In Memory of Robert Fisher

Sunday, August 19, 2006, Kemijarvi, Finland
  Robert Fisher dies in Burlington, Vermont.
      During our July visit to Vermont we visited Bob, a number of times, at the hospice center, in Burlington.  After we left for Finland, we were excited by and we followed closely, Sophie’s inspired efforts to revive him by feeding him home-made nourishing food and bringing him back to his studio on Hunger Mountain.
      Robert was our main correspondent, some times once a week we would receive a letter with the drawing of the jumping fish in the corner where the return address might be. He provided us with contacts in the south of France, introducing us to Eric Koch, and inspired us with tales of his French painting adventures, for example, how he started making water colors; he was visiting St Remy, looking at the old motifs which had inspired Vincent Van Gogh.  Following Van Gogh’s path, having walked some distance, Bob came to sit on a bench and look out over the fields and the bright blue sky.  Observing the dark shadows under the trees and the corn in the field, with the black crows swooping and soaring. He noticed there was a paper bag on the bench beside him and he opened it, inside he found a complete set of water colors with two brushes and a pad of watercolor paper, even a little flask of water. He started to make water colors right then and there.
Bob loved to talk about painters and painting. He told us about the old painting days in New York, when he lived in the bowery on Greene Street and studied with Hans Hoffmann. He spoke of Russian painters, Malevich, and Popova, European painters, Matisse and Mondrian and Latin American painters, Tamayo and Diego Rivera as a Cubist. He told us what he read about art and artists in the New York Times, interpreted through the lens of his long years in the community of painters.
    Bob struggled heroically with his own career, painting steadily and making constant efforts to engage his work with our times. He struggled with poverty and his hearing loss and old age and isolation and the disinterest of the community in his work.  He always reached out to people and made proposals, he was really proud of his collaboration with the American composer, Nick Thorn.  Bob taught at UVM for a year. He was a War Resister and he worked in the Civil Rights movement in Alabama.

He was on the board of the Hunger Mountain coop for years.

  He collaborated with local artists; this photo is of Nick Hecht, Ross Calabrese, Robert Fisher and Sam Kerson.  I took the photo in preparation for two exhibits we made together, in 1994, one at the Helen Day Gallery in Stowe, Vermont, which lasted one day and an exhibit at the Commensal, restaurant, on Queen Mary, in Montreal, which lasted for a month.  It was, as a result of these two shows that Robert was invited by Greer Clark to exhibit at the Clark Gallery, in Stowe.

  Lately he has had some success, his series of paintings called, Street Angels inspired a theatre work in California; thanks to the musician he called the Green Angel, Mary Lou Newmark.  Plus, finally, the Hoffmann foundation had given him a significant grant to exhibit in Provincetown, Mass.
    Certainly we carry with us many of his ideas about painting.  Especially, what is a painting?  And, how do we make a painting?
    Why do we paint?  I am not sure he ever asked that question?  He was, till his last day, very much under the influence of Hans Hoffmann, whom he called, Mr. Hoffmann?

Bob was quite outspoken about his disbelief in organized religions but he believed in painting, he had faith in it.  Painting was his way, and he went to his easel religiously.  We could say, he lived to paint, especially when he got older and no longer pursued his trade as carpenter.  Strapped, as he always was, for money he kept up his supplies of oils and brushes and I know, he died with a dozen canvases, prepared with rabbit skin glue, primed and ready to receive his images.

  As our mentor he led us along that path too, he was always ready to advise, to restate, to look at our work and to talk about it. For many years we went to the model together, first at Pat and Jimmy Gahagan`s.  Bob was very strong in this area, the human figure, and it was revealing to see how he looked at the model and how he represented the figure on a two dimensional surface.

 His house was always open and we were welcome to see what he was painting and to see his method, as it was displayed there in his studio.

Each canvas he painted, considered the meaning of red, blue and yellow, and the relationships between the primary colors as applied to the still life and to the human figure.

Whenever we went to visit, he was studying one of his Ubiquitous Still Lives, as he once characterized them, in an exhibit we were in together.  His still life, dominated the room; raised on a pedestal and lighted from above; they were typically  composed of a baroque table, a cut glass dish, a few squares of colored paper and the flowers he grew, dahlias or gladiolas to complete his design. His easel and paints were ready and waiting, poised in front of the enigmatic construction.  One had the impression that Bob was always fascinated by the still life, as finally, the still life became the principle theme of his painting.

We often enjoyed his sauna, his roast potatoes, his steaks or home-grown chickens, cooked on the coals of his wood stove, his home-made maple syrup and his special stash of after dinner brandy.

   After Bob died we received one more message from him, a death bed remark that Sophie repeated to me.  She heard it from Ross and Ross reported that Fisher had whispered it to him and Nick while they were visiting the old painter at the hospice.  I heard it like this, “At night the nurses wrap me up in a black sheet and tie me to a post in the back yard, and then they bash my ankles with sharp stones.”  The accompanying pastel is my interpretation of these final words….

    I am happy to say we collected a few of Bob’s paintings over the years, we have a few oils; brightly colored, demonstrating Hoffmann’s, push/pull ideas, as well as Bob’s understanding of dynamic space and rhythm.  We have   a group of watercolors from France, the same ones that were made with that found box of paints.  We have a charcoal drawing or two; it is in these charcoal drawings that he expressed his understanding of the figure. We hang this selection of pieces like a projection of his vision.  Speaking out to us from the wall his pictures are a vibrant restatement of his teaching.

The last time we saw Robert he gave Katah a box of water colors, and now we look at them and see they are all primary colors

Sam and Katah ,  in the Atelier