Remembering a Neighbor
One Holy Week years ago, I was wrestling the wooden cross into place in front of the church when a silver sports car screeched to the curb. Though we had not met, I knew it was the Jewish artist from down the block, Bill Fischer. He threw open the driver door and said, "You DO know that when Jesus had the so-called Last Supper with his disciples, it was really the Passover meal, don't you? It wasn't new!" I chuckled and replied, "Yes, I know that." And leaning the cross against the steps, I walked over to shake hands and make his acquaintance. We pledged to talk more, and he zipped away. Talk more we did, over many years. Bill's historic home (he had a plaque made that said so) was full to the brim with art and artifacts, much like my own parents' home. He was an Army veteran of World War II, worked as an illustrator for the Courier-Journal, owned a shoe store, then had a long career as an artist. His talents ranged over several media, including sculpture, oils, stained glass, and found objects.
His place even smelled like my childhood home - the distinct odor of oil paints. Bill's oil paints were famous in themselves, because he had purchased them from the estate of Jackson Pollock after the famed "drip" artist died in 1956. One of my habits over the years has been to walk the block just to stretch my legs and talk to people. If Bill's doors were open, I would knock and visit. He was almost always ready to give me a rundown on his latest project, often showing off stacks of new work. And this is when he was in his eighties.
On one of these visits we reached a small table near the back of the house and I noticed a little charcoal portrait of a boy. "Who is that?" I asked. "My son." he replied. "Oh, the one in Montana?" I asked. He had previously shared about a son in Montana who had become an evangelical Christian - a bit of a sticking point between them. "No." he said. Then he preceded to tell me the story of another son, who grew ill with meningitis in the 1950s and died within days. The conversation grew quiet and sad.
Bill's art often had religious themes. Tablets representing the Ten Commandments were fixed to the outside wall of the house. Small clay sculptures of a Holocaust memorial were leaned around the studio - he gave me one that still sits in my office. The larger version is in a local synagogue. He designed the huge stained glass windows of Keneseth Israel Congregation here in Louisville. Bill studied under muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and returned there year after year. The Catholicism of Mexico held an allure for Bill which frequently turned up in his art. A blue Madonna was one of his favorite works. Over time, he let our church sell prints of his painting of the Transfiguration as a fundraiser, gave us a framed copy of his drafts for the Jewish-themed stained glass windows at the Four Courts Senior Center, and donated a large oil painting of the Ascension to the congregation. (He confided in me that the village in the background of this painting is in fact San Miguel de Allende.) He delighted in showing his house and art to the youth of the congregation, and when I could, I took confirmation groups to see him. He would philosophize "Religion is a matter of need," and opine that all one needed to be an observant Jew was to keep the Sabbath. I am not sure what the rabbis say about that, but we Christians don't do a very good job on just that one commandment!
For a number of years, some friends and I played racquetball at the Jewish Community Center, and I would occasionally run into Bill there. I remember one long talk we had in the locker room about our tendency to say "Never again" about the Holocaust. Yet, the news was full of horror stories from Kosovo at the time. Bill looked at me and said, "It is happening again."
One morning Bill knocked on my office door and came in with a young woman he introduced as one of his grandchildren. He wanted to show her the Ascension painting. I don't know if he was proving his ecumenical spirit to her, or just wanted her to see the painting. We had a good visit, but all too brief. They had other things to do. It was the last time I saw him.
William Fischer died on Thursday, March 15 at a local nursing home. He was 99.
I am grateful he was my neighbor, and his will always be one of the most intriguing stories of Story Avenue.
Shalom Bill, Greg