Following is the full, original article submitted to the Herald Times newspaper; first printed Sunday, May 17, 2015 in Bloomington, Indiana.
Five hundred years after Michelangelo recognized the beauty of the local marble, the townspeople in Pietrasanto, Italy, call John Fisher “Michelangelo’s brother.” He’s known, too, as Giovanni Pescatore, having earned his Italian name and credentials over decades of carving their statuary stone.
He returns to Pietrasanto every year, most often for ten or twelve weeks. He and his wife, Sandy Oppenheimer, lived twenty years and raised a daughter there, and John’s paintings and sculptures are scattered around the community and up into the foothills of the marble mountains. He is not alone. There are more carvers per square kilometer in Pietrasanto and nearby Carrara, it is said, than anywhere else on earth.
The village lies at the foot of the Apuan Alps on coastal, northern Tuscany. Here, he’s an artigianni, an artisan. When he arrives from the States, people come out of their shops to greet and welcome him, asking when they can get together for a meal. This year’s commission will see him laboring daily from early mornings until dark, as is the case each year. The time flies by, he says.
He begins by taking off thirty percent of the stone’s weight, removing as much as a ton of waste in a day using drills, wedges, a hammer. His strokes are varied but balanced, his thoughts are on composition, not images. “I am putting movement into the block,” he said, “and counter movements, accents, big strokes, medium strokes, and small strokes. It is like music—you must have a variety of notes.”
And then, when the stone sings to him, John Fisher is ready to listen. He’s been expecting it, working to free that very voice, to let it guide his hand. He dances to its tune. He goes from “direct” carving to “profile” carving, moving five degrees at a time, finding his profile line and moving on again. Soon, he’s within a half-inch of finalizing the image within the stone, having used the skills his work demands: courage, passion, and patience.
John Fisher’s portfolio is eclectic. He works limestone as well as marble and wood, and paints in all media. He’s cast bronze, forged steel, blown glass, thrown pottery, and done etchings on copper and zinc. He’s built a house and a 30-ton, double-masted, ketch-rigged sailboat.
His journey to master carving status has been a freeform art. Begun on the West Coast in his rebellious youth, flowing through his “back door” college days in Berkeley—until somebody discovered that he wasn’t actually registered—to a penknife and chisel sculpture on the East Coast made from a discarded block but providing his first art sale, the early days led him well.
In those years, Fisher found a master and mentor in Tom Blodgett, then an art professor at Lane Community College, in Eugene, Oregon. John educated himself, and made a scanty living painting billboards on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. He lived in trees and, when he’d saved enough, he went to Italy and brought home two pieces of marble.
His path has been an organic one, the ancient concepts of design learned the hard way, by experience: composition, profile, balance, and the rule of three—an artistic concept similar to the golden ratio, or divine proportion. Fisher’s students gain those skills, but are counseled as well to release their fear, to know that the unknown will become known. They learn to remove stone both safely and effectively and, more importantly, to find their own visions, to let the stone sing, to reveal itself. His approach is liberating; It means there are no mistakes.
Bill Holladay, president of the board for the Indiana Limestone Symposium, took John’s figure carving workshop in 2014. “It was a radically different approach,” he said, “scary, exhilarating, and inspiring, all at the same time. He’s returning to teach this year’s advanced figure course in the third week, June 21-27, and I plan to register.”
“Creativity is a battle,” Fisher said. “It can drive you on past your bedtime, past your meal time. You have to be in the studio in order for the magic to happen, and you have to be working every day. You have to do that so you are always ready for the gifts when they come. They will come when you least expect them.
“I want to teach people to set the stage for creativity, learn the skills to take advantage of the gifts when they appear, to know when to stop, and when to push on. Composition is king, and no amount of good work can save a bad composition. We train every day to be ready to act when the time comes. If you are not afraid then you are not going far enough out on the limb.”
Fisher’s carving master, Tom Blodgett, taught him to embrace creative danger. “He believed that the creative act is one of desperation,” Fisher said. “It’s logical—if you’re doing something you know how to do, you can be very good at it, but you’re just repeating something you have learned before. However, when you really go out on a limb, when you have no solutions, when you are about to fail, that’s when adrenaline kicks in, and you pull out the creative act. Putting the whole project in jeopardy is the best way to make it a success.
“I’ll take a stone I’ve spent months to obtain and thousands of dollars to purchase, then blast into it using heavy machines with no idea what I am doing. Or paint 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 toward the end when you can slow down, and carefully carve or paint the finishing touches. But the bulk of the time spent creating is a near mortal battle. It’s why creativity equals desperation.”
And then, the stone sings.
John Fisher has taught at the Northwest Stone Symposium, Stone Fest, and the California Sculpture Symposium, as well as for the Indiana Limestone Symposium. His numerous on-site carving projects—a kind of sculptural performance art—are community pitch-ins, with audience suggestions considered in every phase from concept through execution. He’s slated for an on-site carving project June 14th through the 20th, with proceeds to benefit the Symposium.
Visit www.limestonesymposium.org for information on June’s Limestone Symposium schedule. Instruction is offered by the week or by the day to beginners through advanced carvers; children ten years of age or older may carve by the day.
By Laura Lynn Leffers, for the Indiana Limestone Symposium