donna fischer | the artist next door | may 2017
My mother, Mildred Fischer, was a talented artist. She enjoyed sketching people and had a genuine talent for capturing a likeness. Her landscapes often featured mountains, though it was her lush redwood forest painting that won her a blue ribbon at the Outagamie County Fair one summer.
To me, Mom just seemed able to do things. She could have bought many of the things she made with her hands, but she seemed to enjoy putting her mind and her hands to work. Wooden doll houses, outfits for school, quilts or delicate dresses for antique dolls. One day I came home from the fourth grade bemoaning my lack of a Lemon Twist. This new toy consisted of a plastic lemon on a rubber cord that attached to one's ankle. You jump and swing it around. Instead of driving to the store, she just pulled out a number of articles from the junk drawer and fashioned a Lemon Twist for me. It wasn't pretty but it worked. I'll never know how hard she worked at these endeavors; she just had that way of making things seem effortless.
But she was always known for her skill with a pencil or paintbrush. “And does your mom still paint?" someone might ask me. I might say, “Yes, she's working on a painting of a mountain in Colorado now," or “No, she hasn't painted in a while, but she started sewing teddy bears lately." Growing up, I learned that having an artistic gift was pretty nice thing to be known for.
She told me that when she was a young girl growing up outside De Pere, she used to sketch the movie stars featured in the Sunday paper. I think the days before television invaded our homes must have been productive ones indeed. She saved the drawings and they are now in my possession. Glamorous movie stars like Veronica Lake are captured in colored pencil with grace and beauty.
Once a traveling salesman visited my mom and grandmother with an offer to go to art school somewhere, but it never happened; it was probably too expensive.
If my mother felt slighted by the fact that she never became a professional artist, she certainly never let on. Mom and Dad married in 1947 and went on to have thirteen children, a nice dairy farm and a happy marriage. I couldn't find a lot of evidence that she produced much art in the early years of her marriage, and that hardly surprises me. As I've interviewed many women artists over the past couple of years, the same pattern seems to come up: they put family first, then work and then their art. And when it comes to a dairy farm, the work is formidable. Dad did the heavy lifting of course, but for Mom there was a milk house that needed cleaning, meals to make, a house to clean, a garden to tend, chickens to raise and butcher and the list just keeps going.
Where did she ever find the time for art?
Whether she had the time or not, I think Mom knew the value of a creative outlet. Thoroughly humble, she never set out to make something flashy just to get attention. Rather, she drew and painted the people and natural settings she loved. She was an avid fan of waterfalls and managed to paint them on occasion, though getting acrylic paint to mimic rushing water is no easy feat.
I remember being allowed to tag along when Mom took an art workshop during winter evenings at Seymour Community High School. I colored in a book next to her while she worked on her sketches or painting. Mr. Loud was the instructor back then. I wish I could remember what he said about her work, but I'm sure he liked having her there. Mom was an easy-going, optimistic person.
So much for the tortured artist cliché.
Art seemed to be part of Mom's identity. She didn't fret about being good enough; she simply kept working at it throughout her life. On Saturdays we used to watch William Alexander on PBS. She marveled at his speedy painting style and laughed at his funny expressions. Next came everyone's favorite: Bob Ross. I don't remember if Mom preferred one artist over the other, but these tutorials certainly captured her whole attention.
The life of a farm wife isn't terribly exciting as a rule. They don't give out awards for the best meals prepared in the shortest amount of time or the widest selection of canned fruit produced for a given season. But after her faith and her family, came the work and finally the art. It gave her world a splash of color and allowed her imagination to run wild over mountain streams and scenic valleys. Like a good book, art can be a wonderful escape from the day's troubles. I suspect there are more than a few farm wives out there working today who keep a supply of oil or acrylic paints handy, waiting for that rare afternoon when they can slip away and create a little masterpiece of their own.
Donna Fischer is an avid fan of music, film and art. When she's not writing on these subjects you'll find her gardening or snowshoeing around Green Bay.