Machines Like Us interviews: John Fisher
One might argue that creativity is what makes us human; it is the driving force behind all progress and invention, and is the impetus behind art, music, science, and the march of civilization itself. We have all experienced bursts of creativity, but what is this mysterious quality, and what makes one individual more creative than another?
In this frank and insightful interview we discuss creativity with a man who processes this illusive quality in spades: renown stone-sculptor John Fisher—an American artist who spent twenty years in Italy, perfecting his craft in the shadow of Michelangelo. He is a man of intense passion and remarkable skills who takes a profoundly philosophical approach to art and its impact on communities. For over thirty years his public, on-site carvings have fascinated residents of the towns to which he is invited, as they observe his intuitive process. Without models or preliminary sketches, Fisher magically pulls figures out of the stone.
(In addition to this interview, John has assembled a delightful history of his life and work for Machines Like Us readers, which can be found here.)
Interview conducted by Norm Nason.
MLU: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me, John. I know how busy you are and I appreciate you taking the time away from sculpting to have this exchange.
JF: I'm looking forward to doing this, so let's get started.
MLU: Let's begin with a deceptively simple question: What is creativity?
JF: My great teacher, Tom Blodgett, said: "The creative act is one of desperation." The logic behind this is that if you are doing something you know how to do, you may be very good at it, but you are just repeating something you have learned before. Whereas when you really go out on a limb, when you have no solutions, when you are about to fail, that is when adrenaline kicks in and you pull out the creative act. I attempt to put myself in the most critical and dangerous situations to ensure that this principle keeps me on my toes scrambling for solutions. Putting the whole project in jeopardy is the best way to make it a success. I'll take a stone I have spent months to obtain and thousands of dollars to purchase, then blast into it with heavy machines, with no idea what I am doing. Or imagine finally getting the finest linen canvas, laying in color, value, in big strokes; painting a scene in the last light of day, knowing that the light is changing every minute. That is the way it feels to create. There is a time towards the end when you can slow down and carefully paint in the finishing touches, when the experience is quiet. But the bulk of the time it is a near mortal battle. Creativity = Desperation.
MLU: Then being creative must also be an act of heroism—a willingness to throw one's self into a perilous situation—as well as an expression of confidence that somehow your abilities and past experience will somehow pull you through to a satisfying outcome. What drives you to do this, when so many others shy away out of a fear of failure? What makes one person creative and another not?
JF: They say in marble carving that one needs courage, passion and patience. So lets call it courage instead of heroism. I am terrified at the beginning of each new project. It is not only the fear of failure but also the realization of all the work that is going to have to be done in order to arrive at an acceptable outcome. There are so many ways it can go wrong. It takes courage to begin despite the odds. One can hope that some of our past experiences will come in handy. I come to each project armed with my skills. Still, in order for the creativity to come, I must push myself into new territory, to stretch those skills, put them to the test. This is why we need to be passionate about the work. If not, it is too easy to give up. That passion drives us out to the studio when others are resting. The patience give us endurance for the long haul.
What drives me is curiosity, what does it feel like to carve a masterpiece? It is more of that passion, which is one of those building blocks of art. I get up in the dark so I can have my coffee and be ready when it gets light enough to go outside and work. I am also driven because I feel I am learning more every day. I can see my progress. Failures happen all the time, which cause delays, but experience teaches. Two nights ago I broke a sculpture twice and in the end had to give up. The next day I tried another similar idea; this time I didn’t break it. I went on to try an even more difficult piece also without breaking it. So again I feel I learned something.
Some of us are given more opportunities than others to play and are encouraged instead of told to "be realistic—you’ll never be able to make a living.” I have very little to say about talent. I believe it has more to do with life experiences, opportunities and the time to be curious. Teachers who come at the right time in life and possessing a spirit that is open to beauty doesn’t hurt. I feel so blessed to be on my path, to have something I am passionate about and bring so much joy to others. The daily rewards of the artistic life keep us going. Not to say that financial concerns are not very real and can be extremely distracting.
One more word about failure. My gym teacher explained about vaulting: if you don’t really go for the trick and don’t get a lot of height, you won’t have room to do the flip and you will break your neck. So one way to fail is to not really go for the hard stuff, to stay easy and mundane. Another way is to really try, go way out on a limb and then have it break. Oops! But you gained more experience and next time you will stop just before it breaks. Failures can seem a waste of time, but they seldom are. The important thing is to not get hurt or hurt anyone else.
