The Crown seeks to give exposure to local and international artists through The Crown Gallery, and hosts new artists each quarter. The Crown Gallery is currently accepting submissions for the Fall of 2021, and is seeking artists who approach issues related to environmental sustainability, intersectionality, the City of Oakland, and of course, coffee. Contact us here with the subject “Call for Artists” if you want to apply!
As curator and Creative Director here at The Crown, I’ve decided to do a series of interviews with our artists so that everyone can hear what inspires them. The coffee industry is comprised of people with multifarious passions, and during my time as a coffee professional I have encountered people steeped in disciplines as disparate as music composition and astrophysics. It only seems fair to give time to one group I have met most frequently in the coffee industry: visual artists. So join us for an exploration of the natural world, Bay Area culture, and our favorite beverage with the resident artists at The Crown Gallery.
Mark P. Fisher
The first person you meet when you visit Royal Coffee’s office is Mark Fisher. And Mark Fisher was the first person I met at Royal Coffee, when I came to cup a table of Ethiopian coffees with Blue Bottle’s green buyers back in 2012. Mark’s warm and congenial manner put me at ease in an unfamiliar environment, and I felt immediately at home. Perhaps his is the way of southern hospitality – Mark was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, after all. But if we take a closer look, this is clearly a diminution of the character of someone so complex as Mr. Fisher.
When I began to work at Royal Coffee, Mark and I would often find ourselves at the coffee pot or at lunch at the same times. In these small breaks, we were apt to discuss wide and varied topics; I recall being tipped off on classic country and western greats, as well as Greek playwrights. Rarely does one find Burl Ives and Sophocles in the same sentence, but there we were, eating almond butter sandwiches and waxing philosophical.
The complexity continues into his art and his influences, all of which brought me perspective on my life and the time I’ve spent in the Bay Area. Mark has seen the Bay Area change a few times over, and the apocryphal tales I would hear of artists and musicians thriving here in one of the fairest places in the country are a reality to him.
EG: When did you start making art? Was there a first medium you fell in love with?
MF: I first started making art as a little boy sitting next to my brother at the kitchen table. My brother, I think, was really the first one to draw, and he got me interested in drawing. All I remember is trying to draw what he was drawing, and I quickly got the feeling that he was always way ahead of me as a draughtsman. I started then, just with pencils and pens, a little art in school.
In 1961 President John F. Kennedy went by our school, and we were all lined up on Airline Highway in New Orleans, and when we got back to the classroom, our teacher said “I want you all to draw a picture of President Kennedy” and if there was ever a painting I wish I still had, it’s John F. Kennedy just going by…
My whole family were artists, and unlike a family of doctors or lawyers, this was our universe to live in, and in my family art was something that was okay to do. My Dad was an artist, my Uncle was an artist, and my Grandmother was an artist.
I went away to school when I was about 15, and I wasn’t doing much visual art but I got into bass guitar – so I was really on fire musically. Then, at school, I escaped into art. I had a teacher who was a wonderful drawing teacher, whose name was Chip Carrico. I studied with him for about a semester, and I remember I got into drawing bricks, and he validated that.
The next semester I had Cabot Lyford, who was a sculpture teacher who let us carve on stone. I made probably the first piece of art that had traction that was of a foot, just this big foot! The foot was kind of a hit, and we had a student art show, and it was great. I was having a terrible time academically, but this show was a great way to have a victory. My life just blew into art and music after that time.
At about 20 I got drafted to be in a lounge act in the East Bay – that’s how I got to Oakland, I was in a lounge band for a bar with tuxedos playing songs like ‘Feelings’ by Morris Albert and ‘Before the Next Teardrop Falls’ by Freddy Fender. Another big request we had was ‘Behind Closed Doors’ by Charlie Rich, which was a really funky song.
For better or for worse, I left the band for a job writing letters to people who visited this company I worked for. I was staying very long hours at this place, and I was all alone writing these letters late at night, and it was really spooky; 411 15th street in Oakland. Some of the letters, you’d established enough of a relationship with people that you could let your hair down a little bit, and I started drawing these little faces, almost like emojis, in the letters. I realized, I had this flash, that my emotion could truly be communicated in these faces. It would accurately describe my headspace, how I was feeling. It was interesting to me that I could communicate visually. I started to draw more, and to cartoon a little bit.
Historically, George Herriman, who is one of my big heroes, started Krazy Kat in the same way – in the periphery, on the edges of whatever other project he was working on. It’s like your true feelings are going to leak out – you’re doing one thing, and your true feelings are leaking out the sides sometimes.
In 1981, I started to actually make pictures. The first one I did was this painting called ‘Night.’ I brought it to the restaurant I was working on, Norman’s Restaurant in Berkeley, and some people that came in that were doing an MFA at California College of the Arts and Crafts saw it and said “hey, you’re an artist, man!” And they included me in a publication that they were making. Barbara Shin and Augusta Huggins Meyers had me doing drawings in their magazine, and boy would they tell me to draw crazy stuff!
