Art from the Sea
Japanese fish printing, or gyotaku, has found a natural new home in Maine.
- By: Cynthia Anderson
Grouper, oil on Asian Paper, 21 x 19 inches, Jack Schwartz.
Jean Kigel embraces the wabi-sabi nature of her art — of finding beauty in imperfection. But she doesn’t welcome ooze. Ooze has ruined more than a few prints, and it can happen if she fails to prep every orifice of the fish beneath her hands as meticulously as a doctor attending to a surgical site. “You can’t be too careful,” Kigel says.
Hence the cotton batting packed into the twenty-four-inch pollock’s mouth, belly, gills, nostrils, and vent. Clear-eyed and shining, it lies on the business section of yesterday’s New York Times. It’s been cleaned with dish soap and alcohol. Kigel runs her fingers down the pollock’s side, touches the barbel on its chin. “I want to make sure I get this,” she says of the whisker-like structure.
The practice of gyotaku — Japanese fish printing — is as natural in Kigel’s Waldoboro kitchen as the boats that bob in the harbor just yards from the cottage itself. Indeed, there seems affinity between the vivid immediacy of Maine sea life and the traditional art form. Gyotaku now sells briskly at Kigel’s shows, and a number of Maine galleries have begun to include it in their exhibitions. The College of the Atlantic holds gyotaku in its permanent collection, and the University of Maine Museum of Art (UMMA) hosted a 2009 exhibition of fish prints and accompanying demonstrations of the technique.
“People really enjoyed it,” says UMMA director and curator George Kinghorn of the gyotaku show, which featured the work of gyotaku master Boshu Nagase. “[The pieces] were artfully done — representational in terms of the scale of the fish but expressive in their use of color. It was pretty amazing. Personally, I’d never seen anything like it.”
Gyotaku has assumed a wider cultural presence as well. Companies sell marine print clothing, and an increasing number of venues are offering gyotaku instruction. Tyler Briggs, co-owner of the Portland-based Corduroy Boutique & Gallery, is including full-scale images of gyotaku surfboards in a September pop-up show in York on surfing culture. “The pieces are great,” says Briggs. “We’re excited to take the medium and bring it to a new lifestyle.”
The pollock on Kigel’s counter came from Port Clyde Fresh Catch, where she also goes for redfish and haddock. She gets trout and an occasional sturgeon from the nearby Herring Gut Learning Center, and a variety of other species from local fishermen, including her husband Dan.
She inches the Times closer to the window over the sink, to better gauge the pollock’s hues. Pink, green, blue, gray. Then she turns to stare out the kitchen’s bay window, over the tops of evergreens. The view includes Hungry and Wharton islands as well as Dan’s moored fishing boat. This morning he hauled lobster. They eat a lot of it, with plenty left over for Kigel’s ninety-seven-year-old father, who lives nearby.
“I’m thinking purple,” Kigel eventually says, whimsy today trumping realism. She squeezes the color from a tube of block-print ink onto a butcher’s tray. With a palette knife, she mixes in dabs of white and black. The technique for coating the fish with ink looks deceptively simple. Kigel uses a sheep’s hairbrush to apply liberal amounts to its entire side. Then comes the art: extra white on its belly, bits of black, spritzes from a bottle of water to ease hard lines. Deftly, Kigel adds ink here and removes it there. She checks every fin for coverage — dorsal, pectoral, caudal, and gill, seven altogether — then leaves the fish to sit.
In a few minutes, when she presses paper around it to make a print, it can’t be too wet, and it can’t be too dry.
Her eyes, when she finally looks up, are lit behind their wire-rimmed frames.
Japanese fishermen developed gyotaku in the nineteenth century to serve as tangible evidence of their catch. The walls of Asian tackle and fish shops were once hung with black and white prints. Artists happened onto the form not long after fishermen did, beginning to refine it in colorized, detailed representations. Gyotaku is presently practiced in two ways. In the traditional, or “direct” method, paint is applied to the surface of the fish, which is then covered with fabric or paper and carefully pressed to produce an image. In the “indirect” method, fabric or paper is pasted onto the fish using rice paste or water, and the artist applies paint to the fabric or the paper rather than to the fish. In simple terms, direct is like a thumbprint, while indirect is more like a grave-rubbing.
