I know a lot of people are very worried about me right now. I know a lot of people have been very worried about me for a very long time. I just want people to know that despite all the terrible things that happened in our lives, my father loved me so much, I loved him right back, and that love is still with me guiding me forward. As one friend said, “Bill slipped up, but Bill never gave up.” I am proud to call Bill Fisher my father, proud of his life and legacy, and like him I am resilient, and I am going to be okay. Better yet, I will thrive. I am so grateful for my wonderful family and friends. I will slip into terrible despair I know, but like my Dad I am going to keep getting back up, because that is who we are.
Below you will find the remembrance I gave at my father’s memorial service. I am posting it for those who were unable to be there for the service, and for those who were they but wish to go through it again. But before I do I just want to add a little more about my father.
The First Time I Saw My Father
My mother tells me that when she told my father she was going to have his child she said that she would not come looking for him or his family unless I asked for him. When I was three, maybe four, I remember asking, “Why don’t I have a Dad?” and I didn’t know it at the time but my mother began searching. To her surprise he found us first. He had started looking for us as soon as I started asking for him. She described us as having some kind of mysterious connection pulling us together even though we had never seen one another.
Then one day my mother took to me McDonalds. I was eating french fries in a booth and across from me my mother sat to the left leaving a space for someone who had not yet arrived. I looked across the store to my right towards the registers and saw a man looking back at me. He stood maybe ten or fifteen feet away and began weeping. He then walked towards us, stood at the end of the table, and my mother said, “Miguel this is your Dad.” He knelt down towards me so we could see each other eye to eye, and then he sat across from me. I don’t remember what he said but I remember overwhelming joy. I remember how by the end of the conversation I knew I had met my best friend.
The Last Time I Saw My Father
I had been waiting to hear from my Dad all morning. I was hoping he would invite me to work out at the downtown YMCA with him like we had discussed the day before. I called him up and he called me back a few minutes later. “Sorry I couldn’t get to the phone I am on my scooter.” I asked him to meet me for coffee at WPA. I had a free hour before Christine and I were to go to the Mozart Festival and wanted to spend a little time with him.
We were dogsitting Christine’s Boss’ dog Azmo or Azzi so I took Azzi along. Three blocks from WPA Azzi refused to walk lifting his paw to indicate injury so I carried the dog in my arms the rest of the way. My father was there waiting for me sitting outside in front of the cafe. “Who is this little guy?” he said as I approached. He played with Azzi, made a joke to a little girl whose dog was sniffing Azzi’s butt “I am so thankful we humans have better ways to say hello.” She cracked up laughing and I thought of how children love my dad. “I love Uncle Bill” my sister Kaya would say, “he is just another kid like me.”
I showed him a picture of my most recent drawing which he thought was “damn good.” He told me about his newest painting and how he was trying to express his last operation and time in the hospital. He was excited about having me come by to see the work. We talked about his friend Harold and he asked me if I would be interested in going to West Virginia with him to see him. My father missed Appalachia, he missed the landscape of his childhood. Then he asked me if we could get a hotel together at Virginia Beach and spend a weekend just the two of us. “I would love to do all that Dad, but just one day at a time, one day at a time.”
We had a falling out a few weeks earlier when he called me intoxicated at two in the morning and I put distance between us to protect myself from his destructive behavior. I said “Dad I love you and I am rooting for you but I can’t be with you.” I asked him not to come to my 30th birthday party which he had been so excited about, I told him I didn’t want the present he bought me. He was wounded but respected my decision and said “I do not blame you Miguel.” He told me that he wanted me to do what I had to do to take care of myself. I blocked him out of my life, I swore I had finally had enough, until I remembered him in the hospital, until I remembered holding his swollen hand, listening to him scream for hours, the fear in his eyes, his inability to understand, “I’m dying,” he said, “I’m dying.”
“I’m here Dad, it’s Miguel, can you hear me? can you see me? I love you, please come back, please come back, please come back, please come back…”
The memory broke my heart wide open.
And he was back, not perfect, but back, and that is why we were having coffee together that day. It was beautiful outside. It was perfect. When I got up to leave I turned and I said, “Dad I love you” and he said “I love you too.” I can still feel him putting his arms around me. And I watched him as he rode off down the street.
