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Lido Shores activist has created art with purpose all her life

Artist Miriam Cassell doesn’t just dare to be different. She knows no other way.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. March 27, 2024
In a world of red lipsticks, artist Miriam Cassell chose blue.
In a world of red lipsticks, artist Miriam Cassell chose blue.
Photo by Nancy Guth
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Miriam Cassell’s artwork addresses injustice, hypocrisy, inclusivity, feminism and a host of other weighty social issues. Over the years, she’s created a series of multimedia pieces called “SCREAMERS,” which features images of people doing just that. 

So, isn’t it only natural to expect her to be a tortured soul?

Um, anything but. 

Miriam Cassell is a hoot. The 83-year-old can regularly be seen around town wearing wacky outfits that usually include a kimono, her hair dyed in a changing array of colors, each of her fingernails painted a different hue, temporary tattoos on her arms. And let’s not forget her signature blue lipstick. Back when she was living in her native New York City, she once won best costume at a fundraiser — even though she was sporting her everyday look. “I believe good taste is the enemy of creativity,” she declares in the New York accent she never lost.

Cassell’s vast trove of artistic creations has employed a variety of disciplines and techniques: paintings, photography, collage, jewelry, wearable art, silk screen, digital art and more — often assembled in large art installations. She once painted a nude portrait of her 70-year-old mother to show that beauty transcends age.

Cassell has built a formidable reputation, with regular one-woman and group shows in Manhattan and Long Island. Not long after arriving in Sarasota, she had a one-woman show called “Art as a Catalyst for Social Change.”

She was born Miriam Somer, the oldest of three daughters, to a truck-driver father and a stay-at-home mom. Her earliest years were spent in a mostly Jewish neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She says she started first grade speaking only Yiddish. The youngster was constantly drawing, dancing and singing along to opera recordings. The family then moved to Queens, where she attended high school.

Miriam wanted to be a professional artist but her mother insisted that she first establish herself in a proper profession. So, the dutiful daughter became a dental hygienist at a practice in Greenwich Village. Miriam arranged her schedule so she could study art at New York University. 

Miriam and her husband, Stuart Cassell, moved to Sarasota in 1996 and live in a vibrantly colored, mid-century beach house designed by Philip Hiss.
Photo by Nancy Guth

In 1963, she married Stuart Cassell, who became a prominent personal injury lawyer. With their son, Lance, and their daughter, Bria, they settled in Sea Cliff on the Long Island’s North Shore, where they lived in a Victorian home a few blocks from Long Island Sound. Miriam’s art studio was close by, right on the water. In 1996, weary of snow and cold weather, the family moved to Sarasota. Lance earned his medical degree and is a pain specialist in town. Bria lives on the other coast. Miriam and Stuart have four grandchildren.

The Cassells — Stuart is now 85 — live in Lido Shores in what Miriam calls a “mid-century beach house” designed by Philip Hiss of the Sarasota School of architecture fame. True to form, she has painted the exterior in a variety of bold colors to represent the history of Sarasota, which she points out, “is the home of the circus.”

Here are a few of her thoughts, observations and remembrances:

My husband is my biggest supporter. He loves all the attention that I get. He doesn’t want any attention, but he gets the biggest kick out of me, and I’m very funny. I think that’s why the marriage lasted as long as it has.

When we first met, my husband had a Chevrolet that was really banged up — and it was stolen. The cops called and said, “We found your car but it’s in really bad condition.” We looked at it and we said, “Uh, no, it looks exactly the same.”

When I was younger, I worked around the clock. I had an art studio next to the beach. There were times that I didn’t come home at night. I just kept working. My husband didn’t get upset about it.

I have my art studio attached to my house so I can go in and work whenever I want. But I can’t work the long hours I used to. I’m 83 years old! Oh, no way. I try to do some work every day but if I don’t, it’s OK. I’m not getting fired.

Half my body of work, I’ve sold. I’ve been very, very lucky. 

I always wanted warm climates and a lot of culture. And when I found out about Sarasota, I knew that’s where I wanted to live. One year, there was so much snow in New York, and next to my studio was a big parking lot and they used to [pile] it all there. I climbed up on the big mountain of snow and I announced to the world, “I’m moving!”

Miriam Cassell in front of the nude portrait she painted of her mother.
Photo by Nancy Guth

Our favorite thing to do here is to walk on the beach, and then afterward go to the New Pass Grill & Bait Shop and pick up dinner. It’s right on the water. I’ll say to myself or to my husband, “I can’t believe I live here.”

I don’t buy expensive clothes. I make most of my own clothes, anyway. And I love vintage. I like going to black tie events and telling people, “I’m wearing Goodwill.”

I remember, when I was about 13, sneaking on some lipstick. I didn’t like the way I looked in red lipstick, so I went to a costume store and I got blue lipstick. I started wearing blue lipstick, and I never changed it. 

I’m an old hippie, but I never got into drugs. I’m not a drinker, either. I’ll have a martini on occasion. But I hate drugs. I can’t handle weed or any of that stuff. I’ve always been so afraid it’s going to take away my creativity.

I can honestly say I have the most wonderful neighbors. I love them. We’re all good friends. They’re all very cultural-minded and art-minded, and some of them collect my art.

It’s a small world here in Sarasota. You get to know people. You can’t cheat on your spouse in Sarasota. You’ll get caught. So don’t even try.


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