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Blood Brothers, pt.I: Rob Fisher and Frank James Fisher

Rob Fisher and Frank James Fisher are not only brothers, they are also professional artists dedicated to their work. Rob is a painter, Frank is a ceramic artist. Rob lives in Brooklyn, NY, Frank lives outside of Detroit, MI. Despite these immediate differences, their work has several striking similarities, some of which might be traced to their childhood and an artistic father. The following dialogue follows the brothers as they discuss, for the first time, the inventive process of their work and the inspiration behind their artwork. This conversation took place in Frank’s ceramic studio in Milford, Michigan. This is part one of the interview.

Frank James Fisher and brother Rob in Frank's studio in Michigan, 2010

Rob Fisher: Are these all brand new? [Referring to Frank’s ceramic artwork ‘in-process’ in his studio]

Frank James Fisher: Yes, within the last couple of weeks.

Rob: Now is this a solid form? [Referring to the art work: Detroit Grave Marker]

Frank: It’s hollow. The clay walls are a bit thicker because of the larger scale of it.

Rob: What are these holes on the bottom? Some type of aeration for the clay?

Frank: Yeah, so the air can go in and out of hollow core.

Rob: Would it be trapped in there otherwise?

Frank: Yeah it could explode in the kiln.

Rob: Has that ever happened?

Frank: I shouldn’t say it would explode. The moisture is what makes it explode. You need it open to help remove the moisture. When it gets bone dry you can fire it.

Rob: So there’s no way to experiment with that.

Frank: If you have moisture in the clay, it would need a way to steam out. Water needs to expand as it gets hotter and it will explode the clay. So the holes really do two things; one is to get all the moisture out but also if I did not cut holes in the bottom, the outside will dry out faster than the inside and cause stress cracks.

Rob: Ahh…..

Frank: That’s also why I have them sitting up on these metal drying racks – it just helps get the air circulating. If I had them flat on the table, then the base would be sealed against the surface, trapping moisture.

Rob: At what point does the clay become stiff enough for you to construct it into hollow blocks or bottles … without it collapsing?

Frank: They call the drying stage “leather hard.” The clay is still damp, but stiff like card board. These are about that dry … [sounds of ruffled plastic as Frank pulls out a stiff clay sheet]. I made it several weeks ago.

Rob: So, are you ever re-wetting them?

Frank: Sometimes I do if they get too dry. These are a little on the stiff side, but you can feel that they are still cold and damp.

Rob: [Feels the clay] Yeah.

Frank: Can you smell the mold?

Rob: Is that what that is? The mold?

Frank: It’s been sealed up in plastic with that water still in the clay. It gets moldy after a while. You can also see how this one shrunk. It was actually measured to be the exact size as that piece, but it shrunk that much as the moisture evaporated.

Rob: You know going in that the objects going to shrink a specific amount?

"War!" by Frank James Fisher, 11"x5", porcelain, raku fired, 2006

Frank: Everything I make in ceramics is sized for the final outcome. At the temperatures I am firing, the clay will shrink about 10-12 percent from the original size. So when I am making something and think, “ah, that feels like the perfect height,” well actually I have to increase the scale another 10 percent for shrinkage. Ceramic art exists as an object, it has scale, and you expect a certain size with an object. If it gets too small then it feels odd. So I am always creating clay objects slightly bigger in anticipation of the shrinkage.

Rob: What would you do with something like this [gesturing to a blank clay sheet in the studio]?

Frank: This is probably too dry to do anything with. It’s past its prime. But if it was softer, I could have imprinted on it.

Rob: That is when you start putting imagery on it?

Frank: I could have when it was softer, then I could imprint imagery. When it becomes about this hard, I can cut it into shapes and start to build with them. This sheet is too stiff … I can’t bend it without snapping it.

I roll out these clay sheets like you do cookie dough, then I get out my printing plates and push the clay onto the printing plates. That’s how it got this pattern marked into the surface. I end up with clay sheets with imprinted images and words. I need the clay to stiffen up, so that I can assemble them without the image becoming distorted or the form to start sagging.

Rob: How did you get to the point where you are building a narrative? Are you building them on the spot?

