Mark Golden: I’m here with Scott Fischer, one of our Material and Application Specialists on staff, to discuss his career as an artist and his journey in the visual arts. What began your passion with art?
Scott Fischer: Growing up my focus was on sports. I was a swimmer. I had an injury in high school, which forced me to stop. From there, I dumped all of my time and energy into drawing. So I didn’t really start focusing on art until senior year and then college. I took my work ethic from swimming and transferred it to drawing. I worked at it regularly and stuck it out. I knew people that spent time in childhood drawing and focused their energy on becoming an artist, but it wasn’t like that for me. I drew as a child, for sure, but I don’t think I had any intention to ever do anything with it.
Mark: So there was no time in grammar school where kids would look at what you were doodling and say, “Oh, you’re really good”?
Scott: No more than any other kid, I guess. I planned to go to college for swimming and get scholarships that way. After that injury, I had to switch gears. Luckily, I had a fantastic art teacher in high school, so that’s what I began pursuing.
Mark: Oh, so you did take art in high school? Where?
Scott: Yes, we had a strong high school art program in Warren, Ohio. My teacher was Emil Perunko, a landscape painter. He pushed me to work on my drawing and my plan was to study that in college. However, when I took my first painting class it was much more difficult for me, almost an obstacle. The challenge of it kept me more interested and engaged, so I continued with it.
Mark: So what college did you finally attend?
Scott: Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, a little gem of a program tucked away near Erie, PA. After undergraduate school I really moved away from art though, and did three years of pre-requisites in preparation for a master’s program in occupational therapy. So I studied anatomy and physiology and courses like pathophysiology and biochemistry.
Scott: Yes, I did well in the classes but I just wasn’t engaged in it. It’s funny though, because A&P actually has relevance to the type of work I am pursuing now and I ended up teaching drawing anatomy when I was at the Cleveland Institute of Art instructing. I went through all my old diagrams and it was interesting, the knowledge and information cycled back to me, which was nice.
Mark: Isn’t it funny how the things that attach to you over your lifetime, come back in ways so unexpected?
Scott: Yes, for sure.
Mark: Were either of your parents involved in art?
Scott: My Mom has always been interested in poetry. My father, he used to do some painting and drawing when he was in high school but he never really pursued it further. There are a lot of musicians in my family, though.
Mark: So did you ever pick up any instruments?
Scott: I was in band in school and I played the French horn, but it wasn’t for me. When I went to college I started playing guitar and continued with that for a number of years. At one point, I actually considered changing majors to pursue guitar more seriously. Ultimately, I wasn’t able to keep up with it, with everything else I had going on in my life. As I got older, I started making choices and let some things go to allow more time for the things that were most meaningful to me.
Mark: Please talk a little bit about your college career. You started off drawing and then had difficulty with painting. What was the challenge in painting for you?
Scott: With drawing, I felt like I had a little bit more control over it. But with painting, so many other variables come into play. You have design, color and drawing. Painting is also much more mentally engaging, at least for the type of work that I was doing at that time. It’s taken me years to improve and I’m still always challenged by painting.
Mark: So you’re still chasing?
Scott: Yes, at times. I spend most my time drawing now, but with painting for me it was always about the technical stuff. It was less about the image. I was always thinking about how I could get this thing to work. How can I apply this or that to it to make a change? And I got really into that sort of process oriented mentality. I wasn’t ever trying to communicate anything beyond form. Granted, certain things still come out in paintings as a result of the choices we make as artists.
Mark: Can you now talk about finishing up your undergraduate work and where you went from there?
Scott: I got my BFA in painting from Edinboro and after that I took six years off from school. I got a job working in a restaurant, the food service industry, for a number of years just to pay bills. Then in 2009 I applied to graduate schools, but I didn’t get into any of them. I wasn’t sure how to move forward from there. After some personal reflection I took all of that energy and focused 100% on martial arts, something I always wanted to do. Maybe you can sense a pattern here. I stopped painting and drawing. I found an amazing martial arts instructor in Euclid, Ohio, who taught the style that I was interested in and started taking classes in his basement with a couple of other students. I did that three or four days a week for almost four years. I was obsessed! Years later, after graduate school, I returned to this class for another three years.
It was a pretty crazy time though, because I was also doing my health science pre-requisite studies for occupational therapy. I was working in a restaurant, doing martial arts classes and I was working the night shift at the hospital on Sundays. After my night shift I would go straight to my stats classes or lifespan development…without any sleep. I kept this pace for a few years and then instead of doing occupational therapy, I applied to graduate school in painting. Out of the blue I changed my mind and decided that working in a hospital day in and day out was not for me. I couldn’t do it. It changed me in a lot of ways, many of them good, but it was not something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life.
Mark: There’s something about the work you’re doing now and speaking to our customers, which is so closely connected to working in food service. I’ve often shared that some of the most profound lessons I’ve learned in working with customers has come from working in food service.
Scott: Yes, for sure.
