Obituaries

Esther Geller, 93; artist known for her mastery of encaustic painting

Esther Geller exhibited her encaustic paintings for about 70 years.
Esther Geller exhibited her encaustic paintings for about 70 years.

During a career spanning 75 years, Esther Geller was a well-known encaustic artist, using a mixture of pigment and hot wax – a substance considered far more difficult to work with than oils or acrylics.

“You can’t plan too much in advance because if you do, your paint cools right in mid-air,” Ms. Geller told MetroWest Daily News in August. “You have to know what you’re going to do before you pick up the brush.”

Given that challenge, Ms. Geller worked on an impressive scale, producing exceptionally large paintings that were splashy and colorful.

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“Encaustic is technically challenging material. It’s very tricky to get it to do what you want it to do,” said Barbara Cone of Cambridge, an artist who helped found MassWax, the New England chapter of International Encaustic Artists. “Her skills were exceptional. She was a very, very talented woman. And she was elegant and gracious and funny as hell.”

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Ms. Geller, who exhibited her abstract art in the 1940s alongside the work of the group known as the Boston Expressionists, died in Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale Oct. 22 of complications from a fall. She was 93 and had lived in Natick for many years.

An experimental artist, Ms. Geller was always trying new methods, Cone said, such as using a charcoal lighter to melt wax while she worked. Ms. Geller also worked in watercolors, and many of her paintings featured figures that emerged from abstract backgrounds. Nearly until her death she sketched nudes with a group of artists who meet regularly in Wellesley.

Ms. Geller described her technique in a 2012 interview Cone and Harriet Chenkin conducted as part of an international encaustic art exhibit at the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts. “You have to adjust your timing from when you painted in oil, which is very leisurely,” she said in the interview, which is posted online. With encaustic painting, she added, “if you stop to think or dream, it’s dry halfway to the canvas.”

Because of that, she planned and sketched her work before picking up her brush.

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Ms. Geller was 16 when she began taking classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. While there her work caught the eye of the renowned artist Karl Zerbe, a German immigrant. A key member of the Boston Expressionists, he became her mentor and they taught encaustic together. She later recalled that she became part of the Boston Expressionists group only through association.

“I was in that bunch and all the Expressionists were my friends,” Ms. Geller said in the 2012 interview, adding that she didn’t consider herself an expressionist. She added that she “emerged from the Museum School doing abstractions, which nobody else did at the time, and so I didn’t fit in with the Expressionist gang.”

Ms. Geller used a mixture of pigment and hot wax when creating her artwork.

When she was a teenage student at the school, she and two friends rented a tiny apartment in the school’s basement that doubled as a studio. After a day spent painting, the three girls often “ran up the stairs of the old Opera House to see the ballet,” said Ms. Geller’s friend and former roommate, Cleo Lambrides Webster of Brookline.

Ballet was a particular passion for Ms. Geller, who had studied dance as well as painting. “Back then you could pay 50 cents, then go up to the balcony to kneel and look down at the stage,” Webster recalled.

Even though Ms. Geller “gave up dance for art, she always looked like a dancer. She wore her hair in a bun, she wrapped her hair in a scarf. She had a wonderful fashion sense,” said her daughter, Hannah Shapero of Falls Church, Va., who is known as Pyracantha or Pyra.

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Ms. Geller also crafted jewelry from brightly colored stones and gems and was known for the beaded necklaces she wore with her black turtleneck sweaters.

In 1945, she married the neoclassical composer Harold Shapero. According to family lore, they were introduced by mutual friends while standing in front of a John Singer Sargent painting at the MFA.

Thanks in part to a Cabot fellowship that Ms. Geller was awarded for her work, they moved to Rome for two years after living in New York. In 1951, they settled in Natick and her husband joined the faculty at Brandeis University, where he led the music department. He died in 2013.

His work at Brandeis and his association with composing luminaries such as Leonard Bernstein, Andre Previn, and Aaron Copland meant Ms. Geller often was called upon to entertain or attend performances. She was devoted to both visual and performance art, friends said, and rose to the task.

“When you put her together with people, she was really enchanting,” her daughter said. “She was very much loved by everybody.”

Esther Bailey Geller was born in Boston and grew up in Roxbury, the third child of Gregor and Fanny Geller. Her father, a property owner and landlord, often delivered her to early classes at the MFA.

Though the world of fine arts was dominated by men at the time, “she was really into art from early on, and her father supported her all the way,” said her daughter, who is an artist and illustrator.

“The best thing my mother ever did for me was teach me art,” her daughter said. “She taught me color, composition, perspective – all the things you’d learn in art school, but I learned them in the family.”

A service has been held for Ms. Geller, who taught art classes at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, where her work is part of the permanent collection. Her work is also at the MFA, the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, and at Danforth Art in Framingham.

Toward the end of her life, Webster said, she and Ms. Geller spoke on the phone daily. “We talked about art sometimes, music sometimes, old times sometimes,” she said. “She was a wonderful person and a very, very good friend.”

When Erica Ball, founding board member of The Center for the Arts in Natick, realized how many paintings her longtime neighbor had stored in her house, she insisted on organizing a show that turned out to be the last that Ms. Geller, who had been ill for some time, would attend.

“To see her so alive and back in her art, it was miraculous,” Ball said of the show’s opening reception this summer. “All her glorious colors came out and everything was suffused with brilliance, and that is how I’ll remember her.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@verizon.net.