MONSTER MAKER

Artist David Fisher has put the pieces together, one body part at a time

  • The well-kept exterior of David Fisher’s Inglewood home reveals nothing of the horrors inside. As soon as the door opens, “there be monsters.” The skin-crawling depravity of Max Schreck’s Nosferatu; Boris Karloff ’s homicidal, pathetic Frankenstein’s Monster; Lon Chaney Jr.’s desperate and tortured Wolf Man — recreations of these visages are poised inside to welcome brave or foolhardy visitors.
         Descending into Fisher’s basement office/workshop, the carnival of creatures really begins. Floor-to-ceiling shelves line the walls, upon them is a mad parade of monsters, aliens, mutants, super-heroes and warrior women — all given their semblance of life by the hands of a rather ordinary looking, middle-aged artist with a disarming grin and a boyish enthusiasm for his work.
         Settling into his office chair, Fisher shows off some of his current projects — Bela Lugosi as the nefarious Count Dracula, his expressive fingers thrust forward in a hypnotic gesture; comedic actor Fred Gwynne as the jovial but towering Herman Munster; and the voluptuous Julie Newmar as Catwoman (a role that hot-wired the early onset of puberty in many boys of the late 1960s). All three, like their companions around the room, are recreated in plastic and endowed with a startling replication of life through Fisher’s painting.
         Monster Model Maker is a job description that Nashville native David Fisher never expected to have and never deliberately sought. How he acquired this rather unusual profession is a classic tale of following your passions to unforeseen destinations. “I’m the poster boy for weird turns in a career,” he says. “I talk to art students sometimes, and I always tell them to never turn down an opportunity to do something different, because you never know what you’re going to do down the road.”

    Born in 1959, Fisher grew up in Madison, Tenn., the embodiment of middle-class, American suburbia in the 1960s. But Fisher found his childhood inspiration in the flickering, gothic images of creatures damned by humanity. It all began with a family vacation to Florida to visit relatives just weeks before his fifth birthday.
         “My cousin, Jo Beth, who was about three years older than me, had a shelf full of monster models,” Fisher says. “I was just stunned. It was like, ‘How do you sleep in here?’ A question I would hear a lot, later in life. I hadn’t been aware of monsters other than knowing I was afraid of them. I have a few fleeting memories of seeing horror movies on TV and being scared to the point that I’d either leave the room or run up to the TV and try to turn it off before I saw too much.”
         Spotting a potential convert, Fisher’s cousin set about schooling him in the rudiments of monster appreciation. “She had the Monster Old Maid cards with pictures of all the monsters. She showed each one to me and explained who they were. Later, we went to a drugstore and I bought a Dracula model. I was still a little scared, and he looked ‘safer,’ more like an ordinary man. We sat at her table and built monster models. When I came back home, I had to have more. I found my first Famous Monsters magazine in a drugstore about that time, and I was hooked — much to my mother’s chagrin.”
         What Fisher didn’t realize at the time was that his cousin had plugged him directly into the “monster craze” of the 1960s. Sparked by the syndication of classic horror films on local television stations, kids all over America went “monster crazy.” The fad inspired TV shows like The Munsters and The Addams Family, novelty songs like Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “The Monster Mash,” magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and a line of incredibly popular monster model kits produced by the Aurora Plastics Corporation starting in 1961. It was the first mass-market acceptance of a facet of what would later be referred to as “geek culture.” For die-hard “monster kids” like Fisher, it was a way of life.
         “I would get the TV Guide and map out the whole week,” Fisher says. “I would beg my parents to let me stay up late if a certain horror movie was on. Dad didn’t care one way or the other, but Mom didn’t like the monster stuff, like most mothers back then. One time I wanted a Spirograph, and she made this deal with me. At that time I had about four or five monster models and magazines, and she said she’d buy me the Spirograph if I got rid of them. I wanted it so bad that I agreed, and let her throw the models and magazines away. Then I immediately bought the models again and kept buying the magazines.”
         Growing up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Fisher found many kids that shared his passion. “I had friends in school that liked the same stuff,” he says. “We grew up in an era where a lot of toys were interactive — thing makers, wood-burning sets, leather crafting, model kits. Everybody built stuff — boys especially. It was just what you did. We’d sit out in the garage and build model kits.”
         Although the creeps and ghouls that Fisher was constructing in his parents’ garage didn’t thrill his mother, she was able to see past the subject matter and appreciate the artistic skills he was developing. “My parents knew I had artistic leanings, and they cultivated that in me. Our family had a lot of artistic people in it. My uncle, Ernest Sharpe, had an ad agency here in town, and he was a painter and did a lot of really amazing artwork. Family get-togethers were almost like mini-art shows. People always brought something they were working on.”
         Eventually though, Fisher’s passion for monsters was pushed aside by other interests. “Not that I didn’t love horror movies anymore,” he says, “but I got to that 13-14 range where suddenly girls and rock music were more interesting to me than monsters. I also found it was easier to impress girls with artwork or music. I was still known as a ‘monster guy’ because of my past history, and I still had a lot of the models and magazines, but I eventually decided to toss them.” It was then that the monsters’ greatest enemy turned out to be their best friend, says Fisher. “My mom said, ‘You should save those for your kids one day.’ So I put them in cardboard ‘graves’ and buried them in the attic.”