Later that day I told Christine that after years and years of struggle my father and I seemed to have finally made it to a place where we could share the best of ourselves without hurting one another. “Today was good, today was finally good.” I went to bed thinking this was the beginning of a new chapter in our lives, that the good would keep coming, that we were finally beating this monster that had stood between us for so long.
But the next morning my uncle Bernie called,
“Miguel, the police found your father’s body…”
I only have the strength to get through this once, no re-writes, no edits, none of that. In true Bill Fisher style, I am going to wing it this evening and hope for the best. We all know that the addictions which tormented my dad finally took his life. We all know that we as a family did our best to help him, often making the wrong decisions, but doing what we felt we had to do out of love. We all know that there are a lot of wonderful people in this city who tried to help my dad. We all know there are a lot of predators in this city who exploited and used him. For nearly two thirds of my life this fight has taken the forefront. I watched my dad slowly disappear. It was excruciating to come home periodically, to find him less of himself every time, and I was so angry. I was angry at him, angry at Legends and Baja Bean for never failing to serve him, angry at the drug dealers who took our money, angry at the judges whose sentences only made life harder, angry at the cops who denied my dad human dignity and abused his body, angry at the jails which only made my dad’s self abuse increase, and angry at my dad for taking himself away from me. I wish now though, and perhaps this is more than any human can bear, but I wish I had spent less time angry, less time lamenting the parts of him I lost, and more time cherishing the parts of him that held in there, that kept fighting.
Of all the comments I got, the one that touched me in a way I was not anticipating was from a friend in the program who said, “I always saw him at my Wednesday meeting, he didn’t speak, but was always engaged.” After every relapse, and they were countless, my dad never gave up. He always told me, “Miguel you know my life does not have a happy ending,” but he didn’t give up no matter how bad he knew the ending would be. He kept pushing, making the time he was truly with us, in mind and body, as wonderful as he could. I so wanted to prove him wrong about the track our lives were on. I wanted him to be a grandfather, I wanted him to see my career blossom, I wanted him to die in the loving care of his family, not alone in some crack house. And when he died I knew, a nightmare I have been having for half my life had finally come true, only this time I won’t wake up in tears, gather myself, call him and ask him if he wants to meet me at the cafe for lunch. This time the nightmare isn’t ending. But with all this despair, which seems boundless, there is so much love and admiration. He fell, but he never gave up. The booze, the drugs, the dealers, they took his life, but they can’t take him, because he is with all of us now. Those who knew my dad were, like myself, waiting for this day decades ago. He stuck it out for so long. Yes he died and his death is a tragedy, but his life was a miracle, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
When I was five years old my dad took me to a cafe and we had our first philosophical conversation. Or at least the first that I can remember. He said to me, “How many legs does a stool need to stand up?” I thought about it and concluded that a stool with two legs would fall over so there had to be three or four legs. He agreed with me and then asked what was sturdier, a four legged stool, or a three legged stool. I don’t remember if I answered correctly but I do remember us coming to the conclusion that a four legged stool could have an uneven leg that causes the whole thing to wobble back and forth, but a three legged stool was solid and could not be shaken. He then continued that a good life was constructed like a stool, with three legs or foundations that had to be maintained in balance. One leg was the body, another was the mind, and the third was the spirit. “All good things in moderation” he told me, and would continue to tell me for years to come.
It wasn’t until years later that I was old enough to see how my dad struggled to maintain these three areas of his own life; body, mind, and spirit. And now that he has passed on it is all I can think about. So I will share with all of you my reflections and in doing so I hope to convey who my dad was to me.
My dad was an athlete. That may sound odd to some of you who only knew him as a painter, but it is true. His love of exercise and physical challenge were as deep as his love for art and music. I am not talking about your average football fan sitting on the couch a couple times a week for passive entertainment. My dad loved sports with religious fervor. Engaging his body was an act of meditation.