MLU: Such passion and drive! Perhaps that is why throughout history great artists have been both revered and despised: revered for the wonders they are able to accomplish and despised for making others face their own apathy (Michelangelo comes to mind). If talent was something you developed yourself by working hard for many years, was the passion and drive you experience inborn, or was it learned as well?
JF: Like I said I think it is opportunities, chance encounters. I was 12 and my father, an archeologist, took the whole family to Europe and the middle east for a year. I got to see the Parthenon, Mycenae, Damascus, Jerusalem, Rome, Florence and Paris for 6 months. I came back compelled to try [and emulate] what I had seen in all those places. All of those creations had been done by people, and in my 12 year old head I was a person too, so why not me. I came back with a huge portfolio of drawings and paintings. I was able to go to a high school with 4 art teachers and an art department. I was able to schedule art classes every day. By the time I graduated from high school I had done many life-size figures in clay, made many kilns, thrown pottery, painted and drew more. Then my father would not allow me to go to art school, so I left home and never stopped creating. I have supported myself since age 18 by my art.
MLU: That was an unusually broad art education for a young fellow. Which artists have come to be important to you, and why?
JF: I just love so much and such a variety. My first love was for Michelangelo, Bernini, then Rodin and Camille Claudel. Later I came to love Giacometti both for his paintings and sculptures. I saw a book on Vigeland Park outside Oslo, in Norway, and that blew my mind. But the artists that had the most influence over me were three teachers. The first when I was 12, Lillian Sargent, took me out in Paris and sat me on the sidewalks and painted with me, allowed me to say I was an artist. Ms. Ingrid Peterson in High school was Danish-born and trained. She was hard on me and insisted I do things over and over again. She walked around with a knife and would lop off parts of the [sculpture] body that she though I could do better. And Finally my master, Tom Blodgett, who turned my head around and offered me a new approach to creativity. It was way more scary and dangerous, but the results were off the charts. I love painting as much as sculpture and there are tons of great painters and draftsmen out there. Rembrandt, Turner, most the impressionists, Corot, and Sargent. I see what these artists have done and I want their experience. I want to be able to make those kinds of works that are so moving and powerful. There just isn’t enough time to do it all. I love to etch and both Rembrandt and Whistler did amazing etchings. This young artist Jeremy Lipking is outstanding. I want it all; I want to do it all! Our way of thinking is to create nonstop. We might not make it to tomorrow, so full steam ahead today. When sculptures, paintings, etchings are all pouring out of the studio, making a living will not be an issue.
Oh my, I left out N. C. Wyeth. How could I have forgotten my love of him!
MLU: I think a theme is emerging here! You are not only passionate about art and aesthetics, but you seem to take great pleasure in seeing it done by others as well. Which brings me to my next question. I know you to be a "people person"—patient and self-effacing; always teaching and encouraging. I have had the pleasure of seeing first-hand how you created one of your monumental civic sculptures and engaged with the public. How important do you feel social interaction is to the creative process? Would you be just as good an artist if you did not interact with others?
JF: The sum is greater than the parts; something like that, yes, maybe. But some great pieces have come out of solitude as well. I think exposure to lots of work is a good thing. But the final answer is no. Most of our work is done alone. Studying with Tom [Blodgett] changed my life.
