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Venus Talks: an interview with Isabel Fryszberg (Part 1)

Welcome to Venus Talks, a new feature here on Roots Music Canada by award-winning artist Lenka Lichtenberg, which will feature in-depth interviews with female musicians from across Canada.  Her first conversation is with Isabel Fryszberg.

I’ve known Isabel since 2001, when we founded the all-female Sisters of Sheynville “swingklez” band. She is a modern-day Renaissance woman, with deep skills in several art forms (fiddler, singer, songwriter, painter, documentary film-maker). She brought her unstoppable creativity to her career as an occupational therapist, having created in 1998 the Creative Works Studio under the auspices of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. The studio offered therapy to mental health patients through expression in the arts. It grew and grew to become an oasis of hope and a refuge for people who had lost hope, improving and even saving many lives along the way. In their midst, there was Isabel, paint brush in one hand, guitar in the other hand, smile on her face and empathy in her heart, with her small frame hidden under her long Rapunzel hair.

Music, then, is but one of Isabel’s many talents. And that is what I have the pleasure to talk with her about. Please see the bottom of Part Two of this article tomorrow for Isabel’s upcoming shows and visit her website for samples of her music and art:  https://www.isabelfryszberg.com

Lenka:  Isabel, tell us about your background.

Isabel: I am second generation, daughter of Holocaust survivors, the youngest of two sisters. I grew up in a home full of stories of another culture. I grew up with Yiddish, with parents who were in a survival mode. They were always working. While they were creative and deep in their experiences, they were very cautious about the arts. They did not feel there was time or opportunity to support that. My first instrument was a baby toy piano. And because I have a sister who is 11 years older, she was the one who would sit with me and say, “Look, this is how you play ‘Chopsticks,’ ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb…’” She’d even say, “I’m going to sing the melody; you’ll sing the harmony!”  Being five years old, that was so challenging. She would kind of do that to get me upset … but she was my doorway to music.

Lenka: Where did she learn about music?

Isabel: My sister went to a choir at her public school at that time (the fifties).  The choir was so important. They learned music at public school.

Lenka: Did you?

Isabel: Not as much. I did a little bit. In Grade 5, I was given a recorder, an alto recorder because I had a good ear. In Grade 6, I was in a little choir called The Triple Trio. In Grade 7, I did take the violin, but then in Grade 9, I had to choose between art and music and typing. My mother said, “Oh, you’ll need typing,” so over music, I chose art, which was a very strong card for me. And typing. So I lost music for a while. Going back, I still loved my baby piano, but it didn’t grow any bigger. The hunger for music was always there, and hunger for dance. I remember watching the Nutcracker on the television, and I’d put on my party dress, and I’d dance with the dancers on the TV. My friends took dance lessons, and I choreographed dances with them, and we’d perform them. I did this very organically. I think I come from a place of “playing creatively.” That’s what I know. It’s instinctual for me. Most kids’ parents were not in the “survival mode.” The kids were given lessons, those opportunities. I had to hunger, yearn for it.

Lenka: They would never invest in your artistic talents, interests…

Isabel: Oh no. It was too frightening for them. I had to make a living. That was number one.

Lenka: Did your parents listen to music, consume the arts in their free time, as an entertainment? [Did they] go to concerts?

Isabel: My dad, when he escaped from the Nazis and walked from Poland to Uzbekistan, he slept in barren opera houses. Opera music in Russia was accessible. When he came to Canada, it was not accessible. But the radio was always on, listening to the Jewish Hour; I’d hear that every Sunday, all the singers on that channel. My sister got her own record player when she was 16. She would play Bob Dylan, Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Phil Ochs, Roberta Flack, Bobby Gentry … She got all this great music, which I then heard about. She got her first guitar when she was 18 or so. So I in a way grew up with music that was coming to me through her. Then, I got my first job – working in a record store. So then I got to hear all kinds of music. And I always loved going to coffee houses, listening to so many singers. … It was then such an incredible music scene in Toronto when I was a teenager. I just craved for it.

Lenka: How did you begin performing yourself?

Isabel: It was a journey. … My first instrument, a fiddle, was in my early thirties.

Lenka: You didn’t perform until then?

