by Rachel Perry
photo by George Bredewater
The remarkable landscape paintings by artist Gordon Fiscus have earned him a lifetime of respect and praise. A full member of the Brown County Art Guild in the 1990s, he painted for many decades prior to moving to the county in 1985, and his work generated a following of enthusiastic collectors. Now at the age of 102, Mr. Fiscus no longer paints, but his recollection is clear and he doesn’t mind sharing a plethora of anecdotes and observances from his lengthy past.
Born April 13, 1902 in Indianapolis, Gordon Fiscus remembers William Howard Taft visiting his grandfather’s house, which served as a voting poll. Gordon attended Shortridge School and in his spare time played mandolin with Don Irwin, who played guitar. The two used to court the girls by serenading them.
In 1928 the Fiscus family moved to San Francisco, where Gordon’s sister lived. “One thing about California,” he said, “they can spot you if you’re from the East. They always used to ask where you’re from, and they’ve never heard of Indiana.” The family returned to Indianapolis after an unsuccessful job search, and Gordon’s father, George, resumed his job as a sales representative for Underwood Typewriter.
When he was younger, Gordon sometimes accompanied his father on sales trips. “One time I went with him to Sheridan,” he remembered. “There were long straw seats lined up against each side of the train car. I noticed a man had a pencil and paper. Dad said, ‘Sit still. He’s painting your picture.’ That’s the first time I knew artists still existed (not only in books). In school I went to the library and read all the detective books and heard about the history of art. It intrigued me and I got library books about Rembrandt and Vermeer. At age 16, I set up an easel near the window but I didn’t really know anything. At age 19 or 20, I took a correspondence course (in art) from Minneapolis.”
Despite the fact that Gordon Fiscus’ great-grandfather, Barton S. Hays, was a well-known early Indiana painter, his parents discouraged him from being an artist. “They thought I’d starve to death,” Gordon remarked.
Mr. Fiscus’ first art job was designing a tombstone. He earned $10. Encouraged by his lucrative new-found talent, he enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1922. “I took commercial art because Dad wanted me to be able to make a living,” Gordon smiled. He also took a few landscape classes at the Herron School of Art with Randolph Coats, who was “encouraging and helpful.”
“In 1932, I married Kay (Katherine McMillon),” Mr. Fiscus said. “I was one of ten artists doing advertising for Rhoades-Humphreys Studio, and became the Assistant Art Director. It was during the Depression and salaries were being cut and people laid off. My salary was cut and I was broke. Kay sold cosmetics at Blocks Department Store. I got a $170 loan from my life insurance policy. Kay quit her job and we loaded up a Chevy coupe to move to San Francisco (where his parents had relocated again). We found an apartment and Kay got a job. One time I used the nickel deposits from milk bottles to get the streetcar fare for Kay to get to work.
“I walked the streets for a whole year, trying to find a job. One day I was painting a blue enamel table at home when I got a phone call from a newspaper (San Francisco Call Bulletin). They wanted me to come right away (2:30 p.m.) to fill in for an advertising job. They asked me to stay after the first day and I did advertising illustrations for four major food accounts.” According to records, Gordon Fiscus’ fine arts interests were also being pursued, as he took painting classes at the San Francisco Art League and had a solo exhibition there in 1934.
Mr. Fiscus eventually left the newspaper and worked for various companies doing advertising work, but was again laid off in 1937. He and Kay moved back to Chicago, where he worked for Ford Brown & Mathews ad agency. Then his old friend Dwight Reynolds, in Indianapolis, hired him back and the Fiscuses moved to Mooresville. Gordon built a house in the woods, doing all the finish work himself, and befriended watercolor artist Paul Hadley.
“I used to come to Brown County,” he said, “in the 1930s and 40s. By the time I’d find a place to paint, the day would be about gone. I’d look and look for a place with a complete picture. There were too many trees. I didn’t know yet about painting on location, where you pick and choose elements of the landscape and don’t have to include everything.”
Mr. Fiscus bought property on Artist Drive in Nashville when in his 50s, intending to build. “Adolph Shulz had to approve all the people who bought property in Nashville (unofficially),” he remembered. “He grilled me about my finances and things that weren’t any of his business before allowing me to buy a lot.” The land was located between Adolph Shulz’s studio and V.J. Cariani’s cabin.
“I knew Leota Loop,” he continued. “Six or eight women stayed in her cabin one time and Randy Coats and I stayed at a farm house up the road. I was 5’7” and weighed 118 pounds, and the farm wife kept saving the cream from the milk because she wanted to put some weight on me.”
When he began teaching commercial art at the Herron School of Art, he sold the Mooresville house and moved to 81st Street in Indianapolis to be closer to his job. In 1964, after teaching for eighteen years, he retired and moved back to California, first living at Carmel-by-the-Sea and then moving to Palm Springs. Kay began having health problems in the mid-1970s, and they moved back to Indianapolis in 1977.
After his wife’s death in 1983, Gordon moved into an apartment. In 1985, he bought a house in Nashville and lived there with a housekeeper until her departure a few years ago. Now living with his memories and a few small landscapes, Gordon Fiscus continues to offer insights into art and life. “I don’t count time,” he declared. “When I was 50, I thought I might die any day. Now I don’t think about it.”