On May 22, many of John Sisko's more than a thousand Facebook friends began to wish the Seattle artist, writer, teacher, and gallerist a happy birthday. They posted pictures of cakes and silly things, and good wishes.
At 1:13 pm, a handful of John's relatives, including Nancy Sisko, John's sister, posted to her brother's page an announcement that he had died.
"It is with great sadness, that on his 58th birthday, the Sisko family announces the passing of our loving son, brother, and uncle, John Sisko. He was a friend to many, and an extraordinarily gifted artist, writer, and philosopher," she wrote.
Then she added a note that she wrote was "In John's words," a note that sounded like a goodbye from the artist himself.
The note read:
I have been very blessed to have lived at this time and this place and to have had so many great friends who have been kind and generous to me. I have lived my life creatively and uniquely and on my own terms and I have been able to contribute in an artistic dialog in art, words and teaching, and that has been an honor to have a role in the great play called humanity. As Joseph Campbell said, “if you were on your bliss path, little hands will reach out and help you." And that has been abundantly true for me. There are many small and large stories that support that.
A torrent of sympathy, admiration, and sorrow began. Fellow artists, collectors, and longtime friends paid tribute to Sisko's contagious passion for art, his openness in welcoming people into his gallery, and his dedication to his own sculptural work as well as his writings in Sculpture Review magazine.
"Unbelievable news," wrote Anna Telcs, the artist and designer. "John was the most prolific mentor I had in my formative years as an artist. I send all of my heart to his family."
"I am beyond shocked to find this announcement just when I was about to post Happy Birthday wishes to my special friend John Sisko!!" wrote Susan M. Marchese. "While my thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Sisko family and I send my deepest condolences to you in this great time of loss, my own heart is broken and grieved by the news of John's passing. He was indeed a dear friend to me and to The HARC Foundation who honored him with The HARC Award in 2000 for his Sculpture, "Orion". We kept in touch through notes, emails and phone and I so appreciated his facile mind and wit and will miss him ever so much. He was indeed an extraordinarily gifted artist, writer and philosopher."
"I am deeply sorry," Jennifer Cast wrote. "We love living with his work—and loved being in his presence."
Billy Howard, formerly the director of Howard House, a terrific contemporary gallery in Pioneer Square, wrote, "So sad to learn of John's passing. He was a wonderful person in all ways."
Barbara Fugate, an artist Sisko had included in a group show of portraiture in his gallery in 2014, wrote: "Much love to John."
At a certain point in the thread, a friend posted that Sisko had taken his own life, and his sister confirmed.
"Such sad news i'm so sorry," the artist Jeffry Mitchell wrote, in an expression that sounded like his voice was breaking and tears were coming.
Sisko was raised in Montana, as he explains in this video of a proposal he made for the St. Thomas More Chapel at Yale in 2010. By the 1970s, he was in Washington, where eventually, he'd earn his bachelor's degree in philosophy at the University of Washington, and settle in Seattle.
Sisko's art was figurative. He made humans and animals. Every male figure he made, he once said, had an element of the crucifix to it. Three different university art departments couldn't satisfy him—he was, he once wrote, "disappointed by the post-sixties, 'get-loose-do-a-vibe' mindset that prevailed in each one at the time"—and he wanted a "depth of intellectual, spiritual and philosophical analysis" he'd eventually have to pursue on his own, which he continued doing until he died.
At his gallery he hosted life drawing sessions and regular conversations about art. In an email, fellow dealer John Braseth, of Woodside/Braseth Gallery, wrote to me, "He was a colleague and a very good person and a very sincere artist, and he was a great teacher and mentor to so many artists & collectors. He ran his gallery more like a salon and he often showed the art of the students he was teaching and they would sit around and discuss philosophy and literature painting sculpture mainly. He was just an all together good gentleman."
Sisko would occasionally reach out to me via letters or email, small notes about this or that related to art. They felt special. He put time into what he wrote. Even his signature was beautiful.
He was especially interested in sculpture, and in talking about things beyond what was easily visible on the surface of art, galleries, and museums.
I got an email from him after a piece I wrote called "The Lies of the Artists," in 2013. I loved the email. It read:
Nicely done article The Lies of the Artists. You took a tough topic, and presented it in a very kind, careful and complex way. I think it's really important to talk about the dark side of artists and industry if anyone is going to have a clear understanding of the artwork.
Many artists invented a persona, and then become that for better or worse, they play a character, and they say the words that character should say. Narcissists, for example, are very skilled at this, so it is very lucky that we have so many of them as practicing artists. When galleries, fans and writers engage or present that artist, they generally embrace the illusion. That is a fundamental dishonesty.
I’ve worked as an editor for Sculpture Review magazine for over 13 years. One of the interesting little lies that you touched on is the artists’ claim to be self-taught— even when they have an MFA from a prestigious university. My red pen goes through those words every time. Self-taught is code for “individual” or “gifted by god.” We all learn about images and image relationships in our culture, because we swim in them. We all stand on the shoulders of others, and others have generously shared insight and knowledge even if the artist makes something new from that knowledge, so it is just plain rude do disrespect those gifts. Almost no one can claim to be self-taught any more than the other. I have taught sculpture at the university level, yet I have never actually taken a sculpture class, and I would never call myself “self-taught.”
Honest expression is a foundational concept.
I called Francine Seders when I found out that she was writing a book, and I urged her to be tough, and talk about the darker side of the artists and their/her relationships. I fear that she is just too polite, and would consider it a betrayal rather than a kindness.
Wouldn’t it be great to know more about the personal/sexual relationships of the NW Mystics and their circle? That would include the betrayals, jealousies, slights and heartbreaks and well as the support and camaraderie. Something powerful was functioning with them, and it was not all pretty.
I wish I'd asked Sisko more about himself.
About a week ago, fellow artist Billy King visited Sisko at his gallery down on Elliott Avenue, and made a film of their conversation about Sisko's ongoing commission for the Seattle Maritime Academy.
Later, on Facebook, King was stunned—"he was showing me a series of panels he was sculpting for the maritime industry just a week ago..."
Here is King's video of that conversation.