An Artist’s Collaborative Comes of Age

By Dr. Emily Stamey


For more than two decades now, the arts in Wichita, Kansas have been enriched by the efforts of four friends who dedicate themselves to making art and creating a rich and ever-expanding circle of artists and arts enthusiasts. Known collectively by the name of the venue they share, Fisch Haus, these four artists—Patrick Duegaw, John Ernatt, Eric Schmidt, and Kent Williams—have been catalysts for Wichita’s alternative art scene. The twenty-first anniversary of their coming together as a group serves as an apt moment to recount their story, to examine their collective and individual creative practices, and to celebrate the important contributions they have made to they city they call home.

A Tradition of Collaboration
Among the many catch-phrases of contemporary art, collaboration and community stand out. Again and again one finds artists working jointly—with one another and with practitioners in different fields—and creating projects that invite public engagement. Although now at the forefront in our discussions of current artmaking, collective projects and bringing people together are not new artistic strategies. Nonetheless, they have served different aims at different moments. Die Brücke’s collaborative in Germany at the turn of the 20th century, the abstract expressionist’s establishment of The Club at midcentury, and Colab’s artistic interventions throughout New York City in the 1980s are but three examples of a rich and evolving tradition of creativity bred in and for community. 

In 1905, four Dresden artists—Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff—banded together to live, practice their artmaking, and exhibit as a group. Calling themselves Die Brücke (The Bridge), they broke with artistic traditions by championing innovation and subjective expression. Any one of them might have found such rebellion difficult on his own, but together the artists organized seventy exhibitions in less than a decade and built a critical following of supporters. At midcentury in New York City, another group of artists pursued radically new ways of making art and again found creative fuel and philosophical conviction in concert with one another. Known as abstract expressionists, these artists—including Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko—eschewed realistic depictions in favor of abstract representations of subjective ideas and emotions. With their studios in close proximity, they formed a tightly knit community and frequently came together for meetings of what they called, simply, The Club. At these gatherings they discussed not only art but also philosophy and literature, often inviting contemporary poets and scholars to share their work. These gatherings served to inform their artistic practices, foster camaraderie, and build supportive friendships. 

Die Brücke and The Club both sought to forge distinct communities that would support and allow the practitioners to advance their creative endeavors. In the latter part of the 20thcentury, similar groups formed around slightly different aims. Still seeking a forum for exchanging ideas, these artists wanted to break from the often insular art world and advance a more expansive idea of community. One such group was Collaborative Projects, Inc. (Colab), a collective of politically engaged artists—including  Jenny Holzer,  Wichita native Tom Otterness, and Kiki Smith—that formed in 1978. The group is best remembered for a 1980 exhibition in a former New York City bus depot. Frustrated with the elitism of galleries, they moved into this unlikely venue for what one reviewer described as “a month-long party, business enterprise and loosely curated exhibition of art, film, fashion and exotica.” The show’s mission statement claimed that the show’s “essence . . . will not be found in personal idiosyncrasies . . . but in its ‘rising above the personal’ and speaking forthright, from each artist’s heart and spirit to the hearts and minds of their audience, the public-at-large.”

Four Wichita Artists Come Together
Wichita’s Fisch Haus takes part in this ongoing tradition of artistic collaboration and community engagement. Its quartet of artists has been critical to the coalescing and continued prospering of a downtown arts district in Kansas’s largest city. Although the group formed in 1990, as the artists were finishing college, they had met years prior: Duegaw, Ernatt, and Schmidt all attended Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School, and Schmidt and Williams were introduced at a scholarship reception. After high school graduation, Duegaw, Schmidt, and Williams moved to Manhattan, Kansas, where they began studies and became fast friends while taking courses in Kansas State University’s architecture department. Outside of class, the three could often be found together tackling art projects of their own invention. 

Schmidt ultimately declared a sculpture major, but Duegaw and Williams completed the architecture program, returned to Wichita, and began doing architectural work in a local firm. Within less than two years, however, they both quit to pursue paths of greater personal creative freedom. Williams began moving back and forth between Wichita and a series of California studios, where he painted steadily when not compelled to subsidize his income with coffee shop work and various small architectural projects.  Duegaw also began painting;  supporting himself in Wichita working construction jobs, as a stage hand, and selling bags that he made from salvaged rubber tires.

