AN INTERVIEW WITH NIC FISCHER
Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Nic Fischer.
Landscape artist Nic Fischer has taken many journeys in his life, and his paintings offer a unique insight into what it took him to get where he is, both literally and figuratively. In his work, Nic pieces together perspective and experience to offer a viewpoint that can be only his, yet it generously invites others to step in.
A resident of Bozeman for much of his adult life, Nic spends hours of time and considerable effort finding his perfect spot to paint en plein air. He will often hike or bike to his chosen vista, usually on top of a mountain, and not just a single time. Once he finds the spot, Nic goes back over and over to study, reflect and paint.
“My general rule is that it has to take me less than three hours to get to that location,” he said. “If it’s really far away, sometimes that means I bike, and then I hike as fast as I can to get to that spot.”
But these treks are not just getting from A to B, Nic says, they are all part of the joy and part of the process. Imagine you take a two-hour hike, fully surrounded by spectacular scenery. Then imagine you do it again and again, noticing more and different things each time. Then imagine taking those images in your head and representing them on a single canvas in such a way that others can partake of it. That is Nic’s task. His motivation.
“I want the paintings to give the viewer as much a journey as the hike itself. I really believe, especially with the larger paintings, that, from a distance, it looks like a nice painting. Then as you get up closer there are all sorts of things to look at,” Nic said.
Nic learned early on that experiencing the beauty, exhilaration and even the discomfort of the outdoors was going to be important in his life and career. Nic’s father owned a computer graphics business in Middleton, Wisc., teaching computer art to kids, so by extension, Nic’s first career goals revolved around graphic art and computer animation.
“I was a big nerd about that. I spent almost my whole senior year doing one animation for the high school talent show at the end of the year. The animation was about my friends and I as garden gnomes, finding a suitcases full of money, and taking it to Las Vegas,” he said.
It was that project, though, that made Nic realize that animation, or any kind of computer-based art, was not his calling.
“That was my, ‘Okay, I don’t think I want to sit in front of a computer screen and do anything art-related ...’ I love the outdoors and I like being active,” he said.
After graduation, Nic followed up on that self-realization and headed west to work at Yellowstone National Park. For three summers, Nic worked at the Lake Hotel, and in the off seasons, he worked in Death Valley and Grand Canyon National Parks.
“Those were my ‘becoming an adult’ years ... That’s where I met all my best friends [that I still have] today and my wife,” he said. “Lake Hotel has always been a pretty major part of my life.”
After those determining years, Nic and his friends decided stay out west and moved to Bozeman. During that time, Nic did odd jobs, continued to paint, and earned some local recognition for his work as a featured artist at both Nova Café and Rockford Coffee shop. Soon after though, Nic decided he was ready take the next step toward a career in art and enrolled in Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, Georgia.
“It’s funny, the reason for choosing SCAD was that it is, and was at the time, a good school. But more importantly, I grew up in the Midwest, I had lived in California, Wyoming, Montana and Arizona. I traveled to Central America and South America and Canada and Europe, but I hadn’t been to the East or South of [the USA],” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, Savannah, it’s new.’ And so that was a major decision point for me,” he said.
Nic says his focus quickly became less about graduating and more about learning the things he wanted to learn. To that end, he worked long hours, took classes that met his own goals, and soaked up everything he could, including the words of a plein air professor whose unusual philosophy would have a profound influence on Nic’s process.
“He taught it a different way than most of the Western plein air painters paint today, where you go and you do your painting, and you’re done in two or three hours,” Nic said. “[He taught that] you go, find your spot, you draw it and you get all that correct. Then you go back again and you start painting it, and you just keep doing that until it’s done. He was pretty important, actually, in the way I think about how I do my paintings today.”
After two years at SCAD, Nic was ready to leave school and head back west, spending one last summer at Yellowstone with his friends and his girlfriend, Alison. Nic recalls that as “one of the more incredible summers I’ve ever had.” The friends routinely worked a full week at the hotel, then spent three days backpacking, and returned with just enough time to shower and start the next work week. Even still, Nic found the time to keep painting in his 10’ by 10’ employee dorm room.
