Esther Kniss '49 Augsburger founded the Eastern Mennonite High School art program in 1971 and taught for the next nine years. Esther was the first art graduate from Eastern Mennonite College in 1972, where her husband, Myron, was president. She pursued art studies after initially considering a music major, which was more acceptable in the broader church at that time. She earned a master of arts degree in sculpture from James Madison University in 1978.
Esther was a role model and encouragement to hundreds of students during her tenure as a teacher. She remained a lifelong supporter of the art program at EMS, encouraging future teachers along the way. These included her successor, Herb Weaver ‘75, who taught from 1980 to ‘85, and Barbara Gautcher, who taught for the next 32 years.
Esther painted Shekinah during her tenure as teacher when Principal Samuel Weaver asked her to create something that would draw people to the Holy Spirit in the Chapel space, now the Commons. In 2005 when the new auditorium (designed by architect Lori Snyder Garrett) was built, Shekinah was moved to the hallway entrance across from the art room. In 2022, the painting was moved into the auditorium where it can, once again, call worshippers into a sacred space. A plaque with the artist’s statement hangs below.
In 1998, EMHS student leaders commissioned Esther to create a work of art that would hang on the wall where the dining hall addition joins with the original 1964 building. The piece, Shalom, is constructed of various metals and is seen daily by students, staff, and faculty on their way to lunch.
Esther donated the 87th sculpture cast (out of 200) of her creation The Sower, which references the parable of the sower, told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The sculpture reminds EMS that it is a place of rich soil where seeds of knowledge can flourish and bear fruit.
A Childhood in India
Esther’s early childhood years in India were key to her formation as an artist and creator. These are some excerpts of memories she shared in a 2020 interview with Gloria Diener.
When I was small, our family lived in a jungle village. My earliest recollection is of me sitting on my dad’s lap as I drew pictures.
I often made little people out of sticks… I would get rags, tear them, and clothe the little people I’d made out of sticks. I’d make them for my little Indian friends because they didn’t have toys. And then we would play in the sandbox my father had made… I often carried water out so we could create little towns and villages…
I had an urge to create while I was at boarding school, so my mother provided yarn and knitting needles. My ayah [maid] had taught me to knit... Our boarding school was up on a hill in Darjeeling, in the Himalayan mountains, the most beautiful place in the world. We could see Mt. Everest, the whole range of snow-covered mountains, every morning…
During the time I returned to my home from boarding school (maybe age 10 or 11), I would invite the village children to help me build villages… I had watched the Indians make bricks to build buildings, so I mixed clay like they did, using my feet and adding straw and a little bit of sand and stomping the mixture with my feet.
I also had an urge to observe, to look closely at the people around me. Our compound had a wall, maybe about 4 feet high all the way around, made of bricks. On the other side of the wall was a small tree that I can still see in my memory. I would jump up on the wall and climb into the tree and sit… just to watch the coolies [hired laborers] go by on the other side of the wall with yokes on their shoulders and a load at each end of the yoke, as they walked with a rhythmic trot... I was fascinated by their work and by the muscles in their backs, their arms and their legs. They wore only loincloths, and I attribute my ability to make things without models to the hours I spent as a child watching the coolies.
Beyond Esther's Years
Herb Weaver was one of Esther's students. He graduated in 1975, earned a degree in art from Eastern Mennonite University, and then taught art at EMHS from 1980 to 85 while earning his MFA from James Madison University. He went on to teach at Brescia University in Owensboro, Kentucky, Bethany College in West Virginia, and later at Georgia Gwinnett College near Atlanta. Throughout his career, he taught ceramics, design, art history, art education, and art appreciation.
He has remained connected to the school. Beginning in 2006 he created unique mugs for each graduating senior. See images and an article here. In spring 2022 Chapel, he told the story of his Spiritual Renewal Week Chapel series in 2000 that resulted in a sculpture, "Walk the Walk" that still remains in the auditorium foyer (pictured, right).