What blew my mind with Tom was that he questioned the whole approach we have to ideas. Ideas that come from your awake, conscious mind, you could throw out as trite and superficial. He looked for the ideas that came from the creative process. He believed as do I that our brains are heavily influenced by things we have seen or done. To escape from those influences and get to some other purer approach was what he sought to teach. You don’t need anyone with you at the moment of creation. I enjoy sharing it because I think people need to see it happen to believe. Start without an idea. Go deep into the process; days or weeks of applying paint or removing stone. Waiting for inspiration to flood your mind. The ideas that come from the process is so exciting that it gives you a rocket boost of creative power. Composition is King. Layout is everything. So those first weeks can just be setting the stage for creativity. Lights and darks are established, tensions are put into the composition before you know what the image is. Tension builds and a sense of desperation enters. As images start to appear one has choices and it can happen that an idea comes that just sweeps you off your feet. Unfortunately, most of my most creative moments are only witnessed by myself. I wish more people could see how magical it works. From what before seemed like nothing springs something nearly finished. The brain will suddenly arraign the available material or color and an image appears much the way we see things in clouds. It is a process of recognition—not imposing your thought on the situation—but receiving, from a much more vast pool of subconscious information. Out of this pool comes the really great ideas that reach a broader population and talk to our humanity. Our own ideas are way too ego-driven to trust. Imagine the first burst of energy to begin, and this tension grows and then a dam breaks and ideas flood in. Suddenly you see your way and another boost of energy is felt that drives you clear to the end. You sit there and just cannot believe the amazing roller coaster ride you’ve been on. Then you get up and do it again, from the beginning; no ideas!
MLU: It's interesting that you feel the subconscious plays such a major part in the creative process. I've heard you talk about seeing images in the random shapes of clouds, and know exactly what you mean by that. I even recall a Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy lay on their backs on a hill, commenting on what they see in the clouds overhead. Many times I have discerned realistic patterns in random textures: faces or animals in acoustic ceilings or linoleum floors—and I hear this ability is quite common. Do you think humans have an in-born tendency to see recognizable objects where there are none, perhaps in an attempt to make sense of a chaotic world?
JF: Yes, I even think the early cave paintings used natural formations to inspire their work. Da Vinci spoke of throwing a bucket of paint at a wall and see what comes out. I think it is a part of our humanness and is a common experience as you say, so this ability is universal and open to us all. Drawing regularly helps to train the eye and makes pulling out the image easier. That is why it is so important. So I say draw all the time, look and remember, but when you create, put it all to the side as it does not enter into the creative process until midway through. I do not work-out my images ahead of time. I see art as lots of practice and then doing it. This makes the doing an intense experience and heightens your awareness. We all dream at night and see tons of images, so seeing images is not really anyone's problem. It is how to get those images out that we are looking for. Randomness and chaos is the answer. The world around us is random; as we are part of that world we also have randomness in us. So my random strokes of color or removal of stone sets the stage for the create act. Yes, it does take courage to begin work with no goal, and the desperation builds the longer you carry on with this “insane” activity. When the tension has built to the right point the magic happens and images appear. Those images will not be anything you have seen before and yet you will recognize them. If I ask you to draw a horse you will use all your experience, your rolodex of store information on horses, which may be a lot or very little. The horse you draw will be contrived. But the horse you see in the clouds is given to you on a silver platter. Its head is turned a certain way, steam is coming out of its nostrils, one hoof is raised and the tail and mane are blowing in the wind—such a different and more alive horse than any you could have drawn unless you happen to be a horse pro-artist. If that cloud is a painted cloud or a stone cloud that the wind will not change any instant, then when you see it, you have time to ease it into reality.
MLU: That's a marvelous and vivid way to put it. You mentioned the importance of drawing, but what is it about stone carving in particular that attracts you?
JF: There are several things that I like about carving stone. First is that there is no second step, like firing a piece in clay or casting it in metal. When you are done you are done. Your efforts stand a chance of surviving a few centuries if not more, so one stands a chance of becoming known, at least after passing. I know I will have left over 400 pieces on this earth to bring joy and pleasure to many people for a long time. There are fewer of us stone carvers, and figurative carvers are in an even smaller circle, so competition is less. There are so many painters out there, and good ones at that! Plus, for me, I like hammers and physically using my body. It is also a romantic thing. The tools have changed some but not enough to really alter the challenge of pulling an image out of stone. That said, for centuries the act of carving was left to artisans. Copying techniques have been around since the Greeks.
The work was too much for one guy so they came up with systems to copy from a model. Those systems work perfectly, but render the carving process down to a technical exercise. That is why I have never bothered to learn them or practice them. Direct figure carving is very rare. It is a niche in which I have only a few fellow artists, who are mostly friends, to compete with. I have been able to make a living because I have a product that few others have. In bronze they make make replicas. In marble they make replicas as well, copies of the David, once a year in Pietrasanta [Italy]. But there will be no replicas of my work. Each piece is unique and unable to copy as there are natural surfaces of stone, breaks and random tool marks that make the copy process impossible. When my clients purchase a piece they know they have the only one of its kind that will ever be on this earth.