Frank: I come up with a concept and theme for a project. I design the form, sometimes out of cardstock first. Then I will go through my printing plates and every plate that seems to support that theme, I put it on the counter. If I’m missing a key image, I’ll have to make that image. So I might have…like in the case of this one here, [points to Detroit Grave Marker], I might have out twenty different plates that I believe could be connected to or represent the death of Detroit.

"Detroit Grave Marker" by Frank James Fisher, 10.5"x6.57"x2.5" porcelain, cone 06 oxidation, 2011

Frank: The key to all this for me is my advertising background. If I didn’t have that, my art wouldn’t exist. I approach my art the exact same way I approach advertising or designing a product packaging for consumers. I have a package design, a headline, illustrations or supporting images, sub heads, body copy, taglines … all the usual marketing tools. So to start, I pull out maybe twenty things printing plates that kind of support the concept and I’ll sort of thinkassemble the parts with some dada /- Salvador Dali randomness as to how they relate. Some are random associations, some are obvious, some are cloaked or subliminal. Like on the Detroit Grave Marker, it has the Detroit cityscape, it’s got a couch, and it has this rendering of a brain. For me, some of those things are iconic: you have the brain for thought and every time I see a couch I think of laziness. The cityscape is exactly what it is – Detroit. The big Crisco brand logo on it implies politicians being greased. So there are these associations that I embrace and build from.

I placed Batman and Robin flying over the cityscape. They are the heroes needed to save the city. The George Washington dollar portrait represents money. To me, that’s the cash or the capital to fix Detroit. And I have an electrical outlet which represents access to power. Then I added texture by using body copy to surround everything. That represents all the empty ‘talk’.
I like designing these two-sided objects because each side can carry a different message. The ‘before and after’ or the ‘problem and solution’. A ying and yang arrangement. On the Detroit grave Grave markerMarker, I am describing the problem on the one side with a solution on the other.

I’ve also worked in some keywords, headlines or tags. Lately I’ve been finding phrases from old comic books … using reprints of the Fantastic Four or Spiderman … all those 60’s comic books. I used “What’s happening?” along the bottom of the grave marker. Stan Lee (Marvel comics) had some awesome word balloons full of ripe dialogue. So, I read through and pick dialogue or phrases that capture a really critical moment.

"Hero Worship" by Frank James Fisher 3.87"x3.125"x1", porcelain, raku fired, 2010

Rob: A lot of those captions can really set the narrative tone. Their They’re small phrases, and bits of dialogue that reiterate or alter how you feel looking at the drawing.
Frank: As far as the two-sided idea I have been working with – I like it. Sometimes there is a front and a back to the object, or sometimes a front and a front. But I have also been working with a blank middle or side. Or on my bottle sculptures, I have side panels. It’s very flexible in my mind. I can also play around to see if there is an overall message that has sort of a neutral message or theme to it and I’ll use that for the sides.
This is another example: a little whiskey flask for my brother-in-law Bob. One side of it declares “Bob Kit” and it’s got this sort’a bitchy woman on there and then on the other side, it has “adults only” with a very content man smoking a pipe. I have political dialogue text running along the sides and that’s kind of like the ‘juice.’ Bob is very much into politics. So there is a main story on the front and back and then there is this undercurrent message wrapped in there that talks about Nixon and McGovern…. If you wanted to have a good, enriched conversation with Bob take a sip, look beyond the surface and discuss politics.

"The Bob Kit" by Frank James Fisher, 4.0h x 2.25w x 1.0d inches, porcelain, cone 10 reduction, 2010, with leather and cork stopper

Rob: It gives the piece a more open narrative. It reminds me of a piece you gave me, with sheet music on one side and there’s a funeral death notice on the back. I always see the middle ground or the sides that you talk about, almost as a purgatory because in that space there’s a rosary imprinted and a couple of crosses. It’s becomes a grey area, a conversation that happens in between.
Frank: Not quite so polarized as the front and back. A transition?
Rob: Yes, yes, but sometimes it’s the most revealing and the most private in an unconscious way. You are placing messages in the margins and I enjoy that read on them. Sometimes the hardest things to say are said quietly, just as the sides suggest.

