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Declaration of An Artist

American Dream, a massive three-part sculpture based on the Declaration of Independence, is bringing sculptor Rob Fisher ‘61 the recognition he deserves.
April 1, 2004

Under a threatening November sky, Rob Fisher ‘61 slides his metal canoe over the leaf-covered bank of the west branch of the Susquehanna River and out into the murky waters. It’s late afternoon, and the rain has held off, but the central-Pennsylvania air is bitter enough to hint at snow. Fisher is heading to Glen Union, the bucolic and isolated remains of a once prosperous logging community balanced on a narrow plain between the river and the ascending mountainside. There really is no town, though it still shows up on state maps-just three houses, a few barns, some scattered, rusting farm implements, and a one-room schoolhouse that Fisher uses as a studio about six months a year. The original coal-burning stove still sits in the middle of the schoolroom, and the short row of old-fashioned double desks with center inkwells seems out of place in the company of Fisher’s Macintosh G4 laptop, printer, and fax machine.

Fisher uses information technology to create large, complex sculptures composed of thousands of pieces of metal suspended from varying lengths of chain. For 30 years, he has eschewed the traditional art world and fashioned commissioned sculptures for vast architectural spaces inside hotels, airports, banks, malls, churches, synagogues, casinos, companies, medical centers, and private residences in the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. In the late 1970s, he turned from using small physical models to visualize his sculpture designs to mainframe computers, and then later to customized flight simulators. Along with a small group of artists he calls “evangelists for technology,” Fisher spent a decade urging others in the field to use computers until technology in art became a ubiquitous creative tool. Over the years, his methods and his work have brought him recognition among his peers and, more recently, a commission that could catapult him into the ranks of contemporary masters.

Foundations of His Work

To understand his sculpture, Fisher says, you have to see Glen Union. He spends at least an hour every day walking through woods and bogs and around ponds on the 60 hectares he and his wife True own. Sometimes he sits beside the small burial ground on the bluff above the river near his mother’s grave and watches the sky and the distant mountains and the changing light. At night he and True drive out on the old logging roads to watch for deer. These natural elements often find their way into his work. A river bottom dappled with sunlight becomes a suspended sculpture in a doctor’s office. The flat shelf fungi that climb trees on Rattlesnake Creek show up on a water sculpture in an office and residential complex. Clouds become the foundation for a sculpture that hangs in a bank. Spider webs inspire the way Fisher connects and hangs pieces of his work. Wind, rain, the shape of a cornstalk, a mountain, a tree branch-all find expression in his work. But light is at the center of it all.

“I’m very conscious of light up at the farm,” he says. “We’re very aware of when day ends, when the light’s going down over the mountain, and what happens with light on the various colors and materials. I think it has a spiritual, uplifting quality.”

The roots of Fisher’s work go back to his days at MIT when, to escape the pressures of academics, he’d slip into the chapel about once a week and just sit and look at the Bertoia sculpture that hangs behind the altar. The work is made up of hundreds of small, suspended pieces of metal that reflect light. Today most of Fisher’s sculptures are reminiscent of the Bertoia and contain a myriad of suspended, carefully choreographed pieces made of aluminum, brass, or stainless steel, which light playfully reflects off of or dances between. 

Each piece is commissioned for a specific location, which often dictates the direction of its design. So before Fisher sits down to plan a work, he goes through what he calls a “previsual exercise” until he knows exactly what he’s looking for in the finished piece. This involves talking with architects and engineers familiar with the site to be sure he understands the obstacles and limitations of the space, and then talking with fabricators to confirm that his ideas are practical. Finally, he goes to work on the computer. His sculptures are often tens of meters high and can only be visualized with a computer. He uses design software to virtually stand inside the sculpture before it’s created and see how it will look from inside or above as well as from the side. “Rob is fascinated with space in his design,” says Michael Tomor, executive director of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art. “He visualizes his work from every angle. It’s like he climbs inside the computer and designs from underneath as well as on top or in front.”

Designing a Dream

Ironically, the work that Fisher says best encapsulates his career has no suspended elements. American Dream-a three-part sculptural installation that was inspired by the Declaration of Independence-was unveiled in May 2003 in the international-arrivals hall at Philadelphia International Airport. Not only is the work a technical tour de force made possible by the use of a computer, but it is also the sculpture that will most likely gain him the widespread recognition he deserves.

Each of the American Dream pieces is named. Quotation is based on the most famous sentence in the document: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The words are blown up to 1,500 times their original size (the individual letters are between about 2.5 and four meters tall) and span 76 meters of the walls of the arrivals hall. Seven words-truths, all, equal, rights, life, liberty, and happiness-are larger than the rest. These words are lighted with blue neon below and white above, suggesting the sky and clouds.

Based on the Declaration of Independence, Rob Fisher’s work American Dream welcomes international travelers to Philadelphia’s airport.

Signature Piece is a glass wall 27 meters long and one meter tall topped with an aluminum railing that divides the arrival hall into two spaces, one side for arriving passengers and the other for people waiting to meet the passengers. It’s natural for folks to lean against the wall, which has enlarged replicas of the 56 signatures on the declaration etched onto the glass. “I liked the idea of people resting on the founding fathers,” Fisher says. The third piece, Declaration, is a three-meter-tall reproduction of the actual document embedded in a wall of glass made to look like 18th-century parchment. The glass is divided into 13 pieces representing the 13 original colonies. Fisher spent one whole summer in the schoolhouse studio at Glen Union drawing lines through the text to determine how to divide it.

Creating American Dream took Fisher three and a half years. He worked from an 1823 engraving of the document, which he scanned and converted into a 450-megabyte file. Maintaining the original intent of the calligraphy in Quotation became a focal point for a good part of his time. “When I looked at that hugely enlarged calligraphy,” he says, “what I discovered was that the ink bled into the paper, so the closer you got, the blurrier the edge was.” Using the same type of software the U.S. Department of Defense employs to sharpen the edges of objects in images, Fisher spent months applying just the right amount of correction to make every sentence, signature, and word legible. He also used software that smoothed the edges of letters. “I wanted the word that was on the wall [to be] true to the intent of the calligraphy, so it would make you feel as if you were actually looking at a handwritten word on the wall,” he explains. And he believes he succeeded. “When you’re in that space, you can really feel the human hand behind those words.” He used the same process for Declaration and Signature, so that the finished product would be readable but retain the charm and the imperfections of the original. But the computer did more than just clean up the calligraphy. It also directed equipment that etched the glass for Declaration, sandblasted the words and signatures into Signature, and cut the metal letters for Quotation.

Although the computer made the work possible, Fisher views technology as only a means to an end. “I want to find the simplest expression of technology to do the job,” he says. “It’s the way nature works. A river finds the simplest way out.”

Rob Fisher has come a long way since his early days as a sculptor, when his family lived on food stamps and he played Santa Claus to earn money to buy Christmas presents. Public art is notoriously hard on artists, Fisher says. He never knows when the next commission will come in or how it will test his creativity and engineering know-how, but he knows he’s ready. “MIT breeds an enormous degree of self-confidence in the sense that one has the ability to undertake extremely challenging projects that are well beyond what you think you can do,” he says. Now he’s back to the drawing board, coming up with design proposals for commissions that are there to be won, and he loves the challenge of it all.

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