On my way to a meeting at Onion River Community Access TV in Montpelier's City Center building, I stopped to check out the current art exhibit in the building's lobby. It features a series of stunning black-and-white linoleum block prints by Quebec artists Sam Kerson and Katah. The prints tell the story of the late abstract expressionist painter and social activist Robert M. Fisher, who made his home in Vermont. I contacted Sam Kerson, and asked if he'd provide some info about the show. He generously agreed.
Kerson and Fisher were both Goddard College graduates, although as Fisher was older, they did not attend the school at the same time. The two met in 1976, and started getting together at a friend's home to draw from live models. Later, the two men built a studio on Kerson's property, and they continued their sessions there. "I thought of [Bob] as my painting teacher," Kerson says.
Robert Fisher's own work, heavily driven by exuberant color, drew him international acclaim. His Street Angels series, in which he painted portraits of homeless people, attracted particular attention, and his work was shown, among other places, in New York, Provincetown, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, and the Czech Republic.
The prints displayed at City Center not only portray Fisher's life as an artist, but also his work as an activist. In one wonderful print, Kerson depicts the years Fisher spent in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Era, working to help African Americans gain their full measure as citizens. In other prints, Kerson shows Fisher's more local efforts—fighting against the Vermont Yankee nuke plant as a member of the Washington Electric Co-op board, gaining better access for voters, and serving on the board of the Hunger Mountain Co-op.
A measure of sadness leavens these episodes. Fisher broke his back when he fell from a scaffold while painting in 1986. Experimental surgery, rendered in a absolutely harrowing Kerson print, prevented paralysis, but Fisher never recovered completely. Images showing his struggles with the politics of the art world and his death offer a tragic coda to his life. Yet Kerson, to whom Fisher willed his art books and papers, leaves us with an epitaph both honest and alive, as spoken by Fisher himself: "Ya can't resolve in paint what ya didn't solve in your drawing."
The City Center show runs through the end of Montpelier Art Walk on December 5. The images in this exhibit are taken from the artist book, Robert M. Fisher A Graphic Biography, made by Sam and Katah and held in the special collections of the University of Vermont and the Library of Congress. The book is just one of several produced by Kerson and Katah; information about the others, including a graphic biography of artist Murray Levy and Brigadistas, "One day in the life of a cultural worker supporting Revolutionary Nicaragua in the late 80s" can be found at samkerson.com.