Isabel: No. I studied visual arts at York University. With my father always saying, “How are you going to make a living?” And I thought the art scene at that time was pretty misogynistic; I thought it was going to take me a lifetime to be the artist I wanted to be; so how can I contribute to the world, to making a change. Being a daughter of a communist father, I wanted to have an effect, create positive social change. So I thought, art therapist, or occupational therapist? I chose the latter; my gut instinct told me that I’d have work in that field, and I could use art in that. So when I graduated from the OT school, I wanted an instrument. I still had that hunger. When I’d go to folk festivals, the fiddle was the happiest instrument. I wanted to play it. I took lessons with Ann Lederman and went to workshops and fiddle and dance camps. Those were my real doorways to music.  I first went to The Woods (Music and Dance Camp) in Toronto, then Ashokan and other camps in the U.S. I learned a lot there, about harmony singing, music, fiddle, dance… and community. To me, music and community are so integrated.

In my mid-thirties, I had a boyfriend who was a luthier. He saw my sister’s guitar. At that point, I was going to song circles, I was singing, and even started writing songs, just intuitively, but I didn’t have a guitar to play it on. I think the fiddle music gave me melodies. My boyfriend saw my sister’s guitar, a Gibson LG, and recognized the quality of it. He told my sister, “Why don’t you give Isabel this guitar and get a Taylor?” She plays herself very well … so she gave the Gibson to me, he fixed it, but I didn’t know how to play it. Slowly, I would pick up chords, and [I] started to write more. When he and I broke up, then I really dug in! Then music really found me. It became a necessity, to express my heart.

Lenka: Do you still play those early songs?

Isabel: Oh yes. Some of those are on my first album, though it took me a while to grow into those songs. And then I found myself singing more, and [I] started attending klezmer camps in the early 1990. Then I wanted to sing Yiddish music, especially after my dad died. I started to feel the necessity to learn more about Yiddish music. Yiddish was something I grew up with, and because I was learning country songs, and folk songs, I felt compelled to go back to my own roots, and Klez Camp was a great opportunity to get inside that music and culture.

Lenka:  You went to the Catskills Camp in upper New York State then?

Isabel: That’s right. There were great teachers: Alica Sviegles, Michael Alpert, Henry Zaposnic, Adrienne Cooper and many others. I also did a bit of klezmer fiddle. I got into it.  That’s when I created a duo with Ben Stein and started performing that music. 

Lenka: Did your mom come out to hear you?

Isabel: She came out once.

Lenka: Was she pleased that you played music that was, really, her music?

Isabel: I think she was happy … but it was always mixed, strangely. … It was bittersweet for her, brought memories going back to growing up, but also memories of the wartime and its losses. She had a brother who made his own fiddle and composed music.

Lenka: So your music talent came from him, maybe?

Isabel: It was in my mother, too. She said that when he was not looking, she would grab the fiddle and start playing. In those days, girls were not encouraged. But when I played the fiddle in front of her, she’d comment, make those strokes softer, those longer. … That does not come from a naive ear. She had it in her. But it would not blossom as there was no space, opportunity, and mainly, worries about money. Music was a luxury, a privilege. She saw it the same way for me.  The arts cost, and unless you make it your priority, value it so much that you put your money into your music, it comes from privilege. Once I started making money as an OT, I bought myself a fiddle, the first instrument I bought for myself.

Lenka: Then you made that film about her … she was cooking a soup.

Isabel: Yes, I made a little doc film about my mom. Her art was cooking. That’s how she expressed herself. And she also wrote poetry. She would write poems on napkins and envelopes. So I thought I’d have an exchange with her while she is cooking. It was so real. Natural. I wanted to find out what songs she knew. Ironically, many of her songs were in Polish, the ones she said her brother played on his fiddle. When she first shared this with me, I started crying. I didn’t grow up hearing these songs. … At that moment, I also felt her mortality and felt I needed to capture that on film. It was important.

She’d sing a song in Yiddish, then in Polish. … I brought in a professional camera person to make the film … but while working on the film, she died of a sudden heart attack. This added to the poignancy of the film. It was now more than just getting her stories and songs. I felt lucky and privileged that she was comfortable enough to share herself with me on camera. I have that now; when I see the film, it is like visiting her.

