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Artist's heart problems, recovery inspire creations

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

As Pittsburgh-born writer Augusten Burroughs puts it, "When you have your health, you have everything. When you do not have your health, nothing else matters at all."

So it is that artist Kyle Ethan Fischer of Lawrenceville is happy to be healthy after a three-year bout with heart problems. His solo show "Sea Creatures & Blood Vessels," at Box Heart Gallery in Bloomfield, is a testament to that fact and a legacy of the experience.

"It started in 2008, but it took two years for me to figure everything out," Fischer says of his condition. "My heart was in perfect shape, perfect size. There were no clogs in the arteries. My cholesterol was good. I just had extra veins and arteries that were going to my heart."

Fischer, 35, was suffering from atrial fibrillation (irregular heart beat) and tachycardia (a heart rate that exceeds the normal range for a heart at rest), which led to him having open-heart surgery.

"I had the surgery in 2010. I had complications, a blood clot and side effects from medication which took me six months to detox from." Fischer says. "Really, only in the past four months have I been feeling good."

In the gallery, more than two dozen works on paper and mixed-media sculptures attest to the trials and tribulations the artist has been through. Much of the work was completed in his Highland Park studio in the past three months. Earlier works were done while Fischer was working as a scenic artist for "One Shot" and other movies that were being filmed in Pittsburgh.

Like the veins and arteries that lead to the heart, all of Fischer's works relate in some way to his medical condition and treatment. But, they also are curiously aligned with sea life, which Fischer sees as having similarities to our human condition by way of delicate conditions of their own.

For example, the watercolor "Sea Fan" was based on observations of a medical illustration from the 1920s. The actual illustration was highly stylized and the "fan" part of the illustration was actually a representation of the pulmonary system. "I wanted to animate the heart and lungs into a sea creature, because as I did more research on both, I began to see links between the two as systems," Fischer says.

Coral, sea fans and other sea creatures emit allelochemicals that can help or harm the other creatures around it. Fischer found it a rich metaphor for the human body. "My heart and its sinus rhythm affected other parts of me, as well," he says.

In "Upstream," a large watercolor and mixed-media work on paper, Fischer plays again with the idea of metaphors as it relates to marine life. In this case, he imagined the heart illustration in two halves swimming and moving upstream like some sort of fantastic fish. "I wanted to create an environment for the creatures to inhabit that was both foreign, surreal, calming yet turbulent," he says. The piece represents the duality and struggle of the artist's experience and how personal illness and recovery are.

Another large work, "Light in the Deep," was based on an idea of contrasting the deep-sea angler fish (also called the "common black devil") with deep-sea jellyfish-like creatures called lobates. "The angler fish attracts its prey with a lantern-like lure and the lobates use their phosphorescence to attract prey, as well," Fischer says. "I used different parts of different medical illustrations to construct the angler and used my 'bloom' ink process, similar to marbleizing, to achieve the lobates.

Fischer says that his illness and the trauma of surgery "forced me to confront life-and-death issues that I was not ready to yet confront and changed me in many ways."

Thus, the sense of light in "Light in the Deep" represents the lure or morass of the gravity of such a situation. "People are not always willing to acknowledge or empathize," he says, "because I think it is built into our culture not to despair. To be 'positive,' when, in reality, this false view ... may make things worse or alienates the person affected by illness."

The show contains several sculptures, most of which began as crochet projects Fischer worked on while in the hospital convalescing, then added details to later, like shiny gold Navy buttons, plastic toy Navy men, and lots and lots of glitter.

For example, "St. Anthony's Chest" is a glitter-covered representation of a human chest, completed with a seashell stand-in for a heart. The shell Fischer found as a child on a vacation with his family in Florida and has kept ever since.

"St. Anthony was the patron saint of sailors, and I thought that by creating a representation of the torso, I could abstract the work into a coral-like sculpture," he says of the piece.

"Going with the reef metaphor, the corals of the world are in danger of dying out due to global warming," Fischer says. "I saw this as a metaphor for the human body and heart disease or cancer."

Fischer says the blue, pink and refractive gold glitter represent where the coral is alive, and the white is where the coral has died. Perfectly placed, the shell represents the human heart. "If you listen to a shell, you can hear the ocean, which is like a heartbeat," Fischer says.

"St. Anthony's Hands" is one of the smaller sculptures containing toy Navy men. "I think the show has an implied journey and metaphor as a sailor -- a person with illness at sea," Fischer says. "Sailors would pray to St. Anthony ... a safe travel. The hands represent my creativity as an artist and the threat of my illness was a stroke," Fischer says. "So, my impending fear was not being able to create."

This piece is a metaphor for safety and meditation, the hands made out of coral half alive and half dead. "The miraculous thing about the sea and nature, in general, is its ability to heal, regenerate and to adapt," Fischer says. And through his art, he has done the same.

Additional Information:

'Kyle Ethan Fischer: Sea Creatures & Blood Vessels'

When: Through March 31. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays

Admission: Free

Where: Box Heart Gallery, 4523 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield

Details: 412-687-8858 or

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