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What Took You So Long? The Creative Journey of Kurt Fisk

Since the early 1970s, Kurt Fisk has been creating fantastical, character-driven illustrations. His characters, much like those on a beloved Saturday morning cartoon, inhabit a world which is entirely their own. Fisk excels at capturing complex emotions with humor and sensitivity. Employing his array of fine-tipped artist pens and eye for color, he depicts the slightest nuances of otherwise-ordinary exchanges.

Fisk finds inspiration in pop culture and kitschy cult horror films of the 1960s and 1970s. For over twenty years, however, much of the work Fisk made was created in response to an infamous cartoon advertisement from 1971 hawking “Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys.” These outrageous ads trumpeted, “The most adorable, entertaining pets you have ever owned.” They were hard to resist.

Kurt Fisk sketchbook Monkey Fishes family tree  8.5x11  2010

“Monkey Fishes Family Tree,” 8.5″ x 11″, 2010.

Recalling the arrival of his own mail-order Sea Monkeys, Fisk reflected, “Those shrimp weren’t the ones in the comic’s ad; they were plain old brine shrimp. So I took the comic book drawing and began to rearrange it, making it my own, changing the name to The Monkey Fishes.”

"Monkey Fishes Back to School," 1999.

“Monkey Fishes Back to School,” 1999.

Fisk’s sea monkey series was featured prominently in his first solo exhibition. Curated by OUTPOST1000, “WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG? The Art of Kurt Fisk” (2014) was a pop-up, retrospective exhibition at a cozy, second-hand furniture store in Corvallis, Oregon. One corner of the exhibition sought to recreate Fisk’s bedroom with a focus on the exhaustive archive he has generated: illustrations in familiar frames were placed around the mock-bedroom, decades of sketches were neatly archived in binders on the desk, homemade promotional posters hung on the walls, and nearby bookshelves showcased sculptures of the monkey fishes.

"Monkey Fish as a Human Child," 8.5" x 11", 1994.

“Monkey Fish as a Human Child,” 8.5″ x 11″, 1994.

While episodic comic books serve as one of many pop cultural references for Fisk, his own comic illustrations rarely exceed one panel. Though brief, these comics are complete in their singularity. The work often alludes to resolution. Almost antithetical to his comic panels, Fisk’s animated film, The Original Sea Monkey Fishes, consists of thousands of individual drawings. Fisk received no formal training in filmmaking and his only instruction came from reading the catalogs accompanying film products from Bell & Howell and Kodak. Upon completion, Fisk optimistically packaged reels of the film with publicity materials including movie posters, comics, t-shirts, and a press release. Though Fisk found few takers, he continued to make new work to share with others.

"TM.," 2002.

“TM.,” 2002.

An artist herself, Fisk’s mother Sarah has always encouraged his creative impulses and Fisk excelled at art in school. Fisk is quick to recall the critical role that arts education played during his youth, “At my school, I was a handicapped person and I went to Special Ed classes. I didn’t have a choice as regular class was so hard for me. The art class was good, it was not Special Ed. After 3 years I came out knowing how to paint and draw pretty well.”

After high school, Fisk was briefly enrolled in an institutional care facility, which was in stark contrast to the nurturing atmosphere of home. “I had most of my best things stolen, it was a rough place so I couldn’t stay.” Fisk moved back home with his mother where he remains today.

At the age of 56, Fisk had waited over 40 years to share his work in a gallery setting. WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG, he told me, “is about letting them know that this is what I do.” During the opening Fisk readily mingled among appreciative friends and fans who applauded his imaginative fabrications. Speaking of The Original Sea Monkey Fishes, Julia Bradshaw, Assistant Professor, School of Arts and Communications at Oregon State University noted, “After watching Fisk’s animated film I was struck by the depth of filmic problem-solving and character development that went into creating it. The pleasure in the film is partly in deconstructing the animation techniques, but more importantly it is the depth of storytelling and the variety of tenuous situations that the Professor and the Sea Monkey Fishes found themselves in that kept my attention. I wanted to know what would happen next.”

Kurt Fisk at home with a page of character sketches

Kurt Fisk at home with a page of character sketches.

Over the past year, Fisk has exhibited in four solo exhibitions and a group exhibition throughout Corvallis, Eugene, and Salem, Oregon. He has also served as a panel member for lunchtime discussion series at The Arts Center and for a discussion on arts and disability in conjunction with the inVISIBLE festival, both in Corvallis Oregon. “I have been making my artwork since 1971,” Fisk says. “It’s time for people to see what kind of talent I have. I want to say this is what I am doing with these hands.”

The Original Sea Monkey Fishes 1971 is available on YouTube and runs for 15 minutes.