Mark: Especially front of the house, where you have to deal with all sorts of different personalities and your job and income really depends on being able to understand as quickly as possible what that table needs. Do they need me to just leave them alone? Is there a problem with their order? How to read your tables is key. To be able to provide that level of service and to do it well can be really impressive. When you see someone do it well, they’ve really understood human behavior.
Scott: Yes, absolutely.
Mark: So, what school did you get into for Graduate school?
Scott: I applied to a few different schools, but I went with Kansas State University. They called me up and offered me a graduate teaching assistantship and a full ride, so that’s where I ended up going. But it’s interesting, because I applied with almost all the same work that I was rejected with in 2009 and in 2012 they gave me a full ride. I did maybe two new paintings in between that timeframe.
Mark: Looking back at it now, do you have a sense of what the difference might have been? Do you think it was a level of maturity?
Scott: A lot of this stuff comes down to timing. It is really hard to say, I think they were looking to expand their program and certain factors lined up in my favor.
Mark: That’s great. Tell me about that program, who you studied with and the influences that they provided to you.
Scott: In that program there was time to take credits with some professors at the beginning to get a sense of their personality types and teaching styles. I had a larger committee of five professors. I can still sometimes hear their voices when I work, especially Nancy Morrow and Terri Schmidt.
Kevin Bernstein was my major professor, an acrylic painter who used GOLDEN. He advocated back in the day for the Technical Support team at GOLDEN. He was the first person to make me aware of its existence. In class one day a student asked questions about a specific product, so to demonstrate the service at GOLDEN, he had me call you guys on the phone during class to get some advice, which is pretty ironic now that I think about it! He also put a sticker in my studio that said Just Paint, which is also funny considering this interview will be on our Just Paint website.
Graduate school was tough though, after taking years off from painting. I was there putting all of this intensity into something that I was really very disconnected from. And then after I graduated it took me another three years to figure out why I was even doing it in the first place. Discipline is a double edged sword in some ways, it needs to be balanced with proper reflection.
Mark: So what did you do after graduation? What year was that? Were you concentrating on your art career?
Scott: Not really, more so the craft of being a painter. I considered an art career as all of us do, but I had no interest in selling any work initially or marketing myself until I made some progress in the studio. I worked very hard, but that doesn’t help with income.
After graduation I applied to more teaching jobs than I care to remember. At one point I decided to send packets to all the surrounding schools near me. From that I got a solo show offer and two job offers, which is how I came to work at the Cleveland Institute of Art as an adjunct. I did that for two and a half years starting in 2015.
During that time I was starting over from the ground up, teaching myself how to be productive as an artist. I gamed out a lot of the process, learned my opening moves you could say, middle game and so on. But then after a while I was sort of shuffling the deck and I wasn’t able to finish anything. I left graduate school not knowing how to finish a painting! I had to teach myself, in a very analytical way, because it was the only way I could be productive and know where I was at during different stages of the process.
I still have trouble finishing paintings, which is normal, but I had to teach myself how to work, how to be productive, how to establish a studio practice. This is not something I was taught in school. While I was teaching, I was also confronted with tons of stuff that I didn’t know. I was teaching a student how to draw based off of shape and seeing shapes, rhythms and patterns. I’m very design oriented in how I see things, but it wasn’t working for her. As a result I got a teacher evaluation that essentially said my teaching method of drawing was not helpful to her. So, I worked hard and taught myself to draw using only line and construction. I wasn’t helping the students so I had to grow. They were going into illustration so I had to teach myself a different way to draw and different ways to design so that I could be more effective for my students and provide them with the tools to be successful.
The kids were smart. They were challenging. I feel like I ended up having to reeducate myself and I’m still doing that. That part of teaching was interesting for me.
Mark: That’s pretty interesting…your willingness to take a look at yourself and your own inherent kind of skills or understanding and how you had to retrain yourself to achieve the same goal in order to be a better instructor and to recognize that based on where the students were going, they needed a different skillset from you in order to be successful.
That must have been a challenge but it was really about growing insights of, okay, how can I do this better to take it to heart, the kinds of criticism that someone might offer as opposed to just, you know blowing them off and saying, this is how you should learn and that’s it.
Scott: I wanted to be a good teacher, competent in my skills. We at the very least owe our students that much.
Mark: What brought you to GOLDEN after being an adjunct teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Art?
Scott: After a few years at the Cleveland Institute of Art I was asking myself, do I really want to teach? Certain aspects of teaching I loved, but selfishly I wanted to educate myself. Within my studio practice, my interests became less and less about what I was painting and more about how the materials were being used. I was finding ways to investigate materials differently. I was taking a single color and adjusting it multiple ways as opposed to doing a lot of color mixing. I was investigating how subtle adjustments to this one color could develop interesting relationships with various characteristics, like feel, texture. This allowed me to become very knowledgeable about a particular color and from there, I could expand the color base I was working with.
So I started to focus more on what the paint was, what it was giving me, what it wasn’t giving me, how I could use it as a tool. I was letting the paint do the painting. I was still trying to make representational paintings but it was different.
