Remembrance: Jesse Kalisher
Visionary art company president and award-winning artist passes away at 55.
Jesse Kalisher, founder and president of the art company bearing his name and an award-winning artist in his own right, passed away July 20 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, after a battle with cancer. He was 55 years old. Our condolences go out to his wife, Helen, their two children, Jordan and Tamar, and everyone whose life was touched by this extraordinary man.
Photo: Helen Kalisher
News of his death came during the gathering of hospitality design leaders at the Boutique Design Summer Forum in Sonoma, California. “We are saddened by the passing of Jesse Kalisher. He will always be remembered for his passion for art and our industry, a truly remarkable man who inspired and mentored so many in hospitality. His mantra of ‘art is love’ will live on and forever embody his spirit, said Michelle Finn, president, Hospitality Media Group (HMG), and senior vice president,” ST Media Group.
Finn called for a respectful moment of silence. Then it really hit. Although Jesse’s work life was all about the visual world, what I remember most about him was what he had to say. There was no “five minutes with...” kind of conversation with this photographer turned art entrepreneur. His passion for exploring, sharing and shaping art as well as his energy for every project he took on (including some amazing exhibits and panel discussions at our trade fairs, BDNY and BDwest) meant there were no quick chats.
The best part was that he always had a lot to say. No small talk. No rhetoric. No filler. Talking with Jesse was always interesting and intense. After a few hour-long calls on various occasions, it felt like coming out of a film. He always gave me so much to think about—from how to make a “local” statement by creating a collage of hundreds of photos to how art is changing in the digital age.
I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Jesse brought together a top-notch panel for BDNY. His time slot was 4 PM on a Sunday. At 5 PM, the SRO crowd—consisting of insiders from sectors ranging from design to ownership-- wasn’t budging, despite the staff at the Javits walking by and tapping their watches. Even after the panel ended, it was clear that attendees were buzzing about art even on the way to the doors.
Jesse had a way of drawing everyone into his world. That included his personal and professional life. He met the woman who would become his wife when she was an artist and graphic designer, in Guatemala and each was traveling the world. With their complementary skills, Jesse and Helen began a business partnership in 1999. By 2005, they were expanding a mass merchandise line, partnering with big-box stores and hiring their first employee.
Two years later, Kalisher made his foray into the hospitality industry with the mission of “creating art for everyone.” Along with a team that included Helen and longtime colleagues and friends, Sarah Elder (now chief operating officer, Kalisher) and David Winton (now the firm’s president) , they built Kalisher into one of the top art consulting firms in the industry and the only one entirely owned and run by artists. Today Kalisher has grown to more than 100 employees, with offices in 11 cities worldwide.
Photo: Helen Kalisher
His understanding was rooted in his career as an artist. He got his first camera on his sixth birthday as a present from his father, celebrated photographer Simpson Kalisher. Although he first followed a career in advertising, Jesse returned to his camera in his early 30s and began traveling. It was then, he felt that “everything changed. Where I expected to see a snapshot, I saw instead a photograph. Where I expected to see memories, I found meaning. Where I expected to see something frivolous, I found instead my voice.” Jesse’s photography is now in the permanent collections of museums all over the world, including The Louvre and The Smithsonian. He forever credits his clients for his art, without whom, he said, it would not exist. Jesse was also known in the design industry for his tireless, pragmatic mentorship, his introspective stories behind the pictures and his passionate exploration of the world in which we live.
“Everything he created was about and for other people,” said Elder. Everything he created, he created to share. This spirit defined him, and we will grow with him in our DNA every day.”
“Everything Jesse said or did inspired his colleagues, helped define an industry, and worked to make the world more beautiful and joyful, said Winton. “We have all been so lucky to know him, but I am most thankful for what he stood for. He lived life for the journey, rather than any end.”
We at BD also feel so lucky that Jesse chose to lend his talent and passion to our industry. Here are the remembrances from our team:
“Hearing of Jesse’s untimely passing caused me to pull out a copy of his second book, “One World,” which we wrote about upon its release in 2014. And that, in turn, reminded me that he was not only a great photographer, but also a pretty darned good wordsmith. Example: Jesse’s explanation for why he felt compelled to always be taking pictures:
‘The blessing and curse of my life is that I see stories everywhere, all around me, all the time. It’s a form of noise that never stops screaming at me to be noticed, to be recognized. My camera provides solace—the stories are being heard, I have captured them and given them their due.’
We are indeed blessed that Jesse heard the camera’s call. Looking again at the powerful black-and-white images contained in his book elicited a profound sense of wonder in me. And for that I will continue to be grateful to him.“
--Matthew Hall, editor, Boutique Design
“I met Jesse very briefly at the Opening Reception for BDNY last year. (I recognized him right off the bat from his signature vibrant patterned shirt.) When he found out who I was, I was shocked that he invited me to come visit KALISHER’s studio and manufacturing facilities in North Carolina, as it was the first time an photographer or company executive of that caliber had made such a request to me directly. Shortly after I returned to our home office in Cincinnati, I received an email—again directly from Jesse—in regard to our conversation. Jesse didn’t care that I was still new to the industry or BD’s lowest-level editor. He recognized my role in our product coverage and wanted me to learn what his company was all about. No strings attached.
While Jesse wasn’t at KALISHER the day I took my tour, the same notion that everybody matters could be seen throughout all areas of operation. The artists’ colorful work areas were all on the same level of the Carrboro studio, along with Jesse and Helen’s windowed offices. From the open layouts to the way employees interacted, the collaborative nature of the business was clear.
Over the weekend I saw my friends at KALISHER and others in the industry making social media posts about the profound impact Jesse had on their lives. And, as I was writing the news coverage on Jesse’s untimely passing, I went to the company’s website to find the team was listed in alphabetical order. I didn’t know Jesse well or long enough to ask him if celebrating the talent in everyone from the bottom to the top was key to his philosophy. But I wish I had. Though our encounter was brief, I learned a lot from him on how to do business the right way. “
—Christina Green, associate editor, Boutique Design
“I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Jesse Kalisher at Boutique Design’s trade fair, BDNY in 2015 and 2016 and of working with him on a feature that included his ‘selfie wall’ at the Hilton Cleveland Downtown. Whatever aspect of art he was discussing, from how to build an art program to the ins and outs of assembling a massive art focal point, it was so clear that art was never decoration to Jesse—it was a passion. His energy and love for what he did lit up any room he entered. He will be missed.”
--Oriana Lerner, contributing editor, Boutique Design
Those wishing to commemorate his life can contribute to the scholarship fund, An Egg A Day, set up by Jesse and Helen.
Here’s to our humanity.
Here’s to our similarities.
Here’s to our strength.
Here’s to peace.
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