Rob: Where does the house idea come from? [Rob points to a small ceramic house sculpture.]

Frank: That’s because of you! You and your house paintings … I can’t get them out of my head!

"Struggle On The Shag With Olive" by Rob Fisher, 2011 acrylic, silkscreen on black paper mounted on canvas 20.5 x 27 inches

Rob: [laughs]
Frank: A while ago I clipped this advertisement, [Frank points to an ad stuck on the wall], and totally loved the concept. It’s a house made out of folded money; it’s a little sculpture. I liked it but I didn’t like the graphics. I thought they were too literal, but I stuck it on my wall and soon forgot about it. Then you start telling me about your house series … there’s something to that house concept. I want to deal with that too! I started thinking about the house ad but with different images and then those little houses from the Monopoly game. I liked those houses: nice and small … and how if you had a bunch of them they could make a village. I could duplicate a whole city, or village or town, and with all the personalities too.
Rob: It also speaks to class structure. If you went by color then, you are in a whole different vain of perception. If I saw that as green [points to the house in the ad] it would be totally different if it were red. You know?
Frank: Yeah!
Rob: All of a sudden, the color in the context of monopoly becomes a signifier, a symbol of status. Part of the context is obvious; a lead in so you don’t have to be as forward with the rest of the narrative.
Frank: Yes, it brings it around faster to a point of view.
Rob: Your house sculpture … it’s cool.

Frank: Again, I use the front and back concept.

Rob: Where are you getting these new printing plates? It’s very cool. This is a new process that I haven’t seen.

Frank: Yeah, well I’m making those plates myself.

Rob: Nice.

Frank: It became too limiting when relying on antique printing plates.
Rob: I think maybe you are trying to roll with nostalgia, but you don’t want to coexist with it forever. At least that’s what I find with a lot of objects that I paint; I enjoy different time period’s but I don’t want to be a nostalgic artist. In fact many times I purposely choose utilitarian objects which tend to remain unchanged and just as common in our lives today, but when you single them out in a painting they appear nostalgic. A knife is a knife, and flowers are flowers, time hasn’t changed that. It can alter or be modified but its essence is the same despite time.

Rob Fisher, "Domestic Violet" 2005, acrylic, silkscreen on paper mounted to canvas 31” x 24 ¼”

Frank: Absolutely. The other problem is that I start feeling like I’m only an editor. I don’t want to just edit and assemble stories. I want to actually do some original writing….so now I’m making my own plates [pointing to printing plate]. You can’t read the copy, its backward, but its actually pretty good writing.

Rob: This is an interesting process.

Frank: … Ah, I used that text on the back of the house … here. It says, “Don’t read this text. This text only imitates the look of important and impressive verbiage relevant to the main topic of this ceramic object. Unfortunately the important verbiage was never written. The imitation words presented here mean nothing. These words are fakes, blunt charlatan phases pretending to be informative.” It’s basically just filler copy, a placeholder that implies that there should be some important little details written here, but when you read it there really aren’t any important details. Rather ironic!

Rob:  Our thinking has also adjusted to cultural signifiers. When I see this newspaper layout, it obviously has to be information. Maybe not so much nowadays, but normally you’d see a newspaper and associate it with facts.

Frank James Fisher, “Brand Remover” Raku fired porcelain 2010

Frank: Yes! That’s the detail text on packaging, you know, the nitty-gritty about the product. No sugar coated hype in there. ‘If I read that, then I’m going to learn a whole lot more important details about this product.’ I like the fact when you actually start reading my small print, your not learning anything more, it really is just empty words.

Rob: It’s also how one accepts it; if it’s in a neat, organized column, then you tend to believe it contains fact.

Frank: Exactly, it’s the way it’s presented…like this is body copy from a newspaper [shows Rob a newly made print plate]

Rob: I like that. Is this legible?

Frank: Yeah, that’s the reverse part of it, but I used it on this one here.

Rob: This prints out way different then it looks. That actually produces a stronger image then the print plates that we were looking at earlier.

Frank: Oh Rob, you’re gonna love that photo… [Frank points to a new print plate]

Rob: Is that dad in the army?!

