The world according to Sisko
The quirky but thought-provoking art of a Chico original
If you’ve walked past the long-empty lot at First and Main streets in Chico, you may have noticed a metal pole, about 8 inches wide and 12 feet high, at the corner where the chain-link fences that separate the lot from the sidewalk meet. Specifically, you may have noticed that perched on the top of this pole is a cartoonish figure reminiscent of a Smurf or a character out of an R. Crumb comic.
You have to look closely because at this time of year it’s obscured by the foliage of nearby trees. But if you do so, you’ll find a funny little man cut from plywood and sitting cross-legged among the tree branches as if meditating, like some comical bodhisattva or Burmese forest monk.
People familiar with the art of David Sisk will recognize it as one of his whimsical “Sisko” figures, those odd little round and nearly featureless characters that seem to pop up everywhere in his eclectic work—on billboards, T-shirts and bolo ties, on cutout wall pieces and posters, and on furniture, paintings, postcards, pins and photographic assemblages. They are Sisk’s signature image, the imaginary alter ego of Sisko the artist, and they are emblematic of what makes his otherwise politically charged and spiritually challenging art so accessible and enjoyable.
His friend and fellow artist Bruce Ertle calls it “sort of an activist guerrilla type of art, but one he makes lots of fun, which enables him to slip in his message. It’s so harmless and appealing you don’t realize you’re being told something—to stop and think and reconsider. …
“I’m not an art scholar, and there’s a lot I don’t know,” Ertle continued, “but with him I think we have an original.”
When I asked another local artist, Cynthia Schildhauer, about Sisk, her first words were: “He’s a genius.”
In 2008 Schildhauer, who is also an art therapist, partnered with Sisk and the late Janice Porter on a summer project called Shatter2Matter sponsored by the now-defunct Community Collaborative for Youth. Working with about a dozen at-risk teenagers, they disassembled, or “shattered,” old pieces of furniture and then reassembled them, with the help of Sisk’s power tools, into expressive artistic takes on the table as a metaphor for life.
Sisk, who for 25 years painted billboards for the Jay B. Stott Co., also enabled the teens to put up their own billboard, one showing a photo of the group with the statement, “Alone we can’t, together we can.” As Schildhauer put it, “The kids actually had a voice.”
Schildhauer is convinced Sisk could find an audience outside of Chico, and she has told him that he should take his art elsewhere, especially his billboard art.
“David is one of the quirkiest and most talented people I know. He’s really smart and authentic. … As an artist and fan of his, I would really like him to find an audience. Here in Chico, he’s preaching to the choir.”
On the other hand, she acknowledged, “he might not care.”
She’s right about that.
Sometimes Sisk muses about breaking out of Chico and distributing his work elsewhere and making more money, but his heart’s not in it. Like many artists, he prefers making art to selling it.
“Money is not a great motivating factor in my life,” he said during a recent interview at his cozy, art-filled, well-lived-in home in the Helltown area of Butte Creek Canyon. Although he has an elementary-school teaching credential, he’s never used it, except to substitute-teach, and in fact has never had a regular paycheck in his life. “I’ve learned to trust that I’ll make my way,” he said.
Or, as Schildhauer said, “Something in him thinks he’s got something important enough to say that he doesn’t have to have a job or a career.”
Sisk markets his art locally by transferring it to other products, such as T-shirts, postcards and posters, that he then sells, as well as by selling one-of-a-kind paintings, sculptures or art-embellished pieces of furniture such as mirrors. He also holds occasional “fun-raisers,” as he did this year on June 16.
Even though it was Father’s Day, about 150 people turned out at the Chico Women’s Club—and paid $10 to $15 each—to listen to music played by Sisk’s friends in the John Seid Trio, eat food prepared by Sisk’s wife, Beth, their daughter, Sierra, and family friends, and watch a slide presentation of some 200 of the artist’s pieces.
The show was a revelation. Everyone in the audience was aware of the inclusiveness of Sisk’s work, the many media he used, his quirky sense of humor and serious concerns about life on planet Earth. But few were aware of just how large his body of work is, how far it’s ranged, and how passionate its messages are.
David Sisk got much of his artistic talent from his father, Marcus Sisk, who loved to draw cartoon figures. Indeed, Sisk has incorporated into his own work some of the styles and images he got from his father’s sketchbooks, which date from the 1930s and ’40s.
His father died young, at just 53, after working his entire adult life for PG&E. This convinced Sisk that he “didn’t want a career that sucked the life from me. … I didn’t want to wait to make art.”
And he has no desire to leave the area where his family has lived since the 1870s and where he grew up and went to school (Chico High, Chico State), and where he and his sister, Claudia, care for their 95-year-old mother. His son Jeb’s daughter, Olive Ayres Sisk, represents the fifth generation of Sisks in Chico, and on her mother’s side is also a descendent of the late John Ayres, the longtime chairman of the Chico State Art Department after whom Ayres Hall is named. The Sisk roots go deep.
On the other hand, he would very much like to see some of his billboard art reach other cities, even if it’s only virtually. Using photos of big-city sites that he downloaded from the Internet, he’s cut in his billboard images, juxtaposing them with the hyperactive city life pictured in the photos, to create large prints that suggest what his billboards would look like in a big city.
A photograph taken in New York, for example, includes a Sisko billboard above a Red Lobster restaurant, with a blurred Yellow cab passing on the street. The billboard reiterates one of Sisk’s favorite truisms by showing a man holding a bucket of (very large) worms and claiming, “Everybody’s got their own bucket of worms.”
