It hit Ellen Fischer especially hard last summer when she learned that her longtime friend and fellow artist Lis Bech was opting to end her chemotherapy. That fraught decision sent Fischer, a painter and art appraiser, deep into her background in art history as she contemplated the notion of mortality.
Last week, as Lis lay close to death, Fischer put on display the series of paintings she made in her honor, though most visitors to her All Saints Day show weren’t aware of that connection.
Instead, they simply took the realistic still lifes, hung in her central Vero studio, as memento mori – Latin for “remember that we must die,” an ancient practice dating back to Socrates, and a long tradition in painting that often includes depictions of human bones or skulls. In that same tradition are the paintings known as vanitas, popular in the 17th century, that may include “a skull, an hourglass, a worm,” points out Fischer, the former curator at the Vero Beach Museum of Art and a certified art appraiser.
Symbols of death, “they make us think about life,” she says.
Fischer, who writes regularly on fine art for 32963, had profiled Bech for this paper in 2013; in the course of the interview, Fischer says, the two became much closer.
Fischer had kept Bech apprised of the project’s progress. “She wasn’t shy about talking about death. I don’t think she knew I was doing it for her, but she certainly approved of it.”
For Fischer, the skull that was the model for the still life paintings took on a powerful presence in her studio. “It was the first thing I looked at when I turned on the lights in the morning and the last thing I looked at when I turned off the lights at night,” she says. “It didn’t convey a spiritual presence to me but it did convey a strong human presence.”
Through the touch of her brush, though, an almost metaphysical transfer happened on the canvas, giving the viewer an impression of feeling the object.
“You touch the canvas as though you’re touching the object itself,” she says of the painting process. “Some passes are vigorous but some are like putting a just a breath of color on. That’s how you get tactile quality that you can feel only with your eyes in a painting.”
That frisson-inducing aspect in viewing the skull on the canvas is in a way the very point of the memento mori. If we can’t yet feel our inevitable death, we can see it coming through reminders.
As visitors walked through the exhibit though, at least one, artist Quentin Walter, had thoughts of the past.
“Whose skull is it?” she asked.
Walter wasn’t wondering about the current owner; she was thinking of its original one.
On loan from lifelong Vero artist and rancher Sean Sexton, the skull has been a fixture in his studio for 30 years. Determined to be of a middle-age woman likely of Asian descent, it came into his hands through a neighbor who was a sheriff’s detective; the skull was taken in some long-ago raid, presumably purchased from some supply store for science or medical endeavors back in the day.
Sexton, who counts among his favorite paintings one by Cezanne of three skulls, first used the skull in one of his most spectacular paintings, “Song of the South,” a large tableau of a table with a grass green striped cloth laden with gourds and ears of corn. Under the table, representing the past, Sexton says, is the skull sitting next to large animal bones, including a horse’s skull.
“I’ve used it in probably 20 paintings,” Sexton says of the relic.
The skull seemed part of the family, Fischer says, present much of the time in front of Sexton’s easel. “It always drew my eye,” says Fischer, a frequent visitor to Sexton’s ranch west of Vero. Now, with the urge to paint it herself, she asked Sexton to borrow it. “I knew I’d have it several months,” she says.
Sexton handed it to Fischer in a plastic bag from Target, after it got a good scrubbing from Sean’s wife Sharon in the kitchen sink. The unceremonious nature of the transfer seemed to strike Fischer right away, in contrast to the associations often made with human bones, that range from mystical fervor to maudlin revulsion. Dismissing those imaginings, she chose to capture on her canvas the quotidian unveiling. “The second I pulled the bag down around the eye sockets, I knew I had to paint it.”
That is the least formal of Fischer’s efforts, though not the only one with an element of humor. Several paintings include a blue-gray gourd Sexton had handed her as she left his ranch that day. Sexton was thinking the shapes were complementary. To Fischer, the skull and gourd’s function were similar. “They’re containers,” she says.
So was the cardboard box that appears in other paintings. The box, with its matte surface, contrasts with the sheen of the gourd and skull. It also just happened to be handy to pop over the skull whenever guests stopped by – “so they wouldn’t freak out,” says Fischer.
Following her contemplative memento mori months of painting, Fischer moved on to her typical summer travel. This year, her easel followed her to Indiana, where she once lived; she was director of the Museum of Art in Lafayette, and earned a BFA from Indiana University before getting an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. On a trip to the Lake Michigan shore in July, she painted “Dunes.” That landscape just won Best of Show at the Best of the Best Juried Exhibition at Fort Pierce’s A.E. Backus Museum. The show is on view through Nov. 17.
In Vero, Fischer’s last solo show was at the Center for Spiritual Care in fall of 2015. That show featured a series of portraits done from online mug shots. “Another type of head,” she says. “The skull was a natural progression.”
In one painting, the skull faces backwards. That seemed to sooth viewers last week, who declared the painting their favorite, Fischer says. It was as if the skull was being discreet.
There were other skulls in Fischer’s Day of the Dead tribute. There were paintings of two deer skulls she has owned for years. And another large canvas showed two bird skulls with long beaks, one from a pelican, the other an egret. That one she rested on top of a red clay pot – the belly of the bird. Of all the memento mori, that one, with its prankish positioning, seemed most mindful of Lis Bech. A middle-school art teacher for many years, as well as a teacher at the Vero Beach Museum of Art, Lis loved to paint shorebirds, particularly egrets.
Two years ago, Bech herself painted a memento mori series, of dead cows surrounded by vultures. She called the series “Kissimmee River Circle of Life” and posted it on her Facebook page. Asked in a comment why she painted them, Lis wrote, “Maybe because I’ve been so close to death so many times this year.” That was in 2015.
Bech died last Friday, three days after Fischer’s show.
“A sad day for many,” says Fischer, mourning her loss. “She had so many friends and former students who were inspired by her in so many ways. I had been expecting this for a couple of weeks now – and still it is a shock to hear the news.”