    After high school, Fisher attended the Memphis Academy of Art, majoring in illustration and graphic design. It was there that he met his wife, Cindy, who was majoring in photography. Upon graduating, the couple spent a frustrating year in New York City pursuing their careers before moving back to Nashville. Although illustration was his first choice, he found work in advertising as a graphic designer and in 1984 co-founded the Image 3 advertising agency with two partners. The fledging agency was successful, quickly securing several major health care providers as clients. But after six years at the helm, he’d had enough.
         “I personally hated running an agency,” Fisher says. “I loved the design work, but I hated wrangling employees and the other duties. I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, and it took its toll on me. I reached a point where I had to quit.” Selling out to his two partners, Fisher worked as a freelance graphic designer for other agencies or directly with clients. In the meantime, he had also become reacquainted with some old friends.
         “I never quit liking the monster stuff,” Fisher says. “I’d still read books and go to horror movies. Then Cindy and I started collecting old toys and movie posters. We’d built a small collection, and one day I remembered all those old models in my mom’s attic. The heat had made them fall apart, and they had all been painted by a small child and they looked it, so I started restoring them. Whenever I had time I would strip them down, repaint them and add them to the collection. I was using a lot of the illustrative skills I had learned in art school to paint these model kits, so I was painting them in a whole different way than before.”

    Fisher wasn’t the only one rediscovering the allure of plastic monsters, he says. “Somewhere around 1987 or 1988 I saw a magazine ad for some new, vinyl-based kits that were being released by a Japanese company. I got really excited; someone was making monster models again! I showed it to Cindy just in passing, and she ordered them and gave them to me for Christmas. I painted them and stuck them in the collection. Then one day I was on Elliston Place at Mosko’s newsstand, and I found a magazine called Model and Toy Collector. I picked it up and freaked out. There was a whole world I didn’t know about.”
         The world that Fisher discovered was a grass-roots revival of monster movie-inspired figure modeling. Imported model kits from Japan had sparked many artistically inclined, entrepreneurial, former “monster kids” to create their own. These “garage kits” were sometimes officially licensed, though most often not, and were cast in polyurethane resin instead of the more costly injection-molded plastic traditionally used for model kits. Manufactured in small numbers in a garage or basement workshop, it was a way of producing models that appealed to a small number of hobbyists. “I ordered a couple of garage kits,” Fisher says. “I think (monster movie actor and pro wrestler) Tor Johnson and (horror movie hostess) Elvira were the first ones. I got into building models again just as a way to unwind from the advertising world.”
         The next step into this new world came when Fisher attended his first modeling convention, WonderFest, in Louisville, Ky., in 1991. “I went up there to check it out, and discovered they had a model-building contest,” he says. “The next year we went again, and I took four or five kits and entered them in the contest. I didn’t think I’d win anything; I just wanted to show my work. At the awards, they called my name for third place and I was shocked. I went up there to receive the award and the guy said you may as well stay, because you’ve also won second and first.”
         Fisher also made an important connection when he met Terry Webb, the editor of Model and Toy Collector, who asked him to write a how-to column for the magazine. “That one show changed my life,” Fisher says. “I went up there one guy and came back another. Every issue I would do a step-by-step article on building and painting a kit. No one had really done that before. Being an illustrator, I was using paints and techniques that people had never thought to use on model kits. The sculptures had come a long way since our childhood. They were so realistic you wanted the paintjob to be realistic too.”
         Over the next two years, Fisher found a new life as he began attending a growing number of model shows around the country and was even invited to attend the world’s largest model show, held in Tokyo. He also partnered with the Nashville-based video production company Small Wonder Studio to spin his how-to “ModelMania” column into a series of instructional videotapes (and later DVDs). “My thoughts were if people learn the techniques for painting they’re going to enjoy it more, feel better about their work and do more. If you get frustrated you’re going to throw your tools down and never build another kit. The thought was that if I could teach guys, it’s making money for me, but more importantly, it’s building the hobby. Many of the model companies bought my DVDs in bulk and sold them along with the kits. It was a good way to help them sell models.”