When I was very young I remember watching my dad play basketball. I can still see the focus and intensity on his face. He told me he could never play above rim, but boy was he proud of his three point shot. His signature shot was to stand in the corner of the court facing the net at an angle that rendered the backboard useless. He would shoot with a quick and graceful arc, and swoosh, “nothing but net” he would say. I know he played on city courts in pickup games, often at Randolph, and later in life he would talk about how much he hated it when his teammates would say, “White boy’s gonna lose it for us.” He even wrote it in a painting but I am afraid he wiped it out for fear of offending people who didn’t understand the world he came up in. He just hated being doubted, and I am sure whenever people told him white boys couldn’t ball he played all the harder. One of my fondest memories was waking up in Blacksburg when I was four to find a poster of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Basketball team on my door. My dad immediately started naming off the players, “Let me tell you about Larry Bird.” I never took to basketball like he did, which didn’t stop him from signing me up as a kid, but I did often come with him to Ginter Park where he played once a week until his knees finally gave out on him.
But as intense as his love for basketball was, I think my dad will be best remembered as a swimmer. He loved swimming. He was amazing at it. He had this ability to pace himself for incredible distances. He would start off kind of slow, almost as if just warming up, but then he would just keep going, and going, and going, and before I knew it he would hop out and say, “wooo 36, that’s a mile, let’s hit the shower.” I bet if you timed lap 6, lap 16, and lap 36, you would find little fluctuation in his speed. He was a machine, precise and unrelenting. He called it an act of meditation, and would often talk about the peace that came over him when it was just him and the water. He always said that swimming was a pure sport, because in swimming unlike team sports the competition was always the self. I can hear him telling me at 13 when I swam for the Richmond Racers, “it isn’t about being the best, it is about doing your best.” Swimming gave my dad an opportunity to teach me that the slowest kid in the heat who gave it his all and came in last was a greater champion than the fastest kid who phoned it in.
The pool also brought him community. Even during the last week of his life he talked about how much he loved working as a lifeguard for the city of Richmond. He loved checking chlorine levels, telling crazy stories about the characters in the neighborhood, talked about how fun it was to throw birthday parties at the pool for kids. At a time when the city was deeply segregated and you would seldom see whites and blacks together, my dad would say, “I always knew I was safe, because at Randolph I didn’t have white friends, or black friends, I had real friends, and real friends have your back no matter what you look like.” He loved the kids too. Nothing brought him more joy than teaching children swimming lessons. He would always talk about one little boy in particular who loved my dad so much he asked, “Bill, will you be my daddy?” My dad always cried when he told me this story. He said “I’m sorry I can’t be your daddy but I promise to be your friend.” And whoever that little boy was, and wherever he might be today, I know my dad was still thinking about him right up until his final days.
A lot of you probably don’t know how many lives my father has saved. He had story after story about pulling out drowning children, CPR, pulling a teen out of the river. He never bragged, never thought much of it, just saw it as his responsibility as a lifeguard. But his rescuing didn’t end with his years as a lifeguard. Once I watched my dad save a man at the Outer Banks. He got sucked out by the rip tide and didn’t have the strength to make it back to shore. He waved his arms for help but his wife who was distracted mistook it for waving to say hello. By the time we all understood what was happening my dad was already running full speed down the beach boogie board in hand. He swam out, had the man hold on to the board, and pulled him back to safety. My dad would often say that the world would be better without him, and I would think of the lives he saved, the families whom he spared so much suffering, and wondered how he could ever feel that way.
Football was my Dad’s first love, and the Cowboys were his team. He loved talking about how his affinity for the Cowboys was purely aesthetic; as a little boy he liked the big star on their helmet, but it was love at first sight and he continued to love them his whole life. I’ll miss playing football with my Dad at Thanksgiving, or hearing him shout with my uncles during a great play. I swear every year when the air cools and the first whiff of autumn is in the air my Dad would say, “my favorite time of year, it’s football weather.” Tossing the ball back and forth, especially with his siblings, always centered him. I think no matter what was going on in his life, it gave him a little window back to happier times.
