THEY CALL her La Gringa or Patrone. She is silver-haired, 80-year-old Olga Anhalzer Fisch -- painter, rug designer, art collector and benefactor to Ecuador's Indian population (although she would never admit to the latter).
Fisch -- a native of Budapest -- made her home in Quito, Ecuador, some 40 years ago when she and her husband, Bela, were forced to choose a country other than the United States to which to immigrate ("we had to leave Eastern Europe because of the persecution and political events of the '40s," she recalls, "and the United States' quota for immigrants from Hungary was filled").
As a professional painter Fisch was intrigued by primitive cultures. She had painted continuously during her travels with her husband to Northern Africa. The main reason the Fisches chose Ecuador, besides the fact that Ecuador was one of the few countries accepting immigrants at that time, was so Olga Fisch could continue to paint the primitive cultures she found so interesting.
After three months in Quito, she found a job as a teacher of drawing and painting at the Quito Art School. During this time, Lincoln Kirstein, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, came to Quito and noticed the small collection of handmade rugs the Fisches had just started to produce at their home. "He asked us how much we would charge to make one for his museum," Fisch recalls. "My husband and I looked at each other and said $300, which was a lot of money in those days.It was with that money that we opened our shop, Folklore, in 1942, still in operation today." After a stint at MOMA, the commissioned rug was sold to the director of the Santa Fe Art Museum. Today Fisch's rugs hang in New York City's Lincoln Center and the United Nations.
By teaching the native Indians living in and around Quito, Olga Fisch gradually earned their trust. The relationship they share to this day is one of give and take. She encourages them in their colorful folk art: fiesta costumes, masks, musical instruments, paintings and ceramics. Some are on display at the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service's "A Feast of Color: Corpus Christi Dance Costumes of Ecuador" exhibit now at the Renwick Gallery through July. For such exhibits, Fisch often suggests museums and galleries in both the United States and abroad, where the Indians can show and eventually sell their work. She often makes the initial arrangements for the artworks' transportation herself. The entire SITES exhibit is part of Olga Fisch's private collection.
In return for her patronage, Fisch frequently borrows the motifs and designs from the Indian artwork, incorporating them into her rug patterns. "But I'm careful about what I use," she says. "I never try to expand on their ideas -- their designs are traditional Indian ones, which must be preserved and respected."
The festival of Corpus Christi takes place each June in Ecuador. It began as a religious holiday introduced by the Catholic Church, celebrated throughout Latin America.The Indians did not embrace Christianity at first and used the holiday to celebrate their own pre-Columbian harvest ritual. By the 19th century the two holidays merged into one large fiesta.
Today the holiday is celebrated only in the Ecuadorian provinces of Tungurahua and Cotopaxi. Usually sponsored by one man from the town, who has spent the last year selling a few extra crops for the event, the fiesta involves elaborate hand-sewn costumes worn only by the men of the town (women are not allowed to participate in the performance). The costumed dancers are accompanied by drummers with colorfully painted drums. The Indians of highland Ecuador spend many months in preparation for Corpus Christi -- it is one of the few days of the year that they take center stage in town.
The colorful scenes painted on each side of the drums caught Olga Fisch's attention from the start. She suggested that the drummers recreate these scenes as paintings, add handmade wood frames and then sell the works to museums. This provides the artists with a little added income, as well as a forum to show off some of Ecuador's loveliest, but little known folk art.
A number of these paintings are on display at the Renwick, where Fisch points out the charm of the pieces. "See here," she says ushering you to take a close look, "this artist writes a text to accompany his painting, but the spelling is so bad, it's almost impossible to understand -- even if you do read Spanish."
Fisch points out that the frames become part of the painting -- the upper wood is painted blue to blend with the sky, the lower wood, green to match the grass. "I doubt whether these artists have ever seen a real frame before," says Fisch. All the paintings are signed in some fashion, but Fisch remembers having asked one man to autograph his painting and he replied, "But, Patrone, I don't know how to write."
The common theme of the fiesta runs throughout many of the paintings on exhibit at the Renwick: lots of brightly colored dancers, drummers, churches, Virgin Marys and Baby Jesuses.
"Just because these Indian people are often poorly educated does not mean that they're poor businessmen," cautions Fisch. She shows you one painting that is a collage of shiny papers. "When I first saw this painting, the artist -- and elderly man -- pulled me aside saying, 'You know, Patrone, they will have to pay me extra for this piece, since I had to eat so many chocolates for the picture.' The shiny papers were all chocolate wrappers."
The major attractions at the Renwick show are the four life-size mannequins dressed in elaborate fiesta costumes -- so elaborate, in fact, says Fisch, that "Martha Cappelletti [exhibition coordinator] from the Smithsonian had to take lessons to learn how to dress the mannequins." A fully dressed fiesta dancer wears a cotton shirt and scarf, crochet-fringed cotton slacks, a petticoat, an apron, an embroidered breastplate, a shawl, a wire-mesh mask, gloves, bells on the ankles and wrists -- all topped by a two-foot-high headdress that must be carefully strapped on.
The headdress itself is a work of art -- a collage of anything that glitters or is showy -- foil, beads, coins, miniature dolls, colorful fabrics. Fisch believes that there may be some mystical meaning in the shiny items, since they reflect sun.
The dancer wears on his shoulders a wooden rod that is connected to the headdress and supports rectangular bands of embroidered stain or damask, known as bandas.
It was the discovery of two of these bandas tucked away in "a hole-in-the-wall Quito shoe shop" that initially triggered Olga Fisch's interest, or as she calls it, "obsession" with the traditions of the fiesta. "I saw them and bought them at once for 30 cents, not knowing what they were, only that they were enchanting. [These bandas are among those on display at the Renwick.] I have always been a collector of things ever since I was a child in Hungary," says Fisch. She opened a new building, El Galpon (The Barn) on her property in 1975 to hold her ever-expanding collection, which includes archeological finds, colonial Latin America items, as well as primitive art from Latin America and Africa.
Fisch's present store, now called Folklore Olga Fisch since many places in Latin America had begun to use the name Folklore, is operated by Fisch and her niece, clothes designer Gogo Anhalzer.
The upstairs of the five-showroom store serves as Fisch's home."Thirty years ago the cows used to come to the doorway to be milked. Now customers complain because the parking lots are full," says Fisch. She pauses. "I suppose that's progress."