The two emerging artists remained in touch with Schmidt, who was completing courses at Kansas State, having switched majors from architecture to ceramics and then to sculpture. Ernatt, who had stayed in Wichita, was working in a frame shop while completing a general studies degree at Wichita State University. Although not a formal art major, Ernatt took courses in that department and was consistently painting and drawing. He reconnected with Duegaw at a Wichita party hosted by a mutual friend. He remembers the night well, saying that the two of them began a casual conversation about art that turned into an intense discussion and continued into the early hours of the morning. One could argue that this committed conversation has been ongoing ever since. Duegaw encouraged Ernatt to pursue painting and to join him, Schmidt, and Williams in frequent creative gatherings. That spring of 1990, after months of critiquing and encouraging each other in their work, the artists decided it was time to broaden the dialogue with a public exhibition. 

Collectors and gallery owners active in Wichita's art scene during that time describe the city’s art scene as having been lulled into a phase of suspended animation. Wichita State University faculty had long fueled the visual arts community and a series of galleries had fostered a following of arts enthusiasts. But in the early 1990s, there seemed to be a pause, with some galleries closed and new ones yet to take their place. Williams admits that he, Duegaw, Ernatt, and Schmidt were “just shy of a generation removed” from those at the heart of that scene and were only tenuously connected. Although Ernatt had studied with some of the WSU faculty, he was not a protégée of any single professor, and Duegaw, Schmidt, and Williams were unrecognized as artists. As Williams explained later to a local reporter, “We were unknown and untested.”

Instead of pursuing established avenues to show their work, the four spent fifty dollars to rent an abandoned warehouse space downtown for a single night. With limited funds, they cleaned out the space, hung their art, and rigged clamp lights to illuminate this makeshift gallery. They advertised their exhibition with posters plastered throughout the city. Although simple black-and-white photocopies, the fliers stood out from the others around town. Duegaw insisted on a unique size; unlike the standard 8 ½ x 11-inch sheets promoting other area events, the group’s posters were double-printed on 11 x 17-inch pages, then cut  in half to a slim 5 ½ x 17 inches. On this trim surface was the image of a fish and the enigmatic title, Heisser Fisch (Hot Fish).

The Events
That curious title originated from a local oddity: a neon sign attached to a home on North Broadway Street that read “Hot Fish.” Conspicuously out of place, it provoked idle supposition: Did the home operate a restaurant in back? Was the sign merely a quirky decoration? Where did the homeowner obtain the sign? The questions seemed endless and the abundance of possible explanations captured the artists’ imaginations. Ready to name their show Hot Fish, a friend visiting from Germany suggested they claim the phrase as their own by stating it in a different language; thus Heisser Fisch, the German translation.

Though a display of work by unknown artists in a makeshift space, Heisser Fisch attracted more than 300 visitors to its one-night showing. Encouraged by the obvious public interest, the group organized a subsequent exhibition, this time Kalt (Cold) Fisch that winter. Still without a permanent space, they staged this next show in a vacant storefront. Without expectations of selling much of their work, the four friends’ simple agenda was to present artwork to its best possible effect and invite others to enjoy. Perfecting that presentation quickly became as much of a dedicated artistic practice as creating the paintings, drawings, and sculptures; the installations became events or happenings to the same degree that they were exhibitions. Attendees at those early shows recall, decades later, the collective spectacle of Fisch openings—the carefully coordinated lighting, music, and performances, and the throngs of people who came through the doors.

Befitting the theatrical nature of their installations, the fourth exhibition, Kleiner (Small) Fisch, was staged in the Wichita Community Theater Workshop in 1991. Here the artists met one of the many individuals who has played an ongoing role in their increasingly complex productions. Local lighting designer Chris Mullen was in the theater as the four artists struggled to install borrowed clamp lights. Suggesting that they instead use the theater’s stage lights, he proceeded to show them how to deploy the specialized fixtures and then helped with the remainder of the installation. He has been a Fisch collaborator ever since and dramatic lighting remains a signature characteristic of Fisch shows. 

