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Copper

Messages in metal

By Lynn Stanley

Artist creates a cultural legacy in copper

November 2012 - In a digital age where messages routinely are sent via cyberspace and the classics are read electronically, award-winning artist Mark Fischer brings the nonverbal stories of his Native American culture to life by hand shaping silver and copper into dynamic forms and figures. Fischer welds, cuts, pounds and forms life-size sculptures for outdoor display, overlaying many of his designs with traditional Iroquois symbols and patterns. He also creates smaller pieces for indoor display, integrating metal with meaningful elements like porcupine quills, horsehair and vintage beads collected by his maternal grandmother.

“Each piece has a story to tell,” says Fischer. “For me, the ability to communicate a message through my art is the single most important goal.” Contrasting the reddish-orange of a new penny with an aged green patina, his contemporary copper pieces exude a kinetic energy that meshes his experiences with his Native American history. 

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From pipe fitting to art

Green Bay, Wis., resident Fischer is a member of the Turtle Clan of the Oneida Nation, a matrilineal society and a people known for their artistry, poetry and agricultural skills. Fischer says he owes his native heritage to his mother. His love of metalworking, he explains, can be traced to his father and grandfather’s influences.

“I’ve had a torch in my hand since I was five years old,” he says. “Dad was a pipe fitter. Grandpa was a blacksmith who came to the U.S. from Germany. For him, metalworking was an art and it had to be perfect.”

Before choosing a career path in education, Fischer apprenticed as a pipe fitter where he was introduced to copper sheet and piping. As president of the Indian Community School in Milwaukee, he helped establish Native American scholarships for Wisconsin colleges and used art to create a connection among students from different tribes. “We hired archeologists to look for petroglyphs and pictographs in the region,” says Fischer. “The elders identified the rock art that was found and created stories. Individual images were then chosen by fifth and sixth grade students, projected onto the wall, and painted in red so that each tribe at the school was represented. Student artists then signed the mural with their handprints.” 

When Fischer retired in 1982, he turned to sculpting full time. “If I had a bad day as school president I would go home and weld,” Fischer says. “I put the pieces I made in my yard and people began asking if they could buy them. When I started to sculpt full time, the business just took off.”

A copper canvas

Fischer says the area’s ancient petroglyphs and pictographs continue to inspire his work, along with his desire to educate others about his culture. Storytelling is an important part of the Oneida oral tradition. Close to 80 percent of Fischer’s work carries nonverbal messages. His 15-acre farm in Germantown, Wis., houses his workshop, but Fischer makes his work available through an online gallery and participation in annual shows, including The Heard Museum’s Heard Indian Market, Phoenix, The Eiteljorg Indian Market, Indianapolis, and the Santa Fe Indian Market, Santa Fe, N.M.

Fischer’s choice of metal also grounds him to his history. “Copper artifacts have been found throughout the country and carbon dated to Wisconsin,” says Fischer. “Copper is part of our heritage.”

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Copper sheet accommodates Fischer’s smaller pieces but the larger sculptures require the strength of copper pipe. After laying out the sections of a figure on a flat welding table, Fischer hard solders those areas that require a strong connection. He uses 3M polish pads to prepare the sculpture’s surface by eliminating black areas or marks that might occur from more abrasive polishing.

Once he completes a piece, Fischer takes it outside to weather. He says his most popular piece is the Shawl Dancer. Fischer uses the flow and feel of a fiddlehead fern frond to shape the dancer’s hair out of copper tendrils. “The fiddlehead fern also is very traditional,” says Fischer, who adds that the Oneida consider the plant edible.

Hand fabrication

Fischer’s 2-D forms can take a week to 10 days to complete, while 3-D forms can take up to a month. To add life to his 3-D forms, he sometimes uses a technique he learned from his grandfather. “As a kid when we wanted to push metal out from the inside, we would dip the piece in water then weld it shut. As we continued to build up the surface and apply details, the water would heat, begin to steam and push or expand the metal to create a perfect cylinder.”

Fischer, who also does custom pieces, has expanded his offerings to include furniture. The furniture uses double wall copper pipe 1/8 in. thick for strength, but like his sculptures, Fischer uses hand fabrication and hard soldering techniques to form the furniture and apply designs like the traditional Iroquois floral pattern.

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“I pretty much bend the pipe by hand,” says Fischer. “For something like my conversation bench, the two sides have to be nearly identical because they face each other. The stones for the seats are cut to fit from Germantown Lannon stone and can’t be switched once they are placed.”

Copper’s resistance to rust makes it ideal for outdoor use, and according to Fischer, the metal also carries a healing element because bacteria can’t grow on it.

 “I love working with copper because of the way it moves,” he says. “I can pound it into a shape and if I decide I don’t like where the piece is going I can reheat or anneal the metal and make something completely different.” 

In addition to practicing unique metalforming skills Fischer ensures his pieces are spiritually and culturally sound. “The ability to depict the clan’s stories and traditions in metal allows me to introduce others to our culture and continue to promote education while celebrating the history of our people,” he says. FFJ

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AIR FILTRATION

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Camfil APC - Equipment Trilogy Machinery Inc. Metamation Inc. Admiral Steel
Camfil APC - Replacement Filters

LASER TECHNOLOGY

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Alliance Steel
Donaldson Company Inc. AMADA AMERICA, INC. Messer Cutting Systems Inc.

SOFTWARE

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Mazak Optonics Corp.

PLATE

Enmark Systems Inc.
MetalForming Inc. MC Machinery Systems Inc. Peddinghaus Lantek Systems Inc.
RAS Systems LLC Murata Machinery, USA, Inc.

PLATE & ANGLE ROLLS

SigmaTEK Systems LLC

BEVELING

TRUMPF Inc. Davi Inc. Striker Systems
Steelmax Tools LLC

LINEAR POSITION SENSORS

Trilogy Machinery Inc.

STAMPING/PRESSES

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MTS Sensors

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AIDA-America Corp.
Bradbury Group

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Mate Precision Tooling

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Burghardt + Schmidt Group Fehr Warehouse Solutions Inc. Rolleri USA Alliance Steel
Butech Bliss UFP Industrial

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Red Bud Industries

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AMADA AMERICA, INC. BLM Group
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MC Machinery Systems Inc.

WATERJET

Mayfran International Cincinnati Inc. SafanDarley Barton International

DEBURRING/FINISHING

LVD Strippit

PUNCHING

Flow International Corporation
ATI Industrial Automation Scotchman Industries Inc. Hougen Manufacturing Jet Edge Waterjet Systems
Lissmac Corp. Trilogy Machinery Inc.

SAWING

WELDING

Osborn

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Behringer Saws Inc. American Weldquip
SuperMax Tools FAGOR Arrasate USA Inc. Cosen Saws Strong Hand Tools
Timesavers MetalForming Inc. DoALL Sawing T. J. Snow Company

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HE&M Saw

 

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