She's an artist and he's a medical researcher. She plays piano and he plays violin. She’s 93 and he’s 98. Bill Clinton owns her art. He discovered cell therapy for leukemia. But what’s most important to Sam and Esther Chester is that she loves him and he loves her.
The Chesters are a match made in heaven, and Dr. Anne Siesel, Warwick Public School's curriculum director, calls them a “hidden treasure.”
Siesel came to know the Chesters when Sam made a phone call to her back in the spring. He wanted to donate a series of Esther's works to the Warwick Public School Department and create a gallery in her honor. Siesel’s interest was piqued, and she followed-up on the call.
The Chesters reside in Cranston, and both grew up in South Providence, so they have no ties to Warwick. Sam's idea to donate the artwork to Warwick came from a friend he had met while playing violin in the Rhode Island Philharmonic. The friend was a music teacher in the Warwick public school system and would always talk to Sam about her teaching career.
When Sam realized that music and arts programs were being cut, he decided Warwick would be a great place for Esther's art, and if any of it were sold the proceeds would go towards arts funding. They donated signed and unsigned lithographs, which are on sale for $100 and $50, respectively.
The pieces in the series were hung during a special ceremony in June at Toll Gate High School's Robert J. Shapiro Auditorium. The lobby of the auditorium has been named the “Esther Chester aArt Gallery” and includes pieces from her musical instrument series.
The series has gained notoriety from across the country, having appeared on post cards, in the Metropolitan Opera and even in President Bill Clinton's Manhattan penthouse. Clinton purchased Esther’s painting of a saxophone and sent her a personalized “thank you” note back in 1994.
Esther's career as an artist began in high school, when a teacher noticed her talent. From there she was awarded a five-year scholarship to RISD.
The first painting of a musical instrument that she did was of a violin, and critics thought it had a lot of promise. They were right.
She continued painting other instruments, using a technique called “gouache,” in which she mixed watercolors and oil paints. The result is a muted, subdued piece.
“They're very expressive and calm,” said Siesel.
Sam decided that he wanted Esther to have an art gallery as a “remembrance,” a place where her legacy would live on.
“I didn't want the work to get sold off,” he said. “I wanted it to have a permanent home. Somewhere it would inspire children.”
Upon meeting Esther, Siesel thought it would be a great curriculum idea to have the children learn about the artist behind the works hanging in their school. So she began to interview Sam and Esther and videotape the sessions. She plans to make the interviews into a video lesson plan.
Despite suffering a stroke, Esther still paints every day, though her style has changed a bit. Now her images are more childlike.
“They're simple but very attractive,” said Siesel. “More like storybook characters.”
Sam and Esther will celebrate 50 years together on New Year's Day. Though they grew up only blocks from one another, they didn’t meet until later in life: Esther played piano for a quartet and they needed a violinist. Sam fit the bill, and the two hit it off.
“Someone recommended me, and [Esther and I] kind of clicked. It was a quartet, but we formed a duet,” he said with a smile.
Both Sam and Esther have extensive musical backgrounds. She played classical piano and began giving lessons at age 14. Sam began studying violin at 8 years old. He's played in the first violin sections of the RI Philharmonic and in the orchestra at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City. But Sam's talents extend far beyond the realm of art and into science.
Sam was supposed to go to medical school, but his family's financial constraints prevented him from attending. Instead, he went to City College in New York but returned home after a year to help his struggling family during the Great Depression. Once back in Rhode Island, he attended Providence College and then started a businesses on his own. Sam admits he was successful, but his career wasn't rewarding to him.
“Money was never my main objective,” he said.
What Sam really wanted to do was research. So he retired at 47 and began working as a researcher for Rhode Island Hospital.
“I worked with mice with leukemia,” he explained.
Through his research, Sam discovered cell therapy for the treatment of the disease.
“I was the first in the world,” he said.
Sam continued to work at Rhode Island Hospital, and stayed with the hematology department for 10 or 12 years. Then he started to research colon cancer. He discovered how to test a person for colon cancer through a blood test that would garner the same results as a colonoscopy. But he never patented his idea. He also discovered the “PSA” or prostate-specific antigen test. Again, he allowed others to take his idea and run with it.
“[Scientists] stole what I did, that made me feel good,” he laughed.
Sam said that his accomplishments were all a part of a bigger plan.
“Everything is planned. You can't discount fate,” though he said you have to give yourself that little “extra push.”
Sam and Esther have been giving themselves that extra push for nearly a century.
Sam said the secret to longevity is staying occupied, which he does nowadays by playing violin music at local nursing homes.
“You have to be busy and forget how old you are,” he said. “Forget your age. When you're forced to do things, you go ahead and do them.”
Sam still cooks (spaghetti and meatballs are his favorite), drives and doesn't wear glasses. His main priority, as it has been for 50 years, is still his wife.
“What impressed me is the richness of the lives they have led,” said Siesel. “They're independent: she still works on her artwork every single day. Sam has made it his mission right now to pay homage to Esther [and leave] some legacy there after the two of them are gone. I'm so honored to know them.”