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Richard Fiedler, 73, remembered as an artist who defined Greenport

09/20/2018 6:00 AM |

Newlyweds Rich and Marilyn Fiedler celebrated their nuptials at Greenport’s Soundview Restaurant on a chilly winter night in January 1982. About a dozen immediate family members joined them for dinner in a back room, where a guitar player strummed tunes.

They feasted on Manhattan clam chowder, shrimp cocktail and prime rib. Their wedding cake was chocolate with vanilla frosting.

“That was Rich’s favorite,” Ms. Fiedler recalled.

A big, splashy wedding didn’t fit either of their styles. Ms. Fiedler’s parents had promised the couple $5,000 toward the wedding. Whatever they didn’t spend, they could keep. Rather than indulge in an elaborate celebration, they exchanged vows in her parents’ living room and earmarked that money toward fulfilling a dream for Mr. Fiedler, whose artwork had by then already made him well known across the North Fork.

“He had said an artist always dreams of going to print,” Ms. Fiedler said.

The wedding gift helped pay to reproduce Mr. Fiedler’s painting “Uncle Van” as a print. The painting, which pictured an old man milking a cow, would grace the cover of Yankee magazine in January 1983.

The magazine cover helped introduce Mr. Fiedler’s work to a massive new audience. The couple soon began shipping prints across the world from their Greenport home.

They then reached an agreement: Ms. Fiedler would get to keep the original of any painting that went to print. More than 30 years later, the house they shared is a shrine to Mr. Fiedler’s immense talent. His vivid, almost photographically lifelike paintings of North Fork scenes — lighthouses, boats, barns and stones — grace the walls of the waterfront home where he spent so much of his life mastering his craft. In Greenport, Mr. Fiedler was more than an artist. He was an icon, an outdoorsman who personified life in the seaport village, a masterful illustrator whose nearly 2,500 paintings captured the imaginations of celebrities and locals alike, and a humble man who used his Main Street gallery as an avenue to showcase the work of fellow artists.

His death Aug. 31, at the age of 73, sent shock waves through the close-knit community. His family said he had been battling depression, out of public view, for approximately eight years. They remembered him for the strength he showed during that time.

“Greenport will never be the same,” said Mr. Fiedler’s son, Ricky.

A wedding photo, center, of Rich and Marilyn Fiedler at the family’s Greenport home. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Born Jan. 10, 1945 to Bertha and Julian Fiedler, Richard Fiedler was a third-generation Greenporter. His father was a commercial fisherman during the village’s heyday as a fishing port. He grew up on the water, and his love of fishing and boating never wavered throughout his life. His family’s fishing boats, known as the Fiedler boats, became an inspiration for some of his finest paintings later in life. Ricky Fiedler named his daughter, Nora, after the Fiedler boat.

Mr. Fiedler graduated from Greenport High School, where he ran on the track and field team. It was during high school that an art teacher nudged him toward painting. In a 1974 Suffolk Times profile, the author wrote: “Reviewing some of his youthful attempts, our artist now wonders what this teacher ever saw in his work.”

He attended Farmingdale State College, where he met Jimmy Dungate, a classmate in his art program.

“I remember looking over and seeing Richie and I said to myself, ‘That guy dresses just like me. He must be cool,’ ” Mr. Dungate recalled. “We struck up a good friendship.”

They both attended New York Institute of Technology, where Mr. Fiedler earned his bachelor’s degree in 1968. Around the same time, he was drafted into the Army, and served for about two years as a graphic artist, creating signs and charts, before he was discharged. He felt a duty to go to Vietnam, his family said, but his sergeant wanted to utilize his artistic ability. 

In the early summer of 1971, Mr. Dungate, who was living in Bayport, got a call from Mr. Fiedler. He was showcasing his art nearby in Bellport.

“I couldn’t believe his work. It was incredible,” said Mr. Dungate, 73. “I started in like a carnival barker. I just started saying to people, ‘Hey! Look at my friend’s work! Is this incredible or what?’ And Richie had to turn to me and say, ‘It’s OK. If they’re interested, they’ll look.’ ”

Mr. Fiedler encouraged his friend to start painting. He invited him out to Greenport and showed him around different lighthouses and other scenes. They snapped a bunch of pictures and Mr. Dungate began painting.

All these years later, a painting done by Mr. Dungate remains in the upstairs studio at Mr. Fiedler’s home. Ricky Fiedler said the painting was his father’s favorite.

Marilyn Fiedler, a fifth-generation Greenporter, met her future husband through her brother. The couple had both attended the same high school, but were four years apart. Mr. Fiedler had been married once before, for about 18 months, before they agreed to part ways. He crossed paths with his future bride shortly before she was set to leave on a trip. When she returned, Mr. Fiedler invited her for dinner, saying he would make pizza.

Ms. Fiedler, who is survived by his sister Judith Light of Babylon, arrived with a bottle of wine and found her future husband placing white bread topped with canned pizza sauce and mozzarella in a toaster oven. That was his version of pizza. They opened the wine and talked the night away.