Also a stand-out of the early Fisch shows were the musical performances that became prominent features of the openings. Anyone who attended still remembers when Ernatt and Duegaw convinced the WSU Afro-Cuban Percussion Ensemble to parade through an opening crowd or when choreographer Eddie Martinez donned a wedding dress and mesmerized attendees with his contemporary dance. These were not traditional art openings characterized by polite chatter, dainty finger foods, and cocktail sipping. These were events that flew in the face of local expectations and drew ever-larger crowds. Five hundred attended the 1991 Kleiner Fisch show; twelve hundred crowded Still Fisch a year later. Perhaps more remarkable than the growing numbers in these audiences was their diversity. Schmidt describes it well when he says that, “these were events for which people dressed up—and some took that to mean elegant formal attire, while others took it to mean outlandish costumes.” Young and old, poor and rich, gay and straight, liberal and conservative—at any Fisch opening one could find a rich cross-section of the Wichita community, one unlikely to assemble at any other event. This overwhelming response to the artists’ adamantly wide welcome captured the attention not just of local Wichitans, but of visitors from larger cities as well. Then interim director at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, art historian Henry Adams was taken aback by the overall spectacle of a Fisch opening and the large crowd that it drew. Decades later, he recalls: “What impressed me was that Fisch Haus was a truly populist venture and seemed to be really adding life to the community.”

The Space
After having taken up single-night and weekend residences in various spaces around town, the artists spent two years renting a space on Commerce Street in Wichita’s warehouse district. Then, in 1992, they finally purchased an abandoned building down the street. Originally an agricultural storage facility, the three-story building had most recently been the US Supply Company’s industrial plumbing and heating equipment warehouse, an ironic fact in which the artists delighted—the space had neither plumbing nor heating when they moved in. Also lacking were walls: lined along its edges with pine shelving, each of the building’s floors was an expanse of open space. With little money, the artist’s became masters of inventive repurposing, scavenging materials from around the city to transform the empty building into a place where they could live and work. The main floor became a gallery and event space with a workshop behind, and the upper levels were portioned off into studios and living quarters.

Those divisions, between spaces for art and spaces for life, were minimal then and remain fluid now. Bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens merge into spaces for painting, drawing, and sculpting. Wandering through the building’s seeming labyrinth, one has a sense of being simultaneously in a wonderfully full attic and an ingeniously crafted tree house. The space inspires wonder and pulses with creative energy. Frames and bicycles, salvaged lumber and packing cartons line hallways. Artworks, both complete and in progress, and written notes crowd the walls. Books and tools overflow shelves. Troves of found treasures—old board games, globes, mannequins, chairs, marbles, and suitcases—abound. Extension cords snake from room to room, connecting lamps, computers, appliances, and dangling strings of twinkling lights. In keeping with the titles of their early shows, the artists affectionately named this home of carefully organized chaos Fisch Haus (Fish House).

The Art
Throughout the 1990s, the Fisch artists frequently collaborated on single artistic projects. In Four Seasons (1996, p.) they each completed one panel of a four-part painting. In the series The Baudelaire Stations (1996, p.), each artist picked a passage from a book of French poet, essayist, and art critic Charles Baudelaire’s selected writings and read it aloud as inspiration for a quick sketch. In other works, they would pair off to create collages and serial paintings.  Describing their early years working together, they remember many late nights of impromptu artistic assignments followed by lively discussion. Looking back, they credit their artistic growth to these charrettes. One might imagine such close collaboration would produce a distinct collective aesthetic, but the four artists have been resolute in pursuing their own subjects and styles.

Duegaw’s work has long been characterized by its literary and theatrical elements. Often accompanied by poems, his paintings present interiors that he describes as sets, objects that become props, and an ever-evolving cast of characters. Early on, a macabre quality pervaded these narratives. In Wrong Bird (1993, p.), for example, a menacing fowl—its body twisted and talons reaching behind and over its head—looms above a huddled trio of ghostly men with furrowed brows. Rendered in forceful strokes of deep reds, acrid yellows, and sickly greens, the image resonates with a decidedly sinister tone. Inspired by a nightmare, it is part of a series Duegaw executed according to an exercise he has practiced since childhood: rapidly drawing four or five simple lines, studying them for a suggested subject, then pursuing that idea via intuitive, almost automatic, painting. 