Lenka: So, now you had your fiddle and your sister’s guitar…

Isabel: Both of these instruments are my dear friends. They help me speak about my heart, they connect me to wonderful people, camps, [and] communities. I feel so lucky. I might not have been given those instruments in my family, but my parents gave me the depth, the appreciation of story, to be drawn to it.  Now I was open to it, I hungered for it.

Lenka: We will leave music for a bit now.  Tell me, how did you think of starting the Creative Works Studio?

Isabel: I graduated as an occupational therapist. People, who have a physical or mental disability can heal themselves through enjoyable and nurturing activities. That’s the premise of occupational therapy, which developed over a hundred years ago. Over time, it has become more mechanized, medicalized, and OTs lost their identity. But it was the original premise that drew me, so I made it my call, my vocation to bring back art into occupational therapy. After graduation, I worked various traditional stints in the field, including CAMH. When Harris came in, it really changed the scene in health care. All the kinds of great groups that I worked with in hospitals got cut. I was told that the rehabilitative programs I was working on will be cut.  The new direction was to shift everything to the community, and many clinicians in hospital were becoming caseworkers following up on the care of individual patients. That was of no interest to me, as I believed in group programming. I ended up working under Inner City Health, where I was given the opportunity to do some new community and economic development social enterprise work.  I had to find an external space, got some amazing volunteers involved, such as Sister Betty Lou, and was offered a storefront location for my studio through her community, the Sisters of St. Joseph, at a cost of $1 per year “rent!” Sister Betty Lou was a great role model for me; she was great working with people, very supportive, but not as clinical. She worked with me for 13 years. Slowly I grew the program. It was in a space called Mustard Seed. I learned about writing grant applications, looking for allies, supporters … I partnered with like-minded organizations such as JVS, got a Trillium grant to grow the program and to get staff, and then more volunteers were drawn to the program. When we moved to a bigger space, St Michael’s came on board to help with the rent. Then we partnered with the Good Shepard, which was big for us; the program grew from its 12 original members (participants) to 60 members and a huge waitlist, and two more staff.

Lenka: Tell us about what went on there.

Isabel:  Our members, age 20-70, had serious mental health problems. Here, they stopped being patients and engaged in the arts in a safe space. We had clay, pottery, sculpture, painting, photography, mixed media, poetry, music, song-writing. We exhibited what was created, sold their works, celebrated them. The members loved writing the songs, another new way of expressing themselves.  A song is a three-dimensional painting to me.

Lenka: So there you were able to put ALL your loves into one place, all these forms of art, plus working with groups, community, and healing.

Isabel: Yes, all my loves … and we made a film! The members themselves felt the place was magical and needs to be documented. I always had research students working with us, from University of Toronto, and with a team of the incredible gifted social scientist from St. Mike’s, Janet Parsons, her team, and our members, we got some very competitive grants: a Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant and Bell’s “Let’s Talk” as well as a Toronto Arts Council grant. So we were able to film the doc “What’s Art Got to do With It?” which follows five members getting ready for an art show. Our members were involved in almost all aspects of planning and producing the film. It was released in 2013, screened at The Female Eye Festival and and TIFF Bell’s Lightbox and aired on CBC’s doc channel. It is used now in colleges in education on art and health and stigma reduction.

Lenka: Also a CD sprung from this effort?

Isabel: Yes. We wrote 50 songs together. In 2014, I released my own debut solo album, Hearts and Arrows, produced by Don Kerr. This gave me an idea to record an album with the members, with Don producing.  He was so great to work with. I applied for an OAC grant and a JP Bickell Foundation grant and received both. Now we had the resources to do this album. Members themselves came up with the band name, Social Mystics, and the title, Coming Out of Darkness. We worked hard. Five days in the studio. … One of the women involved [who’d] just survived a suicide attempt, came every day from the hospital. … The music motivated everyone, carried us all. The release (in 2016, at the Tranzac) was so celebratory. The members were so ready to be seen, heard … to get a standing ovation, it was such a powerful thing. Another Toronto choir, Common Threads, started collaborating with the The Social Mystics and even picked up and performed our songs. I sang with them and the Social Mystics during last Christmas.

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