MLU: Ah, I see! It must be almost like having children, except that you are leaving behind an even more personal and lasting legacy. I wonder, then: how do you know when a sculpture is finished—and do you find it difficult to let go of a piece once you have completed it?
JF: Ah, this is easy. A sculpture is never finished, just abandoned. I find the point at which I abandon them is getting sooner rather than later. I once asked a fabulous Italian artisan if I could leave a sculpture in its early phase of rough-out, when all the movements were there but no detail. “Yes, it is beautiful,“ he agreed. “But you are too young to leave it that way, so you must finish it.”
I have less and less patience for the finishing work as it just takes so long. Still, I push it as far as my interest will go. Or I get the piece so far and say, if anyone shows interest I will finish it, but for now I want to try something new. One of the advantages of working the way I do is that the process is very quick. I like instant gratification. Once the image is seen it just pops out and is suddenly realized. During one pubic project, on a Sunday morning toward the end, there were about 20 people standing around watching me carve. One of those there suddenly spoke up and told me that he saw a bird just above my head. I stood back and asked him to point out the bird. Once he did we all could see it. The light was hitting the block just so and you could see the breast, the wing, the tilt of the head and the beak. I Picked up my chisels and removing only a handful of stone more from around the bird and suddenly it was there. I never put a rasp to it. It remains in the sculpture as it was carved in those few moments.
The work of art should always be finished. Day one it should already be art, be powerful, be strong. Remember: Composition is King. Day 2 it should be art as much as day 6 or 7. Sure, one day you walk away. But it should always be powerful. I try not to leave the studio at night until I can walk away and say: "if I die tonight it is still a good piece."
I once asked my teacher if before he started an important commission he would do some sketches. “This is the sketch,” he said, as he began work on his best piece of paper. I have gone into pieces years after “finishing” them and completely reworked them. As long as a sculpture is in my possession, I am likely to rework areas. As I learn new things I go around and apply my learning to my inventory. Sometimes I go into someone’s house and see an old piece I did and I want so bad to start working on it again. So they become abandoned at various stages and for many reasons. Without helpers, finishing is just too long and difficult. Other media perhaps make finishing easier. Most of my work are studies and so not so important to me. Occasionally truly important pieces are begun with no time frame for completion.
MLU: That was beautifully said, John. I should point out for our readers who are not familiar with stone carving, however, that when you say you "like instant gratification" and "have no patience for finishing work because it takes so long," timescales for a stone carver are longer than they are for us mortals. I have personally seen you put nearly 1,000 hours of labor and love into a single monumental sculpture, working 10-hour days for three months without a break. And I understand that this is something you do quite often.
Since you have a daughter, would care to share any thoughts about the similarities and differences between creating a child and creating a work of art? For instance, both require care and attention, and both embody elements of yourself that will outlive you. Do you feel that they are similar in some way, or completely different? Has your experience with one helped you with the other?
JF: I often feel and refer to the birthing process as a way to describe creating. I have no problems sending my stone children out into the world. The first owner is just that, the first in a long line of people that will care for the piece. It is wonderful, how my thoughts and feeling emerge and enlighten me with insights into myself. But real children talk and think for themselves and that is extremely interesting. Being a father has been an important part of my life. I love my daughter so much more than my work. Rarely do I love my work. Mostly I just see the problems and try to do better next time.
MLU: Well, that leaves the rest of us to love your work for you, which we most certainly do!
Let's pretend something for a moment. Imagine that you have selected a 15-ton block of the whitest, purest Carrara marble and it stands solidly and silently in the morning mist before you. Take us on a mental journey, describing the process of selecting that block in the quarry and then transforming it into a masterpiece. How do you begin? What are your thoughts as you carve, as you make your discoveries, correct your mistakes, make changes upon changes. How do you speak to the stone, and what does it say to you in return?
