Salida Artist Ted Fish, 70, died March 10, 2017, from complications following heart surgery. Friends and family will gather for a Celebration of Life on May 6 at the Salida SteamPlant from 1-3 p.m.
Salida artist Ted Fish liked to joke that his second useless college degree was a bachelor’s in fine arts with a concentration in ceramics; his first was a bachelor’s in political science.
But Fish put both degrees to good use. Art and political science don’t typically lead to lucrative careers, but Fish undoubtedly used his art to make an impact on the art world, fellow artists and his friends.
Shortly after earning his art degree, Fish began gaining recognition in the Denver arts scene. The Edge Gallery chose Fish and five other Front Range artists for the “Emerging Artists: 2003 Edge Invitational.”
Fish was also selected for “Colorado Clay 2003,” an annual exhibit in Golden, where Fish won several awards. Denver Post Critic-at-Large Kyle MacMillan wrote that Fish’s heads were “oversized, slightly deformed and oddly alluring” and that the 20 ceramists juried into the show (from 110 applicants) were “the state’s finest artists working in some fashion with one of the oldest and most versatile media.”
Fish created most of his wide array of ceramic heads, affectionately known as “Ted’s heads,” in a primitive art style.
“Some were eerie as all get-out, like those with the hollow eyes,” laughs Salida ceramic artist Merry Cox. “I told him he should put lights inside them at Halloween.”
Cox first met Fish at Colorado Clay 2003, while both were unpacking their ceramics for the exhibit. She remembers her reaction. “I loved his heads! They’re so wild and dramatic. I love the funny ears and odd, geometric eyes — it all worked very well because it was in the form of a head.”
Geraldine Alexander, owner of Salida’s cultureclash art gallery, recruited Fish to show in her gallery several years before he and his wife, Louise, moved to Salida in 2005. Alexander remembers visiting his Denver art studio and walking into a room of 40 wild heads, all staring at her. “I thought, ‘Wow! This is so totally different from anything I have in my gallery.’
“His work is nontraditional, avant-garde and a little provocative,” Alexander said. “It makes you think and wonder.”
Heads symbolize humanity at a basic, unifying level that captured Fish’s interest. In one of his artist’s statements, Fish described his artwork this way:
“Clay creates possibilities for the artist. There is both a fluidity and strength in the material. Clay is pliable but through firing, it becomes something solid, and the ancient material connects me with humanity’s evolution. Images from 30,000 years of art in places throughout the world, such as Egypt, South America, Africa and Polynesia are connected with real life experiences. Sculpting objects in clay allows me to find in an interior space a response beyond the intellect, an emotional reaction. It is creating life out of nothing.”
And with typical Fish humor, he added, “I also paint heads on canvas with acrylic paint. My inspirations for my paintings vary from actual people to my weird imagination.”
Artist Rich Tyler said Fish’s biggest gift to the art world was his expression of humanity. “Ted took traditional materials and primitive art inspiration and made them into universal expressions of mankind.”
Fish’s interest in philosophy, psychology and art began long before he studied them in college, said artist Ben Strawn, who built many of the metal stands and frameworks to support Fish’s fragile pieces. “Ted’s works have to do with people and representations of inner psychological and emotional states. He loved discussing that with other artists and he enjoyed learning about other people.”
One way Fish interacted with other artists was inviting them to be on his KHEN radio show, “Art Talk.” Assuming the pseudonym Rico Pesco (which means “rich fish” in Italian, although he told everyone it translated to Ted Fish), Fish interviewed his guests about their artwork and techniques.
Fish’s radio show promoted artists whether they were well-known or not. “He told people there was a lot more going on in the community than just what appeared in the galleries,” Alexander said. “That maybe enlightened a whole different audience about the local arts.
“Ted was very smart,” Alexander said. “He knew a lot about art and always had interesting Facebook posts. I appreciated his posts about other artists and artwork he found interesting. He was a good man as well as an unusual artist.”
Strawn and Fish often dropped by each other’s studios for conversation and popsicles. “Ted was a caring and thoughtful friend who reveled in the technical and sublime aspects of his art and in sharing that exploration with his friends and community,” Strawn said. “That was part of his character trait. I don’t know if it was lack of ego or just being humble.”
Tyler described an art show he did with Fish and Scott Engle several years ago at the Salida SteamPlant as all fun and collaboration. “As artists, we all have egos and opinions about color or composition or whatever,” Tyler said. “But we goofed around and played around with it, and let go. It was intriguing how we worked together and just had fun. Ted had an incredible sense of humor.”
Like the artist, Fish’s artwork is also fun.
Over the past decade, Fish created multiple series of head art: White heads with bright red lips. Golden, iridescent heads with dramatic black accents. Tribal-inspired heads with shards of pottery for ears, eyes and other facial features.
He stacked heads totem-style, strung them up with wire like mobiles, created walls of masks and even made an outdoor head garden, or “bed heads,” to test the effect of weather and temperature extremes on various glazes and firings.
Fish said several years ago, “The thing that’s interesting to me is not to model it like a photo or on a computer so that it’s an exact duplicate. I like to make it up, exaggerate things. When we look at faces, the most interesting are not symmetrical. If it’s too symmetrical, it bothers you. If it’s too distorted, it bothers you. Finding a place where it looks professional and not amateurish takes years of experimentation and practice. A lot of collectors don’t understand that you have to learn the technique and put that into it. It all takes time. It can’t be perfected in a day or two.”
Fish loved to experiment with high- and low-firing glazes and clays to produce variations on color, surface texture and durability. “Ted was really good at making his surfaces interesting,” Cox said. He did it by creating smooth, matte and crackly finishes and by adding rocks, shells, stones, pottery shards and even discarded car parts as facial features and surface decorations.
In an artist’s statement, Fish described his technique:
“The work is hand-built with a modified slab coil technique generally using paper clay. Pottery shards or other items often are embedded prior to bisque firing. Low-fired glazes or slips are applied and the work is fired to cone 04. For many pieces, a third firing in a raku kiln follows, then the work is removed from the kiln and sprayed with ferric chloride. This process I call Ferriku. Other pieces are finished with acrylic paint. Some pieces are placed on a found-object metal base, marble, wood or other materials.”
Fish also liked to experiment with multiple firings to affect the surface glaze, Cox said. “He used commercial glazes, but he would step outside the box of the recommended temperature range, lower or higher, just to see what he would get. He experimented a lot.”
“Variety is what you see in a really good artist,” Alexander said. “You see them constantly creating and coming up with new ideas and testing new ideas. I think Ted hadn’t done his best work yet because he was still actively exploring.
“He wasn’t a traditionalist,” she added. “He followed his own heart and his own mind.”
Fish would probably agree. Several years ago Fish said, “When I do it, I’m in this place where I’m not thinking. I have a rough idea in mind, but the resulting image may or may not look like it. I want to be surprised in the end. If you keep getting the predictable, expected result, you might as well be in a factory. Then what’s the reason for creating anything?”