Without Pretense or Napkins

Without Pretense or Napkins


"Summer Day" by the Richmond (Va.) artist Bill Fisher sold for over $6,000 at the annual Collectors' Night auction, in March, at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. (I was serving him a cold beer when it happened.)

Photo: Visual Arts Center of Richmond.

Temporary Shift is a series of brief dispatches from the front lines of the service industry—in which I attempt to wring some sort of meaning out of the inevitable dirty dish rag.

Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.
— Flannery O'Connor

Yes and No is usually how I find myself responding to this rather artful insight.

We certainly must concede that the effort needed to understand a complex, literary novel, for instance, or an avant-garde mixed-media installation, or even some innovative take on a standard chicken dish is not for Everyman (or every woman). Yet I also strongly agree with the sort of manifestos coming out of some arty corners, like the Visual Arts Center of Richmond (Va.): "There is a creative spirit in all of us that nourishes our humanity and enriches our society."

It is that basic, universal impulse—that ancient, primal urge to make—that is surely democratic. Furthermore, notwithstanding the textured and tortured historical relationship between art and faith, between some people of art and some people of faith, it is the faithful who have always proclaimed (though we haven't always understood the implications): We make because we have been made in the image of a Maker.

Perhaps the important difference, then, comes in that space between the creativity inherent in each of us and the creative understanding not exactly inherent in all of us.

Which brings us to the above painting, and to the artist.


Pulling a temporary shift as a bartender, I met Bill Fisher at the annual Collectors' Night auction, in March, at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. He had modestly approached the bar.

The bar, for good measure, was trying its hardest not to be modest—with its flickering votive candles, large wine glasses stylishly arranged on faux silver trays, diverse selections of Cabernet and Chardonnay, and its ready-to-please-the-art-crowd vibe.

Quite honestly, it was hard to miss Bill. He was dressed in a very worn polo shirt, complimented by an even more worn pair of blue jeans. And he was walking around in tennis shoes of the decidedly non-brand variety. It was almost as if he came directly from his art studio, or, more likely, a room in his house or apartment—wherever he does his making.

Unlike that interesting man who is famous the world over for his alluring pretentiousness, Bill asked for a beer because he seemed to genuinely prefer it. Not as a fallback; as a kind of comfort. Art galas were no exception. Being an abstract expressionist didn't change a single thing.

As I cracked open his bottle of beer, I asked him—my attempt at being sensitive in this obviously swanky atmosphere—if he wanted a glass for his beer. "No way," he said.

"How about a napkin?" I said.

"No thanks. I'm good," he responded. It was as if one small beverage nap—instead of keeping his hands somewhat dry—would only serve to keep his hands distant, removed, from the experience of cold and wet.

Of course, at this point, I did not yet know that Bill was an artist.

Given the dressed-up occasion, I suppose I could be forgiven for assuming he was not of the same class as the artists and art-buyers mingling around the mini-crab cakes like Shark Week.

Polo. Blue jeans. Tennis shoes. Beer. No glass. No napkin.

Bill Fisher.


Two hours later, the evening reached its aesthetic climax: the works of numerous artists were being auctioned off to people who, naturally, undoubtedly, looked like they belonged.

Bill's painting—"Summer Day"—flashed up onto the large screen via PowerPoint. On cue, and paying no mind to the popcorn made with truffle oil, he wandered over to see me about another beer.

He was nervous, he admitted.

He was anxious about what he had made.

As the auctioneer escalated the bidding, Bill downed his Vienna lager.

$3,000. $4,000. $5,000. Do I hear $6,000? When "Summer Day" finally sold, the figure topped $6,000.

I looked over at him. He was holding his empty beer bottle, absolutely ecstatic. Smiling like the boy who just hit a home run. Gushing like the man who, for a long time, has been working at making.

He was literally coming out of his regular-guy skin.

He walked over to me like he first walked up to the bar. "I guess I'll take another beer," he said, without hesitation.

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