By combining the industrial and the natural, I think it implies that there's a conflict… Maybe that conflict is showing up more today and creates tension. For a lot of people it brings up thoughts of something post-apocalyptic.
by Heidi Legg
Nick Fuhrer has long personified the creative life. At one of his show openings in JP years ago, I remember an older man telling me that Nick’s book of illustrations was the manifesto of his work. These same images he later etches onto glass, juxtaposing nature and the industrial. This tension, apparent in our lives today, makes his work rather on point.
But there is something even more of interest to our times about Nick’s work. In a world that rewards the external more boldly and loudly than ever with money, titles, fame, and power, there is something inherently rare and GenX about living a quiet creative life. What is it to be an artist creating for the love of making and problem solving inside your craft? Fuhrer will likely shun what I am making of this, but I have watched him create over the years and often been reminded that focusing on one's craft and the work at hand is really the only true path. The purpose is to satiate natural curiosity and mostly, problem solve by creating. Nick and his wife Rebecca, both artists who have studied at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), illustrate what it is to lead a deeply creative life.
Fuhrer has shown his glass sculptures in gallery shows in Somerville and Jamaica Plain and works on private commissions. Inside his new studio in Watertown on the edge of Cambridge, he has built his own sandblasting space that looks like something out of Hugo meets Dr. Who. We sat down inside his studio to discuss his process and why he draws on both our machine age and nature. Douglas Coupland coined GenX as “fantastical creators,” and Nick is literally its poster child.
How do you keep pushing your art forward?
I have a need to create things and that's just a basic need. I would be making stuff even if it I were, say, playing Lego with my son Max; which I do, actually.
Are you always making? I’ve been in your house and there always seems to be a project going on.
Yeah, and that's how I am. I think that many things could probably satisfy that. I even enjoy doing crude carpentry and gardening and it satisfies my need in a certain way, any kind of making. That really is important to me… I always have to be doing something.
I like sculpture because I like the idea of making things that have never existed before. I like the whole idea of something original. It’s often said that it's impossible to make anything original in the art world, but that's not exactly true.
Well, because if you make something unique, it might be very similar to something someone else has made but it's never going to be exactly the same. The differences are what are important, even if they're small.
I have a feeling that I'm making unique things because there's no way they were made before me. I'm looking at some things right now in this studio that are made of plumbing and glass and I know it's never happened exactly that way. Now, that's not to say that other people haven't made sculptures out of plumbing and glass before. I'm sure they have. But I think even the small differences are enough for me. There can be big differences as well, and that's more the payoff, I guess – if that's the feeling you're focusing on.
The feeling of originality is what matters to you?
Yes, and making something that fulfills a need. It's not just wanting to make something original but needing to make something specific to exist and knowing that because it's in your mind – you're the only one that can make it happen.
You do intricate etching on glass. Would you call the whole process – from illustration to etching – the art? Or is it only in the end product?
It’s definitely the whole process. In fact, some of my favorite things that I've made are only for me, really. They're small. You can look on that shelf over there. Both of these little display cabinets are full of things that I could never sell because nobody would want to buy them – they're interesting only to me.
How would you describe this studio and what we are seeing?
If you glanced at these cabinets, they would look like shelves of junk but for me they're little inspirational objects – things I found and collected over the years, and little things that I've made. Many were things that were intended to be more of a finished sculpture and were never finished, or were too small and fell apart. Often they were attempts. Kinetic artwork tends to fall apart. They are things where I feel an attachment and the need to have in my life and I can look at them on a daily basis, but they aren't really for sale or for other people to see.
You glass work is often very layered. Do you think that's why people think the books of your sketched illustrations are also to be collected?
What I really make are illustrations because the glass etching that comes after is really basically drawing with a knife. Behind you, there's a fish on a piece of glass. Feel free to pick it up and look at it. It is a piece of glass that has this stencil material adhered to it. It’s simply a layer of rubber on top of a layer of glass and when I cut in the images, I'm drawing using the knife. It is simply drawing.
Why is a building behind a fish?
