My aunt Jessica was my mother's half-sister. Jessica's mother was my grandfather Garth Williams' second wife, Dorothea Dessauer, known as Dolly.
Dolly came from an affluent Austrian Jewish family.
She and her brother were sent to England when they were teenagers to escape the rise of fascism. She didn't see her parents again — they were both killed in Auschwitz.
Dolly and Garth had met in London, and were married in New York after the war.
They had two daughters...
...my aunts Estyn (my namesake, also an artist) and Jessica, who was born in October 1950.
The family moved to Aspen.
The family moved to Aspen, Colorado, after spending a couple of summers there with friends in the early 1950s. They lived in Aspen for a decade, playing an important part in the town's growing cultural life.
A 1955 article in the New York Times describes the wooden mining shack they converted into their summer home. My mother remembers that Garth called the house Balmoral — a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Scottish royal holiday home.
Jessica remembered trips to Mexico during that time, where her mother bought items that she sold in the store she opened in Aspen.
I think that Jessica was a joyful, creative kid. She told me that out of curiosity she once took one of her mother's cigarettes into the bathroom. Having lit it, she realized that it made a very nice round hole in the plastic shower curtain, so she proceeded to make a pattern of round holes until she suddenly realized that she was in big trouble!
My mother remembers her as the clown in the family, distracting her parents from their growing marital difficulties.
Eventually Garth and Dolly separated, and Estyn and Jessica spent a year at a Swiss boarding school before rejoining their mother in London.
Dolly died when she was only 40.
She had been struggling with a number of health issues and my understanding is that she took an overdose, which might have been accidental but most likely was not.
Jessica and Estyn were teenagers. My mother, Fiona, was studying in Edinburgh at the time and she took a leave from her studies in order to join her sisters in London and live with them while they finished out the school year.
Their father, Garth, was in New York and Jessica kept letters from that time that included silly drawings he drew of her and Estyn.
Sketch of Jessica as a cat from a letter to her from Garth.
In London Jessica attended the French Lycée and met her first love, Pablo Picasso's son Claude.
There's a lovely picture of her and Claude in the photo book, Goodbye Picasso. Apparently Claude brought Jessica to France to be introduced to his father.
Jessica's career began as as assistant to Bill King, the American photographer who worked extensively across London, Europe and New York.
In 1970 Jessica moved back to New York.
She soon fell in love with Aaron Rose, whom she would marry. He was a photographer and collector. Jessica helped compile the catalogue raisoné for his collection of 15th-19th century American and European hand tools.
The sale of the tool collection enabled them to buy a building on West Broadway, in Soho. They spent a decade renovating the interior, doing much of the work themselves.
Jessica with sister Estyn, pregnant with my cousin Maro.
Jessica started to make jewelry.
One story she told me was that she was working as an assistant buyer at Bergdorf and there were old decorative buttons in the storage area that were given to her when she expressed an interest. She made rings from the buttons and sold them back to the store.
She was influenced by her travels and by the materials she encountered — especially those from Spanish Colonial and Pre-Columbian periods as well as by the Deco beads that she came across in her flea market searches.
Her way of putting materials together was unique from the start and stores such as Bendels, Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorfs scooped up her designs.
My first memory of Jess is from when I was 5 years old.
We were living in Paris and I must have just woken from a nap. My mother said "Guess who's here?!" I had no idea. And there was Jessica.
I remember her sunny Paris sublet. My father put up shelves to store all her materials. I still have a few beads that she gave me back then. Special treasures. She had a studio kitten called Superman that I played with and who chased the beads that fell on the floor.
She was taking a break from her marriage. She had spent some time in Italy, and she ended up living in Paris for 6 months. She made a jewelry collection for Yves St. Laurent's Spring runway collection and my mother says that he wanted her to stay on and run his jewelry studio but she returned to New York and to Aaron.
My aunt Estyn, me and Jessica, summer of 1981.
I was 10 when I saw Jessica again. That summer we spent a month visiting family in the US, Canada and Mexico. During our time in New York we stayed in Jessica and Aaron's building in Soho.
