This series reflects on midlife reinvention and ways people respond to change.
Sarah Fisher, Artist Creating the Right Place and Time.
For Sarah Fisher, a 32-year career at the National Gallery of Art—20 of them as the Head of the Painting Conservation Department—left her with options when it came to retirement. She could stay in the nation’s capital and use her newly emancipated daylight hours to enjoy the city’s myriad cultural institutions. She could open an art conservation business, examining artworks of great value and providing her time-tested guidance on how best to repair them. Or, had she gotten onboard with her husband Derek’s dream for the 60+ years—formed in the dark and damp of his northern England childhood—the couple would be settled now in southern California.
But there was one place only Sarah Fisher wanted to live after three decades in Washington, DC: Damariscotta, Maine.
Two houses at Lewis Point, grey clapboard homes, side by side, bordering the Damariscotta River, called her. In those homes lived the two most influential women in her life: her mother Lisbeth and her mother’s sister, Aunt Cordelia, both getting on in years. Husband Derek liked to refer to them as “the guardians.”
In the 1970s, Sarah’s Aunt Cordelia and, a few years later, her mother Lisbeth moved to mid-Coast to begin the second chapter of their lives. On her visits Sarah fell in love with the wooded terrain and rocky coastline. Nearing her retirement, Sarah set her plan in motion, convincing Derek that “The Pine Tree State” would be more peaceful and less crowded than the “The Golden State.” Nine years ago, they packed and headed north.
In addition to living in Damariscotta, there was something else Sarah had decided about her retirement. She would part ways with her past professional life. “The normal path for a retired museum conservator would be to open a private consulting business,” she explained, a means of applying conservation skills developed over a lifetime and of creating an income stream. She would gladly give occasional lectures, but her plan was to walk in the footsteps of the maternal side of her family. The two women, Cordelia and Lisbeth, loomed large in Sarah’s life, shaping both her personality and aspirations.
Remembering them, Sarah portrayed a yin and yang of sisterhood. They were siblings who, in the 1930s, left Portland, Oregon, for peripatetic lives in the US and abroad. Practical and intellectual, older sister Cordelia would graduate from Reed College, master German in Vienna, and spend a long career in the CIA, including marriage to a colleague. Lisbeth was the free spirit who learned by experience. At 18, she set off to New York City to become an actress. When it came time for Cordelia’s trip to Vienna and her father forbade Lisbeth from going along, Lisbeth stowed away on the ship, hiding in a rescue boat. Discovered by a vigilant sailor just after departure, the ship’s captain acted quickly. A rope ladder was dropped down the side of the ship to a pilot boat, and Lisbeth was told to climb down it, her evening gown and high heels adding a touch of dramatic flair to her exile. With no regrets, she returned to her acting classes. Ultimately, her father relented. Off she went to Vienna, this time with a ticket.
It was a sensible mid-Westerner whom Lisbeth met in Washington, DC, who put her on the path to home-making and motherhood. Yet not at the expense of her love of adventure. Her husband’s position as an aspiring manager at an international metal company kept the family—of five, eventually—on the move. “My mother was social, intuitive, and wise,” Sarah said. “She always made our moving feel exciting.” Growing up in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, moving every two to five years, Sarah remembered how Lisbeth brought a spirit of adventure to the packing and unpacking. That joie de vivre taught Sarah a life lesson: “’Don’t always be so cautious’ was part of my mother’s wisdom.”
The sisters reunited in mid-Coast Maine in the late 1970s, after Cordelia’s retirement and Lisbeth’s widowhood, and there they remained the rest of their lives. The news of Aunt Cordelia’s passing, at age 98, came while Sarah and Derek were preparing for their move to Damariscotta. One year later, they lost Lisbeth, age 97. It was time for Lewis Point to welcome the next generation of Fishers.
“The surroundings remind me very much of them. They’re around me all the time,” Sarah says of her life at Lewis Point. A trim woman whose white hair curls around warm brown eyes, she resides in her mother’s grey clapboard house, while her older sister, also named Cordelia, lives next door. Like Aunt Cordelia, she spends time reading widely, occasionally in German. But at the core, she is her mother’s daughter.
Her mother had been a “hobby painter,” as Sarah called it, who, in the second chapter of her life turned an enduring interest into a permanent vocation. “She was a watercolor painter with a wonderful sense of atmospherics,” Sarah shared. “Seeing the satisfaction my mother got from painting registered with me.”