That time was also special to Nic, because it was when he proposed to Alison, and afterwards, the couple traveled to her home state of Minnesota and spent a two years living in Duluth, where they were married. During that time, Alison worked as a high school Spanish teacher and Nic did odd jobs, while continuing to paint. They both knew, though, that they wanted to return to Bozeman.
While still in Duluth, Nic secured a summer job as a Recreation Survey Technician along the Missouri and Madison Rivers in Montana. So when it was time, he got in his truck and headed back out west to start a job that he found to be ideal for an aspiring artist.
“My job was to show up at a handful of recreation sites along the Madison or the Missouri Rivers, and just approach any recreators, and ask them to fill out a survey. Sometimes there would be nobody for hours, and so I could sit and draw,” he said.
It was not long, though, before Alison secured a position at Bozeman High School and moved to town as well. While staying in a friend’s basement, the couple was actively looking for a house, which they eventually found. After Nic finished his summer job, he started work as a carpenter, doing remodeling work for a local company, all while continuing to paint. During that time, Nic was invited to do a show at the Bozeman Public Library, so, he spent his time doing carpentry, making his own frames, and painting enough pieces to fill the considerable wall space in the halls of the library.
“I was doing all of that, and that was just like, ‘Man, it’s so much work to paint enough to have a body of work and to work as a carpenter. This is tricky,’” he said.
Making things a bit trickier was the birth of their first daughter, Annie. So Nic made the tough decision to leave the construction job and become a stay-at-home dad, and he has not looked back since.
“Annie and I did a lot of adventures. We would take picnics with her milk or a banana when she got a little older. When she napped I would tinker away at what I could with art. Sometimes it was drawing, but sometimes it was just trying to figure out what else is out there, as far as opportunities for an artist,” he said.
After consulting with an old colleague, Bozeman Art Museum Director, Linda Williams, Nic set his sights on landscape art, and that summer he applied for and was awarded an artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park for the following summer.
“When I applied to that, I had this lofty goal of painting from the summit of [Edwards Mountain], which is a pretty tricky mountain to summit,” he said. “The residency was for one month, and I wanted to paint as much as I could from that summit, and from the cabin that the artists gets, it is probably about a 6-hour hike.”
So, to get ready, Nic spent the summer in training. Four days a week, he hiked trails around Bozeman, not only getting in physical shape to summit the 9,076-foot Edward Mountain, but to start to work out lighting and perspective once he got there.
“For that residency, they give you a cabin on Lake McDonald, which is fantastic. Then … two different times, I packed up all my gear and hiked with a giant backpack, and then a smaller backpack attached to that backpack, all the way up to [another cabin at the] Sperry Chalet area, which is about six miles or so from the [Lake McDonald] cabin … and it was a 100-pound pack,” he said.
Five or six times that month, Nick completed the 2-hour hike from there to Mount Edwards to paint. His routine included waking up at 4 a.m., eating a hearty breakfast, hoisting his pack, and hiking to Comeau Pass, which was the only place to get water. From there he hiked to the summit, where he would paint until he took his last sip of water.
“Then I would have to pack up my stuff and then hike back down to Comeau Pass which usually took about an hour or a little less, ... Then I could pump water, drink water, and get back to my cabin around 7 p.m. Those were some pretty long days. This was my first real adventure in plein air. I’ve got to say it was life changing, because I loved that whole experience.”
At first, Nic was not thrilled with the paintings he did during the hours he spent atop Edwards Mountain. But after some fine tuning of the originals upon his return, he pasted them all together to make one large 7-foot by 4-foot painting that illustrated his own vision of the sights and the experience.
“When you spend that much time really studying a specific landscape, and you get to that location [by hiking] through that landscape, it takes on its own character in your mind,” he said. “I spent a lot of time sketching out how I was going to try and fit, basically, my hike from where I was staying at the Sperry Chalet, all the way to Comeau Pass, and up to Edwards Mountain,” he said.