If it had not been for this passion for sports I know we would have lost my father years ago. Between the three major open heart surgeries, the severity of his alcoholism that stretched all the way back to his teens, the abuse of crack cocaine, I swear he is a medical mystery. If my dad wasn’t actively destroying himself he was actively bettering himself, holding on as long as he could, getting all the recovery he could get out of each period of sobriety before falling again, and then always getting back up.
Most of you here did not see him during the three months he was at MCV after his final surgery. Watching the team at MCV keep him alive was one of the finest juggling acts I have ever seen. For most of the first two months he was unconscious, and if he was conscious all he did was scream. I am haunted by the memory of hearing the words, “I’m dying, I’m in hell, please kill me” garbled out in short breaths from broken lungs. I held his hand, I kissed his head, and I told him I loved him and I begged him to open his eyes, to come back to me. And somehow he did, so slowly. He was like a newborn gradually becoming aware of the world around him. A month later he was laughing and joking but fearful that he would never again be without oxygen due to scar tissue on his lungs, leaving his capacity to get oxygen permanently damaged. A few weeks after that he was in physical therapy relearning to walk on his own, practicing making it up just three steps at a time. When he came home I watched him crawl on his hands and knees up 16 steps stopping every few steps to breathe. And in just a few short months after that he was lifting weights and riding the bike at the gym. The week before he died I heard he made it up and down the pool fifteen times. Where did he find the strength? Where did he find the courage? Looking at an old photo, someone said, “Your father was a picture of health.” Perhaps for a time he was, but more importantly, my Dad was the picture of resilience.
My Dad was a brilliant man. I don’t think enough people understood that about him. I don’t think he understood it enough himself. I don’t know if it was his working class demeanor, his Appalachian accent, or his love for making people laugh, but I fear so many people who met my dad let their own ignorance blind them to his brilliance. Fortunately there were those who did recognize it.
“When I look back on VCU,” my Dad would say, “I realize they didn’t teach me shit.” We’ve all heard it, from his mouth and countless other artists around the city. How could this institution which hangs over the city like an umbrella, unchallenged, provide so little in the way of real education in one’s craft. Nobody wanted to teach me how to draw, he would complain. And he called the painting department the “collects shit” department. When I was frustrated by the ways in which I felt slighted in school, my dad would always say, don’t worry about it Miguel, none of the faculty at VCU thought I would amount to much but here I am with a career. Oddly enough, despite his disdain for the institution, he spoke about some of his faculty and classmates with the warmest of affection, and I know from countless stories that his time at VCU was one of the happiest of his life. My father, as you all know, was full of contradictions and complexities.
When my dad attended Radford University and studied under Paul Fretts and Halide Salam, he found his true voice and faculty who recognized his brilliance. He loved telling me about how Paul had worked under Elaine deKooning and how once when my dad was being too delicate, indecisive and cautious in completing a painting, Paul tacked a note next to it that said, “Shit or get off the Pot.” We visited Paul’s studio a few years ago and being surrounded by his mentor’s work left my dad with so much inspiration and joy. My dad had a special place in his heart for Halide. He always talked about her class on the Russian avant garde. I don’t know if the content of the class had much impact on my dad’s artwork, but I do know that having a forum in which to share his thoughts, a forum in which he was treated with respect and dignity, not as a friend, or as a student, but as an artist, was truly life-changing for him.
It is so funny to hear his account of his education at VCU compared to his students. A friend of mine who I met at the New York Academy stopped me once and said, “Are you Bill Fisher’s son.” I laughed and asked him how he knew my dad. He said he never had my father as a teacher, but would try to listen in on him critiquing artwork because his insights were so valuable. He was blunt, tough, and funny. Some of my favorite quotes of my dad as an instructor were:
“No dead rock stars! Draw from observation. I don’t want to see another Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix in my class!”
“Express yourself?! You’re either eighteen or nineteen, I doubt there is much you need to express that will be of any interest to me.”
“Look you may be expressing your feelings but so am I when I yell after stubbing my toe, but nobody’s calling it opera!”
“Before you share with the class your treatise on man’s inhumanity to man, why don’t you show me that you can draw the damn box.”
“I never understand why my colleagues have to talk so much! Most of class I sit quietly and my kids are doing great.”