JF: In the quarry I select blocks of quality but also what they call “Informe,” or stone without cuts, if possible. They are just raw hunks of stone off the mountain. This insures that they are unique pieces that can never be found again, much the way every snow flake is unique. All the outside surfaces are natural and already have a patina of eons. But for the purpose of this exercise we can also pretend it is a cut cube of the purest stone. Once I get the block off the mountain and it is standing in my studio I remove 30% to the weight of the block, in this case nearly 5 tons. I can remove a ton a day, so within the first week I will have the block down to 10 tons. The stone would be removed using a drill and splitting wedges with feathers. It is a quarry technique that splits off massive pieces. I have learned to be fairly controlled and can take off 100-to-200-pound hunks at a time with a single hole. The first and largest pieces can be up to 800 pounds. While doing this I am thinking, "Composition is King." I am putting movement into the block and counter movements, accents, big strokes, medium strokes, and small strokes. It is like music; you have to have a variety of notes. So for a week, no images are allowed, only abstract concepts of design and layout should influence the stone. Make it the best abstract sculpture ever carved. Do honor to Brancussi and Moore and others who fought to free us from what had become stale Neoclassicism. I tell my students: you can’t make a mistake if you don’t know what you are doing.
When that block is singing it will start to happen. I come back from lunch or arrive early one morning and suddenly I see the first image. I try to get about seven to play with and to have choices. The brain only utilizes the available material; all the stone I took off is gone. The image usually does not present itself to me unless the material is there to carve. Often—as in the horse in the clouds—I will see 50-80 percent of my image. Once I decide on the image I start where I see things the clearest and begin to carve only profiles. Profile are lines learned in drawing. That is why drawing is so tied to sculpture. A line is either right or wrong. If it needs changing, I decide on the new line and cut it until I see sky. I move 5 degrees and cut another profile. With every stroke the image becomes more evident; it becomes obvious what stone to remove. Any questions, I stop and check a resource: a model or an old drawing that will help me through the problem. I keep moving. Turn, cut; turn, cut; turn cut. Like peeling an onion the layers come off and I approach the surface. All the fun stuff happens at the last in the last 1/2 an inch. The last modeling is pure heaven. I know I have a great sculpture by that time and before long I can be carving details.
The spark of seeing the potential of the image is huge. There is energy opening up the block because there is anticipation, fear and just lots of hard labor to keep your mojo up. Then I see the image and you want so bad to realize it. Then I approach the end and there is so much fun in the final details and carving that it carries me through to the end. I must give that stone all my courage. Even though I spent a fortune on that block and an effort to get it in my studio. I blast into it dropping 30%. THE GOOD PART OF SPLITTING IS THAT THE HUNKS I TAKE OFF BECOME SMALLER SCULPTURES. Fear increases as stone comes off and images still have not [yet] appeared. The fear increases adrenalin and I am pushed to really concentrate. Then I see it and a wave breaks. I see the potential before me and sometimes I have to stop and give thanks that such an image would be revealed to me, for me to carve, in this hour, that I would be the chosen messenger to bring this image unto the world. It is powerful stuff! It is what keeps me coming back for more. What did I learn? To trust my intuition that even though it seems insane, it does work and better than anything I ever seen. I am honored to a part of this long tradition and grateful to be able to do my part in the human story.
MLU: Wow! John, I want to thank you for your candid and thoughtful remarks. To me, your work is a metaphor for the trials and rewards of life itself, and I know I'm not alone in feeling the contagion of your passion and enthusiasm. Let me close by asking you this: why is creativity important? In what way does it benefit humanity; why does it matter?
JF: It matters because during the creative moment we are close to, dare I say, a spiritual connection. We have feelings and are seeing things that are hard to explain. I have been moved to tears watching my hands carve. This connection is what is so thrilling and what drives us on, keeps us in the studio. Tomorrow I will stand before a block that is over 1,000 pounds. 40 people will be watching as I drop my 30% and pull an image from this block. The sculpture must be finished by the end of five days. Tonight it is all ahead of me. It is a mystery. I am afraid and with good reason. The power is building within me. At nine in the morning it will explode out of me. I will give birth. Tonight my sleep we be restless like the night before a battle. I am going to need all the help I can get. Can you feel my desperation? This is why I teach. I want people to see this with their eyes, even if it takes much longer to understand and grok what they have seen. It is too hard to fully explain, it must be shown.
See a history of John Fisher's life and work here.
Find out more about John Fisher on his website.