In a hospice center, life and art triumphant

Marianne Fischer, 88, a patient at Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River hosts an art show of her work on Saturday, November 3, 2018. Michael Karas, NorthJersey

Marianne Fischer, 88, a patient at Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River is surrounded by family and friends during an art show of her work at Villa Marie Claire on Saturday, November 3, 2018. (Photo: Michael Karas/NorthJersey.com)

SADDLE RIVER — Yellow flowers in a blue vase. A deer in a winter landscape. Crowds looking up at Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence.

Those things will be here always, thanks to the skill of artist Marianne Fischer, who has preserved them in watercolor.

 On Saturday, Marianne Fischer was here too.

That was the point — the whole reason for the exhibition of 10 of her paintings at Holy Name Hospice & Palliative Care center at Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River.

Fischer — emphatically — didn’t want to talk about her illness. What she did want to talk about was the most important thing she learned from decades of painting. Design.

“The biggest thing in art is design,” she said. “I might have a painting this size” — she brought her hands together in a postage-stamp size square — “but you can get so much into that little square. You can always get something to look at.”

Some 25 or 30 people circulated in and out of the library of Villa Marie Claire in the noon hour, chatting with the artist, admiring the paintings, and nibbling on oatmeal cookies as pianist Charlie Mezini of Washington Township played the soft strains of “Hey Jude” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” It was much like any ordinary gallery showing, by any artist, in any town.

That, too, was the point.

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People come to Villa Marie Claire when two physicians have certified that they have an incurable illness: “an expected prognosis of six months or less,” said Dr. Charlie Vialotti, medical director.

But the point of this facility, the point of the whole “hospice” movement, is to provide the best possible quality of life, whatever the circumstances. Fischer, who came to Villa Marie Claire a few weeks ago, came here to have — as much as possible — a normal life. And normal, for her, is art.

An art show at Villa Marie Claire featuring the work of Marianne Fischer, 88, a patient at Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River on Saturday, November 3, 2018.

An art show at Villa Marie Claire featuring the work of Marianne Fischer, 88, a patient at Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River on Saturday, November 3, 2018.  (Photo: Michael Karas/NorthJersey.com)

“She’s been drawing since high school,” said her daughter, also named Marianne.

“No, before that,” said her older son, Rick.

“All her life,” Marianne said.

“Definitely most of her life,” said her younger son, Ken.

Saturday’s event was, in effect, a memorial service turned on its head. The guest of honor was alive. And the idea was to celebrate a life, rather than mourn a death.

Fischer, 88,  was propped up in a wheelchair facing one of her pieces: a watercolor of four daisies, two white, two yellow. On one wrist was a yellow corsage.

No, yellow doesn’t have any particular significance for her.

“It isn’t yellow, it’s more the contrast,” she said, indicating the mix of yellow and white flowers on her canvas. “I just wanted to put color on paper.”

Fischer was animated, witty, sharp: clearly having a good time talking to all her well-wishers. But she also seemed tired. Being parked in a wheelchair for the whole time, facing one painting, might not have helped.

“If you look at it too long, you see all your mistakes,” she said.

In spirit, Fischer is an Impressionist. Her sunsets have a bit of Monet in them, her sunflowers a touch of Van Gogh. She loves color and she’s inspired by landscapes, she says. And she’s seen a lot of them: she’s traveled through Italy, Malta, Cape Cod, Arizona.

“We’ll be driving along at Cape Cod, and she’ll be like, ‘Stop!’ ” Ken said.

Marianne Fischer, 88, a patient at Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River, hugs Melissa Quarles, a family friend, during an art show of her work at Villa Marie Claire on Saturday, November 3, 2018.

Marianne Fischer, 88, a patient at Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River, hugs Melissa Quarles, a family friend, during an art show of her work at Villa Marie Claire on Saturday, November 3, 2018.  (Photo: Michael Karas/NorthJersey.com)

When most people think of hospice, they think of at-home treatment for the terminally ill. If patient comfort is paramount, what could be more comfortable than home?

But there are also hospice inpatient services like Villa Marie Claire, that aim for a better quality of life than is to be found in the typical hospital.

The 7½-year-old facility, which has rooms for 20, is covered by Medicare if the patient is judged to need 24-hour care; otherwise it’s $450 a day. The lodgings, in a refurbished summer villa, are handsome; the atmosphere is homey. There have been weddings here. Also birthday parties.

“What so often happens is that when people get older, their abilities are minimized in the eyes of the people around them,” Vialotti said. “So often, we begin to treat these people as children. They do know what’s going on. Just because they have physical limitations— they can’t walk, for instance — they don’t have to be treated like disabled, mentally compromised people. I think that’s tragic.”

It would be especially tragic for someone as talented as Fischer.

An art show at Villa Marie Claire featuring the work of Marianne Fischer, 88, a patient at Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River on Saturday, November 3, 2018.

An art show at Villa Marie Claire featuring the work of Marianne Fischer, 88, a patient at Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River on Saturday, November 3, 2018.  (Photo: Michael Karas/NorthJersey.com)

Art, as a passion, came early to her. Art as a study came late. But when she went for it, she went for it. “I jump in with both feet,” Fischer said.

Originally from Teaneck, she graduated from Teaneck High School, married, moved to Texas, and then New Milford, where she had her three kids. She was in her 40s when she decided to do something that most people — then as now — do much earlier. She decided to go to college.

“I think it was something she always wanted to do,” said her son Ken. “Women in those days didn’t always go to college.”

She majored in art history at the now-defunct Upsala College in East Orange. Then she began taking art classes. She attended the Art Students League of New York, the Famous Artists School in Connecticut, programs at the Montclair Art Museum and Ridgewood School of Art. She began teaching art herself. And she began entering her work in national shows.

“All through her painting career she’s entered juried shows,” says her daughter Marianne. “She has a pile of award ribbons.”

Her work (she’s done oil paintings, pastel and acrylic as well as watercolor) has been on display everywhere from galleries in Long Beach Island and Southport, North Carolina, where she’s lived at various times, to the Monmouth Museum.

An art show at Villa Marie Claire featuring the work of Marianne Fischer, 88, a patient at Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River on Saturday, November 3, 2018.

An art show at Villa Marie Claire featuring the work of Marianne Fischer, 88, a patient at Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River on Saturday, November 3, 2018.  (Photo: Michael Karas/NorthJersey.com)

But Saturday’s show — in these circumstances — is in some ways her most important one. Though it happened, her doctor said, almost by accident.

“I saw the paintings she had in her room, and I looked at her website,” Vialotti said. “I asked her if she would ever consider doing a show here. She smiled and said, ‘Can we? Really?’ “

This was a chance for her — and her children — to take stock, not only of her life, but her accomplishments. “She’s leaving a huge part of herself behind with her art,” Ken said.

“And you, her children, are her legacy too,” Vialotti reminds him. 

“That’s true,” Ken said. “We’re so grateful that we’re celebrating her life with her, rather than afterwards.”

Back in the library, Fischer is still contemplating her daisies. Still lifes and landscapes have always had an appeal for her: a vase of flowers, a couple of kids at the beach. Maybe because they’re of the moment.

“Some of these things don’t last forever,” she says.

 

 

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