I started to just naturally look for opportunities to educate myself on the things that I didn’t know. In college and graduate school they teach you how to construct an image and how to talk about painting. I was of the mindset that if I want to be an artist, a ‘total artist’, I should know both sides of it. I shouldn’t just be a picture maker. I should know the craft and what goes into it. I had no idea about any of it, so I focused my energy there, figuring out the why and the how.
Mark: Much of what I’ve seen with BFAs and MFAs is that so much emphasis is on the painting – creating the painting, how to talk about painting – contextualizing of what you do – and very little about materials and methods. I think that’s what’s so exciting – being able to be at this level assisting artists in mid-career and gaining those insights.
Scott: That’s what’s so rewarding about being in this job, providing a resource. Even when we do the workshops, it’s really interesting because we’re talking to professional artists but we’re still providing them with information that they don’t know. It’s nice to be able to give them access to information that wasn’t part of their education. They’re always educating us as well!
Mark: Tell me where you saw the job offer for a Materials & Application Specialist?
Scott: I am a long time lover of Williamsburg oil paints so my first impulse was to go online and look them up to see what opportunities there might be in the world of paint. From there on the website I saw the job posting for GOLDEN. It was serendipitous – I actually got the job a week into the semester!
Mark: That’s great! I feel really lucky that you’ve joined us. I think you bring a whole other level of experience to the program. We have a great group of folks that work here. Can you talk about some of the projects that you’ve been working on since you started here?
Scott: I spent the first two weeks here working in the Lab. It was a great experience for me. I learned so much from those folks and there is such great energy down there. It was exciting to get a sense of what was being analyzed with the paint. It was an eye opener for me to experience the rigor with which our paints are tested…sensitivity testing with solvents, substrate effects on applications, and the results of thick versus thin applications with materials and that’s just a snapshot of the testing that is done in the Lab.
Mark: It is really interesting. Oftentimes artists work with the materials and it does what it does, so then you work with whatever occurs. But there’s also a certain recognition like, this is doing this. Should it be doing this? Here’s something that I’ve seen on this material and it’s doing this kind of movement or this kind of effect. Is this expected or is this something that we should be looking at more closely?
Scott: The robustness of the acrylics is astonishing because you have your wetting agents, satin, and matte mediums…with any one of those things that you encounter, there’s five or six ways to approach it or five or six ways to think about it and how to get to where you want to be. If I was to evaluate an acrylic product, I would say for most things, they do multiple things. So you know that the product line isn’t just superfluous. It’s not just packed with stuff. Each thing seems to have multiple functions. There’s a lot of potential with these materials.
Mark: Training for the Materials & Application Specialist position is rigorous and requires a lot of time spent looking at materials and conducting studies of our work. How did you find that training?
Scott: The training had so many facets to it – I studied acrylics, oils and watercolor. We created boards of materials and through that, learned the differences and specific attributes for each product. From there, we had to answer questions about what we were seeing. It wasn’t until I started writing about it that I gained a full understanding. Through this effort, I learned how to articulate what I was seeing. Added to that were questions about the use of materials on substrates that won’t be successful, for example, using acrylics on glass, and how are you going to respond to that? It wasn’t as easy as I initially thought it would be. During the training, there’s a certain rigor to the learning aspect of it, but there’s also rigor to the feedback portion of the training because you have to address every point. You want your responses to have integrity. That’s important to us, to me. It’s imperative that the information that we’re providing to artists is real. It’s the result of our research and testing. We’re not just making this information up and if we don’t know the answer, we’ll research it more. That’s where the learning never stops. It continues every single day. The training also allowed me to learn about the materials from several very different viewpoints – from our distributors, our retailers, our customers, artist residents – so much valuable information was shared!
Mark: For so many people working in this space, a lot of the work we do, the investigations of materials that we conduct, have the ability for many people to creep into their actual work back in their studio. Have you found that to be the case?
Scott: Yes, when I started here I was creating paintings using layers of acrylics. I was creating thin veils of color. I started out using one product, but through my training, I understood that other materials could help me be more successful. I was using Acrylic Glazing Liquid because it helps slow down the drying process. That didn’t work at all because I wanted to work in fast layers. It took some trial and error to discover what would work best – much like artists we speak to each and every day might experience in their studio.
Mark: And one of the advantages of the acrylic is that you can do 1,000 glazes in a day.
Mark: Verses one in seven days with an oil paint.
Scott: I was pushed in graduate school to experiment with watercolor and acrylic painting, but no one ever told me why I should do it, what these could offer me, so I continued with oil paints. I only learned years and years later why I should do it. Looking back now, had I known why, I could have made many more paintings in graduate school and they would have evolved more quickly and been of a higher level of work. Coming here, now I have so many materials to experiment with and learn from. There are infinite ways I can test out ideas and I can test out a full painting in one day instead of weeks or months. Acrylics, for example, give artists the opportunity to develop their work and ideas faster. That time is a gift and it offers flexibility, to me and all of the other artists we’re in touch with every day.
Mark: I agree.