Hill teacher, acclaimed pet portraitist, dies at 77


Catherine “Cassie” Frazer, a Chestnut Hill artist and former teacher at the Henry Houston School in Mt. Airy who found a muse in the many pets that she painted, died on Jan. 29 of age-related illnesses. She was 77.

Frazer’s love of animals was an integral part of her life and art. She kept dog treats in her car and picked up strays on her way to work. A trained artist, she studied at schools and museums in the area, but, she said in an earlier interview, “It wasn’t until I painted my dog Bonnie that something really clicked for me. I discovered brush strokes and new ways of working with color, hue and texture.” 

Her paintings, which hang in many area homes, have been exhibited at Borrelli's Chestnut Hill Gallery, the Evergreen Cheese Shop and The Little Gallery in Chestnut Hill. 

“She had a heart of gold,” Katherine “Kitsie” Converse, of Wyndmoor, said of her friend of 48 years. “A robin, returning each spring for four years, nested atop an old-fashioned wooden rake in her open garage. She rescued kittens, one dumped on the street in front of her house, and spent happy hours in Pastorius Park with her best friend Bonnie, a Golden Retriever. Her favorite charity was the SPCA.”

Frazer grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, graduated from Lincoln High School and majored in painting at Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts) before earning a master’s degree in art education at Arcadia University. Although she had taken painting classes over the years at PAFA, Penn, Fleisher and Cheltenham Art Center, Frazer’s focus for decades was on teaching art and fourth grade in the Philadelphia School District.

“When I retired from teaching at the Henry Houston School in 2007,” she told us, “I decided to take painting seriously again. I studied with Frances Galante at Woodmere for four years, working on landscapes, still-lifes and figurative work.”

A longtime resident of Chestnut Hill, Frazer moved to the neighborhood more than 50 years ago, during what she described as her “hippie stage,” when she married a Philadelphia socialite, according to Converse, but the marriage didn’t last long. 

Frazer lived directly across from Pastorius Park, where she enjoyed watching dogs play every day from her windows. She displayed an “old-fashioned 'open door' hospitality,” Converse said. “You were always welcome to drop in unannounced for a chat or coffee with local pals as her TV played reruns from the 1950s. Cassie cared and shared. Her wit and appreciation of life and friendship will be greatly missed.

I last saw her when we watched the Phillies playoff game last Oct. 23,” Converse said. “She loved baseball and the Phillies. In fact, as a teenager, she played on The Liberty Bells, the city's all-girls baseball team.”

Frazer’s affinity for animals began when she was growing up with a mutt named Tippy. “I bonded immediately,” she told us. “My next dog was a Llewellyn Spaniel I rescued. Then came Golden Retrievers, who have unusually expressive eyes.”

John Ingersoll, owner of the Evergreen Cheese Shop in Chestnut Hill, told us in an earlier interview, “Cassie came to me and showed me an oil painting she had done of Bonnie, her Golden Retriever. It was so lovely that I asked her to do a portrait of Luna, my 11-year-old Golden Retriever. I gave her a photo of Luna, not realizing that Luna would be gone so soon afterward.”

The connection between Ingersoll and Frazer went deeper than friendship. Their Goldens, Ingersoll’s Luna and Frazer’s Bonnie, were “step-sisters,” both sharing the same champion father. The portrait of Luna launched Frazer into a new career path that reflected her lifelong passion for oil painting and pets. It wasn’t long before a Wyndmoor resident saw Frazer’s painting at the Evergreen Cheese Shop and commissioned the artist to paint their black Lab. 

Frazer’s pet portraits were not limited to dogs. She also painted cats, birds, turtles, even pigs. “All I need is three pet photos and approximately one week,” she said.

When Frazer was teaching in Kensington, she would always keep extra leashes and pick up strays on her drive to work. “I’d put a pup in the basement with the janitor while I was in the classroom,” she told us, “then find a good home for them when school was over. My principal would tap me on the shoulder and ask, ‘Why is there a dog in the boiler room?' And neighbors would call me when stray kitties came around on a freezing winter night, and I'd take them in. I feel a spiritual magnetism toward animals.” 

Daughter of the late Benjamin and Catherine Miller, Cassie is survived by her cousin, Carolyn Banker, of Williamstown, NJ. Services and burial were private. Donations in her name can be made to the Pennsylvania SPCA.

Stacia Friedman contributed to this article. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com