How one email changed the course of an artist’s career
How one email changed the course of an artist’s career

Director’s Essay by Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla

I began filming Canadian artist William Fisk three years ago, in the summer of 2015. We were creating the short documentary Fisk: Untitled Portrait, highlighting his breathtaking, photo-realistic paintings of objects from the past. 

On my very first day of filming, Fisk received a short email from his Toronto dealer, terminating his representation.

In one fell swoop, Fisk’s eight-year working relationship with this gallery — one that had made enormous profit off him — ended in the most cowardly manner imaginable. In three lines of text, Fisk lost his source of income and his only means of selling work.

When I began this project, I had no idea how the art market functioned, I did not know that  dealers and galleries take half of every painting’s sale, or how subjective and arbitrary critics, museums and collectors can be. It was an eye-opening experience to witness how an artist’s career could be so easily boosted or broken, based solely on their representation.

Some art dealers are only interested in making money. They’ll sell an artist’s paintings to anyone willing to pay, but this often results in an artist going ‘out of fashion’ very quickly — collectors are fickle;  artists come and go in the blink of an eye.

Following the loss of his representation, Fisk needed someone capable of thinking long-term and strategically placing his work in certain collections, which requires patience and respect for the painter — something few galleries have.

I have personally admired Fisk’s work for a decade; not because of his ability to reproduce interesting objects with incredible accuracy, but because the simplicity of his paintings gives me the feeling of weight, of permanence — things that were made to endure.

We live in a time where everything is produced with an expiry date in mind.  I love the elegant beauty of an object designed to last, passed down to future generations. In this way, I found it almost fitting that Fisk’s Toronto dealer fired him using our most modern and disposable device:  the cell phone. Ironic, in a way, that the dealer was hiding behind technology, failing to understand the essence of Fisk’s work. His paintings are of objects from a time when ending a contract would require meeting in person or speaking over the phone (a rotary phone at that).

In my first film Fisk: Untitled Portrait, viewers were introduced to William’s painting and process, and were left asking what will come next for the artist, out on a ledge. In Fisk: The New York Opening, we pick up where we left off, with Fisk risking financial and artistic oblivion if his  gamble doesn’t pay off.

Through the entire process, I came to realize that Fisk is actually an abstract painter, not a realist. His paintings are not exact, blown-up replicas, but interpretations of what he sees in these objects. The number of hours he puts into each work is staggering, not because he wants to ensure it’s a near photographic rendition, but because of his attention to detail. It’s because he is searching for what he perceives as the singularity in each object.

As a filmmaker, I wanted to capture the passion and near obsession that Fisk displays as he works, but also to convey a sense of what he is like as a person. What I find most fascinating about him is that he is the quintessential painter: a single-minded workaholic. But he is also a devoted father and husband. If he’s not painting, he is like any other regular Joe, and it’s this contrast that made him such an interesting subject for me as a filmmaker.

Fisk is not your stereotypical tortured artist. That, more than anything, is what I set out to film: a normal hockey-loving Canadian. A dad, a husband and a friend who happens to be a brilliant abstract painter.

Watch Fisk: The New York Opening on CBC Short Docs

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