Sisk is fond of such homemade maxims and often builds his art around them. “Anything is possible” is another, as are “Nothing isn’t sacred” and “Judge and release.”
The last, he says, was suggested by his friend Ken Naas, a counselor in the Chico State Career Center. It’s impossible for people not to judge others, Naas once told him. The important thing is to let go of that judgment as soon as possible. To Sisk that sounded like fishing’s “catch and release,” and he adopted the maxim “Judge and release” as one of his truisms.
As this suggests, Sisk’s art is largely conceptual in nature. He’s not primarily a draftsman, nor is he a devoted painter, though he can draw and paint with sufficient technical skill to meet his needs. But most of his works, especially lately, are assemblages of images he’s gathered from near and far—including paintings, drawings and sculptures from his own earlier work—and then fed into his computer. There he rearranges them to suit his purposes, often incorporating text in the form of various maxims.
One especially intriguing piece uses what appears to be a photograph taken during one of the moon landings that shows an astronaut facing the moon’s horizon and, looming in the dark sky, the Earth floating through star-sprinkled space. To this, Sisk has cut in an image of a billboard, plunked down on the moon’s surface, showing a figure who looks much like the artist himself waving his cap, while a balloon caption reads, “I simply can’t miss the bus to the mayfly convention.”
Mayflies, of course, are winged insects that in their adult stage live less than a day, long enough only to mate. The notion of a mayfly convention is absurd, as is the presence of a billboard on the moon. At first glance the piece seems to make no sense, but it can’t be dismissed out of hand, either. It demands, as Ertle said, that the viewer stop and think and reconsider. Sisk is saying something profound here, but he wants us to figure it out—and have fun, maybe even a laugh, in the process.
If you recognize David Sisk’s work, it’s probably because you’ve seen one or more of the 40 or so art billboards he’s painted over the years.
He started working for the Jay B. Stott Co. in the mid-1970s, painting commercial billboards, but it was never comfortable for him. He’s afraid of heights, for one thing, and eventually, in 2000, he became sick from breathing paint fumes and had to quit.
Some years later, the man who bought the company from Stott, Jim Moravec, saw some of Sisk’s artwork and got the notion that his unused billboards would make a good venue for it. Sisk’s artistic billboards began appearing soon after.
At the time, Sisk was operating the now-closed Drive-by Gallery on Seventh Street between Broadway and Main. While exhibiting artwork in the gallery’s large windows, he and other artists—including, at times, his son and daughter—were using the rest of the gallery as studio space. It was hot in the summer and freezing in the winter, he said, and water dripped from the ceiling when it rained, but “it was the best studio I ever had.”
Sisk had long taken unconventional approaches to distributing his work. He cites the late New York street artist Keith Haring as a major influence, not only on his style—especially the use of simple figures rendered with assertive lines, and his ability “to take big subjects and make them easy to understand”—but also his means of reaching viewers.
Operating outside the established gallery and museum system, Haring went directly to the people. Early on, he noticed that many of the advertising panels in the city’s subway stations were going unused and were covered by black matte paper. Using white chalk, he began to create drawings on these panels throughout the subway system, producing hundreds of them between 1980 and ’85, sometimes as many as 40 in a day.
According to Haring’s website, “This seamless flow of images became familiar to New York commuters, who often would stop to engage the artist when they encountered him at work. The subway became, as Haring said, a ‘laboratory’ for working out his ideas and experimenting with his simple lines.”
Sisk’s billboards are a similar effort to take his art directly to the people. So was the Drive-by Gallery, and so was his “fun-raiser” last month. But they’re not the only ones. At various times he’s also engaged in what he calls “chimp art,” a term meant to suggest a lighter, less aggressive, form of guerrilla art than that practiced by, say, the New York-based activist group Guerrilla Girls, anonymous female artists who wear gorilla masks while protesting sexism in the art world.
The little man on the pole is an example of this “chimp art.” Sisk didn’t ask permission to put him on the pole. He just did it, on April Fool’s Day. Nobody has objected. The figure has been there for three years.
A number of years ago Sisk launched a more ambitious project. Using images from his father’s sketchbook, he made dozens of plywood figures from about four to eight feet high and, with the help of friends, distributed them in the dead of night around downtown Chico, locking them to the wrought-iron screens used to protect young sidewalk trees. The next morning hundreds of Chicoans had close encounters with a piece of Sisk family art. (City officials weren’t especially happy about the figures, however, and quickly removed them.)
By nature, Sisk says, he’s an introvert. He once described himself to a reporter as a “sociophobic exhibitionist,” a phrase that describes him fairly accurately. (In print it came out as “sociopathic exhibitionist,” to Sisk’s dismay.) He says his wife, who is a massage therapist, is the extrovert in the family, the one who really enjoys engaging with people. “She gets me out of the house,” he said. They’ve been together nearly 40 years, have hit some rough spots along the way, but now fit each other “like old shoes.”
Ertle said he thought one of the reasons Sisk’s art is so accessible is because “he’s not an egocentric guy,” and there’s a childlike quality to his work, but “David is a very sophisticated guy in his thinking. … He’s a very honest, open guy living every moment.”
Sisk is acutely aware that, as he put it, “the world is a gnarly place.” He wants to call attention to that truth, but he doesn’t want to make things worse. Why add to the suffering? he asks. “Sisko,” he said, speaking of both his alter ego and himself, the artist, “is light-hearted. He’s a respite.”