Ava Lee Millman Fisher at the opening of her solo exhibit, I See Music, on March 1. (photo by Olga Livshin)
The new solo exhibit by Ava Lee Millman Fisher, which opened at the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery on March 1, seems eclectic at first glance. It includes landscapes and floral compositions, Judaica and symbolism. But all the paintings are united by the theme and name of the show: I See Music. That’s how the artist perceives the world around her.
“I see music and I hear colours,” said Millman Fisher in an interview with the Independent. “It’s what my art is all about. I have synesthesia.”
According to a dictionary, “Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report a lifelong history of such experiences are known as synesthetes.”
Every one of Millman Fisher’s images includes musical notations, and the compositions’ colours flow like notes in a symphony. “I’ve always loved both music and art, since I was a child,” said the artist. “I had trouble choosing what I wanted to do professionally, until life interfered. After high school, I won a vocal scholarship to McGill University. But I never stopped painting.”
Millman Fisher specialized in classical opera and lieder (songs for solo voice, with piano). She sang a lot and taught music for awhile. Later, she went back to school to become a licensed music therapist. Throughout her entire career in music and mental health, she painted. “I love painting,” she said. “It is my visual voice. I often think in musical terms when I paint.”
She has been fortunate as a commercial artist. “I started selling my works when still at university,” she said. “Friends saw my paintings. They liked them. Someone wanted to buy. The word-of-mouth spread.”
From the beginning, Millman Fisher has painted in watercolours and created works with Jewish themes and images. “My paintings could be subdivided into two categories,” she said, “both well-represented in this show: secular art and Judaica. My Judaic pieces are very important to me. Unfortunately, there are not many places in Vancouver to showcase them. On the other hand, people from all over the world buy them. I have a Facebook page, and it helps a lot with promotion. By now, my Judaica paintings have found homes in Canada, Israel, the United States. Imagine: they want to buy my paintings in Israel, despite there being such a wide selection [of Jewish-themed work] inside the country. And, of course, I’m willing to ship anywhere.”
Millman Fisher recently sold a large Judaic painting to a client in New York. She couldn’t hide her joy as she told the story. “That lady from New York has been following my Facebook page for years,” explained Millman Fisher. “She said she loved my art but had no space in her home. When she moved to a larger home, she bought one of my paintings.”
But Millman Fisher doesn’t only sell her art. “I’m always happy to share, to give them away,” she said. “I like donating my paintings to Jewish causes and organizations. Some of my pieces hang in Vancouver Talmud Torah and in the Louis Brier Home.”
One of her most interesting Judaic pieces in the show is a large painting called “Miriam,” which also has a long subtitle. Its visual structure is no less complex. “I needed to tell Miriam’s story,” Millman Fisher said. “She was the first music therapist in history. She always brought her tambourine to the gatherings and employed music to calm people.”
The artist pointed to a dense flock of birds framing the painting. “Each bird is individually made from rice paper, cut and glued to the painting,” she explained. “There are dozens of them, and they are all different.”
The musical snippets written inside each bird are also different but, together, they could be built into a song of Miriam. The painting is representative of Millman Fisher’s mixed media work.
“Originally, I painted in watercolours,” she said. “I still do and I love watercolours, but, about 15 years ago, I began experimenting with mixed media. At first, I saw the technique in other artists’ works and liked it. They would put anything into their paintings: coins, fabrics, souvenirs. Then I became a friend with a Jewish lady from Iraq. She passed away some time ago but, before that, we were good friends for years. When she escaped Iraq, she brought some golden chains with her, concealed in her clothing. She gave them to me and urged me to include them in my paintings. That was the first mixed media I did. Those paintings are almost all sold by now, and the chains practically gone. I have only a few fragments left. I used some of them in the ‘Miriam’ painting.”
Millman Fisher creates her mixed media on wood panels, and the works consist of many layers and involve a number of materials, including crystals and rice paper, metal and ribbons. “Sometimes, I cover the paintings with lacquer to make them shiny, but it doesn’t always work,” she said. “I would have an idea when I start a piece, but then it might change as I keep painting. The images have a life and will of their own. They often depend on the music I listen to when I paint. The pieces dictate, and I follow.”
Like everything else she does, Millman Fisher signs her name in a unique way. Her signature is her first name, Ava Lee, followed by a treble clef below. “My favourite moment is when I finish a painting and sign my name,” she joked. “The treble clef denotes my connection to music. It shows my double nature: a musician and an artist.”
I See Music is on display at the Zack until April 7, and there is an exhibit-inspired poetry night on March 15 at the gallery. For more information on Millman Fisher’s art, check out her website, creatavalee.net.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].