Sarah described herself, too, as a “hobby painter” or “dabbler,” that is, before moving to Damariscotta. The desire to paint was always there, just pushed beneath the demands of the real world. At college, she sated her interest with studio art classes and an art history major. Becoming an artist, however, didn’t strike her as realistic, a perspective supported by her prudent father. “I never took myself too seriously as a painter,” Sarah reflected, with characteristic modesty. “I knew I wasn’t good enough to earn my living from it.” Artistic expression, she said, became the activity of choice “when I visited my mother or on holidays. I would take a sketch book, or spend an afternoon with my mother painting in plein air.”
In her senior year at Wellesley College, Sarah heard about devastating floods in Venice, Italy, and the volunteer efforts to save its damaged masterworks. Off she went to Europe, just as Aunt Cordelia had, to become part of the rescue mission. She loved the work and stayed for ten years, apprenticing in art restoration in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium. When fully trained, she decided to return to the US to practice her craft, working in conservation centers in Ohio and California until she received the job offer at the National Gallery. “It was a wonderful, satisfying career working with great art and traveling widely,” Sarah said. “Conversation demands a background in art history, studio art, and science, in addition to steady hands. These four things I had.”
Fast forward 30 years. It was time for Sarah to give time and attention to the artistic part of herself, the part who had waited patiently for attention during college and career. In Damariscotta, she pursued the midlife transition undertaken by her mother, making art her vocation. It’s a step, Sarah explained, that involved growth not only in her mastery of artistic techniques but also in her approach to creativity. “I had to talk myself out of the fear of being intimated by the great masters. I knew I was never going to be a Rembrandt or Picasso, but you need to start somewhere. You need to work through the learning process and respect your efforts.”
In her studio, working first with watercolor and later with oil, she faced the challenge of going from a literal style to something more evocative and fluid. Painting conservation, she explained, “is a tight physical activity. You can’t be creative in an actual treatment. You have to be a really good copyist, put yourself in the artist’s shoes, and become that artist.”
In her own work, she sought to loosen up and to become more expressive. “I’ve realized,” she mused, “that it’s okay to evolve. You do it to bring out a vision on a piece of paper or canvas. You have to work through the challenges of the learning process.”
In a graceful circle of generations, Lisbeth’s neighbor and artist friend, Daisy Green [featured in part 1 of this series, in Maine Seniors, January 2021] played a key role in Sarah’s evolution. “I was welcomed into my mother’s art community when I visited my mother,” Sarah explained, and “was received warmly by her friends when I moved here.” What began as Lisbeth’s painting classes with Daisy and their group lunches with local artists are now Sarah’s painting classes with Daisy and their group lunches with local artists. Like a soft mesh of watercolors, the lives of mother and daughter have blended into one portrait of mid-life reinvention.
In Sarah’s studio, her landscape paintings sit on the ledge of wrap-around windows, a gallery of nature scenes drawn from mid-Coast: a blue and green portrayal of the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse; a valley in autumn whose leaves have turned crimson and apricot; the rocky coast with its jagged granite boulders. Solitary landscapes and tranquil still lifes. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that Sarah was asked to create an exhibit of her work at the Damariscotta River Grill or that she has sold some of her paintings. But these are buried headlines. What is foremost in Sarah’s mind is her passion for art and the gift of freedom to pursue it.
There are other passions, too: hiking, gardening, birding, and identifying the species of the living things she sees while pursuing these activities. There is her sister next door, Derek, and Derek’s step-daughter, who has also found her way to Maine. There are her neighbors at Lewis Point and her volunteer positions on the Board of the Salt Bay Chamberfest and Pemquid Art Gallery. Post-pandemic, she looks forward to rejoining the Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust’s trail preservation efforts and to travelling again with Derek.
“It was the models of my beloved female family members before me,” Sarah reflected, that led her to Lewis Point. Now she can be found in the studio that she added to her mother’s house, a fully engaged artist with a workspace of her own. In plein air and from her window, Sarah dwells with her mother’s and aunt’s presence, while painting what she loves to observe–“the eternal flow of nature,” she called it.
The Collective Wisdom of the Ladies of Lewis Point
|Start a conversation, issue an invitation. This is where community begins. |
Say “yes” to new friendships and opportunities.
Start new hobbies and activities, but turn off the valves of self-criticism and judgement. Give yourself time to learn. Honor the effort.
Take or start a class at an educational organization. It’s a great way to nourish the intellect and connect with kindred spirits.
Re-invention doesn’t have to start from square one. Extend what you know. Build on and share your skills, talents, and experience.
Work/life balance is as important during later years as it is during the working years.
Partake in any of the great activities associated with the great outdoors.