Artist Ralph Frisina can wax poetic about something as pedestrian as a rusty old boat engine or a battle-scarred fishing lure. Of the latter he says, “It’s always been my viewpoint that lures were made to attract fishermen as well as fish. There’s this ingenuity that goes into designing them. There’s an art form not only to the engineering aspect, but to the simple aesthetics.”
Frisina, a lifelong fisherman and accomplished artist, has shown his reverence for the tools of the trade by creating a series of paintings of outboard motors, fishing lures, and propellers, staged in a studio against simple backdrops, professionally lit, and rendered in larger-than-life (sometimes monumental) proportions.
A number of these “portraits,” as the artist refers to them as, are currently hanging at the Louisa Gould Gallery in Vineyard Haven. The lure paintings are almost photorealistic in nature, with the shadows cast against the background adding to the three-dimensionality of the images. The 49- by 30-inch dimensions amplify all of the various hardware, hand-painted colors, realistic-looking eyes, and the grain of the wood, along with signs of the wear and tear that make these vintage lures so unique.
“They tell stories when you look at them,” says Frisina. “They have wonderful character to them. You can see that over the years, somebody has cast them over and over again.”
The artist notes that vintage lures are highly desirable finds these days. He calls them “an art form in themselves,” but, he notes, most collectors are looking for pieces in pristine condition. Not Frisina. “I want to see the teeth marks from the bluefish, the splintering and dents,” he says.
Similarly, Frisina looks for the stories behind the machinery when seeking out old outboard motors.
He talks enthusiastically about one of his favorite paintings, titled “Champion of Wellfleet.”
“I was really excited about this thing,” he says. “It’s really old. Someone had used electrical tape and shoelaces to keep it alive. I like the challenges of the textures — chrome and rust and aluminum. How do you evoke this image that’s been going for years and years and years?”
That painting won “Best of Show” at the Berkshire Museum, and earned him a solo show there. The original has since been sold, but high-quality prints are on offer at the Louisa Gould Gallery.
Another image, “Waterwitch,” is based on a motor whose aesthetic attraction and engineering virtuosity have earned a 1932 model a place in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rendered against a black background, the elaborate motor has a steampunk appeal, with its various mechanisms illustrating a feat of antique engineering. Frisina notes that a collector who saw the image displayed contacted the artist with a covetous request to purchase the motor. Frisina happily obliged, selling his model at the modest price he had picked it up for at a flea market.
Frisina scours junk shops and shipyards in search of interesting artifacts. He notes that old outboard motors are much in demand these days, but that it is very hard to get to them before somebody has restored them and glossed them up.
Frisina started out his career as an illustrator. He earned a degree in visual communication from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and studied under famed graphic designer Milton Glaser at the School of Visual Arts in New York City before founding a boutique design firm in the Berkshires, where he still lives and works. Now retired from design work, Frisina has earned a reputation as a fine artist, and has won numerous regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times and USA Today, among other publications.
Frisina describes his work as abstract realism. “The abstraction is in the size of the lures,” he says. “All of it is part of the fun. If you can take them to the abstract and capture the character that they have, you get something more than just an interesting image.”
An avid fisherman, Frisina visits the Island often, and loves trawling the Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds in search of native fish — a big departure from the freshwater fishing he was previously limited to. He explains the appeal of ocean fishing, saying, “Once you are out on the Vineyard and you’re catching false albies or bonitos, to say nothing of a tuna, it’s hard to get excited by a trout.”
The awardwinning artist and fisherman likes to quote Scottish novelist John Buchan to illustrate the lure of his chosen sport: “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.”
Frisina has managed to combine two of his passions by transforming what many might think of as the unremarkable into something truly fascinating, and rich in narrative: “I think the challenge is to take something that inspires you and really put your heart into it.”
Louisa Gould Gallery, 54 Main St., Vineyard Haven. Open daily 11 am to 5 pm. 917-327-9229. On Friday, Oct. 6, featured artist Donna Blackburn will be on hand during Vineyard Haven’s First Friday event from 4 to 7 pm. Blackburn, a retired Edgartown library children’s librarian, paints charming small Vineyard landscapes, Edgartown street scenes, and floral still lifes.