Winnie Fiedler's Fountain of Youth
Some of the world's most beloved artists are noted for having had a creative rebirth later in life. The phenomena has been written about and studied by art historians, who characterize it by artists taking more risks with their work, and quickly getting to the heart of what's being expressed.
Community Voices Producer Alexis Larsen introduces us to one local woman who tapped into her creative energy later in life and found that it has become a fountain of youth, and yielded an extraordinary body of work and a new lease on life.
Winnie Fiedler came to Dayton nearly seventy years ago after being reunited with her husband Otto, who had returned from the war. Fiedler was a young bride with an Ivy League degree, and at the start of a promising career as a newspaper reporter. She was the complete package — young, smart, talented, beautiful. To many it seemed like she had it all, but there was a giant missing piece that ached to be filled.
“We came to Dayton, we eventually found an apartment. After he'd been home for a while [I was] walking down Main Street with him, looking in the windows, and all of a sudden I started to cry,” Fiedler says. She thought to herself, 'What is the matter with me? I should be happy as a lark. My husband is home, I have no worries, he's making money. What's wrong with me?'
“Well, I know now what was wrong with me,” Fiedler says, “Here I was, I had experience at the beginning of a career and I was doing nothing. I was doing nothing. Also, nobody knew me. Nobody valued who I was or who I had been. I wasn't a strong woman. I was defeated by the circumstances and I think that happened to a lot of women at that time.”
The sadness she speaks of is a stark contrast to the charming, happy intellectual I spent several magical evenings earlier this year getting to know. Like all things in life there was no direct path to this moment.
Each night, weather cooperating, Fielder takes a trip outside to enjoy the sunset. This night is no exception. The colors of the sky stretch out in bright bands as far as the eye can see.
“Oh, I just love to do this in the evening when the sun goes down,” Fiedler says, “First of all this is a great time for photography, you get wonderful light. It's called the sweet hour. And then I like to go over here and sit down under this tree which is a great oak. Look at it … don't you want to hug it? Here, lets sit here.”
Seeing the world through Fiedler's eyes this night everything seems brighter, richer and more alive.
“Look at that, that orange is just so strong. It glows against the black outlines of the trees,” Fiedler says.
At age 60, after the death of her husband, Otto, Fiedler began to study and experiment with photography. She became so passionate she took on the monumental and expensive task of setting up her own darkroom so she could focus on her new love full-time. Photography was the gateway to the affair with art that has nurtured her for the last thirty years.
“I took a number of courses at the Ohio Institute of Photography. I took a lot of pictures, spent a lot of time in the darkroom, had a great time,” Fiedler recalls, laughing, “I didn't become an artist until long after I started making things that I thought looked pretty good.”
Fiedler’s natural curiosity and time in the classroom had sparked a fire. She quickly went to work setting up a fully functioning dark room in her house and experimenting with what was possible. Looking for a challenge, she became inspired by the composite prints of photographer Jerry Uelsmann, whose body of work was driven by the idea that an image created in the darkroom needn't be defined by a single negative.
“It's a technique that requires care, precision ... Each image has to be properly exposed so it will look as though it was the same single image from the camera. If you're lucky, if you're careful, about the tenth time you do that it will look good.”
With the advent of digital photography, Fiedler felt it was time to take on some new challenges, delving into three-dimensional textile art with a vengeance. To some it may seem an unexpected change from the contemporary photography pieces she had been working on. Still, she sees many similarities between the two:
“I didn't start with the idea that this is what I'm going to accomplish. It grows,” Fiedler says, “And that's the way I've always worked with art. In my quilts I start with a fabric, ‘Oh, I love that stuff, it's beautiful, it's sensual, it's sweet, it's pretty or it's rough and textured,’ and let me do something with that.”
Following the same creative process that drove her photos, the textile pieces that she has produced are loose and vibrant with an unpredictable energy that surprises and delights the viewer. It's a far cry from the controlled and calibrated quilting that often comes to mind. Fiedler's art expresses as much youthful, happy energy as she does.
The question on my mind as we sit outside to savor the visual treat of light turning to dark is what new medium or project will this prolific artist take on next? It's a difficult question to answer.
I tell her, “You're more alive than a lot of 30 year olds, you know? You've got it going on!”
“Well, it makes me think I want to hang around a little bit longer. It won't be much longer,” Fiedler says, “There's something about being, clearly, in the last stage of a long life, where some things don't matter the way they used to. You live in the present because you don't know the future and you have such a long past it's all jumbled. You have to have a reason to point at some particular thing and you, kind of, live in the moment; as we're doing at this moment, right now.”
For most dedicated artists the act of creating is like breathing. It's the oxygen they require to stay healthy. At ninety years old Dayton resident Winnie Fiedler is living proof of the power that lies in discovering and nurturing the artist that exists in each of us. There may not be a fountain of youth, but the joy, discovery, and satisfaction Fiedler has continued to harness from pushing the boundaries of what's possible with her art may just be the next best thing.