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The first thing I see when I arrive at Betty Fishman’s condominium off Covington Road is a 5-foot diameter disc of what looks like concrete hanging on an outside wall opposite her garage. The gray surface is smooth with a curved undulation like a breaking wave or a winding river flanked by a rolling bluff running horizontally just above the mid-line. The sculpture is a fitting welcome to a home filled with art.
Ostensibly I’m here to talk with Fishman about receiving her latest award and about her life as the prime mover of the Fort Wayne arts community over the last four decades. Her work with Artlink and the Fort Wayne School of Art and her years as an art teacher in Noble County are legendary. But as she greets me at the door and leads me to her basement office, it seems the last thing Betty Fishman needs or appears to want to talk about is another award.
It’s not that she’s outwardly unappreciative or anything. The many awards that she has won over the years for her work promoting artists hang prominently on her walls. It’s just that she’s got other things on her mind.
“Today is my birthday,” she says as we take our seats and begin talking. “I’d forgotten all about it until I was downtown and someone reminded me.”
At 94, Fishman can be forgiven the minor lapse of forgetting her own birthday. Who hasn’t done that? What’s occupying her thoughts is not another year but another move. After 16 years in her three-level condo, she has to downsize and relocate.
“I’m moving now,” she says. “This is my studio. Got it all cleared out now. My daughters are coming in from California and New Jersey this weekend with a truck. I hate leaving, but you saw the stairs.”
Apart from the empty bookshelves and the lone plastic tub squatting in the middle of the room, it’s hard to tell a move is imminent. A computer and a rolling file, things she uses for her work as an art appraiser, are still handy. Paintings and photographs remain on the walls. She points to a series of large, three-foot by four-foot black and white prints on a wall across the room.
“That’s me,” she says, indicating the first of six in the series, a photo of a baby bundled up in front of a house. “I was born in my grandmother’s house in Defiance, Ohio.”
The photographic timeline includes her infant daughter with the family dog. “That baby is now 64. The dog is long gone.” It ends with a portrait of Fishman, the artist as a young woman. “We quit after a while. Ran out of wall space.”
A lack of sufficient wall space must be a perpetual problem for Fishman. She’s made her own art for years and is still at it.
“The last painting I did is hanging at First Presbyterian Church,” she says. “Did it two weeks ago. My first husband was a jazz musician in addition to being a pilot, so I did some paintings thinking about the past. The last one I did was called ‘Deep Purple’ after the jazz song. Another one is ‘Celery Stalks at Midnight.’ That’s a jazz song too. And then another one, ‘Money Makes the World Go Round.’ The themes I used when I did the last series of stuff I did when I still had a studio was a result of thinking about the past and the years when I was 17, 18, 19 years old, traveling all over the world alone. Someone recently asked if I still traveled. I said well I go to Roanoke once in a while.”
Making and appreciating art is the principal focus of her life and has been since she was a little girl.
“I grew up in Hicksville, Ohio, and there wasn’t a hell of a lot of art there,” she says. “But there was one woman who was a painter. Every week my mother gave me a dollar and I took art lessons. I don’t remember what I did, but I remember walking down to her house with a dollar bill.”
Among people she knows and has worked with, Fishman has a reputation for saying what’s on her mind. And that’s not exactly a new aspect of her personality.
“They put me in school when I was a little kid. I must have been a pest. I had an argument with one of the teachers, Vera Collins. She was a squat little thing – looked like a pigeon. We had to decorate paper cookies. Had to put three little paper raisins on them. I said ‘I don’t want to do that’ and went screaming down the hall to my mother who was a math teacher at the same school. She put me over her knee, spanked me and sent me back down the hall to first grade.”
Her first husband was a pilot in World War II and was killed in action. Her second husband, Marvin Fishman, a clothier, was from Fort Wayne. She moved here with him in 1949, and they started a family.
By 1955 Fishman was president of the board of directors of the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum. In 1965 she started Goldfish Gallery above Fishman’s on South Calhoun. The next year she divorced Marvin and married local artist Russell Oettel, whom she divorced in 1984.
In the 1970s she began an 18-year career teaching middle school art in Kendallville. It was a job she loved.
“I liked the variety,” she says. “When you get to high school and college, you close down. In sixth, seventh or eighth grade, it all comes out.”
She retired from teaching middle school but she didn’t retire from working with and promoting artists. In 1986 she started volunteering with Artlink. Four years later she was hired as Artlink’s new executive director and immediately set about changing the course of the organization. She led Artlink until 2005.
She sees a lot that’s good about the art scene in Fort Wayne. And Fort Wayne has seen a lot that’s good about Fishman. Two of Fort Wayne’s mayors honored her. She received a slew of awards for her art work. She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Saint Francis. She even has an award named after her: the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s Betty Fishman Award for Achievement in the Arts. All along, she continued appraising art and making her own. Art, she tells me, is the one constant not only in her life but throughout history.
“Historically, it’s the things people keep,” she says. “I don’t care about what religion, what country – we save the art. We disagree over what it is, of course. Art is the unknown. It changes the civilization. It is the civilization. And by the arts, I mean the visual arts, music, dance, theater. They don’t all work together, but they all work towards the future. We don’t worry about what happened in the past. I think we’re always forward-thinking. Maybe it’s not good, maybe it’s not bad. We’ve got a lot of dumb artists too. But you know art is there, and you know it is important to the civilization, even to the people that are not involved.”
Fishman says she still goes to art openings but that she likes to get there early.
“I’ve got to get there early so I can see the work,” she says. “Everybody wants to talk. I like people, but you don’t go to a concert to talk to the people sitting next to you.”
As I leave, she walks me past the piece I saw when I arrived. She looks at it for a moment and says, “I’ve always loved this sculpture. But I’m not sure what I’ll do with it when I move.”