Soon after came the “little hiccup” that was the global pandemic. Nic’s wife Alison had given birth to a four-pound premature baby, Mira, a few months before the pandemic, so they spent the duration in quarantine. During that time, Nic was able to complete his Glacier painting, which he sold at a show at the Emerson Center for Arts & Culture.
“Start to finish, it took me about a year and a half to actually sign my name and feel good about that painting. It’s just a slow thing. I like to breath in the painting and get a feel for it,” he said.
At the Emerson show, Nic was also able to exhibit a number of smaller paintings, which is how he got his foot in the door at Montana Trails Gallery, he said. When Nic worked at Yellowstone, several years prior, he often stopped by MTG and developed a relationship with the staff.
“When I did my Emerson show, I did let it slip that I was a painter. I had already built up a relationship, so they took me somewhat seriously, because at least they liked me as a person,” he said.
He asked gallery staff if they would come and look at his work at the Emerson show, and from there, he entered the MTG Small Works Show, in which he earned the People’s Choice Award. Nic and his two daughters continue to visit the gallery, sometimes bringing their own art work to share.
Sydney Weeks said they love it when Nic and the girls come in, and they are thrilled to include his works at the gallery.
“Nic is just a super nice guy, and his girls are adorable. We have lots of photos of them hanging around the gallery, and they have been featured on our social media once or twice,” Sydney said. “We are excited to be hosting a show for Nic in 2025, and can’t wait to see what he does next.”
While the paintings at MTG are smaller, most of the pieces in his studio are four feet or larger, and Nic says that painting those can be both exhilarating and anxiety producing.
“The first day when you’re drawing out your composition, that’s always one of the more exciting times when it feels fun. Then for me, the next 50 or 60 hours on the painting are just a lot of personal angst and struggling and fighting to get what’s in my head onto the painting,” he said.
And the challenge becomes how to fill that space and make it visually interesting, proportional and representational, so he adds details, colors and texture in order to make it not just visual but immersive.
“Right now in my studio, I have a painting that is four feet by probably four-and-a-half feet. In it, there are a few people that are the size of our pinky nail clipping. That small. From a distance, this is a painting that looks like one thing. As you get up closer, you see these people, and they are people that are doing something,” he said. “If you get close to a painting that big, it takes up your entire periphery vision. If there’s enough detail, you can look and get lost in the landscape, just as you can when you’re on top of the mountain.”
With some of his paintings, Nic has used online satellite programs to aid him in piecing them together accurately. One of those pieces is an immense painting of the Teton Crest Trail, which takes up the entirety of the largest wall in his basement.
“That was the first one where I tried to figure out how I could really describe an entire hike in a single image,” he said. “It was a two-night, three-day backpacking trip through the Teton Crest Trail, which is probably one of the cooler hikes you can do in all of America … When I got done with that, I just wanted so badly to figure out a way to paint that in one image.”
His solution was to use maps and photos on Google Earth. Nic would search the area, looking for the specific locations that he had visited, zoom out, and manipulate the perspective in order to fit it into one composition.
“It’s a lot of drawing and thinking about how this can feel like it’s realistic space, all while just flying around on Google Earth,” he said. “One way I get that across is to play with perspective a little bit to make it feel like [it does when] you're looking out, you're getting that whole -- What’s a good way to say this? I often want my paintings to surround you.”
Whether he can put it to words or not, Nic is fully capable of invoking the feeling of all-encompassing majesty through his paintings, and to him, the opportunity to do so is the greatest gift.
“My dad always said, the best thing about practicing art in any form is it allows you to see the world more beautifully, and I agree. I'm fully addicted to painting, especially the landscape. Hiking, biking, climbing or skiing to a landscape to paint is just a huge bonus, which fits my personality and puts me in the best possible mood to start ‘working’,” he said.
Though he dabbles in other subjects, Nic will continue, by any means necessary, to journey and paint landscapes as long as he is able. And he would paint on the moon if given the chance, but for now, though, he joyfully settles for living in Bozeman, drawing unicorns and making ballerina pancakes for his discerning little girls.
COPYRIGHT MONTANA TRAILS GALLERY 2023