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Obituary: Dr. Jessie J. Poesch '44

New Orleans, LA: Jessie Poesch, a scholar blessed with unflagging curiosity who spent a half-century studying such decorative creations as paintings, pottery and prints, died April 23, 2011, at Touro Infirmary of complications from surgery. She was 88.

Dr. Poesch was an art professor at Tulane University's Newcomb College. Her books and articles on topics such as armoires, New Orleans gravestones, Louisiana architecture and Newcomb pottery fill four single-spaced pages of her résumé. "She pioneered the field of Southern decorative arts," said William Ferris, a longtime friend and a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. "She was the dean of the field." Despite her formidable knowledge, Dr. Poesch was "the nicest person you could want to meet," said Lawrence Powell, a friend and colleague who is director of the New Orleans Gulf South Center at Tulane. "Brilliance and personal warmth don't always go together," he said, "but she combined them to a rare degree."

Dr. Poesch joined the Tulane faculty in 1963. She officially retired in 1992, and an endowed art professorship was established that year in her honor. Despite what was supposed to be a change in her status, Dr. Poesch kept an office on campus and she continued to work. "She had other things to say and other things to research," said Sally Main, a close friend, who collaborated with Dr. Poesch on a 2003 book on Newcomb pottery. "She never stopped being intellectually curious, and she never ran out of things that she wanted to write about."

Shortly before her death, Dr. Poesch finished a book on the Great Dismal Swamp, a 750-square-mile expanse that straddles Virginia and North Carolina and is as big as Rhode Island. This area, which had been a hideout for runaway slaves, is not only a reminder of the wilderness that once dominated North America but also a magnet for photographers and painters, said Ferris, the senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Although Dr. Poesch was acclaimed for her work—she was a Fulbright scholar who received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities—she happened on her career by accident, Main said.

A native of Postville, Iowa, Dr. Poesch graduated from Antioch College in 1944 with a degree in psychology but wasn't sure what she wanted to do. She worked with the American Friends Service Committee reuniting families in Europe after World War II, Main said, and she worked briefly at the State Department. When Dr. Poesch heard a friend say he was going to take an art history class, that appealed to her, Main said, so she signed up. She did an internship at the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, which is part of the University of Delaware, and earned a master's degree. She also earned master's and doctoral degrees in art history at the University of Pennsylvania.

She is survived by nieces and nephews. A memorial service will be held May 9 at 2:30 p.m. in the Rogers Memorial Chapel at Tulane. Burial will be in Postville. Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.