“I had never felt so much more at home,” she said. “It was love, instantly.”

They were married two years later and their first child, Morgant, arrived in 1983. Ricky followed just over a year later.

Ms. Fiedler worked as a guidance counselor in the Riverhead Central School District, so Mr. Fiedler would often be home with the kids.

“Dad was Mr. Mom,” said Morgant, an attorney in Greenport.

Mr. Fiedler dreamed of owning a gallery and his wife helped map out their vision. The downstairs would feature Mr. Fiedler’s work and the upstairs would be open to other artists. The opportunity to make that vision reality came in 2001 when they purchased the building at 207 Main St. A year later, they opened The Fiedler Gallery. Always humble, he felt embarrassed to use his own name in the title, his family recalled. 

He became a familiar face at the gallery, always willing to lend an ear to whomever passed through.

“He had a great ability to make anyone feel like they were his friend and they’ve known him forever,” his daughter said.

Rich Fiedler was an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed windsurfing. (Courtesy photo)

Anton “Toppy” Ficurilli runs the barbershop next door in the same building and the two, who had actually attended grade school together, became close friends. After they reconnected, they’d occasionally fish together and even went skiing in Aspen.

“He was real friendly and outgoing and a good conversationalist,” Mr. Ficurilli said.

Each morning when he arrived at work, Mr. Ficurilli, 72, would place a bench out in front of the building. The two would often sit there together when things were slow and talk about anything.

Mr. Fiedler would stop each morning to bring his neighbor coffee. Even if Mr. Ficurilli told him he wouldn’t be there, the coffee was still delivered. He remembered once telling Mr. Fiedler about an upcoming trip to Florida. When he came back, there were five cups of coffee in the barbershop.

“Every morning,” he said. “I’ll miss him; I already miss him.”

One day more than a decade ago, Billy Joel was walking through Greenport and spotted something in the gallery. It was a painting of his boat, the Alexa.

“I said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool,’ ” Mr. Joel recalled. “I really liked seeing my boat in a painting. I decided to buy it.”

Mr. Joel, a Long Island history buff, had known about Mr. Fiedler’s dad and the stories of his bootlegging during Prohibition. He tracked down Mr. Fiedler after acquiring the painting and the two spent some time together. Mr. Fiedler did a second painting for Mr. Joel as well.

“I took friends over to that gallery to see his work,” said Mr. Joel, whose boat Alexa is still docked in Sag Harbor. “I thought he was a good painter. He captured the whole maritime spirit of the area.”

Ms. Fiedler recalled that Mr. Joel requested the Alexa painting be updated to reflect a rowing dory that had been added. Mr. Fiedler agreed to do it and refused any payment.

“So Billy said, ‘Let’s have a drink down at Claudio’s’ ” Ms. Fiedler said.

As the story goes, Mr. Fiedler didn’t think he meant right at that moment. So he went home and told his family that Billy Joel wanted to have a drink with him. Meanwhile, Mr. Joel sat at the bar at Claudio’s waiting for his drink-mate, who never showed up.

Mr. Joel laughed at hearing that story, saying he didn’t recall the specifics.

“That’s OK,” he said of being stood up. “I’m all right at a bar by myself.” 

The Fiedler Gallery will remain open and fellow artist Charlie Mattina of Southold will help run it. Mr. Mattina moved to the North Fork about eight years ago and spent a lot of time at the gallery with Mr. Fiedler, who became his mentor.

“He took me another step further in art, as far as selling paintings and producing them,” said Mr. Mattina, 63.

For artists seeking space to showcase their work, there was no better deal than The Fiedler Gallery. Mr. Fiedler would rent wall space for a nominal fee and not charge commission fees. When a customer bought a painting, he would handle every aspect of the sale.

“I don’t think there was a better gallery,” Mr. Mattina said.

Richard Fiedler. (Courtesy photo)

If not for meeting Rich Fiedler, Marilyn Fiedler said, she likely never would have married. They were a perfect match, she said, two independent people who pursued their passions in life and raised a family in the village both held so dear.

A scrapbook compiled by the family features dozens of articles about Mr. Fiedler, clipped from The Suffolk Times and other newspapers. Other scrapbooks are filled with photos of their adventures over the years, most often at sea. 

In the last few years, Mr. Fiedler began writing a personalized story about many of his paintings. 

“It blew my mind,” his daughter said when she began reading through it.

He had always wanted to have a book. He began the project down at the gallery. Now, his family hopes to compile it all into published material to commemorate his work.

“The most amazing person I’ve ever met in my life,” Ms. Fiedler said. “I feel so blessed to have found him and be married to him and go through life with him.

“He’s always in my heart. My best friend.”

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Photo caption: Greenport artist Richard Fiedler used his Main Street gallery as a venue to showcase the work of other local artists. (Jeremy Garretson photo)

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