Mark Fischer, a member of the Oneida Nation of Green Bay (Turtle Clan), is a contemporary sculptor whose current work sprang from training as a young blacksmith. “I come from four generations of smithing,” he says. “My father told my four brothers and I that we had to learn a craft, so we pounded and bent steel while we were growing up, getting our degrees, and going into other fields of endeavor.”
Fischer left the forge behind and headed for the world of education, eventually becoming president of the Indian Community School in Milwaukee. “Our school system, funded by casino revenue, is second to none, and all the children that go to our school get to go to college for free. I’m honored I was allowed to be part of something like this to help Native Americans. We’re not going to take America back all at once, but we can take it back one Ph.D. at a time.”
Ultimately, retirement from the educational arena allowed him to go back and more fully experience the world of smithing. “I did some traditional pieces working with steel and wrought iron before starting to hammer, bend, and cut copper. Folks really liked the creativity and I started winning competition awards, making me realize this was really something I should have started 20 years earlier — but then I would have missed out on the education aspect of my life and that would have been unacceptable,” he says.
Now he promotes the importance of Native American awareness through his hand-cut sculpture that is welded in silver and airbrushed with a patina finish to enhance the copper’s natural aging process. “I try to educate about Indians and their way of life. Every one of my sculptures has a story attached to it with an explanation of the artwork and what it means to my tribe.”
As an example, he uses his Three Sisters artwork, “The Sustenance Story,” representative of corn, beans, and squash — that trio of staples that can ensure survival. “All children in the world should know about the Three Sisters,” he says.
Fischer says he gets much of his inspiration from woodland petroglyphs and pictographs — “stories left behind that we’re supposed to decipher” — quickly emphasizing that no artifacts are harmed in the making of his one-of-a-kind items. “I work with archeologists all over the country, especially in the Great Lakes region, who send me stuff all the time for me to look at and get ideas from.
“Ancient nations may not have had a written language, but if you look closely, you’ll see they have left unwritten and non-verbal messages all over our nation and it’s an honor for me to share these through my art.”
As Fischer comes from the Turtle Clan, turtles have become his signature items although other pieces are works of pure inspiration. Traditional Iroquois border designs, quill and beaded symbols and patterns in copper complement his sculptures while at the same time visually teaching Native art history. Select works are embellished with deer hide, antlers, horsehair, and traditionally-wrapped antique trade beads.
Pointing to a hammered copper deer head statue with antlers, he says: “There are six Iroquois nations, each with its own staff called a talking stick and when they meet, they all come in with their separate staff of nations. The deer head with six antlers represents the fact that although we carry different staffs, we are still one — a single nation.”
Each of Fischer’s sculptures has a descriptive nametag in both English and the Oneida language while a second tag contains an Oneida/Iroquois cultural statement, poem, prayer or story. Considering that there are many stories still to be told, Fischer keeps busy hammering in his shop, a four-car garage that contains no cars.