and had to report to Fort Dix, N.J. for basic training. They found out through my records that I had been going back and forth to Germany several times so they sent me to a detention camp, in Texas, Camp Maxey. I was there a number of months then they proved all records were in order so shipped me to Stockton, California. From there, I was sent overseas and ended up in Numea, New Caledonia. I was assigned to the 68th Fighter Squadron of the 13th Air Force. During the trip from Stockton to Numea I wrote several V-MAILS home to my wife Isolda, depicting life in the service. There wasn’t much else to do in my spare time on such a long trip so I made several drawings of life on the ship. Col. Lippincott, with the historical section, saw my drawings. I was assigned to the 13th Air Force Historical Section. I was just a person that was added to this section to make a book. During this time, I was awarded the "Silver Star" for my participation in the book. I also designed “The Fighting Lancers” insignia for the squadron. From Middleberg Island in New Guinea, we flew back to Australia where we retraced the history and I made sketches. We then went back to Middleberg Island. I do remember it being bombed several times.
We had three children. Thomas, Constance and Mark. Sad to say that cancer took our Mark at the young age of 27.
After the war, my family and I were on vacation on Long Island, N.Y. and that was where I drew my first greeting card. I was applying for a job with a greeting card company so I got my first idea from flowers on a box of Swiss Chocolates. Out of 55 applicants, I was hired and wound up on the 78th story of the Empire State Building working for the greeting card company. The owner was the former V.P. of Hallmark. They expanded too quickly and had to fold. At that time Irving Stone, President of American Greetings, contacted this company because he heard they were going out of business and asked for me to go to Cleveland for an interview. In time, I became Art Director until they found that I was better at painting the greeting cards than being an art director.
I worked for American Greetings for 20 years from 1950 to 1970. During that time I created Governor Celeste's Christmas Cards for 4 years, designed many covers for the Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine Section and designed all the White House Christmas Cards during the Johnson administration.
One of the articles written at that time featured me using the help of a heavy grass roller on a long piece of cloth covered with paint and stretched out in the yard. Later that cloth was cut into pieces, waxed and worked on until suitable as backgrounds for my paintings. While at American Greetings I developed the technique of using Pellon and wax. A trip to India broadened my knowledge of batik, the art of waxing. I remained at American Greetings until 1970. At that time my friend Arthur Feldman from Feldman Gallery convinced me to be on my own and concentrate on Fine Art Paintings. It was frightening not to have the security of a steady income.
Some very pleasant moments in my life include meeting Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth. I paid a visit to Andrew Wyeth in Pennsylvania and had a nice long chat with Norman Rockwell in Marrakech, Africa at a hotel.
In 1960 I began traveling extensively. Sometimes with my wife and sometimes alone or with my daughter.
My children arranged a real nice party at the Renaissance for my 80th birthday. Isolda was not too well at the time but all had a good time.
In the early part of the 1990s, Isolda became ill with Parkinson’s disease. Around the same time, I had a heart attack and a triple by-pass. That was when we took up residence at The Renaissance in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. I had an apartment and Isolda was in the nursing care section. I was able to go down the hall, take an elevator and be on her floor and visit her every day. I always wore my brass bell around my neck that we had purchased in Nepal together, then the nurses could hear me coming and hop to. Isolda passed away in December 1995. I painted a mural in the exercise room of the Renaissance in her memory called “Isolda’s Garden.“
I was very lonesome and wanted to meet someone, my son gave me the information for Great Expectations, a dating service. It was through Great Expectations that I met my second wife, Sandra. Sandra (Guerrera-Studio-Laessig) was born in Paterson, N.J. in 1935, lived in Savannah, Georgia from 1968 to 1971, then moved to Ohio in 1971. Sandra's husband, Frank Studio, passed away in July 1994.
We met in November of 1997 and were married the following June 1998. I told Sandra I needed someone to take care of me, after all I was 84 years old. I certainly changed my life having such a partner to share my life with. She has been instrumental in keeping me pretty fit considering some of my problems.
I still loved to travel and together we went on 13 trips in 7 years, three of which were World Cruises. We even got to visit my relatives in Germany a few times.
A few years later my cousin Karl Uhlmann and his wife Rhea visited us for three weeks. My wife does not speak German but she and Rhea did just fine communicating. We had lots of fun when we went to Niagara Falls together.
Another pleasant memory was an invitation to Austin, Texas to participate in Honoring President Johnson. This was for all who were associated with President Johnson during his administration. There were three days of discussion groups, at the end there was wonderful entertainment and it ended with a barbecue at the Johnson Ranch. Sandra was delighted to be standing next to Mr. and Mrs. Gregory Peck while having a cocktail. During the barbecue, we were encouraged to greet Ladybird Johnson and I told her I was the one who created her Christmas Cards. She said to me " Oh, Mr. Laessig." I was so honored that after all those years she remembered my name.
