Chat with... Leonard Everett Fisher
WESTPORT — At a desk between an illustrating table and painting easel, Leonard Everett Fisher scrolls through decades of paintings on his computer. He clicks on one of a man in a red sweater about to release a white paper airplane, set against a blue sky, in slightly muted tones.
“Red, white and blue,” he says. “He’s setting it free. I think that’s what I’m painting: Freedom.”
Artist, illustrator and longtime town resident, Fisher looked back through the images at his home studio, nestled in a woodsy Westport neighborhood.
After a half-century of illustrating about 250 children’s books, 88 of which he also wrote, the 93-year-old finally stopped authoring and illustrating in 2007.
“I just walked away from it,” he said. “I said, ‘Fifty years is enough.’ I just ran out of gas, decided I was going to do my own thing. So here I am.”
Fisher is now focused on painting, creating new works and occasionally painting imagery from illustrations that he now realizes should have been paintings.
On his studio wall hangs a painting of a man in uniform — not Fisher himself, but someone with his same rank and outfit. Behind the soldier is an American flag, the artwork representing the day Fisher joined the army.
For a couple of years, he saw the image of the soldier in his head and thought to himself he would paint red, white and blue pictures.
Looking back, Fisher has found the pattern in his past work as well, before he began to intentionally use the patriotic theme. Looking at an abstraction he painted in 1950, he finds the trio of colors.
“America, that’s what it’s about. It’s about us. It’s about freedom,” he said.
One illustration Fisher has redone appears in “Sailboat Lost,” a wordless picture book published in 1991 that tells the story of a day with his son at Cockenoe Island when their sailboat floated off and, stranded, they had to get it back. In the book, the story is about two children.
More recently, Fisher painted the same red-and-white-striped sailboat and the same blue ocean. But he changed the way he told the story into a less obvious depiction, showing the loneliness of the boat, he explained. The image had been playing around in his head, the idea of it being something different.
“I get some crazy ideas,” he said. “I’m not an abstractionist and I’m not a myth-maker. I’m a storyteller, is what I am basically.”
A large chunk of his career, Fisher began to illustrate children’s books in the mid-1950s. He worked in color and scratch board, creating thousands of illustrations. He worked as a freelancer, toiling for 16 hours every day to “keep the competition away.”
On a bookshelf in his home, Fisher has copies of the hundreds of titles he worked on, next to a shelf of books autographed by the various authors. He intends to leave the collections to the University of Connecticut.
Among the books are some of the many medals he earned during his lifetime, including the Regina Medal of the Catholic Library Association — a literary award conferred annually — and one for his mapmaking work during the Second World War that aided the recovery efforts of the Monuments Men. Tucked in between the national honors was his Westport Arts Award.
Artist at an early age
Born in the Bronx, N.Y. in 1924, Fisher was drawing from age two onwards.
“I’ve done nothing but art this entire time,” he said. “One way or another, in one form or another.”
His father was a ship designer that contributed to the U.S.S. Arizona and design of submarines in a Bridgeport naval yard. His mother read to him often, enchanting him with stories from Compton’s 26-volume illustrated encyclopedia that she picked through in alphabetical order each night.
“I think that went a long way pointing me in a direction of children’s books,” he said, of the genre he worked in for half a century.
So impacted by the nightly story time, he would spend his first grade rest time talking about the sinking of the Lusitania or howler monkeys in South American. He recalled his teacher would burst out laughing, amused and prodding him on.
After moving to Brooklyn at age nine, Fisher majored in art at Abraham Lincoln High School and started at Brooklyn College when he was 16. He began to take art classes right away, along with some geology classes that were put to near-immediate use when Fisher enlisted in the army.
From December 1942 until January 1946, Fisher worked as a mapmaker for the army during World War II. He helped create maps of southern France, Pacific island battle sites and the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania.
Fisher’s next step was back to art school. Accepted to the Yale University School of Art, Fisher arrived in New Haven and went with a group to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, where he saw Rudolph Zallinger’s “The Age of Reptiles,” a 110 by 16-foot mural.
“I kept looking at this thing and I thought I could never do this. I still had my suitcase with me and I left. I started to go down to the railroad station to go home because I figured that they may have admitted me here, but I’m never going to make it,” he said. “But the guys convinced me to stay and so I stayed.”
The choice proved worthwhile — but Fisher credited his success at the school to hard work. Enrolled on the G.I. Bill, he saw his work ethic as common among those the welfare program backed.
“I think they all put in long hours and worked hard and had had it with all the misery that we had just come from,” he said.
While at Yale, Fisher received the Joseph Pulitzer scholarship in art in 1950 and the prestigious Winchester traveling fellowship, which allowed him to study art as he traveled through Italy.
A few years down the road, Fisher became the youngest academic officer in the country at age 27 as dean of the Whitney School of Art in New Haven. He eventually left that job for the same reason he has made many of the changes he has through his life.
“I just wanted to paint pictures,” he said.
Becoming a Westporter
Fisher moved to Westport with his wife and children in 1957 and became involved in the town almost right away. He was the president of Westport’s first arts council in 1965 and later served as a three-term president of the library.
Now he helps out at the Westport Arts Center, which held a retrospective exhibition of his work in early 2015.
Fisher believes the center merits a more fitting space and is also an advocate for a town museum to display the work of local artists.
“The (arts center) space is not high enough or wide enough to do the job that made this town,” he said. “Coinage, stamps, posters, you name it, (it) all came out of artists from here.”
He believes Westport should have a provincial museum to institutionalize art created in the town, as well as possibly several other local towns such as Weston, Wilton or Fairfield.
Holding up a frame displaying some of his postage stamp designs, the originals now in the Smithsonian’s Postal Museum, he said, “this should be in town.”
“There should be a provincial museum institutionalizing the work that has been created in Westport that has national significance. Period,” he added. “They do this in Europe. Why not here?”
Fisher is aiding the arts center in a new exhibition for display next spring on the work of Westport artists in advertising. The center’s acting executive director, Amanda Innes, called Fisher an extraordinarily-talented artist, accomplished both in his art and the professional field.
“He’s a very, very interesting but humble man. Very helpful and very eloquent,” she said. “He’s an invaluable resource to the town of Westport, and the arts center absolutely adores him.”
Town residents of nearly 60 years, Fisher and his wife Margery, the Coleytown Middle School librarian for 25 years, raised their son and two daughters in town.
“This is a small paradise,” he said.