As a fisherman, Janet Messineo has been chasing fish for 43 years; as an instructor, she served as a shore guide and taught workshops for 10 years; as a taxidermist, she’s been stuffing and mounting fish for 30 years; as an author, she has published a bestselling book and numerous articles; as a professional speaker, she’s been talking about fishing to various organizations for 25 years. Now, in her latest venture, the longtime Vineyarder is creating fine art from fish.
“After 30 years of trying to make everything look real, I’m going the other way,” says Messineo, whose “Whimsy” series of decorative mounts is currently on display at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s lobby Art Space.
Messineo retired from the taxidermy business two years ago. The colorful examples in the show were created from fish that she had previously prepared, or from reproductions. Some of the fish are painted to recreate the actual colors, while some are decorated fancifully in stripes and patterns in a rainbow of colors. Clearly, the artist is having fun with her unique medium.
“A fluke like this is the one that got me into the Whimsy series,” says Messineo. “I think they’re beautiful, but they’re just brown. I wanted to make this one colorful.” The fluke in question is painted in a varicolored, abstract style with tiny white spots. It is an actual skin mount, as are most of the examples on display. Others in the collection are reproductions. At the opening on Feb. 8, Messineo explained the difference.
For the reproductions, she said, “You mold it from the actual fish. You do a cast and make a fiberglass reproduction.” Messineo created some of the reproductions herself. Others are fiberglass blanks that she purchased from a store on the Cape and then assembled, finished, and painted to emulate life.
The famed fisherman began her career in taxidermy when she was unable to find someone to mount a Derby-winning fish that she caught herself in 1987. A do-it-yourselfer at heart, Messineo found a taxidermy school in Pennsylvania, and studied there for more than two months. “I learned in those two months what it takes 20 years to learn,” she says.
There are a lot of stages that go into skin-mounting a fish, and a great deal of skill is involved. “The word ‘taxidermy’ is of Greek origin,” Messineo explains. Taxi means arrangement and dermie is skin. “It means you get a living thing, you take it all apart, and you put it back together to make it look alive.”
Skin mounts have to be painted to recreate the look in nature. “The color gets all washed out,” says Messineo. She uses airbrush paints made specially for taxidermy. There is a lot of artistry involved. “When you get a fish out of the water, they’re so iridescent,” she says. “You try to give them [the skin mounts] the same look.” It involves layer and layer of opaques, iridescents, and translucents to emulate the natural look.
The Playhouse exhibit includes a variety of species. Along with the fluke, there are two striped bass — one skin mount shown chasing a minnow, the other a 42-inch reproduction; an Arctic char salmon; a steelhead trout; a brown trout; two scups, and a pedestal mount of just the tails of a bluefish and a bass, embellished with transparent water splashes made from melted plastic. Some of the fish are mounted on pieces of driftwood and hung on the wall, some are simply hung from wires in a manner that makes them appear to be swimming.
Messineo is also showing examples of horseshoe crab shells that she has recently started working on. Some are painted to resemble wampum. She finds the shells on the beach and prepares them, which is a lot less work than mounting a fish. “Everything I do is so labor-intensive,” she says. “I wanted to find something to do that’s not.”
The fish mounts are all that Messineo has left from her three-decade career. “When they’re gone, they’re gone,” she says. Still it’s unlikely that the fisherman, author, and artist will stop now. She’s finding this new creative outlet very invigorating. “After years of trying to make fish realer than real, now I get to go crazy. This is fun. There’s no pressure, I can do whatever I want. I’m looking forward to getting even more creative. I don’t know what this is going to turn into.”
Messineo hosts “Fish Tales” in the Marilyn Meyerhoff Lobby at the Playhouse on Saturday, Feb. 22, at 7 pm. She’ll introduce other fishermen, including Warren Doty, Charlie Blair, Phoenix Rogers, and Nelson Sigelman, who will share their own fish tales.
Janet Messineo’s “Wildlife Art Show” will hang at the M.V. Playhouse Art Space through March 5. Messineo hosts “Fish Tales” in the Marilyn Meyerhoff Lobby at the playhouse on Saturday, Feb. 22, at 7 pm. $10 admission, cash only.