I was making the fins on the fish and they look so much like buildings that I just drew a building behind them. That was the beginning. I thought maybe I'd make more cityscapes. You can see that the fish I was using for reference has the same fins, only I've altered them. Frequently I'll use references but I change things as I go.
These are complicated etchings. Would you describe the process in your mind?
I frequently think of them as being narratives but I'm aware that there's no clear story. You couldn't explain it. It's not laid out like a comic strip or a storybook. I create situations where things and animals and objects are interacting. For me, I really feel that something is happening but it's not necessarily going to be the same for someone else. Someone else may look at a scenario that's being depicted in the glass etching and see one thing that makes them have associative feelings, but it might not be exactly what I'm seeing or thinking when I make it.
To me it adds a lot of meaning. I wouldn't feel comfortable making something that was too straightforward. I almost avoid that, specifically.
Do you name your work?
I don't mind being descriptive. I think that's what I do when I title things. In that, I'm being roughly descriptive so that people know what they're looking at but I do avoid things that are supposed to be interpreted in one way. That feels too rigid to me and it also feels too much like some kind of little lesson – almost presumptuous, thinking that the artist’s wisdom should be shared with the masses.
Is it hard to get you away from making?
I am a shy person. So, sometimes I'll put myself in a position where the basic intention is, "look at me." If I have a show or when I illustrated Luis Perez Breva’s new book [Innovating – A Doer’s Manifesto Our interview with Perez-Breva is here] that published this past month, I’ll put myself out there. But then when it comes to the reality of what that means, I kind of shy away from it. I feel uncomfortable and maybe I don't want to go on record, let's say. And if I'm constantly producing, but not necessarily making a big deal out of it, then in a way I'm not really highlighting the specific moment. I'm not saying, "here's what I really think" or “this is me.”
And yet, that is kind of refreshing in our age of celebrity.
Yes, and being out there is also the way to have some success – to actually commit to something. Maybe it's an issue of not wanting to commit to any one thing that I've made. I'm not sure.
How long have you been with your wife?
Twenty-one years. I can commit in that way.
We're in this cool space in Watertown. Why did you come here?
It actually goes back to my wife, Rebecca. She saw this building a few years ago and it was for sale by the owner. The building is an old three-car garage that was turned into an antique store in the mid-eighties, and then became more of a storage space for those people. We bought it in December of 2015. I spent a year working on it to make it into my studio, but really it was her idea. When we first saw it, she thought it looked great but it seemed unattainable because we couldn't go around buying buildings. We weren't at that point in our lives. Then she drove by it more recently and the sign was up again, and she decided to call the number that was on the sign. The woman who answered the phone said that they were currently trying to sell it to someone and that it was basically not available anymore. She then drove by again and the sign was still up in the window. So, she called and that deal had fallen through and we just decided to go for it.
That is a pretty industrial room for etching next door. Did you build it yourself?
Yes. Next door is a large sandblaster – a machine that combines compressed air with sand, shoots it out of a small nozzle, and that combination of compressed air and sand is abrasive and can eat away just about anything. It could eventually eat through metal, but I use it to etch the glass. The real artwork for me is in the cutting of the stencil.
What percentage of your work would be done in the studio here versus over there in the sandblasting space?
I think more time is spent cutting the stencil here at this desk and then I move over to the sandblaster – it's not a particularly pleasant experience. You're doing something that feels a little more industrial.
How did you come to build this yourself?
I have a mentor named Peter Houk, Director of the MIT Glass Lab, and he taught me how to etch glass a long time ago when I was in high school. I observed him over the years taking spaces and filling them with the needed equipment and making the changes that needed to be made over time or as you encounter problems and react to them. He also teaches glass blowing at MIT. I saw the same process happening over there, but with glass blowing equipment.
Is your glass work commissioned more for corporate or residential installation?
I think that glass always appeals to people. It's a matter of whether they want to look at it and move on, or do they actually want it in their home and around them all the time? I think both can be true but my experience is that the sculptures I make are easier for a commercial space.
