Historical influences shaped the work of Jean and Carroll Cassill

By Sarah Sakurazawa

Note: Sarah Sakurazawa is Jean and Carroll Cassill’s daughter. She is a dancer and multimedia journalist.

Carroll Cassill grew up on an Iowa farm and loved to fish. 

Dissertations and ditch-digging
Even though he finished grad school ahead of her, my father was two years younger than my mother. Precocious and curious, he told me he went to Purdue University when he was 17 and after one year matriculated to the University of Iowa. He once told me that when he went to enroll at Purdue he walked into the gymnasium where orientation was held and signed up for everything on the blackboard list because he was a farm boy from Iowa and didn’t know any better. He graduated with an M.F.A. when he was 22 – and, my mother recalls, went to work to make ends meet on a ditch-digging crew of other recent University of Iowa graduates and students working on their master’s and Ph.D.’s.

Carroll Cassill helped his grandson Erik Wallace catch his first fish at this pond at the home of his friend, sculptor Jerry Aidlin, who also taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Photo by Sarah Sakurazawa.

Meaningful mentor
During World War II, a Yale University art major named Joseph McCullough left his studies to pilot 35 B-24 missions over Europe. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal and five oak-leaf clusters. After the war, he returned to Yale, where he earned a B.F.A. and an M.F.A. in painting. Soon after he became the director of the Cleveland Institute of Art, then a small backwater school. His vision was to build it into one of the best art schools in the country. 

McCullough asked the internationally renowned printmaker Mauricio Lasansky at the University of Iowa for a list of his most promising students as candidates to head a printmaking department at his nascent art school. Lasansky recommended only one: Carroll Cassill. The farmboy from Iowa, then in his 20s with a wife and baby daughter, packed his portfolio, flew to Cleveland, and got the job. My mother says the only thing she knew about Cleveland was that they had baseball and football teams. 

A talented watercolorist, McCullough became a friend and mentor. The Yalie bombardier pilot and the Iowa farm boy both loved fly fishing and explored little Ohio lakes in the hinterlands of Cleveland. Joe and his wife, Liz, often came to dinner at our house. Doubling the Cleveland Institute of Art’s enrollment and programs, McCullough served as the director for 33 years and my father headed the printmaking department for 34 years.

Jean Cassill holds her one-year-old daughter Sarah in a family photo from 1956. 

The irony of injustice
Without the racist politics of World War II my parents would never have met. In 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which banned American citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry from living in a 300-mile zone running the length of the West Coast of the United States. It meant my mother could not attend her state school of choice, the University of Washington in Seattle. So she and her older sisters went to the Midwest for higher education. 

Jean’s older sister Lillian Kubota matriculated to the University of Missouri-Columbia and my Aunt Ruby and my mother went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There they lived in a house that constituted the only officially racially integrated student housing on campus. (Jean recalls that black students were not allowed to live in the university dorms.) After the war, Ruby Kubota studied for a master’s in social work at Columbia University. Sadly, she died of cancer while in graduate school. Jean completed a master’s in art history at Wisconsin and decided on the M.F.A. program at the University of Iowa to study with renowned printmaker Mauricio Lasansky. My father was Lasansky’s teaching assistant and his brother Verlin, a founding member of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, set them up on a blind date. 

This print of seals at play was done by Jean and Carroll’s son Aaron Cassill in the 1960s. Aaron attended Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California San Diego and became a molecular biologist and professor at The University of Texas at San Antonio.

Accidental art
My favorite print by my father is “Pitcher, Pear and Plant,” in part because, if you look on the left side, you can see a small space man drawn by my brother Aaron when he was a little boy. (My father did this print as a commission when he won the Cleveland Arts Prize from the Women’s City Club in 1971. When we went to see Dad at his studio at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Aaron and I often set to drawing or etching plates since there was plenty of paper and scrap metal. That resourcefulness was a factor in all my parents’ art. Recently, my mother mused about material necessity: “When you’ve got copper you can figure out what to do with it. That’s one of those things about art.” She said our dad often repurposed plates since big sheets of copper and zinc are expensive. In fact, my brother’s space man isn’t the only example of recycled work: Jean explained that her print “Mountain Landscape Evening” was etched on the back of a previously used plate. 