In recent years, however, Duegaw has culled protagonists from his real-world circle of family and friends and matched this veracity of subject with a strikingly realistic style. The mythological and dreamlike tenor of his earlier works has given way to an acute psychological density. In Jake with Open Scissors (or) My Mother Would Always Make Me Go To Vienna (2010, p.), for example, the artist’s friend and local Wichita DJ, Jake Euker is depicted in sharp detail, lips pursed and eyes rolled as he struggles with a ring on his little finger. Behind him, a ferris wheel rises up amidst a field of barren trees. Duegaw executes the image on a surface of jigsaw cut pieces of sheetrock. Among the lines of their edges one finds the outline of a large pair of scissors, blades opening to frame Euker’s face and the ferris wheel. This intricate layering of details suggests myriad interpretations. Although each detail does, in fact, relate to one of the artists’s favorite facts or anecdotes about his friend, they exist merely as clues for those without a personal relationship to the subject. Thus, Duegaw invites each viewer to become his or her own story teller, piecing together a narrative.

In Ernatt’s paintings, one also finds a complex figure-ground relationship. However, in these artworks the figures themselves, rather than the surface, are formed of multiple geometric segments. Ernatt balances these works’ emphasis on line with equal attention to color and paint handling; each discrete form reveals the careful layering of brush strokes and hues from which it was built. He explains that his paintings began as meditations on historic photographs of railroad workers and other laborers that he found in antique shops. Fascinated by the time it would have taken to capture such an image with early camera equipment and the preciousness of the resulting print, he accorded the picture equal time and attention by using its forms as the starting points for his paintings. In a painting such as Dam Builders (date, p.), this study results in an image of three figures and their shovels, all reduced and abstracted to relatively simple geometric shapes rendered in a monochromatic palette of browns and sepias. While this overarching cubist sensibility is now a mainstay of Ernatt’s work, he has employed different compositional strategies over time. The paintings have increasingly let loose their connection to a particular subject and become purely formal investigations. In comparison to Dam Builders, the later painting California (2009, p.) offers a cacophony of shapes and colors. Although it ultimately reveals seven overlapping figures, with radiating beams behind them and an arcing wave below, the complexity of the composition takes precedence over the individual subjects. 

Often a noticeable narrowing of focus—ever more complex or minimal, ever more painterly or linear—characterizes an artist’s stylistic trajectory, but Ernatt consistently remakes his style anew, shifting back and forth between greater and lesser distortion, more and less intense graphic delineation, and between monochromatic and polychromatic color schemes. Surveying his work, one is hard-pressed to visually order them chronologically. This perpetual exploration of the possibilities of forms, patterns, and colors keeps the artist’s work constantly fresh.  

In contrast to Ernatt’s consistent variations on a theme, Schmidt’s work has taken a multitude of trajectories in style, subject, and medium. With formal training in architecture, ceramics, and sculpture, he has also long been an informal student of physics and mathematics. If a unifying thread runs throughout his various artworks, it is perhaps the wedding of these twin scientific interests with a penchant for the uncanny.  Dream Stair (1998, p.), offers an early example of Schmidt’s mathematical acumen at work.  Constructed from the old pine shelving found throughout the Fisch Haus, the sculpture fits in a corner where it seems to join the two walls on which it is hung. Within the artwork’s shallow space, Schmidt creates a masterful illusion: what looks like a steep stairwell leading the viewer up through the corner into another space. Created according to the most rational of calculations, the piece tricks one into believing the irrational.

Schmidt has also used his skill for careful, calculated construction and imaginative invention to design and build his own musical instruments and a massive sound dish in which they can be performed to best effect. Unveiled at the 2000 exhibition Paintings and Musical Instruments, the Fisch Haus dish has become a defining feature of the gallery and event space, its massive circumference arcing around countless performers. Constantly moving between more and less purposefully functional projects—from building furniture to taking photographs, crafting bowls to painting, patenting sound amplification devices to welding abstract sculptures—Schmidt defies artistic categorization. 

