By M. Scott Morris
MARIETTA – Moments don’t always seem important when they happen.
An old friend found Ray Fielder on the Internet and came from Oklahoma City to Marietta for a visit last October.
“I was tickled to death,” said Murray Reagen. “All those years go by, and I found him.”
It was a quick three-day trip with the promise of more to come.
Photographs were taken before Reagen went home, and those shots turned out to be the last ever taken of Fielder. He died Nov. 2 from a heart attack at age 72.
Helene Fielder has one of those photos in a frame in the workshop she used to share with her husband.
“Now, that’s my favorite picture,” she said. “Who would have known the picture would mean so much? It’s fuzzy. It’s not perfect. But what does that matter?”
Ray Fielder was a husband, a father and a friend. He also was an artist and a teacher, and someone who could be counted upon to deliver an honest opinion.
“At the GumTree Festival, he would come over and look at my work. He would make no bones about his comments,” said Rick Anderson, a Clinton-based artist. “He liked my drawings, I think, a lot more than my paintings. He liked my technique and the black and white.
“He would say something like, ‘This is the best piece here.’
“Then it would be another year and he would say, ‘I don’t like this as much.’
“It wasn’t a comment to take offense to. It was Ray and how he expressed himself.”
Ready to share
Helene Fielder met the man who would become her husband at a military base, where he was an instructor at the arts and crafts shop.
“One time, I caught him looking at me. I turned around and gave him a look, like, I caught you,” she said, turning a shade of red her husband probably could’ve named. “Then he gave me a lopsided grin.”
She grew to admire the man from Kirkville with a degree from Memphis Academy of Art. He knew things that she wanted to learn.
“He was a really great sculptor and painter. He was also a photographer. He taught me a lot. He was a big help with my art,” she said. “I’d say, ‘Do you know how to do this?’ Then he’d give me his lopsided grin.”
Helene Fielder is an award-winning potter, and a two-time best in show winner at Tupelo’s GumTree Festival of the Arts.
When the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art officially opened in Biloxi in 2010, her work was there to represent all of Mississippi’s ceramic artists.
“One lady drove here from Virginia to buy my work,” she said. “That was amazing, that it could connect with somebody like that.”
If it sounds like bragging, then part of the boast was for her husband, who glazed, fired and shipped her pottery.
“He really did support me all my life,” she said.
To the sky
Fielder also applied his talent and knowledge to his own work.
“He did a bust of me one time. He was a great sculptor, but I got mad at him for doing it while I was gone. He did it from memory, but I wanted to see him do it,” Helene Fielder said. “And he smashed it because he was mad, and he did it all again in front of me so I could watch. I felt so bad that he smashed it.”
As a painter, Fielder was known for his skies.
Anderson, who has Fielder’s work hanging at his house, described dynamic and smooth brushstrokes that created “great skies that would roll with different colors that would juxtapose with rolling hills.”
He did impressionist landscapes that could be small paintings or five-foot-tall canvases.
From a lifetime of looking up and observing, he found infinite variety.
“Sometimes, he’d do just a little bit of land on the bottom and there would be the sky coming at you,” Helene Fielder said. “There could be thunderclouds, or it would be peaceful. They had a lot of depth.”
Pontotoc County resident Martha Cheney said she saved her nickels and dimes to buy her first Ray Fielder painting, one of the big ones.
“It looked like a Mississippi sky,” Cheney said. “You look at the sky in his painting and think it’s just blue, but you really look and you see pink and all the subtle colors, and it looks like a Mississippi sky.”
Cheney has a passion for artists who live and work in the Magnolia State, and she’s not pleased with those who take their talents elsewhere and bad-mouth where they came from.
“Ray told me he was one of the ones who left, saying he’d never come back,” Cheney said, “but he did.”
Helene Fielder said that after years of traveling around the world, her husband simply needed to come home. But if he’d never left, he wouldn’t have met her or his friend, Reagen.
“I was a young pup, 23 or 24,” Reagen said. “I got stationed in Germany. Rather than going out drinkin’ and hootin’ and hollerin’ with the other guys, I went to the arts and crafts center.”
Fielder encouraged him, and before long, Reagen bought $30 or $40 worth of silver to fashion into a pair of wedding bands.
“Ray pushed me to enter them in an art show,” Reagen recalled.
They won the base show, then the Germany show, and went on to compete against work made by artists from all branches of the service based in Europe.
“If I’d placed third, I would’ve gotten a trip back to the States,” Reagen said. “But to be fourth among all services and all across Europe, that was something.”
It was the kind of thing a man remembers, even after three decades roll by.
“When I had a chance to hookup with Ray again, I was all on it,” he said. “It was a month later that he passed. I couldn’t hardly believe it. That was the last thing I was thinking. I was looking forward to another 20 years together.”
Helene Fielder is preparing her and her husband’s work for a joint show at the Corinth Artist Guild Gallery. The opening reception will be Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m., and the exhibit will continue until the end of August.
That’ll be followed by a joint exhibit at the Columbus Arts Council that will open from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Oct. 2 and run throughout the month.
She continues making pottery and jewelry in the workshop she once shared with her husband. His easel stands where he last used it, but his paints and brushes are packed in a metal storage locker.
She decided to go forward with her annual open house, and ended up selling four Ray Fielder originals.
“They always wanted some of Ray’s work,” she said. “With him passing away, they wanted to do it.”
She was making a delivery to someone who already had one of his paintings on the wall, and that became another important moment.
“It was a piece of Ray on the wall,” she said. “It was nice. I can’t explain it. It was just this feeling.”
She has his work to help her remember, and she also has memories and stories that have nothing to do with art.
“If I would go for a walk or for a run, he always wanted to know what road I was taking. It used to annoy me,” she said with a smile, “but he would come pick me up if it started raining or a storm rolled in.
“When you came home late at night and the porch light was on – that’s the kind of thing Ray did.”
She’s had time to think since the trauma of Nov. 2, and she’s reached a conclusion.
“The things we do, even if they’re really little, tiny things, they linger on. He didn’t have to do big things to make a difference,” she said. “You get something after 32 years that can’t be replaced when it’s lost, especially when Ray was such a sweet, good person.”