Twins Donna Sussek ’80 and Denise Sussek Carletta ’80 have found success in widely varying careers. But both were shaped by shared experiences at Williston.
I’m sitting on a towel at the edge of the dunes at Fisherman’s Beach, on Nantucket, hooded eyes fixed on the crashing surf and the two diminutive figures walking out of the water. They’re shaking off the salty sea and laughing together at something that probably only twins would understand. If I squint, Donna Sussek ’80 and Denise Sussek Carletta ’80 look precisely the same as they did when I met them as a sophomore at the Williston Northampton School in 1977. Much has evolved for these beloved sisters over the years, but both say that Williston played a significant, if not pivotal, role in their career paths and outlooks on life. Carletta is a working artist and interior designer living in Mill Valley, California; Sussek, a certified social worker who spent over a decade working for, then running, a unique, nature-based preschool and kindergarten in Deerfield, Massachusetts. They meet at least twice annually, along with Carletta’s son, Cole, and Sussek’s daughters, Grace and Sylvia. In summer, they gather with their families on their lifelong seasonal haunt of Nantucket. It’s late June, and I’ve come at their invitation for a mini-reunion to catch up and to reminisce about our alma mater. Carletta, whose artwork has been shown in galleries in Canada, Boston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and elsewhere throughout the country, holds an undergraduate degree in art history and a master of fine arts degree, both from American University. As a postgraduate, she interned for William H. Calfee, revered for his work with the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s. Never in her wildest dreams, she said, did she expect to pursue an advanced degree.
She places the lion’s share of the credit for her successful academic and artistic career directly at the feet of her venerated Williston art teacher. “There is no question, Barry Moser is why I’m doing this.” she said. “All of his classes were amazing, always unpredictable, always off-the-cuff. I was mesmerized.”
Moser—an artist, printmaker, and renowned book illustrator—did more than capture her attention, though. Carletta, who says she’d known she was an artist since childhood when she’d see faces in the texture of sidewalks, found in Moser a true mentor, while he, in turn, saw in her the spark of a budding artist.
“He was on my team,” she said. “By junior year, I knew I wanted to go to college to study art, but I didn’t have good grades. So, I went to Barry and asked him, ‘What do I do?’ And he said, ‘We’re going to put together a portfolio.’ And we did. And it worked.”
The two worked together to assemble a portfolio that included Carletta’s drawings, etchings, and calligraphy, with the intention of getting her admitted to American University affiliate Green Mountain College. Her cover letter and application were written entirely in calligraphy. She got in, and two years later, she transferred to AU. After that, she said, she got serious.
Carletta’s path would take her through stints as an art teacher and a boutique owner, and to her current position with Kress Jack, a Mill Valley, California-based interior designer whose sought-after style is built on the premise that one’s home is a canvas. “A perfect match for me,” said the artist. In addition to working on large-scale interiors, helping to design homes from the ground up as well as for renovations and rebuilds, Carletta is often commissioned to create original artwork as part of the final décor. With just a three-year break to care for her son as a baby, she has continuously created and sold her original mixed media artwork, often in black and white, but returning to color as the inspiration takes her. But the threads connecting her to her earliest work remain.
“In that first calligraphy class with Moser, I created a huge piece, about three by five feet, all handwritten in Latin in pen and ink. I saved it, and over the years and to this day, I still use pieces torn from it in my collages, which are made up of strictly my own original art. I have very few pieces left of it now. It’s precious to me. That’s Barry, and I would love for him to know that, whether he remembers me or not, he had that kind of impact on my life.”
It’s unsurprising that twin sisters would find that some of their most inspiring life moments are shared. In the 1970s era, Williston’s “Winter Session” offered students a three-week opportunity to explore a variety of career paths and skills in greater depth. One of those was a trip to Greece to study Greek art history. Led by history teacher Henry Teller, the trip would have a profound impact on both girls for the camaraderie they say they found with classmates Sam Levin ’80, Marni Gangel ’80, and Kyle Bergman ’81.
For Carletta, a fascination for the artwork she viewed there would permeate her work and studies at American University, where she majored in sculpture. “My work then was hugely influenced by that trip to Greece,” she said. “In many ways, it still is.”
They also agree that the environment surrounding the Easthampton campus cemented in their hearts a love of the land. For Sussek, this passion for nature stirred a deeper search for purpose and perspective. “Nature at Williston was huge for me,” she said. “I loved the environment. Being surrounded by those woods felt so comfortable. I was at home there.
“Mr. [Dick] Gregory was a huge supporter of mine and of this exploration from an academic and arts perspective. I took his English class and sang in his Madrigals group, and I always felt he was there for me. And then there was Reverend [Roger “Gus”] Barnett, our school chaplain. I took his religion classes and found them riveting.”
Such was the impression Barnett’s teaching and compassion had on Sussek that she chose to major in sociology and anthropology and minor in religious studies at Ohio Wesleyan University. Following graduation, she went on to obtain a master’s degree at the Columbia School of Social Work.
After a brief stint in New York City, she returned to the area that had called to her from the moment she’d set foot on the school’s campus in 1976. In Northampton, she worked for many years as a certified social worker with at-risk adolescents. She invested in property in the area and had two daughters. While pregnant with her first child, she learned about the Pine Brook Children’s Center, in nearby South Deerfield. The brainchild of naturalist and educator Steve Henry Austin, the nature-based preschool and kindergarten was designed for children ages 3 to 7.
“The pedagogy of the school was nature,” she said. Grace, at age 31/2, was the first of the family to attend, followed a few years later by Sylvia, and, ultimately, by their mother, who took a teaching position there in 2007. In 2012, Sussek would take over the running of the school, along with partner Eileen Skribiski-Banac. “It was right up my alley, combining my skills as a clinician, a social-emotional educator, a creative, a businessperson, and a lover of nature.”
The year-round program was loosely based on the 1945 Reggio Emilia approach to preschool and primary education, as influenced by both Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. Its philosophy focuses on experiential learning in relationship-driven environments.
“We read books and learned about numbers and letters through art projects, music, card and dice games, but everything we did was filtered through the lens of nature. There were lots of specimens and scientific relics to look at and study and think and talk about freely. The students had gear for every kind of weather because we were outside every single day, walking the paths on the six-acre property, observing things in the fields and streams that were growing or frozen, talking about them, reading about them, experiencing them.”
Here, a baby squirrel fallen from a tree or a new sea horse in the fish tank might spur a larger conversation about ecosystems and life cycle. A half-filled bucket of water with a string attached could become a lesson about centrifugal force. Depressions in the sandy soil of the Pioneer Valley turned into summer opportunities for mud dobbing, the students using a hose to create mud pits in which to romp and explore. By first grade, this non-standard program turned out kids who were as ready as their peers for reading, writing, math, and more. Years later, two of its graduates, Sussek’s now 18- and 20-year-old daughters, are attending New York University and Sarah Lawrence respectively.
When the landowners decided to sell the property in 2018, Sussek determined it was time to shut Pine Brook down. Today, she is thoughtful about the experience and its connection to her time at Williston. “I find a huge connection between religion, nature, and social work. In the long run, they all serve a similar purpose of connecting and helping people to reach their higher selves,” she said. “The Pine Brook program felt very spiritual. Young children have such a pure connection to nature. Sitting down, talking about it with them, listening to them…that’s church, big time.”