Days after the death of Vernon Fisher, a world-renowned artist based in Fort Worth, a documentary tribute to his life will debut at the Dallas International Film Festival

Dates for the April 29 premier of “Breaking the Code” in Dallas and a subsequent showing at the Thin Line Festival in Denton on April 30 were set long before the news of his death ricocheted around the art world. 

But as the news spread, so did interest in his life and legacy; an additional screening was added for 5 p.m. May 4 at the Violet Crown in Dallas.

The dean of the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas, Karen Hutzel, described Fisher’s impact in a statement to the Fort Worth Report.

“Known as one of Texas’ most significant contemporary artists, Vernon Fisher also was a dedicated art professor, mentor, and friend during his 31 years at the UNT College of Visual Arts and Design,” she wrote. “A masterfully technical painter, he was renowned for the emotional and philosophical depth of his work. He will be missed.”

If you go

5:30 p.m. April 29 at the Violet Crown in Dallas  – Sold out
1:00 p.m. April 30 at the Campus Theatre in Denton  – More info here
5:00 pm. May 4 at the Violet Crown in Dallas – More info here

Filmmaker Michael Flanagan started working on the documentary in 2019 as part of his MFA thesis at UNT, but the short film ballooned into a 47-minute feature after receiving funding in 2021.

Flanagan had kicked around a few different ideas for his thesis, but was ultimately inspired by a retrospective of the artist’s work in a show called “Words and Pictures” at UNT. 

But Flanagan nearly missed the show entirely. On the last day of the exhibition he visited the gallery only to find it closed. 

“The lights were off and I saw somebody kind of shuffling around in there. And I knocked on the door and asked if I could go in,” he said.  “They let me in and turned the lights on. They were still doing some work … I was really impressed by what I was seeing, really blown away.”

One of Fisher’s famous paintings titled “Time Falling Objects” piqued Flanagan’s interest.

The piece is made from oil on wood, but resembles chalk on a blackboard. 

“There’s always a question of the usefulness of art …  How does art help things, you know? And I think Vernon’s art does have the potential to affect people in a tangible way,” Flanagan said. “It’s abstract in a sense, but it points toward some important questions.” 

Fisher’s pieces made you think and challenged assumptions, Flanagan said.

“It’s not easy, but that’s sort of the point. Anything good isn’t easy to achieve.” Fittingly, when Fisher first heard about Flanagan’s project, he was apprehensive.

“He gave me his email address and he said to reach out to follow up with him and he would think about it,” Flanagan said. 

Flanagan said that, initially, Fisher didn’t have the time to participate, but that Flanagan was welcome to pursue the documentary without his involvement. 

“I started talking to the right people and asking the right questions. And … he started to open up and we started to communicate more often,” he said. “Unfortunately, this was all happening right at the time that COVID lockdowns were starting …  it wasn’t until over a year later … and doing interviews with more than 20 people that we finally were able to schedule an interview with Vernon in person.”

With the exception of a few minor color correction and sound mixing tweaks, Fisher was able to see one of the final drafts of the film and was moved by it, Flanagan said.

“In the film Vernon says that sometimes he thinks about his paintings as more like making a movie than making a paintinghe was especially pleased with the technical details of the cinematography and lighting, editing and narrative. Obviously that meant a great deal because he was not one to beat around the bush about how he felt.”  

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or on
Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Marcheta FornoffArts & Culture Editor

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...