And then the coffee business comes into view while I’m at Norman’s Restaurant in Berkeley, when I finally decided I needed to go to college. I started in 1986 at Laney, but then moved to SF State in 1987. I found an advertisement drawing sports figures on baseball, and what happened with Royal was that Pete McLaughlin, who would come into Norman’s Restaurant, where I worked for 10 or 11 years, until it closed in 1992. Pete knew I was pursuing sports novelties a little, and he asked me to paint Jack Nicklaus’ portait on a golf ball for his brother Mike, which I did!
Everybody had a good time, and I did a little work for McLaughlin Coffee a little later, too. Right about 1991. The sports novelty thing was the first time I had traction in any kind of market, but in the course of it I had some adventures, namely that while I was doing sports novelties I was hanging around a bunch of artists. We were loony, surreal, we were into being outre. The magazine that I was doing work for was called ‘Crack’ and this was right during the crack epidemic in Oakland. So every meaning of ‘crack’ was in there, but it wasn’t an aggressive magazine, it was actually quite beautiful. Barbara and Augusta were fascinating photographers, and I was really lucky to be around them. That was great exposure.
Meanwhile I was an art major at SF State in Painting. Before I graduated I found the Atelier School of Classical Realism in Alameda. David Hardy is kind of a painter’s painter. His knowledge of old masters, materials, and how they combine and make a painting. He taught me old masters drawing and painting techniques, and I never completely finished his program – but his training is absolutely fantastic. I was never an old master painter, not interested in realism as we usually see it – I was painter from imagination. I came from cartoons; and what is a cartoon in the old masters sense? A composition, and that’s what I do, I dream up compositions. David Hardy basically laid out painting as we know it for me, until about abstract painting, which he didn’t seem as interested in.
I was a lecturer at the Atelier School on baroque painting for a bit, and when I got into art historical research, David was very supportive of me.
EG: Getting into the flow of making art is a very specific feeling. Can you describe the feeling you get when you have creative inspiration?
MF: That feeling is probably the best feeling that I can access for myself; it’s pretty hard to beat. If I’ve made something that I’m happy with, it’s its own reward. I’m not a very mercantile guy. I don’t care if it’s a happy accident; if something has turned out well for me artistically, I feel like my train is on the track – it’s a tremendous healthy feeling. It’s not like I had some triumph in the underworld, it’s like everything’s aligned in my life.
EG: Does coffee influence your art or the way you make it?
MF: Coffee is just a tremendous influence on my art. In fact, that’s really a whole subject in and of itself. I know that for me coffee manifests the resonance between awareness, perception of surface, then transcending the surface perceived. In other words, it’s like coffee finds you where you’re at, and then allows you to blow through it. You either go in deeper or you blow out of it. As I get older, the more I understand, the more a painting or even a sculpture has more to do with its surface. I’m noticing that surface is where attention is stopped at a certain point; our attention is always changing and stopping at a certain point.
But what I’m saying about coffee is that coffee brings you to a perception to where you’re in touch with a surface. Wherever you’re at, coffee comes and moves you along, to permeate a subject deeper to go to different surfaces, or to total up the surface you’re stopped at and blow it out. So it’s a magical elixir, and that’s about as deep I can get about it.
Then there’s this grand social thing. Coffee puts people in interaction with each other. As a person who likes to make compositions where people and animals and the world are interacting, it’s great thing. And we all know what coffee, and milk and sugar, have done to the trade routes… it’s completely changed the world!
EG: Cafes have been central to many art movements; what are your favorite cafes in the Bay Area that function as meeting places for artists?
MF: Well my favorite right now is The Crown! And I know that sounds funny, but I’ll tell you why. Being an old timer, watching this place come up was overwhelming – usually in a good way. This giant creation happening right down the street! When the place opened up, that was the hardest day – that was where the overwhelm peaked, and I was like “woah, where are we going!?” But since then, I’ve grown more into The Crown. I’ve seen people meeting here, and having all sorts of events here.. I felt, this place is not isolated, this is not an isolation booth. And the art is a very smart part of it – you’re getting really good artists, but what really nails it together is the coffee.
I came in a few weekends ago, and Elise made me this Guatemala espresso, and I had this experience with the thing… it was like the thing had light in it, this amber light! I told Max and I told Bob “you guys have raised the bar.” I’m very influenced by The Crown right now.
In terms of other cafes in the area, the other one is the Coffee Mill. The Coffee Mill used to be an interesting but very low key place. John Sheridan was doing a lot of paintings and using a lot of pop culture material to a good effect. I met an art historian named David Robbins there, who wrote the catalog for UC Berkeley for the International Group. I learned more about certain parts of art history from David Robbins sitting around at the Coffee Mill than I ever did in school.
