Before the war, Fisher worked largely as a painter of murals for buildings and churches in the Vancouver area, in partnership with fellow future official war artists Paul Goranson and E.J. Hughes. Upon learning the news that war had been declared in September 1939, the trio determined that their artistic skills should be put to use in some sort of official military capacity. The example of the First World War art program, the Canadian War Memorials, was their inspiration. Within two weeks of the outbreak of war, they wrote to the director of the National Gallery of Canada, H.O. McCurry, seeking employment as war artists. (1) McCurry forwarded their applications to the Department of Defence in October, but at that time the military had made no provision for employing artists. (2)
With no response forthcoming, Fisher joined the Royal Canadian Engineers in August 1940. At some point, however, his earlier correspondence appears to have come to the attention of the director of the Historical Section in Ottawa, A. Fortescue Duguid, who began to make use of Fisher and Hughes as war artists in Ottawa in the hopes that a more serious program might develop. "The employment of selected members of the Canadian Army (Active) on the pictorial recording of Canadian participation in the current war is contemplated," he wrote to McCurry in March 1941. "For some time past two artists, Sergeant E.J. Hughes and Sapper O.N. Fisher have been under instruction here with a view to testing and improving their capacity to function effectively as war artists in the field." (3) Two years later, with a war artist scheme just announced, Fisher, along with artist Jack Shadbolt, was still pleading with McCurry for a chance at recording the action. "We are both determined to make every reasonable effort to be in a position to work effectively," wrote Shadbolt on behalf of them both. (4)
Only one day after the letter had been written, on 5 February 1943, the Canadian War Artists' Control Committee in Ottawa recommended the appointment of Fisher as an official war artist. It was still not all smooth sailing. The artist was ready to go to England in September 1943 when the Canadian High Commissioner in London, Vincent Massey, wrote to McCurry that he and his advisory committee did not think Fisher was "qualified to perform the duties proposed." (5) Massey's assessment was based on reproductions of the artist's work that he had been sent. The Army's historical section in Ottawa responded that "his talents [did] deserve employment." (6) McCurry, the Chairman of the War Artists Control Committee in Ottawa, stood by the original February appointment made by his committee, and, despite Massey's reservations, Fisher set sail for England. We will probably never know whether he was aware of how close he had come to failing in his four-year goal. Suffice it to say that the energy and commitment that he had put towards becoming a war artist were now directed at producing a war record that not only told of the achievements of Canadians, but also moved his own art forwards. By the end he had reversed the negative opinions of 1943.