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URMC / Eastman Institute for Oral Health / Word of Mouth / October 2014 / Residents and Rocks Motivate This Alum

Residents and Rocks Motivate This Alum

Dr. FishmanLen Fishman is kind and unassuming, and almost always is wearing a broad, contagious smile. “I love this phase of my life,” he said matter of factly. “I live simply and want for nothing.”  His life is full because it has everything he loves – his family and friends, his work as an orthodontics professor and as a professional sculptor.

“I love coming to Eastman to teach and assist residents with their research,” said Fishman, 81, who drives an hour and a half from his Skaneateles home three days a week. “I get very close to the residents and value and respect their friendship. There’s something in our department that bonds all of us together. We have very bright, highly motivated residents who love to learn. Why wouldn’t I do this? We are all so lucky!”

Fishman decided he wanted to be an orthodontist after taking a one-week course in it during his two-year service in the U.S. Army as a dentist. He spent a year in the Eastman Dental Center Pediatric Dentistry program before he was accepted into the Orthodontic program.

“While in school, my wife and I were living in an attic and I managed to do some general dentistry Friday nights and Saturdays to help pay our expenses,” he said.

When he finished the program (Pedo ’59, Ortho ’61), he and his wife Mimi decided to set up an orthodontic practice in Syracuse which would allow him to establish a cleft palate team at the Upstate Medical Center. But not knowing anybody in Syracuse, it was a challenge to start a private practice.

“I managed to borrow $3,000 from a bank and rented a very small third floor office,” Fishman recalled. “With some waiting room furniture bought at a tent sale, two beauty parlor chairs and an x-ray machine, I was in business – and I only spent half of the borrowed money!”

When he finally had three patients, Fishman scheduled them all at the same time so it looked like he was a busy orthodontist.

“I loved every day I could practice orthodontics,” Fishman said. “I couldn’t wait to get into my office.”  In 1963, Dr. Subtelny asked him to teach one day a week. “It has been 51 years of teaching and I hope I can continue for a long time,” Fishman said, who closed his private practice in 1996. “Through the years, Dr. Subtelny encouraged me and gave me the confidence to rise to the occasion and reach goals I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Equal to his love for teaching orthodontics, Fishman is passionate about sculpting stone. Throughout his childhood, he would always gravitate to making something, like model airplanes.  But the level of his talent and skill wasn’t revealed until he took a required aptitude test for dental school. “That test showed complex line drawings of three dimensional objects, and asked what it would look like if you turned it 90 degrees in different directions,” Fishman said. “They also gave me a large piece of chalk and a knife to carve what a given diagram was indicating.” Fishman performed so well on that test, the dental school insisted he be admitted right away, skipping his last two years of undergraduate study.

He and Mimi and their three children lived three blocks from Syracuse University, where he took all the evening art classes they had to offer, and sculpting stone soon became his favorite medium. That was more than 30 years ago, and he has been a professional stone sculptor ever since, acquiring additional training along the way from the Castle Hill School of Art in Truro, MA, and the Vermont Professional Sculpture Workshops.

Fishman has won many professional ribbons, has exhibited in several galleries and has sold numerous pieces. He works primarily with alabaster stone for the abstract sculptures he makes and uses marble or wood for the bases. 

“I prefer to have the stone progressively dictate the design of the final sculpture rather than having a preconceived idea of the final form before starting,” he said, explaining his creative process. “This leads to many discoveries and is a far more exciting approach. I want the stone to reveal to me the form that it wants to be. Working in this manner allows me to repeatedly modify and become more excited with the creative design.”

Fishman starts with a rock that weighs about 60 pounds imported from different countries. “I often position and reposition the rock and don’t start carving for days,” he said. “It is very important that the design comes from the rock itself rather than forcing it.”

Fishman said he prefers to work with abstract designs so he can establish a desired visual effect that also conveys appropriate feelings. “Detaching the viewer’s eye from reality often provides an opportunity to experience the visual experience on a more emotional level,” he explained.  “A finished piece is not successful unless both objectives are achieved. People will interpret a work of abstract art very differently, but it is important to the artist to feel personally attached and satisfied with the result.”

Fishman enjoys working with stone as a medium because it is inherently three-dimensional.  “Actually, there are a lot of similarities between designing a sculpture and designing an occlusion and face,” he said. “Three dimensional design is more complex and challenging to deal with as all surfaces need to integrate with each other. The eye must travel around the stone in order to produce the energy and movement required for a successful design. I very often ‘open up’ the stone by carving within and through it, thereby further enhancing and integrating the three dimensional design with both negative and positive spaces.”

One of his favorite pieces was a consignment piece to be purchased and given as a wedding present for a couple he knew quite well and knew they loved music. “The stone was quite large, and had a beautiful translucent quality about it,” Fishman described. “The sculpture represented a lot of musical energy, togetherness, and sensuality.”

No matter how tired Fishman can be, once he enters his barn studio, he is energized and usually ends up spending several hours in there. The studio is on his property in Skaneateles, where he’s lived since Mimi passed away some 15 years ago.

When he’s not sculpting or teaching, Fishman enjoys his three children. His eldest son Jon, who is the drummer for the rock band Phish, his wife Briar and their five children live in Maine; David attended art school and now runs Mimi’s Guest House in Puerto Rico, named after their mother; and Julie, who has a professional culinary school background, manages a Williams Sonoma store in the Syracuse area.

Karen Black | 10/9/2014

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