One of Philadelphia’s most beloved artists and teachers, Dessner was born and raised in South Philadelphia. He began making art at the age of twenty-five in classes at the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial. After graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in 1965, he traveled across Europe and visited the great museums of London, Paris, Rome, and Madrid. He returned to Philadelphia, where he worked as bartender at Dirty Frank’s, a hub of the city’s art scene. He began teaching at PAFA in 1970 and remained an instructor there until his retirement in 2011. He described being inspired by Venetian painters like Titian and Veronese, and by the light and natural beauty of the island of Patmos, Greece, which he visited frequently.