Jessica and Aaron on their street in Soho.
At that age I was used to homes that had a fairly standard layout. Even when there were cultural differences, there was usually a living room with furniture for sitting on, a dining area, an enclosed kitchen, rooms that were bedrooms. But Jessica and Aaron's loft was nothing like that.
Everywhere were cameras and antiques and wind-up toys. Aaron had a large photographic darkroom. Jessica's studio had a corner where crystals hung, like an indoor rainstorm, and on the floor all around were arrangements of glass sculptures she had made, mixed with found rusty metal objects and sand from the beach.
The whole effect was magical. I wanted to live like this!
My brother Garth in Jessica's studio, 1981.
Jessica's work was sold at Artwear...
...Robert Lee Morris's groundbreaking Soho jewelry store. Her pieces were seen by editors and featured in dozens of fashion magazines. (I was in a doctor's waiting room in Belgium in the early 1990s and picked up a copy of Vogue, only to find pictures of models wearing her jewelry!)
In 1983 she collaborated on Issey Miyake's Fall runway shows in Paris and New York. One of these neck pieces is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Arts and Design.
As well as jewelry, Jessica made sculpture.
Many of the the sculptures were made from the same materials as her wearable pieces. She produced a whole series of "blankets" — woven from custom-made glass beads, they are like multi-colored pelts that expand and contract to the touch. She made hanging, interactive installations from paper, glass and gold chain, and later from transparent photographic prints. She never stopped playing and experimenting.
"As a child I have a really vivid memory of being told DO NOT TOUCH artwork and sculpture, when all I wanted to do was to touch it. My work is thus very tactile — I want to allow and encourage people to touch and feel textures."
In 2000 I was thinking of moving to New York.
In February 2000 I planned a trip to New York to see if I wanted to move there. I thought that if I liked the city I'd return to Michigan, where I'd been living, and save up for six months before moving.
In my journal, imagining life in New York, I penned "I want a job like working for Jessica". I knew that Jessica's assistants worked for her four days a week, and had three days to make their own art. At the time I was making textiles and doll-inspired sculptures. If only I could find employment like that.
Jessica offered me a job.
Days before getting on the plane, Jessica called to tell me that her assistant had quit. If I moved right away, she could give me a job. My "see if you like the city" trip turned into an apartment hunt and the beginning of my jewelry training. Within a month I'd packed up all my belongings and my two cats and driven across the country with the help of my best friend.
Jessica and Aaron were no longer married and she was living in Brooklyn, in a loft that was the ballroom of the former Ukrainian National Home in Williamsburg. I found a tiny garden apartment in a brownstone in Clinton Hill, a subway ride away from her studio.
Jessica had two retrospective shows coming up that year, at Browns and at Sotheby's, both in London. There was so much to do — I learned very quickly, making jewelry for the shows and assisting with the logistics.
Jessica and me at the opening of her retrospective exhibit at Sotheby's in London, June 2000.
It turned out that my aesthetic and sense of color were a good match for hers and we worked well together. After assisting her for several years she encouraged me to start designing and we became business partners in an effort to secure the future of the business.
Jessica bought a house in Sag Harbor and we continued to work together.
We spoke on the phone daily and every few weeks I would take the train out to spend the day with her, choosing materials for the pieces to be made next and discussing designs.
She would take me to lunch, insisting that I wear her latest designs so that she could see them. I felt self-conscious, sitting in a restaurant on a quiet midweek day draped in bold and colorful earrings and necklaces. Now I understand — it's impossible to know if a jewelry design is any good until you see it worn by someone else.
Jessica with one of her Brazilian headdresses.
Jessica died in August 2006 at the age of 55.
She had been fighting cancer for 5 years.
Like many artists, Jessica struggled with her demons. Working with her, and being related to her, could be challenging. But she was funny, generous and loving, and I deeply miss her quirky, playful joy in living.
Jessica was a great artist and she gave me the gift of this career.
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