The art of the catch: Creating real images of sea life

"Queen Triggerfish" is a gyotaku image of a Triggerfish Mr. Canha caught in waters around the Vineyard. — Photo courtesy of Jeff Canha

Jeff Canha simply put his skills together.

A fifth-generation Islander, Mr. Canha is a commercial fisherman and charter captain. He knows fish. And he taught automobile mechanics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School for 14 years. He’s what we call “handy” here.

The result is art. Fish art, or “gyotaku,” as Japanese fishermen called it more than 150 years ago when they began making impressions of the fish they caught, using leaves, rice paper, tree sap, and ink, literally painting the fish then wrapping it to transfer the image to the leaf or paper, producing a mirror image of the catch.

The process is the same today, though the paint and papers are more refined, artful. Mr. Canha is a quick, sure-handed man of middle height and he is delighted that these two skills have produced a third calling as an artist. He works out of his Island Fish Prints studio and home off Skiff Avenue in Vineyard Haven.

He has produced these evocative images of his catch for several years and now he’s got a boatload of stripers, bluefish, scup, triggerfish, tautog, mahi-mahi, and scallops on a variety of surfaces, hand-painted, scale by scale, to produce a nearly three-dimensional effect.

His dark eyes — gimlet eyes, they used to call them — stay on you as he moves through the process, explaining. “The Islander way has always been to fish and to do something else,” he said. “This kind of art started in Japan before the advent of cameras. It was how fishermen would record evidence of their fish catch.

Noting that artist and physician Steve London introduced gyotaku on the Island years ago, Mr. Canha said in his case the art form evolved from his taxidermy work. “I had mounted fish for my son, mounted that deer head on the wall over there,” he said. “Now I’m mounting on paper. This brings a new level of beauty. The work engages history, art, beauty, nature, and conversation. It’s still mechanical, that’s my background.

“There’s a natural order to this art,” he said, referring to the process of fishing for food and a livelihood, then creating a further use for the catch.

Mr. Canha has amassed several hundred prints of individual fish and bivalves on an assortment of textured, colored papers, and fabrics. He shows his work at Island Images on Upper Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs and will show this weekend at the Family Planning Art Show in the new Ag Hall in West Tisbury. His work is priced between $150 to $1,000 for originals, and prints ranging from under $20 to just over $500 for gallery-wrapped pieces on stretched canvas.

“My customers are anybody with a love of nature,” he said. “We are all fascinated with fish, that free movement that has attracted humans since our earliest day. There’s a feeling of a lifelike thing bought into your home.

“Gyotaku is a time-consuming form. You know, there is a purpose for every fin, like birds and planes. That fascinates us, that the all serve a purpose and those are details that need to be brought out,” he said. An average rendering takes five hours of painting detail on the mirror image of the fish, he said.

“I think stripers afford the best medium,” he continued. “Striped bass make the best impression. Their nature is as a strong, bold fish. So their features are bold and print well. You can see the relationship between the print and that bass in Middle Ground [a fishing area in Vineyard Sound].

“It’s tough to catch every detail, it really is. You never know really until you finish,” he said, noting that his motto is “making impressions one fish at a time.” “We book ’em, hook ’em, look ’em, and cook ’em,” he said with a grin.

Mr. Canha has a Hemingway-esque fantasy. “I’m ready to print a giant bluefish tuna in its entirety. The commercial fisherman is looking forward to catching a giant [six or more feet in length] and the artist intends to it bring home. The logistics are staggering. We’ll do it on the beach and we’re going to need four guys to do it,” he said.

For more information, and to view his work, visit