I also remember my dad driving through the fan and seeing a former student jogging down the street. He rolled down the window and yelled, “Run fat boy!” to which his student gave my dad the finger and smiled, “Good to see you Mr. Fisher.”
My dad was too intense for a lot of his students. They weren’t ready for someone like him, someone who loved his craft, someone who took his calling seriously, someone who did not tolerate bullshit. And as an instructor at VSU I understand what my dad was dealing with. Polarizing, yes, but out of a need to see those students reach higher potentials. For all the former students who have called my dad mean, politically incorrect or insensitive, there are countless more who were thankful to have someone in their life that demanded their best effort. My dad was determined to make sure that the next generation of young artists got the education he wished he had. He so badly wanted to his students to go on to be successful in life, to be their best selves. VCU doesn’t know what it lost when they lost my dad, and I imagine still don’t, and he didn’t know what he would be losing when he left. One afternoon while we were both working in his studio he stopped paintings, paused, turned to me and said, “You know what Miguel, I never knew I would miss the kids so much.” He so deeply loved his students.
When my dad was picked up by Ethan and Ivan Karp at O.K. Harris Gallery, he had found a true champion of his work. Once someone referred to a few paintings in a stack my dad brought up as “the good ones.” “What are you talking about,” we overheard Ivan say, “all of Bill Fisher’s paintings are good.” My dad was at home in New York, and I have mixed feelings about his decision to stay in Richmond. He had mixed feelings too. He stayed because in Richmond he knew where to get a fix, but he also stayed because in Richmond he had his family and friends that he loved so dearly. “Richmond’s like my favorite old jeans jacket,” he would say, “I’m just comfortable here.” But in New York he was well respected. Sales slowed dramatically after the recession, and my dad being my dad did not blame the economy as much as he blamed himself. His self worth faded, but he got some of it back when he overheard Ivan Karp say, “I don’t care if I never sell another Bill Fisher, he is a great artist and his work deserves to be seen.” Ivan’s passing was a serious blow to my dad but it is important for his son Ethan and their family to know how much they did for my dad, and how thankful all who loved my dad are for them. My grad school buddies and colleagues outside of school were fascinated by the surface my dad could create, and the energy he got out of relatively limited ranges of color. I went to school in Tribeca, one neighborhood south of OK Harris, and worked for two years at Soho Art Materials just a couple blocks down, and I can not express to you the pride I felt of walking down the street and seeing my dad’s paintings hanging in a window, the name Bill Fisher elevated above the street for everyone on West Broadway and Broome St.
And that same pride came over me when I saw my Dad’s work lit up like a Christmas tree for all of Newbury street in Boston. I couldn’t believe it. Never had I seen painting so respected in its presentation. Arden Gallery has been so good to my dad. He loved Hope and Zola so much for believing in him and believing in his work. As someone who was once embarrassed and shy to tell people he was an artist, referring to himself as just a lifeguard, the joy it must have brought him when he could stand a block away and see a bright light in the city, and say that’s me, that’s my work. God I hated when my dad said “cancel your plans I need you to drive some work for me up to Boston.” Now I look back on those trips and I miss them so much. I would love to be driving across the country with my dad right now, just us discussing art and music and telling jokes. His career provided us with such wonderful adventures.
His descent into abstraction was a very slow and gradual one, but the day he mustered up the courage to make his first abstract painting, to come clean with himself about who he was as an artist, he described as the most liberating day of his life. He knew it wouldn’t showcase his ability as a draftsman, or impress anyone with its resemblance to a photograph, but my dad wasn’t into cheap tricks. He had a soul and he had to share it. It is why he labored so hard and worked and reworked his paintings so often. Once a colleague dismissed him as a process painter which deeply wounded him. Looking back I wonder how he could have allowed them to inspire doubt when, much like life, my Dad had no specific process to speak of. Every painting was a struggle that had to be won one mark at a time and it was never enough to impress people, it had to be honest. He crawled in the dark, one mark at a time, with no map, towards his truth.
