Olga Fisch: artist and mentor of Ecuadorian folk art

When Olga Fisch settled in Ecuador over 40 years ago, she made a firm resolve not to indulge in her favorite hobby of collecting folk art. But as anyone who has ever visited her landmark gallery in Quito or has seen one of her exhibits in museums around the world knows, it was a resolve she couldn't keep.

It is hard to determine whether Mrs. Fisch is more respected for her own art or for her collection of art.The folk art-inspired rugs she has designed can be admired, among other places, at the Museum of Modern Art, the United Nations Building, and the Metropolitan Opera House. Currently a Smithsonian-sponsored exhibit of her collection of Ecuadorian dance costumes is making a three-year tour of Canada and the United States.

To best appreciate both the artist and her art requires a journey across the equator to Quito, the elegant, 450-year-old Ecuadoran capital perched high in the Andes. There, in a gallery and home appropriately called Folklore, Mrs. Fisch has quietly presided over a revolution in the world's attitude toward South American Indian art.

Entering her domain on Avenida Colon means stepping into an environment of exploding color and dynamic shapes. Hand-carved balsa wood birds in vivid shades of blue, purple, yellow, and orange appear ready to take flight. Wooden masks of teeth-baring animals scowl ferociously from the walls. Atop tables and shelves is an array of slip-painted pottery in warm earth-colored tones, some shaped as classic bowls and others as jungle beasts or tribal gods.

The gracious keeper of the folk art "zoo" nearly always emerges from its midst to greet visitors. While talking with Olga Fisch, the remarkable story unfolds of why a refugee from Budapest has made such an impact on the arts and crafts produced on the other side of the world.

"When I first started collecting the local Indian art and then opened this gallery, people were shocked," she says. "I remember someone asking, 'How can you, as a cultured European woman, collect this trash?'"

Largely because of the efforts of Olga Fisch the artifacts produced by Ecuador's 250 Indian tribes are no longer regarded as trash. Over the decades she has helped thousands of Indian artists and craftsmen acquire the means of placing their wares in the world market. In so doing she introduced their beauty to a once skeptical public.

But when Mrs. Fisch first arrived in Quito as a Jewish refugee, she couldn't have guessed what direction her life would take. An artist who had studied painting in Dusseldorf, Germany, she managed to find work as a teacher in the Quito School of Art.

Despite a nearly lifelong interest in folk art, she had no intention of starting a new collection. "I had collected folk art since I was 12 or 13, possibly as a reaction against my father's fine china business," she says. "My first collection came from objects that I bought in Hungarian villages. Then, after my husband and I traveled to Morocco and Algiers, I started another collection of North African folk art."

Shortly after arriving in Quito, Mrs. Fisch learned that her childhood collection had been destroyed when her brother's house in Budapest was bombed. She then lost her collection of African art as it sank on a boat that was shipping it to her. "so I made up my mind not to get involved with collecting ever again," she says.

But not long after she had made up der mind, a man came up to her on the street trying to sell her a silver tupo, a sun-shaped pin used to fasten ponchos. Fascinated by its beauty, her resolve melted and she was on her way toward a new collection and a new life.

As both her collection and interest grew, she found herself increasingly involved with the Indians she bought from. She then concentrated on helping them turn their craftsmanship into a maketable skill. "But my advice has always been limited to helping them sell their objects," she says. "I have too much respect for their work to interfere with their designs."

After journeying to the nearby village of Calderon, she noticed that the Indians there made brightly colored dolls out of hardened bread dough to place on graves during religious holidays.She encouraged them to make them all year round to sell to tourists and collectors. Today Calderon is known not only for its beautiful dolls, but also for its charming Christmas tree ornaments out of the same flour, water, and glue base.

Another example has been the creation of the colorful folk art paintings of fiesta scenes done on framed sheepskin.Once such paintings had only been done on sheepskin drums, objects Mrs. Fisch forst saw when a man named Julio Toaquiza stopped by her shop and offered them for sale. She encouraged Mr. Toaquiza to learn to paint the drums himself, and then suggested that he do some on skins stretched out on a frame.Recently she sponsored an exhibition in Germany of 50 Toaquiza paintings.

Equally important has been the effect of Mrs. Fisch's Collection on her own work as an artist. Desiring to furnish her home with Ecuadorian-inspired rugs, she adapted designs from Indian pottery and tapas, sheets of native bark cloth. Taking the designs to Indian rugmakers, she had them woven into deep pile.

When Lincoln Kirstein, then director of the Museum of Modern Art, visited her home in 1940, he was enchanted with one of her rugs and promptly commissioned her to produce one for the museum. "My husband and I were dumbfounded, but agreed to make one for $300," she says. "And that's when the whole business began."

After that first sale, Mrs. Fisch hired the first of many Indian weavers and bought a eucalyptus loom, the kind that has been used in Ecuador for at leat 2, 000 years. For her Indian-inspired designs, Mrs. Fisch uses natural black and white sheep's wool colored with vegetable dye. To make one of her 9 by 12 rugs requires four weavers working eight hours a day for six weeks.

"I don't consider my own work folk art," she says. "It's trained art as I rely on my academic background in color and adaptation of design."

The work that followed that first effort included two 28 by 30 rugs that marked Ecuador's contribution to the inauguration of the United Nations Building. The rug designs enabled her to support her ever-growing folk art collection. Segments of that collection, one that includes everything from dance costumes to pottery, have appeared in museum shows around the world.

By the early 1950s Mrs. Fisch was able to move her business to its current spacious site in a quiet residential section of Quito, quarters that include several salesrooms, a work-shop for the weavers, and her personal living quarters on the floor above. In 1975 she opened El Gapon ("the barn") behind it all, a stunning museum of the finest Ecuadorian folk art.

In addition to her celebrated rugs, Mrs. Fisch also designs elegant clothes, wall hangings, and handbags, all of which are prominantly displayed in her shop. Her niece Gogo Anhalzer designs Folklore's handsome jewelry selection, and charming notecards by her great-niece Margara Anhalzer are also among the objects for sale.

Because an eclectic array of folk art has always been a drawing card of her business, Mrs. Fisch constantly meets with collectors and those who want to start a collection. She is always happy to share her decades of experience.

"People will often ask me how old an object is, believing that to be the determinant of its value," she says. "I tell them that in collecting folk art one should not look for age, but for authenticity. Beyond that it's all a matter of emotional response."

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