Fishwick’s lively animal portraits on display downtown
by Kendra Hartmann
Published - 12/20/13 - 03:17 PM | 3726 views | 0 0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Stephen Fishwick often portrays endangered species in his paintings.
Stephen Fishwick often portrays endangered species in his paintings.
Stephen Fishwick’s art is not something that merely hangs on a wall. It is a vital entity, the next best thing to the living, breathing body it depicts. The concept is easier to imagine when standing in front of one of his large-scale portraits featuring the gaze of an endangered animal in all its untamed intensity or a spirited rock star in the throes of a performance.

Fishwick, whose work will be on display at Alexander Salazar Fine Art through January, has plenty of experience with his subjects. Growing up on a farm in Ohio, he was exposed to a multitude of animals at an early age, and when his mother noticed his penchant for sketching and painting them from as early as age 7, she gently prodded him toward a career in art.

“Both my parents were very encouraging,” Fishwick said. “They never asked [my brothers and me] to find something to fall back on.”

Fishwick made a decision to study art, but spent just nine months at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh before deciding the school wasn’t for him. At 19, his talent for quick drawing earned him a job at an Ohio theme park doing sketches and caricatures, a job he would parlay into a decades-long career.

After 20 years spent traveling around the country, training artists at various theme parks to do quick portraits, Fishwick was hired by SeaWorld San Diego in 1994. The park brought him out west to train its artists, and pretty soon he was working with every major theme park in California, from Santa Clara to San Diego. The job, however, lost its luster when Fishwick found himself creating more managerial guidelines than artistic renderings.

“I found myself hiring and training artists to hire and train artists,” he said. “I didn’t want to turn 50 and wish I had been an artist, but was instead running a company.”

Luckily, due to the considerable downtime during the theme park off-season, Fishwick had always maintained a home studio and had constantly worked to perfect his craft. He had even begun toying with the idea of live painting, creating large-scale portraits in record time in his garage. The concept involved turning the process of filling a blank canvas into a live performance, and he even devised a musical score for each painting to add to the drama and inspiration.

Eventually, Fishwick made a promotional video of one of his first forays into live painting. The subject in the video’s painting, a Bengal tiger, caught the attention of a San Diego Zoo employee in 2007, and Fishwick was soon hired to perform his live “speed painting,” depicting endangered species and educating audiences of their plight.

“As a kid, we all knew about the [extinct] dodo bird, but that was it,” he said. “Now, it’s zebras, orangutans, pandas. It’s just shocking, astonishing that those animals could become extinct. Once I can impress an audience with the art, I have their attention and I can bring a reality to their struggles.”

Fishwick’s reputation as an artist with a soft spot for animals spread, and soon he was creating pieces to auction for the Humane Society, Wild Wonders and more. His live speed-painting performances, meanwhile, earned him the chance to travel the world, educating audiences about endangered species or merely entertaining them (he also creates paintings related to music — his other love — with renderings of musicians of all genres).

To those who marvel at his quick on-stage creations, “there’s no smoke and mirrors,” he said. A lot of practice has gone into his ability to create a painting in roughly 10 minutes in front of a rapt audience, but, Fishwick said, he believes he could “train anyone to do it.” He doesn’t plan much out in advance, either, he said, apart from the general subject matter and the soundtrack.

“Sometimes I get up there and I have little idea of what I want to paint,” he said. “I have to be in that moment to see what comes out. Sometimes, something very spontaneous happens, and it goes in a completely different direction. I really want to feel that moment, that’s where it’s fun. I’ll have a general idea, but quite often it turns out different, and that’s a good thing.”

The only criterion he demands of his work is that the finished product embody the energy and lifeblood of the model.

“I totally engulf myself with my paintings,” he said. “If I can look at the piece and hear their voice, whether it’s a tiger or a person, I feel like I’ve succeeded.”

Fishwick’s animal and pet portraits will be on display at Alexander Salazar Fine Art, located at 640 Broadway, Suite A. For more information, call (619) 531-8996 or visit
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