With both approaches, media and techniques vary — ink on fabric, acrylic, or sumi-e paint, black and white, colored, background or no — as do application methods. Retired school-principal-turned-artist Jack Schwartz, who serves as president of the Nature Printing Society and whose gyotaku is part of the permanent collection of the College of the Atlantic, uses oil paint thinned with linseed oil. He then dabs the mixture onto the fish with a makeup sponge taped around a wine cork, using other sponges to blend color on the fish itself.
Schwartz discovered the form in a magazine article years ago. An avid fisherman, he decided to bring in some fish and share the technique with his school kids. Since then, he’s taken classes with other fish printers in the U.S. and in Japan. He considers his work “translations” rather than literal replicas — attempts to “transfer the beauty and drama of the fish into art.”
Kigel, already an accomplished artist who’d studied Asian brush painting in Japan, China, and the United States, first attempted gyotaku five years ago after learning about it from a friend. Initially, there were difficulties: torn fins, too-wet paper that ripped, packing that wouldn’t stay lodged. As it happened, that winter she was reading Callum Roberts’ account of the effects of overfishing, The Unnatural History of the Sea. “It really affected me,” she says. “I wanted to intensify public awareness . . . [I wanted my work] to capture dwindling species, both common and exotic.” There was also the fact that Kigel, who was raised on a Warren egg farm, grew up hearing stories of returning-to-spawn alewives that saved early settlers from starving after long, food-short winters. “I found that amazing,” she says.
Thus inspired, Kigel worked through the winter and spring. By summer she had a few prints she felt good enough about to include in a show entitled “Alewives and the Asian Aesthetic.” She’s since exhibited gyotaku at a variety of Maine galleries; characteristic of her work is a “fossilized” look that originated in small holes and depressions in the fish itself — “a happy accident” she now cultivates. Sometimes she ghost-prints or re-inks a single fish to produce an overlapping school. She still welcomes wabi-sabi: “A fold in the paper . . . a surprise blending of tones or colors, something uncentered, uncertain — something like fishing itself.”
There’s also a technical aspect to the work. Reference materials cover the kitchen table: A.J. McClane and Keith Gardner’s Game Fish of North America, an Audubon book on fish, several detailed renderings of haddock and rainbow trout, and pages of fish profiles. From a variety of printing papers, Kigel selects gold-flecked shuen for the pollock. Wetting a brush, she draws a line down the middle of a large sheet then tears it in two. Just as she’s readying to lay the paper over the fish, the front door opens. Her husband, Dan, enters with groceries and the mail. He sets a sack of potatoes by the fridge, opens it, and extracts a beer.
“Progress,” he notes, taking in the prepped fish and a print drying on the floor that Kigel did earlier.
Kigel smiles. “Getting there,” she says. She has an upstairs studio, but gyotaku commandeers the kitchen because it can be messy. Dan watches as she begins to press the shuen onto the fish, applying careful pressure to capture every feature. “Like magic,” she says of the process. She checks for slime — none, thankfully — then spreads out a fin that is slightly collapsed.
When the paper is completely fitted around the outer half of the fish (the other side is left un-inked), Kigel starts to peel back the shuen. Here is where disasters are most apt to occur: a major smear, for instance, or a puncture. This time, in spite of her care, the paper tears slightly at the pollock’s mouth. But it’s a small error, one that likely won’t be noticeable when Kigel wet-mounts the piece onto heavier stock. Later she will paint a background for the fish, add an eye and other details. She’ll conclude by signing her name vertically and including her Asian chop in red cinnabar. But for now the piece is finished — not her best, but far from the worst.
The sun has dropped, the wind died. The evening will be fair. But Kigel is not thinking about the weather, nor is she paying much heed to what might be an osprey, or possibly an eagle, wheeling over the water. Her gaze is outward, but her focus is inward, she’ll tell you, on the whole haddock and the trout stored in her refrigerator, on tomorrow’s gyotaku and its possibilities.
- By: Cynthia Anderson