Biff’s was right across the street from The Crown. I played music with Biff’s son, who lives in Oakland. He owned jazz clubs down around 12th and 14th off Broadway during the 40s and 50s. It was a round building, in the ‘dingbat’ or ‘googie’ style of architecture. It’s a sort of science fiction modern vision of the future. People like Raymond Loewy who did the Studebaker Avanti designed places like this. You had booths all the way around, and in the center was a kitchen with a bar where you could order at the counter. The waitresses had brown uniforms on, they had red carpeting.. everything you’d expect from a late 60s sort of place. The food was things like Monte Cristo sandwiches, but I was a patty melt kind of guy! I have some Biff’s ephemera with drawings on it. I’ll have to dig that out.
EG: Do you have any current projects you’re working on that you’re particularly excited about?
MF: Right now what I’m working on is a standing sculpture in paper mache of a man walking a cat. Because you know how weird it is to see someone walking a cat; you never get used to it. The first time I saw someone walking a cat, it was some strange guy in New Orleans, and he had a cat who really walked like a high stepper!
I’m hoping this will work on a lot of levels. This figure in a gallery would be a part of the milieu, just part of the crowd. But beyond that milieu aspect, I want it to work on a deeper level; and here’s an idea I got from Peter Gay, an art historian. It’s about the idea of modernism – art that was developed after photography and electric trains. Gay talks about this idea of the flaneur, a sort of window shopper. After trains are invented, people are sort of getting out of their usual environment, being exposed to other people and cultures and towns. Their kind of taking something here and there, and they’re leaving something of their own, too. Everyone’s worlds are getting bigger and bigger. So the guy who is walking is the flaneur, and the cat with a question mark tail adds another side to the equation.
Other things I’m working on are is making art that doesn’t work easily with electronic media. This has been going on forever; a canvas maker would only make canvases that are only the shape and form of a photograph for instance. I’m trying to make things that don’t photograph easily. That don’t get apprehended that easily through electronic media. There’s a veritable plethora of images out there now, and we’re slathered with them! So we’re no longer in an era where there’s a scarcity of images; there’s a dyspepsia, there’s indigestion from images! So trying to make things that don’t fall into file gathering mechanisms is of great interest to me.
The last painting I finished is 90×91” – it’s big. I’m working on craft paper, and apply acrylic gesso which makes it a little stronger. The whole thing is that I’m experimenting with these ephemeral materials. If you’re an artist and you stockpile imagery, you start to have problems with storage!
I’ve feasted on a dictum of Georg Baselitz, the German neo-expressionist painter and his idea of sometimes leaving something that just a ‘stone’ in the picture. Something that the viewer doesn’t like. And maybe he’s pulling it off because he’s such a big name, he’s such an imprimatur. People are saying “If I don’t understand what he’s doing now, I’m going to, because he’s the genius here.” I hate that stuff! But by the same token, what artists can do for other artists is give them the green light. Marcel Duchamp is so great for that reason, because he sort of gave artists the green light to experiment and to play. Another one is Leonora Carrington, who was painting a lot in the 30s and 50s. Some art historian was talking to her about what it was to be a painter, and Leonora Carrington was just going “no, no, no, that’s all bullshit!” It’s about “you have an idea, go for it, try it, explore it.” Leonora and Marcel are trying to get you to open up.
EG: Why are you looking forward to showing your work at The Crown?
MF: I like it because the space is a particular challenge. Though not in terms of view spots for the viewer. What I’m looking forward to is bringing in stuff that’s really sequitur to the space, that really resonates because it’s really interested in doing something for people. The greatest thing you can do is have an art show where people really respond to the work.
I almost got in trouble with one show, at The Coffee Mill. All the lovely people were so supportive, and I said “I’m doing a show of minimalist portraits of different poets” and they thought that sounded great. And as much as I talk truthfully about what I’m doing, people go to a painting show and most folks expect color! This is a problem with me, no matter how I approach it: Color! It must be starting as a cartoonist. I love color, but you know, I don’t paint flowers! Some people are really into this stuff, and I’m jealous – their adoration of color and people. But I’m not worried about color.
So at The Coffee Mill, the show was all black and white. My William Carlos Williams painting was all white. Because of his poem:
“So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”
A masterpiece of a minimalist poem. Red wheelbarrow, white chickens! So I just did the white chickens.
People came from Orinda, bringing me bottles of wine… but I didn’t give them the feast, I gave them this dry biscuit of minimalism. And I tried to warn them! But anyway, it was a great day for me. I learned a lot that day, I almost broke, but my friends Louis and Augusta, they were there and they were on my side. They said “no, it’s great, do your minimalist portraits” and everybody lived.
So for here I don’t want to give the dry biscuit, I want to give something that accessible to people.
