The Unvarnished Brilliance of Jonathan Fisher

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Editor’s Note: In addition to making the last edits to the book, we’re working on some final approvals from museums, the index and the cover. We hope to offer pre-publication ordering in August.

Late into the nights and early in the mornings before my class at Port Townsend School of Woodworking last week, I was working through my review of “Hands Employed Aright: The Furniture Making of Jonathan Fisher (1768-1847).” Until now, Fisher’s complete woodworking story has existed only in my mind. Because no furniture researcher has known of Fisher, the way all the tiny pieces and rabbit trails come together has never been put to paper.

I have, of course, several binders jammed with notes and papers and countless documents and images on my computer that contain all the little pieces I’ve gleaned on this journey. But it’s taken me years to put it all together into a coherent narrative. As I’ve made my way through this material, I’ve managed to clench it at the forefront of my memory but this story has been burning in me for years and so I couldn’t wait to see it in its final form.

When Kara sent me the PDF for author review, I was ecstatic. Reading the book in this final presentation (photos and all), it’s almost as if I was experiencing this story for the first time. I cannot express how delighted I am to be working with Lost Art Press on this book because there is no other publisher I would trust with this material. From the very beginning, Chris put his faith in me as a researcher and author, recommending minor editorial changes only for clarity. This freedom allowed me to dive deep in Fisher’s life and to present him in the way I think he deserves to be presented: in his unvarnished brilliance. My goal in this book was to allow Fisher’s life and work to emerge unfiltered.

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Even though I’ve known the significance of the survival of his tools, furniture, house, and journal records for a long time now, seeing it all together in the book blew me away all over again. I’ve had the same conversation time after time with furniture researchers – when I tell them Fisher’s story, they all say, “Wait. How come no one has ever heard of this before?” This is a good question. A handful of Fisher biographies have been written but because each book had a different focus, his woodworking activity appears as little more than, “Oh. And he even made his own furniture! How neat!” Yet there in the Jonathan Fisher House and Farnsworth Art Museum archives sat one of the most complete survivals of a pre-industrial cabinet and chairmaker’s story unidentified and undisturbed.

When I was in Port Townsend last week, I spent a few evenings visiting with Jim Tolpin. As I told Jim of Fisher’s story, we discussed how not only is the completeness of the artifacts important, but the fact that it documents a rural craftsman’s work makes it particularly exceptional. Most furniture research focuses on the most successful and prolific master cabinetmakers in the big cities but not just because of a lack of interest in rural work. The tragic reality is that very few rural artisans documented their work and even fewer have two centuries of descendants that carefully preserved their artifacts. Their life’s legacy has long been discarded and their stories are gone forever.

Jonathan Fisher’s story is an incredible exception to this.

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Reading through the book, I’m reminded of how spending this time with Fisher has profoundly changed me as a craftsman. Five years ago, when I began crawling under that furniture to read and understand his tool marks, my perspective on the way woodworking can shape our lives began to broaden. In Fisher, I saw a man that knew no boundaries. He made chairs, tables, chests, agricultural items, hats, picture frames, tools, paintings, and even his own wind-powered sawmill and workshop.

There are many questions about Fisher’s woodworking career I was able to resolve but many still remain. The one that nags me the most is, “What was it in Fisher that made him so boundless in his pursuits? What was it that gave him the confidence to pursue activities that were yet outside his skill set?” Throughout his whole life, Fisher continually explored new trades, in most of which he found success. Jonathan Fisher has inspired me to loosen the shackles of specialization that today’s consumer culture tries to bind us with. I do not believe we need experts to hand us pre-packaged products fit for immediate consumption because Fisher exemplifies a compelling alternative. Jonathan Fisher teaches us to boldly explore new craft vistas to build a life with our own two hands.

Joshua A. Klein, http://mortiseandtenonmag.com

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5 Responses to The Unvarnished Brilliance of Jonathan Fisher

  1. Richard Mahler says:

    When will the Jonathan Fisher story be available for purchase?

    • Kara Uhl says:

      We hope to offer pre-publication ordering in August. Good question! I’ve updated the post to reflect this.

  2. therealdanh says:

    I am looking forward to reading this book. If this book is anywhere near the quality of Mr. Klein’s amazing magazine and his videos, it will be fantastic. I’m sure Lost Art Press will come through and create another classic.

  3. Todd says:

    I enjoyed your article in issue 3 M&T magazine about him. It will be interesting to read more about his work and life.

  4. jtolpin says:

    The inspiration of the craftsman Fisher on Joshua reminds me of my own mentor–and lucky for me alive at the time–wooden boat builder Bud McInstosh. Here was a man with a degree in classic literature from Dartmouth college (who often broke into song (i.e. Homer’s Iliad in ancient Greek) whilst fitting planks to his sailing vessels) who found peace (though certainly not fortune) with the life-through-the-work-of-his-hands he had chosen. Bud was the one that admonished me to do what I loved, but to be sure to only write about what I knew.

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