Esther Saks, social justice activist, River North art gallery owner, dies at 93

Chicago
By Chicago 7 Min Read

Right after getting married in Milwaukee in August 1954, Esther Shava Powerstein Saks jumped into her husband Alan Saks’ paint truck to start a 1,200-mile road trip to Aspen, Colorado.

The couple wanted to honeymoon there to see R. Buckminster Fuller speak at the Aspen Institute and immerse themselves in the “mosh pits” of music festivals surrounded by the Rocky Mountains.

“It wasn’t a big wedding that excited her,” said her daughter Jane Saks. “It was going to hear a thinker of that moment and of our time, going to hear music outside in the mosh [pits] in the mountains and hiking and using her body to discover a landscape she hadn’t been in before.”

From there, the two built a life of social activism, the couple’s anti-war activism earning them a place on former President Richard Nixon’s “enemies” list.

Saks advocated for various movements, including free speech and women’s rights.

“She’s [from] an era where as many women didn’t have careers. She was really excited for me to have a career and supported me,” said her daughter, Beth Saks, chief financial officer for the Global FoodBanking Network.

Saks, who received social justice leadership awards from Personal PAC, and alongside her husband, from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the American Civil Liberties Union, believed in working to make a better world and spread that message to her daughters.

“We were brought up to believe that we owed something to the society from which we were benefiting, that you don’t just live for yourself,” Saks said in a 1987 joint interview with Alan with the Sun-Times.

Saks died on Sept. 18 from complications of age. She was 93.

Esther Saks poses in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1948.

Esther Saks poses in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1948.

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Saks was born in Milwaukee on March 31, 1930. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe; her mother was born in Ukraine and her father in Romania.

In the 1950s, she graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee with a bachelor’s degree in studio art and art history and received her teaching degree from Milwaukee State Teachers College. She earned a master’s degree in art history from the University of Chicago.

While teaching art in Appleton, Wisconsin, she once publicly signed an ad opposing the anti-communist drive by Sen. Joe McCarthy at a time when it was risky to take on the Wisconsin senator as a young Jewish woman in his hometown.

She met Alan when the pair’s friends set them up. Alan, who was in the Army and stationed in Kentucky, drove to Appleton in a new Chrysler convertible, which left her “very impressed,” she recalled in the 1987 interview.

For Alan, Saks was the “rare combination of very attractive, very bright and interested in life,” he said in the same interview.

They married on Aug. 8, 1954. Alan Saks died in 2005.

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Esther and Alan Saks in Wisconsin in 1953.

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After moving to a storefront in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood — where her husband was building the family chain of Saxon Paint stores throughout the city — she stopped teaching, and they raised their four daughters.

She pulled her children from public schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Evanston to protest segregation and placed them in freedom schools where social justice and change was more included in the curriculum, Jane Saks said.

Saks and her husband fiercely opposed the Vietnam War and supported the Chicago Seven — a group of political activists who were arrested for their anti-Vietnam activities at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

From left: Alan Saks, Jane Saks, friend Mary Brogger, Naomi Tzril Saks and Esther Saks protesting the Gulf War in 1990 in Chicago.

Alan Saks (from left), Jane Saks, friend Mary Brogger, Naomi Tzril Saks and Esther Saks protest the Gulf War in 1990 in Chicago.

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In 1983, Saks founded the Esther Saks Art Gallery in River North. She closed the gallery in 1998 and became a private art dealer.

“My mother was showing BIPOC artists and women and queer artists in a way nobody else was in the early ’80s,” said Jane Saks, president and artistic director at Project&. “It was narratives that had not been heard, images that had not been seen and voices that had not been invited or included.”

Saks drew inspiration from one of her favorite pieces of art, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson’s “Poindexter Village Quilt, 18 Years in the Making.” The piece was a large quilt depicting hundreds of events and experiences — both personal and worldly — that affected Robinson in Poindexter Village, where she lived for 17 years.

Robinson became the first artist Saks worked with when she opened the gallery.

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Emma Ruby-Saks (from left), Esther Saks, Jane Saks and Esmé Ruby-Saks on top of Aspen Mountain in 2017.

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Saks also helped found the Chicago Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, the Northlight Theatre, and was a founding board member of WBEZ.

She also enjoyed dancing, hiking, horseback riding, sailing, cooking and spending time with her family.

“She lived an unusually full and vibrant life, and she was up for anything all the time,” said Naomi Tzril Saks, palliative care chaplain and assistant adjunct professor at the University of California-San Francisco and Saks’ youngest daughter.

“I’ll never forget the love that she continued to exude even in the last few hours [of her life.]”

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Esther Saks (center) and her four daughters, Beth (from left), Jane, Naomi and Ruth in Mexico City in 1971.

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Visitation and a shiva for Saks have been held. A celebration of her life is being planned.

She is survived by her daughters Ruth, Beth, Jane and Naomi; her grandchildren Sam, Sarah, Esmé and Elodie; Jane’s partner, Emma; Beth’s husband Scott and Naomi’s partner John.

“She was insatiable,” Jane Saks said. “This was a woman who was hungry to experience everything life had to offer.”

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