Painting professor seeks out new experiences, studies sculpture in China
Interview with Anne Canfield for the 2015 President’s Report
Jessie Fisher, associate professor, joined the KCAI painting faculty in 2005. She holds a B.F.A. degree in fine art from the University of Minnesota and an M.F.A. degree in painting and drawing, with a minor in printmaking, from the University of Iowa. In summer 2013, she led a group of KCAI students to the Studio Art Centers International school in Florence, Italy, where she was also an artist-in-residence, and then traveled to China to study with Bangmin Nong, master sculptor, at the Guangxi Arts Institute in Nanning. Below she talks about how sculpture informs her work as a painter and how international travel has inspired and enriched her practice.
Q: What relationship do you see between sculpture and painting, and how is the study of sculpture affecting your work as a painter?
A: The two modes of working are a natural extension of each other, and historically, in the midst of very visible theoretical arguments regarding the primacy of one over another, artists have shifted between the two easily. What I have always wanted to do is to integrate the two practices, expanding upon aspects of theatricality and using each construction to amplify the other.
I have found that in order to achieve an aesthetically successful sculptural form, one’s drawing skill need to be incredibly strong. Thinking spatially complicates pictorial space, already creating noticeable shifts in my current group of paintings in progress. The ethos of the KCAI painting department is just that: to work through extensions of one’s practice in order to integrate experiences that strengthen one’s core content. This is exactly how diversity and tradition can be simultaneously valued and is a great example for our students to see that this practice is not something that ends when they graduate. As artists, one has the choice to perfect or to complicate. Perfection is a known variable; complication pushes ones work to an unknown and profound level.
Q: You’ve traveled to many places around the world, exposing KCAI students — and yourself — to new ideas, new methods and new sources of inspiration. Why are international experiences so important?
A: As the fabulous painter Edwin Dickenson said, “The more I’m influenced, the more original I get.” I believe that influence is the most essential component of an articulate studio practice. Influence is experiential, not simply a catalog of imagery. One essential aspect of travel and study abroad is the opportunity to see painting, sculpture, architecture and functional objects in the flesh. Nothing creates a more comprehensive understanding of the content of a work of art than to experience it in situ, not stripped from its original location and planted in a museum, but resting in the environment and the culture that it was created for.
An artist immersed in another culture gains an immediate understanding of what is essential to one’s own artistic lineage. Every artistic culture, and the precedents and traditions that create it, involves a singular understanding of aesthetics.
Students who have traveled abroad develop a wider comprehension of the breadth of aesthetic devotion and achievement. After this experience, they have an intimate example of what is artistically possible and can begin to see the history of art as a clearly defined lineage — a contiguous development to which they add their voice, making articulate work that is unique in relation to others rather than picking through history as a visual dilatant.
Travel abroad creates a visceral record for our students and professors through the experience of art. When I travel, I immerse myself in the work that I am trying to live up to — work that I put myself up against as a way to qualify my visual choices. When I return to my studio in Kansas City I actively try to isolate myself and focus on nothing but my work and my memory of the potential of the works of the Italian Renaissance. It is incredibly important to me to return again and again to these works; as I grow as a painter and a sculptor my understanding of these works also evolves.
Q: You have spent a great deal of time in Europe, and especially in Italy. How do you think your recent experience in China will influence your work?
A: I had briefly visited Shanghai, China, before in another context, but, yes, this is my first extensive experience working at a studio with a group of figurative sculptors. What is ideologically similar about contemporary undergraduate arts education in China to the workshops and studios of the Italian Renaissance is the reverence for aesthetics, tradition and the belief in the necessity of mastery.
In China I have found a rich contemporary practice of figurative sculpture. All students at the Guangxi Arts Institute, regardless of their chosen concentration, intensively study anatomy, life drawing and sculpture. Students create écorché (figures drawn, painted or sculpted showing the muscles of the body without skin) and life-scale figurative clay figures. There’s a belief that an understanding of figuration, both pictorially and sculpturally, forms the basis for all extensions of expression and that there is a common aesthetic core that is necessary to become articulate in before attempting to idealize, abstract or subvert. This academic model is what I have formed my own studio and pedagogical practice around and what I glean from Renaissance traditions.
One major influence this experience will have on my work is the beginning of a consistent sculptural practice immediately upon my return to Kansas City. Sculpting side-by-side with these amazing professors has given me invaluable experience and information in order for me to start my own sculpture studio. Being able to have seven sets of learned eyes follow my progress and critique the five sculptures I made at Guangxi has given me what would have taken years to discover.
Finally, the landscape there is also absolutely amazing; the sense of grandeur is unfathomable. In addition to a growing sculptural practice, I look forward to returning in summer 2016 to work with this group again. We will be staying at a resort along the Li River outside of Guilin, and I plan to create a series of drawings of the mountains and river while we wait for our sculptures to dry for firing.