Frank: Yeah it is.

Rob: That’s crazy. What’s going on with these ones, they look more pixilated?

Frank: That’s because of the process; the sun exposes these printing plates through a film negative. It’s a touchy thing so I need to keep the images simplified. I’m doing them at home, but at some point I’ll probably invest or find a place that actually prints a better quality negative.

Rob: A UV heated burn?

Frank: Yeah exactly…..

Rob: So these are all made at home? That’s amazing. They have a computer photo-shop quality.

Frank: I make an art file on my laptop, then I buy transparency film and print it off with black and white laser printer. Then I double or triple it up to make sure its opaque enough….

Rob: Yeah, that’s how I do my silkscreen, the same way, but this approach has probably advanced the speed of your process.

Frank: Oh yeah, I can’t make plates fast enough now. Everything I am doing I can actually gear towards the piece. So for example this Detroit Grave Marker piece uses a real Detroit cityscape photo that I took.

Rob: Versus before; you would look for a …

Frank: … generic city image. Exactly.

Rob: What is the actual term….are they tin types?

Frank: Printing plates … of all different kinds. I use aluminum plates, lead plates, copper plates, plastic, even individual lead type like the old printers used to set.

Rob:  So these are all forms of newspaper processing really. Do you think with the new way of making plates it will change anything with your scale?

Frank: Maybe, but to be honest, my medium is marketing and advertising in clay. Like the stuff that shows up in the mailbox, the junk mail. All of that stuff has an expected scale to it. So in my head, all my work is expected to be a certain scale, its just that I have turned it into a three dimensional object. There is still a sense of scale. I feel the need to continue to work within those parameters … And I still feel a connection with ancient objects; clay tablets, greek vases, where past cultures communicated through clay. I feel that thread. My art is a re-discovered item found 200 years from now. It should say something about us, our life, our society, our culture.

Frank James Fisher, "Real Teapot" 6" x 6" x 2.25"(d), porcelain, raku fired, 2005

Rob: Your work is definitely strong on a personal scale … what I also like are that some of the objects have an illusion that they are a bottle, or appear to have a function. What I find interesting in these works is that since they have an appearance of functioning, I feel its ok to pick it up. The opposite also applies, if this object was viewed as sculpture then the message sent is “don’t pick it up.” You’re not making bottles for their function, but at the same time, you’re telling me to pick it up.

Frank: It breaks that plane.
Rob: If I never had those signifiers, then I would have not interacted with the work, never have known how thin and light it was. It’s so delicate that once in your hand it sparks more curiosity. It’s meant to be held and investigated.

Polaroid of model plane made by Frank Fisher, Sr.

Rob: I know that we were lucky growing up, having so many influences. We had no limitation as far as that goes. I thought my childhood was very normal until I got into my teens and realized dad wasn’t like the other dads around the neighborhood, he was an original. He had that old school work ethic to everything he did, nothing half assed. He wasn’t an idle guy, he needed to be creative using his hands, be it the model trains, planes and antique boats, and on and on. These things were not hobbies, I consider hobbies secondary, they were to involved to be considered something you do in your spare time, he didn’t believe in it. All that was crucial to my thinking. In a lot of ways I feel that we are overwhelmed by the amount of influences we have to work from.

Train set built by Frank Fisher Sr. for his son's Rob and Frank Jr.

Frank: I think that one of the things we took from Dad is that he never hesitated to embrace boats, model planes, and or trains. There is a certain aspect of the adult male in the 70’s that embraced hunting, fishing, and had an immaculate lawn, but there was a minor population that made model trains with their kids or played with homemade toys in the basement. Our dad’s planes and trains were, of course, the best of the best, all the way, the quality that would be featured in magazines. I think we were taught to create at a high level: if you are going to do something, you are going to it all the way. Now, I don’t feel hesitant to attempt what I am going to do, and you as well. If we are going to do something new, we just put it out there and do it all the way. That bravery is something that I really value.

Artist For Artist would like to thank the ever talented brothers for their timely contribution to this series. Please stay tuned for part two of the interview, which will feature a more in depth look at Rob Fisher’s art, with Frank in his studio in Brooklyn.

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