Not long ago, I stopped into the Fiedler Gallery on Main Street and found a new, young artist atop a ladder, hanging her works. All around are collections by local artists, paintings and photographs in all styles. Many are well-known names. Amongst them, Rich Fiedler’s works and prints are on display. People walk around, looking at the art. It’s a happy place, full of talent and light.
Fiedler, Greenport’s most famous lifelong resident artist, died last year. He will always be known for capturing the quiet beauty of the North Fork in a time before it was discovered by the world. In his nearly 2500 works, he painted the fishing boats that once docked in Greenport, the boatyard, the local lighthouses, the hidden spots along the creeks where egrets fish, an old clam shack near Orient, and so much more. His paintings have a sensitive, calm and peaceful air.
My favorite Fiedler works are of the Long Island Sound beaches. Seascapes show huge boulders scattered along the shore. In one painting, a rock is mysteriously, or perhaps humorously, levitating. Paintings of small stones are done in near-photorealism. Walking along the Sound can spark that meditative state of being fully in the present, and Fiedler’s works capture that feeling perfectly.
“Rich was a Renaissance man,” said his daughter, Morgant Fiedler, who is an attorney in Greenport and helps run the gallery. “He was very into nature and a very creative person.”
Fiedler was born in 1945 into a family of commercial fishermen. He grew up on the water, hauling nets and chasing harpooned swordfish in a dory called Nora. After graduating from the New York Institute of Technology, a stint in the U.S. Army as a graphic designer, and a detour to Colorado to ski, he returned to Greenport to paint, marry, and start a family with his wife Marilyn (née Price), a guidance counselor.
“Uncle Van,” a painting of a farmer milking his cow, was featured on the January 1983 cover of Yankee magazine. Orders for print and invitations to show in galleries came in from around the country. “Across the street where he grew up, his Uncle Al had a small red barn,” said Morgant. “My father hung his works in the barn and it became known as The Seventh Street Art Gallery. My grandmother Bea would run across the street to open up the gallery for anyone who was interested in looking around.”
Ever the outdoorsman, Fiedler could often be found on the water, and as a stay-at-home dad, he brought Morgant and her brother Ricky along. “He would take us with him wherever he went, whether it be fishing on the breakwater, out on the boat to check his lobster pots by the breakwater, or windsurfing at Gull Pond,” Morgant recalled.
Fielder’s popularity continued to grow, and in 2001, he bought the building on Main Street and opened his gallery. “His dream was always to have his own gallery, with a co-op for other artists to show their work for a straightforward wall rental fee and no commissions,” said Morgant. “That’s how the Fiedler Gallery will stay. Wall space ranges anywhere from $50-$200, and there are no commissions. And we encourage artists to come down to the gallery and participate in the showing of their works.”
Most days from 2001 until his death, Fiedler was at his gallery, or sitting on the bench outside talking to people. He was a friendly, personable guy. Once, the singer and Long Island native Billy Joel went into the gallery and spotted a painting of his boat, Alexa. This led to a friendship between the two men, and further commissioned works. “I thought he was a good painter,” Joel said. “He captured the whole maritime spirit of the area.”
By about 2010, the Greenport of Fiedler’s youth was gone. “He never expressed too much of an opinion of the way Greenport was changing other than to shake his head and say, “It’s not what it used to be.”” Morgant said. “I think he was excited for the sake of the gallery.”
But in the midst of his success and all the new visitors, a depression set in. He declined medical treatment, put on a brave face and kept it to himself. “My father was a very strong and proud man, and would never want anyone to take pity on him,” Morgant said. In his last years, he painted less, and was less satisfied with the works he made. As a sensitive, creative person, this took its toll, she said. On August 31, 2018, at the age of 73, Fiedler chose to end his life.
“My dad lived his life with dignity and ended it the same way,” Morgant said. “He was a true Greenporter, and a true artist. He would always tell us that swans mate for life, and that he found that mate in my mom. He was the best and most supportive father that anyone could have wished for. He taught my brother and me so many things about life, nature, the importance of family, and how to be the best human that you can be. He lives on indefinitely in all the works he created, and the loving, strong family he has left behind.”
I saw Rich just a few days before he died, when I stopped in to say hello and find out what was going on in the local art scene, as I sometimes did. He talked about Greenport’s changes, so much more commercial but also so lively. He said, with that charming twinkle in his blue eyes, that being an artist wasn’t the easiest career, but he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“I just keep painting,” he said, and smiled.