By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
Fishing is regarded as an art in the Florida Keys. Now the fish you catch there can be art as well.
Tavernier artist Lisa Lee is taking the traditional Japanese process of Gyotaku — a method of making prints off fish as an art form — to the docks in the Islamorada area so anglers can preserve their catch as a lasting memory.
Several times a week, Lisa receives a call from the captain of a fishing or spearfishing charter boat returning from a trip with a catch that a client wants printed. She hustles to the dock with paint and paper to take an impression off the fish as soon as it arrives.
Later she will embellish the image at her Gallery of the Arts studio (address and contact information below) to create a highly personalized piece of artwork with a story behind it.
“Its almost like a taxidermy mount,” she said, adding that after enhancing the image in the studio, “You have a forever memento of your catch for that day. It’s a story that lasts forever.”
Print it, then eat it
Here’s an added benefit: You can have your art and eat your fish too.
She uses non-toxic, water-based paint that rinses off easily. It’s a quick process to pull a print off a fish and within minutes it can be filleted and on its way to prepare for someone’s dinner plate.
Lisa stresses: “The only fish I do this with is something that is edible. I’m not going to take a fish for sport and do it. Every one of these fish has been somebody else’s dinner.
“As cool as a tarpon and bonefish and all that are, I would never, ever take one of those out of the water. I’m definitely a conservationist, I want people to know.”
Lisa Lee has been involved in fishing most of her life and has done acrylic paintings of game fish and ocean scenes for years. She enjoys the hands-on aspect of the Gyotaku process — translates to “fish rubbing” — which involves carefully pressing the paper against the fish to capture an accurate impression that distinguishes that particular fish.
“I want all of the little scrapes and cuts on your fish to still be there. You can see where the mutton snapper or the African pompano was shot by the speargun,” Lisa says. “It is your exact fish.”
She points to a print of a mutton snapper that “bounced off the reef, so it’s got a little scratch on it on each print. It showed up on every single one.”
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Gyotaku means ‘fish rubbing’
The process makes it easy to pull multiple prints off the same fish. Each can be embellished differently, depending on the client’s preference.
Some may like a simple black-and-white print, while others want a realistic depiction of the fish’s colors.
“One girl had no idea what a yellowtail is, but she wanted it done in orange and gold and blue. She’s like, ‘My bathroom aesthetics look like this.’ So I embellished her fish to exactly how she wanted it.
“I was having an anxiety attack looking at a navy blue and gold yellowtail, but she loved it.”
Lisa Lee charges $5 per inch when a client buys a print at the dock.
But adds, “There’s no obligation to buy it. If I print it and you don’t like it, no big deal. I’ll bring them back to the gallery, embellish them and I have inventory.”
Prices on prints displayed in the gallery range from $10 to $15 depending on the size or rarity of the fish.
For instance, yellowtails are a common catch around Islamorada, so they are $10 an inch in the gallery. African pompano are not so easy to get, so they go for $12 to $13 an inch.
Each fish a distinctive work of art
Prints are made on a specialized paper from Japan that she settled on after much trial and error. It comes in rolls 30 yards long, making it easy to accommodate fish of various sizes.
The longest fish she’s done to date was a 60-inch wahoo that was speared by a diver.
Lisa’s favorites to print are mutton snapper and lookdowns.
“I love the mutton because its scales are so intricate, really beautiful, and that teal around the mutton snapper’s eye is just … I cant get enough of that,” Lisa says.
“The lookdowns are cool because they are very flat. They’re a little bit easier to print. … I love the iridescence of them. So trying to paint them is both challenging and exciting.”
She used the print of a single lookdown to create a school of them on paper.
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Lionfish a hazard to Gyotaku artist
Most challenging was the lionfish a diver speared on a shipwreck at a depth of 140 feet. It was a painstaking task to both preserve and avoid contact with the venomous spines.
“I’m super comfortable with all the different species,” she says. “Lionfish, I have to be a little careful with. But I’ve handled every one of these species. I’m familiar with them, I’m comfortable with them.”
All or part of a fish can be printed. Lisa has done tails of swordfish, including a 420-pounder that was caught off the Dominican Republic.
A common question she gets: Does the fish print retain the fishy aroma?
“I did print a big, beautiful butterfly Koi fish (it was a pet from a friend of mine and it passed away of natural causes so he asked me if I would make a print of it for his memory, so of course I did). Koi fish are smelly. … If you get up close to the papers and sniff it there is definitely a hint of “fish tank/pond water.
“So far none of the saltwater species leave a lasting smell. Again, you can’t smell the Koi print unless your face is right on the paper.”
Visit Lisa Lee’s Gallery of the Arts at 88975 Overseas Hwy, Tavernier, FL 33070. More information at her website or call 954-261-5167.
If you’re fishing or diving in the middle Keys and catch something special and desire to capture the memory in art, Lisa Lee says, “If it’s in season and you’re going to eat it and it’s legal, call me.”