Pleasant memories of my 90th birthday began in September when Sandra’s two brothers, sister, and their spouses came from out of state to start off the celebration.
Then Morry Weiss, of American Greetings, arranged a wonderful party at American Greetings. Just the fact that they even had the gathering and took the time and effort to put it together was amazing. I was so surprised when they presented me with a huge birthday card and a beautiful cake with the image of one of my paintings on it. Then another wonderful surprise was my sister-in-law (Isolda's sister) and her family from Pennsylvania was there to greet me. This was kept a secret.
Next was a party at the Chagrin Valley Athletic Club for close friends and family. So many there were so instrumental in me becoming me. They were all so helpful and encouraging and a big part of my life. Barbara Sargent sketched a portrait of me, which we had on display and Dr. Larry Kass played the piano during cocktail hour.
By the time all this was over I was ready for a good rest.
Since then my good friend, Arthur Feldman and Hilda Bullwinkle have left us for a better place.
Our trip to India and then Nepal was wonderful. Nepal is the place I purchased three more brass bells. I now wear one of those bells and that one is Sandra’s. I still have 2 more bells on my dresser. (For wife #3 & #4 ??) My love of traveling also contributed to my keen observation of nature as a whole, including color, layout, shapes and forms and at times interesting subject matter.
On our last World Cruise in 2005, I became very ill on the ship and we decided that we would no longer be that far away from the doctors.
Since we have been married there is now a museum called the ”Sargent-Laessig museum of Fine Arts” located in Hinckley, Ohio. Sara Kass is the founder and curator. Many of my paintings are here along with Barbara Sargent’s (originator of Strawberry Shortcake Dolls),Clarence VanDuzer (Sculpture at Cleveland-Hopkins Airport), Don Getz, Hal Scroggy and many, many more. I feel it is important to get the input from all these fine artists. I never want to forget how much they have all been helpful to me, plus being remarkable people.
This is how it began. One day I received a phone call from Barbara Sargent telling me that Sara and she had an idea about a museum and would I be willing to have it named the “Sargent-Laessig Museum of Fine Arts.“ It would be in honor of Mike Sargent, Barbara’s late husband and myself . Mike Sargent, who together with Barbara, designed and crafted the beautiful stained glass in both the museum and the Kass’s home. It sounded like a good idea.
The location of this museum is breathtaking. From the Kass’s home you drive down a meandering lane and just wonder what you will encounter at the end of nature’s beautiful trail. You might expect a little log cabin, but instead a beautiful contemporary home converted into a museum, is there to greet you. The museum is the beginning of a bright future for many of the fine artists in this part of the country and a place for the artists to get together, show their abilities, and discuss their work.
I feel it is wonderful to have people like Sara and Larry Kass involved in the beginning of this fine endeavor and if it were not for their phenomenal perseverance, knowledge, and the investment of their time and finances this would not have come to pass.
I have had exhibits at the Renaissance, Fairmount Fine Arts Center, Ursuline College, and The Donald W. Meyer Center. We are now preparing for an exhibit at the Honeywell Center in Wabash, Indiana beginning in and lasting the month of May, 2007.
The exhibit at Ursuline College was the largest exhibit and the most spectacular. Joan Harkulich was the person to first get the ball rolling when she arranged a meeting with Vice President, Kevin Gladstone and President, Sister Diana Stano. Art director, Frank Frate and his assistant Aaron, came to the house and were very impressed with the artwork. In fact I had much of my work spread out all over my studio floor and Frank just threw himself down on the floor to pick through all the ones he wanted to choose from. It was really Frank Frate’s decision to actually have the exhibit. Kim Chapman did all the promoting and marketing and did a terrific job. Dottie and Elaine also helped out tremendously.
The Artist’s Reception started with a beautiful brunch for a small gathering of only 35 people, mostly family, close friends and a few others.
Viktor Schreckengost and his wife Gene were there to help celebrate and this was kept as a wonderful surprise for me. Viktor just celebrated his 100th birthday in 2006. “The life of every adult in America has been touched - most unknowingly - by the work of artist, educator, and industrial designer Viktor Schreckengost. From pedal cars to dinnerware, watercolors to hand thrown ceramics, bicycles to military research and development, his work has affected millions.”
His accomplishments include crafting the first mass-produced dinnerware and designing the cab-over-engine truck, which revolutionized truck transport. President Bush has recently awarded Viktor the National Medal of Arts.
After that was the lavish reception for the public. I remember it was a beautiful day and they had all the tables set up outside. The exhibit, which was held in the Wasmer Gallery, lasted three weeks and I have to say, it was the best and most successful show I have ever had.
It has been a good life, a full life, and there is not much I would have changed. My art has allowed me to enjoy so many people and has taken me to all parts of the world - as diverse as the colors on an artist’s palette.