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Sleepless in Janesville: Artist uses watercolors as therapy

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Anna Marie Lux
August 24, 2013

JANESVILLE

The idea of art therapy never entered Bill Fassbender's mind when he came home with brushes and watercolors.

He only knew that he was in a fight for his life with cancer and often could not sleep at night.

“I had no way to channel my energy,” Bill said. “TV got old after awhile. Sometimes I would sit outside and watch the stars.”

With prompting from his wife, Sue, and no formal training, he touched the paint to paper late one evening at the living room table.

In the nights ahead, images of things he noticed during the day poured from him: a brilliant Monarch, a blood-red sunset, a colorful hot air balloon.

He focused to create detail and shadow.

More than a year later, Bill has completed 125 small watercolors—and counting.

“I just forget about everything when I do these paintings,” the Janesville man said. “Nothing else crosses my mind. When I'm done, I'm usually relaxed enough to go back to sleep.”

Sue rarely sees Bill paint, but she recognized his potential long ago. She and Bill, a retired General Motors worker, will be married 35 years in November.

“He's been artistic ever since I've known him,” Sue said.

Bill has shown signs for years.

When the line stopped at GM because of a breakdown, Bill used the free time to sketch. When he was in the National Guard in Texas, he happily painted military insignias on the wall. When he talks on the telephone, he enjoys doodling.

Bill discovered his new passion during one of the toughest times of his life.

He has wrestled with three kinds of cancer.

In 1980, Bill was diagnosed with nasal pharynx cancer and treated with radiation therapy. He was only 27 at the time but didn't feel sorry for himself.

“If something bad happens, we don't dwell on it,” Bill said. “The next day will come. You have to go on. I just focused on the cancer getting smaller with each radiation treatment.”

Years later, in summer 2011, doctors found and removed melanoma from his lower calf. But the bad news did not stop there.

In December 2011, doctors discovered a mass at the end of his esophagus. He was treated with radiation and chemotherapy.

In March 2012, Bill had five inches of his lower esophagus and a quarter of his stomach removed.

By June 2012, he began to feel better but had trouble sleeping.

“I would think about a multitude of things,” Bill said. “Your brain just doesn't let go.”

That's when he began painting. He also started attending art class at the Janesville Senior Activity Center.

“I channel my feelings, but I also want to make something that looks nice,” Bill said.

His teacher Arlene Ledger said he sometimes will bring half a dozen new paintings to the weekly session.

“It seems like there is more feeling in his strokes than in the strokes of so many other artists,” she said. “He's the only one who paints in the middle of the night. But there are others who forget about their pain or illness when they are doing art.”

Ledger knows from experience.

“I have a lot of pain,” she said. “But when I get interested in my art, an hour or two will pass before I know it.”

Pat Tobin, recreation programmer at the senior center, also teaches an art class.

“Art helps people through loss,” she said. “It gives people focus and a sense of purpose. Bill's art probably brings peace to his life. He has done landscapes and florals. They take his mind off unpleasant things.”

The students' paintings might not end up in The Louvre, but “they give them pleasure,” Tobin said. “In this age of computers, picking up a paint brush and enjoying color is a rewarding experience.”

At Christmas, Bill made greeting cards from an original painting of two cardinals on barbed wire. He suspects many people did not notice he was the artist.

He prefers using dark, vibrant colors and likes to reflect moodiness. Each 9-by-12-inch piece usually takes Bill from three to five hours to complete.

In January, Bill started an aggressive chemotherapy, which ended in June. His cancer is in remission, but he doesn't plan to put away his watercolors anytime soon.

He continues to create images from the heart: a lone man fly fishing, a beckoning road that disappears among trees, brilliant rays of light lapping at rose petals.

If Bill gets stuck, he stops painting for awhile. Then, he returns with enthusiasm.

“I think Bill is worrying less,” Sue said. “I think he is finding himself again.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.



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