MF: I was turned on to ‘pataphysics by Augusta Huggins Meyers. She and Louis Meyers used to have a gallery called Turn of the Century Fine Arts in Berkeley. What happened with ‘pataphysics was that I didn’t get into studying Alfred Jarry and ‘pataphysics until about 2015. The apostrophe to me has become very important. Just like when an apostrophe is used in a contraction like “don’t”, it sort of says, in the case of the second “O”, “there’s something there, but it’s not there.” And that’s an ancient, ancient thing. I find it in my religious studies – it’s a both/and situation. The “O” is there implicitly but literally in the lettering it’s been taken out and replaced by a symbol, where it used to be. That whole situation creates an arena for wonder, and for humor.
For a lot of artists (and I’m definitely one) in terms of current events, I don’t understand what’s going on a lot of the time. But something that is humorous, or has a sense of wonder – that’s something that’s tangible for me. So that’s the way in, like the guy walking the cat. That has potential for me that’s something worth doing. That’s what I like about pataphysics. You can have a lot of fun and make a lot of magical stuff through what Alfred Jarry did. This is the really interesting link between ‘pataphysics and surface for me: Alfred Jarry blew through anything that was considered a wall or a social barrier. It’s that whole world of coming up to something, and then either transcending or going deeper. Sometimes you can be ridiculous. Boris Vian was a great ‘pataphysician for example.
I got tribology from my word a day program! It’s the science of surfaces moving past one another. The example they gave was of a shoelace getting worn. That flashed me onto the picture of Van Gogh’s of the two old work boots. I thought “wow, surface interaction!” Van Gogh’s old boots make you ask the questions tribologists would ask “how did this shoelace get worn?” “Imagine the places this shoelace has been.” All I did with tribology was basically create a new definition of it for art criticism.
If you’re talking about materials, I don’t want to put oil paint on the raw canvas because the linoleic acid in the paint will eat the threads. That’s engineering tribology. But I like tribologies that even have to do with emotional surfaces like the psalm: Mercy and Justice Kissed. So there’s a kiss between two anthropomorphized concepts. What is in contact with what there? Tribology can even become about what’s nearby; anything at all.
EG: Can you tell us about your time at Exeter? What was happening during that time in New Hampshire, and what kind of coffee were people drinking?
MF: Oh, we were drinking coffee out of this huge metal box. There was coffee, but what I really remember best was the half and half dispensers. It was like an udder! You just push it a little and get your cup under it. Ceramic cups, like the old Nestle cups we have at the office. The coffee was super middling as you might expect.
What happened at Exeter is that I got there, and I made some big mistakes as a student. I needed help, but I didn’t ask for it. When I got there and I fell behind in math, which was my ruin, and the teacher had written the textbook. And the fact that I couldn’t get his textbook was the worst.
Exeter was the place where I escaped into art. I had fabulous experiences there, artistically. I got to play music with a guy from Detroit who also dropped out. Earl Thomas was a great guitarist, and he was who introduced me to Wes Montgomery. He used to play at school assemblies and one time I got to play with him, and he gave me a real hard time about my bass playing, it was great. I ran into Chip Carrico, my drawing teacher, in a café in Berkeley playing guitar when I first arrived here in California! How weird, of all the places to be. I also got to play with him at Exeter, and I had a great time playing there. I saw Miles Davis at Lennie’s on the Pike, outside of Boston. I went with Benmont Tench, the keyboardist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers! He was a year older than me, and he was so cool. Later, he went to school with a friend of mine in Oregon who say “hey, Ben says hi” so I felt like I was on the map!
Here’s my bottom line with Exeter. The story isn’t over with me and Exeter because of one guy I met, Nick Eberstadt. He’s the grandson of Ogden Nash, the famous poet. Nick was, in a school of pretty smart kids, was the smartest of them all. And he was a great guy. I was on the exact opposite of the academic bell curve to him, and he was the nicest guy ever. As the years went on, I saw books by him, especially ones on North Korea. Over the years, I keep seeing things, and I think to myself “Nick Eberstadt will save the world.” It’s relentless; I see him talking about contemporary North Korea and being right about it every time.
Even though I never got the validation academically, I really got it artistically. Art was always there for me.
EG: How has your study of classical realism influenced your work today?
MF: These days, very much with my interest in surface interaction. David Hardy teaches you to not only stretch your canvas, he also teaches you all kinds of combining color theory and the use of mediums to make the paint have different effects. Whether a person is a realist or not, his class was a tremendous bath in oil painting techniques and materials.
Another way to look at me is that I’m a combination of, on one level, as my friends Augusta and Barbara said, a ‘pataphysician. And that has pretty much proven true. In fact, I belong to the London Institute of ‘Patphysics. You could probably join, too. I think they do some screening, but if you have a ‘pataphysical heart and you’re playful in your art, that they’ll welcome you.