Jean Cassill enjoyed working behind the scenes with masterworks of Asian art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. 

Global perspective 
After growing up in a tiny town in eastern Washington state, Jean Cassill earned an M.A. in art history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an M.F.A. in printmaking at the University of Iowa. She worked in the Asian Art department at the Cleveland Museum of Art for 26 years. She reveled in being surrounded by ancient masterpieces and handling the centuries-old work of legendary artists. A wonderful perq of her job was occasionally “escorting” rare Japanese artworks when they were transported on loan from the museum to Japan for special exhibitions. Jean traveled to Japan a total of six times and Carroll went three times.

Hard-won wisdom 
My father’s precocity came at a terrible price – he felt tremendous pressure to live up to his talent and in his 30s was hospitalized for depression where he attempted suicide. Keep in context that this was when mental illness was little understood and viewed with even less compassion. In 1972 when it was revealed that George McGovern’s vice-presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton had received electroshock therapy for depression, he was dropped from the ticket. 

Carroll’s brother Verlin, a renowned novelist, head of the creative writing department at Brown University, and a frequent contributor to publications such as Esquire, Harper’s Magazine and the New York Times Book Review, also suffered from depression. He sent my father this letter, which I found in a pile of papers as a teenager. It has been a lighthouse all my life and we hope you also find it helpful

Photo of Verlin Cassill by Jack Roth

The meaning of this profound advice is: Lean. Admit to yourself your temporary incapacities and use the simple crutches to help yourself along. And on the temporary aspect of your condition, don’t keep goading yourself with the notion this has gone on long enough. Your good body and the deep invisible parts of your mind will decide when it has gone on long enough. Troubles like yours are like fevers – they are attempts of the body and spirit to heal itself, and the mechanism, its resources, are truly miraculous to … well, to look back on and behold. But I’m the lad that knows they are there, doing what should be done, and I trust very much in them now. 

 Above all, don’t resent the trials of your condition. They are not meaningless. They bear fruits quite unpredictable to you now. I know that, too. 

Jean and Carroll’s daughter-in-law Mary McNaughton-Cassill is a clinical psychologist and here are some links to her writing. Her work on stress is highlighted in her book “Mind the Gap: Coping With Stress in the Modern World” (Cognella, 2013) and her work with veterans and PTSD is featured in her book “Adapt and Overcome: Essays on the Student Veteran Experience” (Cognella, 2016) The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a most helpful resource.

Woodblock self-portrait of H.C. Cassill and Jean Kubota Cassill by H.C. Cassill.

Jean was appalled by the racism she saw in the treatment of black workers in Cleveland in the 1960s and both she and Carroll were involved in the civil rights movement. 

Later, when she was in her 80s, her car was carjacked at the grocery store. She had parked near the back of the lot to try to get more exercise, as her doctor had urged her. A man came up, pointed a knife and told her to get out of her car. She remembers she just got mad and said, “No!” The man ran away. 

When my mother reported this to the store, the police were called and soon caught the man. My mother refused to press charges. She saw this man who had threatened her with a knife as a desperate human being.  She felt there was no point to the criminal justice system punishing him for being poor. 

Historic handprint
Jean Cassill told me that the handle of their press’s giant flywheel was rough and bumpy because it was layered with decades of ink from the hands of printers who had turned it. 

As kids, my brother Aaron and I would hang from the handle and Dad would turn us round like a Ferris wheel. Other times when we were visiting Dad at his studio at the Cleveland Institute of Art, we would crank the flywheel as fast as little kids could. We were entranced watching it spin and all the gears turning as the massive rollers rumbled and the press bed inched forward. 

Photo by Bruce McCombs