I always loved the little bits of incidental culture that would slip into his work, be it a Tom Waits quote like “cross my wooden leg and swear on my glass eye” or the words “post no bills” or “open all night.” He was always absorbing the world around him and not like Warhol and his followers who he often said left a legacy of the worst art ever created (a title he also bestowed on all followers of Duchamp) who would look at the new billboard and say how can I use that? How can I ride this trend? No, my dad didn’t care about new billboards, it was the old ones, the hand painted sign that faded, the chipped paint job, and parts of the city nature had begun to reclaim. In this he saw reflected what he called the “battle between the classicist and the romantic that wages in every artist.” Urban decay brought him face to face with cycles of construction and destruction, and the themes carried over from his early work in the 90s into the more recent paintings where he transposed his childhood drawings, memories of catholic school, swimming pools, and above all else depictions of his own wounded flesh in layered cakes of paint like deposited time. Through the metaphor of painting, he synthesized such vast portions of his being.
He was so cosmopolitan. I remember sitting in traffic with him in a Uhaul heading for the Lincoln Tunnel, and him telling me about what a wonderful childhood he had in West Virginia, and how in many ways Appalachia would always be home. I think he could adapt to so many environments because he had a great empathy for people. How many people have you met who passed their time in jail reading the plays of Edward Albee. How many people have you met who sang the entire second disc of Pink Floyd’s The Wall acapella in the car with their son, and later went to the studio and put on the solo recordings of Thelonious Monk. How many people have you met who had a deep appreciation for Stanley Kubrick and Mike Myers. My dad was cultured not to impress anyone but because he loved the world. He would often say to me, “like Rothko, Miguel, I too believe that all great art is a meditation on man’s mortality,” and, “never trust someone who can’t laugh at a good fart joke.”
My dad was so invested in his spirituality and at the same time so quiet about it that of the three foundations of his being, this one is the hardest to discuss. He thought public prayer was grotesque and that if you are going to pray to God you should do so in private, not for the entertainment, approval, or gratification of others. “Prayer should either be done with loved ones or in the privacy of the home” he would say. I never saw him pray, but I know he did. He spoke about his Catholic upbringing with reverence and at the same time spoke of the guilt he internalized as a young boy. It seemed as if his faith helped him forgive everyone around him but never himself. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was somehow corrupt or inherently bad in spite of the fact that he openly challenged the concept of Hell. He would say, “I don’t believe anyone in the world has ever been so bad that God would punish them forever.” He always sided with hope. He was so adamant about forgiveness, because he needed it so badly. If he gave me any insight into the human condition it would be that great compassion comes with great suffering.
Through art he could transcend the boundaries of ideology to a purer relationship with his faith. He missed Latin mass and the beauty of ritual. The patience, the meditation, the music, the sculpture, the painting, the architecture that is what he carried with him. He most cherished the parts of his religion which spoke loudest through silence. He didn’t need the politics, the interpreters, or any middle men. In times of need he just wanted a friendly Priest to reflect with, and beyond that he wanted to be left alone with God however he understood him.
This innermost part of my dad’s being left even me a witness on the outside, but what a beautiful thing it was to witness.
Once while coming through the doorway to his studio he turned and said to me. “They got it all wrong, those fools think this is a Job. What we do is not a job. Painting, is a priesthood.”
I agree with him wholeheartedly. Painters like us didn’t choose this, we had a calling, it is a calling to persevere through poverty, anxiety, and doubt. It is also a calling to a deeper and more fundamental relationship to the world around us. If we are right then my father’s priesthood was of the highest order.
With that I want to leave you all with one final memory:
As the storm approached, and the sun set beneath the clouds, I watched the ever more turbulent waves stack like stairs as the sea turned umber, amber, and gold. My family began making their way to back to the beach house. Ascending the dunes towards the boardwalk I turned back to see my Dad alone, going in for one last dip. Even at a distance I saw joy come over him, the earth, the sea, the sky, the sun, all there ever was, all there ever will be, and my Dad, at peace, even if only for a few moments.
My mother says I kept my dad with us for years, but I didn’t do it alone. Thank you to all of his friends, all of our family including Calvet who my dad loved as his son, and remember these words which he often shared with me:
“It is not the length of life but the depth of life that matters.”