Fish: Catching the look and spirit

The one that didn't get away: This painting by David Witbeck was sold by the Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven. The gallery carries his similar paintings. — Photo courtesy of Shaw Cramer Gallery

Water and its resident animals have had a primal connection to humans for more than two million years, sustaining our bodies and nourishing our souls. Little wonder we have a need to represent them in art. Island artists render fish in virtually every media — painting, sculpture, and multi-media creations. Their renderings range between meticulously detailed to whimsical representational forms, working in wire, watercolors, and more arcane forms such as gyotaku, an ancient Japanese form that identifies individual fish.

Fish art is a natural for this Island’s history with fish and fishing. Collectively, the artists say they are drawn to their subjects because of beauty — the colors, form and symmetry of fish. They seek to describe the power, speed, and movement of the aquatic dancers they’ve observed with reverence.

“Sometimes when you’re fishing from a boat near the shore and the sun is low, you can see those fish right up in the waves with the sunlight going through them,” painter Anthony Benton Gude says. “It’s a fabulous sight. That image stays with me.”

Mr. Gude is one of several Island artists whose fish art is showing at Fish on the Wall, an exhibit at the Old Sculpin Gallery on Dock Street in Edgartown. The exhibit includes multi-media, sculpture, prints, watercolors, oils, acrylics, and photography.

Like Island artist Marston Clough, Mr. Gude works his fish art exclusively in watercolors. “I want to work carefully so I use watercolors for accurate details in motion,” he says. “I not only want good composition but also an accurate drawing with particular details of the species.”

He’s painted the lowly scup and the mighty blue shark — both are on display at Old Sculpin — and sees the beauty in both. “Scup have striking fluorescent color streaks, even the yellow eye of a bluefish is striking,” he says, adding, “It’s different than landscapes. When you paint a landscape, you know it’ll be there tomorrow but the fish is gone after it’s caught or released. I like to preserve the moment in that day of the life of the animal.”

Sculptor Anthony Holand devotes 25 to 30 percent of his work to fish art, on display at Turk & Holand Metal Sculpture on State Road in Vineyard Haven.

Mr. Holand works with copper in a form called repousse’ (hammer from behind) and explains that the form and detail of fish, while difficult to replicate, are perfect for his hallmark weather vanes, wall hangings, and chandeliers.

“Obviously the Island is a great fishing destination so fish are popular, but I’m a fisherman so I love working with fish,” he says.

“I work freehand, based on patterns or actual fish clients bring in to be replicated but each piece is unique,” he says. “The point of sculpture is to give the metal a life of its own and I spend a lot of time studying scales and patterns in the fish and learn to translate them so they can be seen from far away, in weather vanes, for example.” He adds, “My favorite form is schools of fish. I have a four-fish piece that literally swims in the wind. A functional weather vane with a bit of whimsy.”

A three-dimensional sculpture allows him to capture the body and the girth, “to give the piece as much life as it requires,” Mr. Holand says.

The Louisa Gould Gallery on Main Street in Vineyard Haven now shows the work of Steve London, Island artist and anesthesiologist, who works in gyotaku. It is a Japanese art form invented in the early 1800’s by Japanese fishermen to record their catch. A thin piece of handmade rice paper (unryu) is placed on the fish, which has been painted with colored inks, and delicately pressed over the entire form. Dr. London paints in the eye. “That’s the only part the ink won’t capture. When the eye is added, it animates the piece,” he explains.

“It’s not a piece of meat,” the artist says. “I stare at details and colors, particularly when a fish is freshly caught. How you see the fish is important, and it’s tactile, you work every inch in the rubbing. I know their anatomy very well.”

Dr. London says his form allows both the clinician and the artist in him to work together. “Recently I’ve been making a secondary or tertiary plate without re-inking that gives a real sense of detail. Each fish is unique,” he says, adding that Saltwater Restaurant in Vineyard Haven has fish prints as art. “Different from mine, more whimsical,” he said.

Marston Clough is a Vineyard Haven native and another artist who uses watercolors to render his paintings of fish. He does it to render color and details as carefully as possible. “Fish are so beautiful. Each has tons of tiny scales and marks. Scup show fantastic colors when they come out of the water. Black sea bass just glisten.

“Fish are maybe 10 percent of my work, but I keep coming back to them because they are beautiful,” Mr. Clough says. “How beautifully designed and efficient fish are. How quickly they disappear when you put them back. The design of a scup, for example, its dorsal fin disappears into a slot on its back. Many fish have a shimmering iridescence that doesn’t last after they are taken,” he says.

At Edgartown Scrimshaw Gallery on Main Street, owner artist Tom Demont has recreated a specialty in carving whales and dolphins. “Blue whales, three- and four-foot white whales. Recently, Lenny Reid, a versatile artist and carver in Oak Bluffs, began working with me. We’re finishing a five and one-half foot blue whale that he’s carving and I’m painting.

“All of the carvings are stylized. We don’t strive for anatomically correct rendering, its more an art form,” he says, echoing the theme that creating art based on the fish is an attempt to capture natural life in art form.

And artists who are fishermen said they frequently choose to let the big one get away. “I released the biggest bass I ever caught, had to be 50 pounds. A beautiful fish. I’ve never regretted returning it,” Mr. Gude says.