Like Schmidt, Williams maintains multiple aesthetic practices. Throughout Wichita, his creative mark can be found on numerous public art projects that thoughtfully bring together sculpture, architecture, and landscape design in order to transform spaces into meaningful places. Williams’ interest in place has also long been a guiding aspect of his studio art practice. Hello My Name is Buffalo (1991, p.) offers an early manifestation of this theme. In the painting, Williams collages and blends unconventional materials onto the surface. Most immediately apparent are the colloquial stick-on nametags that read “HELLO my name is.” Less readily identifiable is the automotive tar that Williams worked into the acrylic and oil paints.  Although largely abstract, the painting reveals figurative elements. Especially strong among them is a gaping mouth full of large white teeth. Williams explains that he derived this cartoon-like form from a sports team’s stereotypical mascot of an Indian. The artist has long been a student of native cultures and their relationships to particular places. In the upper half of the painting, he describes the dominant rectangular form as a window onto the plains and the work’s title as a sarcastic acknowledgment that in this Indian’s landscape few buffalo remain. 

Williams’ deep respect for native places is further developed in the large-scale Chautauqua (2001, p.). Executed on two large panels of sheet rock, this piece comprises a vigorous topographical drawing layered with semi-abstracted figurative elements. Some—such as the animals—seem to be at play in the landscape, while others—a coffee cup filled with blue coffee—are more enigmatic. The primarily monochromatic drawing is metaphorically punctuated with small areas of color and literally marked with thousands of flathead screws that cover its surface. This large work represents forty acres of forested land that Williams and Schmidt own in Chautauqua County, Kansas. At the time of the artwork’s making, Williams was attempting to exorcise his pain at discovering that areas on the land (those spaces rendered in the drawing with red) had been abused because of nearby development projects. The massive, detailed drawing functions for the artist as both a personal tribute to a meaningful place and as a didactic tool to help explain that meaning to others.

If there is a common theme that runs throughout the four Fisch Haus artists’ work, it is this idea of function. Time and again, one finds in their work both oblique and direct references to tools and machines, to those things that help make other things. Duegaw has created an entire series of paintings depicting common implements—a rubber mallet, grass clippers, a pry bar—that he titles Wichita Tools (2007, p.). The geometric forms in Ernatt’s abstracted figures often allude to wrenches, bolts, c-clamps and other work bench items (p.). Schmidt has titled a pair of his sculptures Meditation Machines (1996, p.), and Williams has likewise titled his series of small, contemplative abstractions A Necklace of Tools (2002, p.)

It makes sense that four artists, who have continually reshaped a physical space in which to show their art, would make repeated references to tools. In addition to their laborious reconstruction of Fisch Haus, construction also plays a role in much of their artwork, as all four work frequently in three dimensions and build all of the substrates and frames for their two-dimensional work. Construction tools, for these artists, are as common as cups and spoons—they are the items of everyday life. One can also argue a more metaphorical reading of the tool imagery that surfaces in their work. The Fisch Haus artists are builders not only of things, but of ideas. They have labored to make their early vision of a venue that nurtures Wichita’s artistic community a reality.

Fisch Haus Today
The Fisch Haus community remains an energizing phenomenon in Wichita and its example has inspired a host of other galleries and arts venues to establish themselves in the city’s downtown. Once located on an abandoned row of warehouses, Fisch Haus is now the cornerstone of the city’s Commerce Street Art District. No longer a space for displaying just artworks by the founding members, Fisch Haus now regularly hosts a multidisciplinary roster of regional, national, and international artists, musicians, dancers, theater performers, and lecturers. 

While events are still frequently advertised around town with fliers, Fisch Haus now has a regular e-mailing list and website. Taking the lead in these promotional activities and managing the increasingly complex calendar of events is artist and architect Elizabeth Stevenson, now married to Duegaw. Once a camaraderie of bachelors, the founding Fisch Haus artists now each have families of their own and have taken their work down ever more individual paths. And yet, these additions and separations have done nothing to diminish the group’s cohesion. The four artists’ lives are still regularly entwined, and they are still each other’s most keen artistic critics and advocates. When asked to muse on and offer a basis for their ability to last, albeit in changing form, Schmidt answered quickly: “moderation.” At first a seemingly odd answer, the summary word proves apt. All four of the artists speak candidly about their ability to give each other space, to know when the times are to work together intensely and when the times are to take sanctuary in solitary projects. Perhaps most importantly they know how to strike the elusive balance of work and play, art and life, such that one element seems always a part of the other.