While I travel all over the country in search of archival material to bring back to the Smithsonian, I recently had a rare opportunity to visit my own hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.
Born in nearby Granbury, painter Vernon Fisher has made his home in Fort Worth for his entire career despite a level of success that might have sent other men to the art centers of New York or Los Angeles. Having been driven by teenage wanderlust—an affliction I suffer from to this day—I left Fort Worth two weeks after my high school graduation. So I was curious to meet Vernon, who has built such an enviable career in a place I had once abandoned as less than conducive to a creative temperament.
Vernon built his studio in a storefront near the old stockyards on Fort Worth’s northside. Like many artists, he bought the building years ago, well before the stockyards became a tourist trap lined with steakhouses, bars, and expensive western apparel shops. Nevertheless, Vernon’s corner of northside retains its desolate and un–charming qualities. This gives it an odd sense of credibility.
I immediately recognized Vernon’s casual hospitality as uniquely Texan. His workspace is that of an intellectual and writer. In fact, much of his work is literary in nature, drawing upon text both original and borrowed—everything from newspaper articles and encyclopedia entries to poetry by Goethe.
We occupied most of our time with discussion of books we had in common and topics in religion, philosophy, and travel. Vernon experienced his own wanderlust as a youth, selling Bibles throughout the American South during the tense years of the civil rights movement. Eventually, he settled down to a family (with fellow artist Julie Bozzi) and a teaching job at the University of North Texas.
It occurred to me during our discussion that a body of work like Vernon’s, touched as it is by a frank humanity and a passion for thinking, has little to do with living in the right city or drinking with the right people at gallery openings. It is the product of a singular mind capable of recognizing in its own environment and perceptions a shared human experience.
Before I left Fort Worth, at the age of 18, my grandmother said to me, “Wherever you live, you have to live with yourself.” I get it now.
Jason Stieber is one of two Collections Specialists at the Archives of American Art. Jason travels throughout the United States in search of treasures to add to the Smithsonian’s collections.