I don't know… maybe because I'm not trying to make something pretty? I think it's pretty, but for people who are drawn to glass, it's possible that they are looking for something that is beautiful and something that can bring them joy by being an attractive addition to their environment, whereas my things might border on grotesque, sometimes, or bizarre.
They have this sense of being industrial with elements of personification.
You’re right. I like to combine industrial imagery with plant and biological imagery. I love animals and I love plants, so I'm often trying to combine the two and that can be disturbing because it so often looks like one thing is taking over the other.
"We're evolving faster than Mother Nature because of machines," MIT’s Neri Oxman said in her recent interview with us. Is this where we should focus our thinking today?
I think so. I'm always concerned about the environment. For me, it's the biggest issue. I always come back to the fact that the environment is the thing that's supporting us all. If the environment fails, then it whips the rug out from under every other issue, because suddenly nothing is important if our planet can't support life. Antique gears and factories and ductwork are beautiful to me in a different way, so it's natural that I would combine things.
By combining the industrial and the natural, I think it implies that there's a conflict… and there is in our real world! Maybe that conflict is showing up more today and creates tension, which people like or don't like. Often in my work, one thing appears to take over the other, whether that's nature taking over industry – which for a lot of people brings up thoughts of something post-apocalyptic. All the time, you see plants filling in an abandoned factory and that appeals to me.
Is there a project you’re working on that you can tell us about?
I'm currently working on the thing behind you for the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC.) That is a giant plant that seems to be growing up through structure, which has some factory like elements. It’s an idea I'm working on for a window at the CIC. Tim Rowe, who founded CIC, wanted a Diego Rivera-esque mural that somehow depicts the experience of the innovator – men and women who are inventing things and coming up with ideas, and not only in a positive way. He wanted the whole set of emotions involved in that process to include people experiencing failure or looking like they're being challenged or feeling upset or being happy or experiencing success – the whole gamut. He asked me to start with drawings. This would be a six-foot window over a set of doors. You can see up there. I've superimposed something that isn't there over where the actual doors would be. That's roughly what it would look like.
Was your approach similar for Luis Perez-Brevas’ book?
Yes. Luis wanted something similar for his book Innovating – A Doer’s Manifesto. He wanted something Escher-like but also maybe a little industrial. Escher does all those cool patterns with a lot of metamorphoses happening in his drawings where something is changing from one thing to another like lizards turning into geese. He's most famous for the stairway picture with all the stairways going in different directions. There's another one where he has water flowing around the top of this structure in a little channel and it ends with a little waterfall but the water is dropping into the beginning of itself. It's sort of like how Mad Magazine used to have those impossible drawings. Escher was really into the idea of things that were evocative to your brain in that way.
What artists in your space do you admire?
I was thinking about this before our interview because I thought you might ask me about other artists, and I'm actually really terrible at names. I see artwork that I love all the time but I'm never remembering people's names but they're definitely there and often when I see artwork that is inspiring, it makes me want to go make stuff myself.
I do love Arthur Ganson. In art school I was starting to make kinetic artwork and I was really getting interested in it and then I saw a bunch of Arthur Ganson's artwork and while it was inspiring and I loved it, it also was a little discouraging because he was so good at it and he’s almost said everything that needs to be said about kinetic artwork.
Wait, didn't you tell us earlier in this interview that not everything has been said?
That's true. If you noticed in the sandblaster cabinet you photographed earlier, there were in fact a couple of glass gears that I had been cutting. I’m literally working on kinetic artwork right now. He definitely showed me the depth that you can go into a particular thing.
I always feel like I have lots of interests and to stop and go down a particular path is a great thing but then that's time that you're not doing something else. Do you then backtrack and try to get back to where you were and continue or do you continue onward from wherever that left you? It's almost frustrating the number of things that you could make.
One is constantly turning left and right away from and going down a course that ultimately has to be good because it's what you want to be doing but it leaves behind a lot of potential things that you could have made. Maybe you'll find your way back or maybe you won't. It's like being lost in a dream. You're always leaving something behind but again that can be good because that means you're moving somewhere. You're moving forward.