    Another major transition came in 1994, when Model and Toy Collector was sold and the new owner decided to concentrate solely on toy collecting. Fisher and editor Terry Webb launched their own magazine, Amazing Figure Modeler. Nine years and 56 issues later, the magazine is still going strong with a worldwide circulation that regularly tops 15,000 copies per issue.
         “Terry deals with writers, advertisers and printers,” Fisher says. “I write a couple of articles per issue and handle all the layout and design. We feature how-to articles on specific kits, reviews and features on companies or sculptors. We sometimes run interviews with famous collectors who are into the hobby like Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Nivek Orge of Skinny Puppy, Glen Danzig, film directors like Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead) or John Landis (American Werewolf in London) and special- effects artists like Rick Baker.”
         “I never planned to quit my day job, so to speak,” Fisher says, “but at the same time I was really tiring of the rat race of freelance graphic design work. I was doing a lot of music industry stuff at that point, T-shirt design for artists — Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Diamond Rio. I wasn’t really enjoying it that much, it was just work. Eventually it got to a point where the magazine started taking precedence, and I started letting clients go. I made the transition around 1996, but I still do a little graphic design work for a handful of old clients.”
         As the modeling hobby expanded and some model companies outgrew their garages, Fisher found his painting skills in greater demand. “A lot of the model companies liked what I was doing paint-wise so they hired me to paint their prototypes,” he says. “Eventually that grew into creating paint master prototypes for professionally produced pre-painted character statues, and I do a lot of package design for model and action figure companies. I like to say that the hobby came along and saved me from graphic design and eventually graphic design came along and saved me from the hobby a little bit. It’s come full circle.”
         With the current popularity of horror, sci-fi and fantasy films and television programs and the explosion of related merchandise, it’s natural to ask, what is the appeal of modeling now? “If you’re just a collector you’re not going to care about model kits, other than you might covet what you see,” Fisher says. “When I was a kid we didn’t have a lot of pre-packaged, look-at-me, sit-it-on-a-shelf kind of toys. That’s changed over the years. You have the nostalgia factor for people our age, but for younger people, unless they’re artistically inclined and crave to do it, they usually don’t. Most people are happy to pick up an Iron Man toy and stick it on the shelf over their computer or whatever. But you lose that ‘I did that’ moment, that satisfaction of creating it yourself.”

    Fisher and his wife have applied that same DIY ethic to their cozy Inglewood home, a small, mid-century house that they’ve totally transformed over the 27 years they lived on the East Side. From many art deco touches, a perpetual Halloween-inspired décor and even the custom light fixtures that Fisher assembles from old industrial parts that invoke the feel of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab equipment, they made the choice many years ago to go for quality and quirkiness in style over others’ ideas of prestige.
         “When we moved here we were struggling artists,” Fisher says. “We bought what we could afford. People actually did that at one time. I liked the neighborhood, and it was nice over here. We didn’t have children, and there was no logical reason to move. Since I was self-employed I wanted to live within my means. As we stayed longer, suddenly the neighborhood became hip. Never in a million years did I think I’d be able to walk to a sushi bar from my house. I love it.
         “I’m proud to say we stayed here, and I’d probably live nowhere else in Nashville. It’s really an interesting time in this area. Growing up in Madison, you didn’t give Inglewood a second thought. It was just a place to zip through as fast as possible on your way downtown. It’s just the opposite now. I feel lucky, like we got in on the ground floor of something big.”
         Down in his basement office and workshop, Fisher shows off more of his latest work and reflects on the strange journey it’s been from his cousin’s bedroom on a summer’s day in 1964 to today. “I pinch myself at times,” he says. “I’m doing paint-ups of Herman Munster and designing the box for him. I’m making the kind of stuff I would have been buying as a kid. I was a huge Elvira fan back in the 1980s and now here I am painting a statue of her, designing the box art and talking to her on the phone. How did this happen? It’s mind-blowing.
         “I can’t say that if I had planned it, it would have worked. It’s almost like blind luck, or whatever you want to call it. I won’t call it destiny. I’m not that dramatic, but it’s strange how my career has taken all these curves. It’s taken this course where as an adult I’m dealing with the same things I loved as a child.”

    To find out more about Amazing Figure Modeler and see more of David Fisher’s work, visit www.amazingmodeler.com