Upon entering Stephen Fisher’s North Baltimore home, it is immediately apparent that a collector lives within. Nineteenth-century European paintings line the walls, salon style, first floor to third. Japanese cloisonné vases, singularly and in artistic groupings, pop up by the front door, in the den— and one with a crab motif sits by the kitchen sink, near the jar of silver polish and box of baking soda Fisher is using to clean each of the 130 objects to be displayed as part of the show “Japanese Cloisonné Enamels from the Stephen W. Fisher Collection” at The Walters Art Museum.
Finally reaching Fisher’s living room at the back of the house, one is surrounded by Japanese cloisonné, all of it produced from 1880 to 1915, during the late Meiji period, when Japan was attempting to advance economically and become a world power. Cloisonné boxes, jars, vases, bowls and trays fill lighted cabinets, perch on shelves, sit on a long table atop a gold obi, a kimono sash normally worn around a Japanese woman’s waist.
Begun in 1970 with one Chinese cloisonné toothpick holder purchased for $5 at a Bolton Hill yard sale, Fishers’ collection has grown in quantity and quality. When the 130 pieces leave his home for the museum, another 70 from storage will immediately take their place.
“I believe in ‘slow and steady wins the race,’” says the 60-something retired Baltimore County public school teacher, counselor and principal who is currently an interior designer. Over the course of 40 years, through patient waiting, inquiring, searching, saving, selling family silver, borrowing money, swapping and persistence, Fisher has amassed a collection that is considered by The Walters to be one of the finest in the world. His collecting has led him to Paris, Amsterdam, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Japan. Many pieces were purchased in London. “Think about it,” says the consummate teacher. “Everything went through London.”
Three of his favorite pieces in the Walters exhibition are an Ando gold wire fish vase that appears on the cover of the catalog, another vase by Ando depicting a mountain scene and a deep blue gull vase that was the centerpiece of the first Walters show of his collection in 1989. Fisher purchased that gull vase by Namikawa Yasuyuki, along with three other outstanding pieces, on Madison Avenue in the late ’70s. Those pieces moved his collection to a new level. “I was ready to mortgage the house,” he remembers. “I knew I had to do something, so I sold 40 [objects] to buy my first four major pieces.”
Fisher’s love of art began as a child in New York, where he grew up near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, frequented the Cloisters and had private art lessons beginning at age 10. As a student at Haverford College outside of Philadelphia, he was a history major and often visited the famous Barnes Collection nearby. After college he lived in Europe for several years, studying the works of Austrian painters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
Upon returning to the States, Fisher moved to Washington, D.C., and began a career as a teacher. It was the Vietnam era, and he felt that the future of America depended on quality public education. That is one reason he’s happy his collection is on display at The Walters, which offers educational programs for children. “I’ve always thought that collecting art is about sharing and teaching others about what you value,” he says.
Like any collector driven by passion, a major museum exhibition isn’t stopping Fisher’s momentum to acquire more. Just two months before the Walters show, he purchased a major piece, a large 1900 vase by Namikawa Sosuke depicting a raven in a maple tree. “The raven has special meaning; I’m a Baltimorean by transplant… and that raven has attitude. This piece is first-rate in every way,” he says, pointing to the beak, the detail of the shadows in the enamel and the work’s seeming simplicity, always a hallmark of great art. “People could collect their entire lives and be satisfied with just this.”
“Japanese Cloisonné Enamels from the Stephen W. Fisher Collection” runs Feb. 14 to June 13 at The Walters Art Museum. 410-547-9000, http://www.thewalters.org