Gyotaku is the Japanese art of fish printing. Gyo in Japanese means “fish” and taku means “rubbing.” Originally used by fisherman to record their catches using black ink, gyotaku has become an art form all its own.
Lauren’s husband Tucker owns and runs Emerald Shoals Excursions, a professional in-shore charter fishing business out of Carrabelle, Florida. Faced with a glut of caught fish, the two sought out ways to avoid wasting their precious bounty. A family friend, Fred Fisher, also creates beautiful gyotaku fish prints and was Lauren’s first introduction to the art form. Formally trained in art, printing, and book binding at Bradley University, Lauren was immediately intrigued and set about teaching herself the art of gyotaku.
After a great deal of trial and error, and even some trials and tribulations, Lauren has gotten her technique down. Her first “exhibit” was at Tamara’s Cafe in Apalachicola where she worked at the time. Her boss allowed her to hang some of her prints for sale in the building. After a tropical storm, though, she learned the hard way that she should place her prints on the interior walls, as tropical storm-force winds force rain through centuries-old brick walls. She changed her backing and framing process to suit the Florida elements and took it in stride. These days, Lauren is confident in her fish printing abilities and her ability to roll with the punches, too. With a life (or two or three) dependent on the sea, that’s not just an admirable quality, it’s a necessary personality trait.
After the BP Oil Spill in 2010, things were difficult on the Gulf Coast. Not an oil slick to be seen in Carrabelle, and nary a tourist, either. The fishing industry (along with many others on our coast) withered, and Tucker and Lauren spent much of their time searching for oil for BP. Thankfully, the fishing is still just fine and the people are beginning to realize it and return, which is good news for everyone here.
All the while, Lauren has been perfecting her gyotaku fish prints. They’re a perfect ode to the ocean and its inhabitants, and you don’t have to be on the coast to enjoy them.
THE PRINTING PROCESS
Lauren was going to demonstrate the gyotaku process on a Flounder she caught, but due to the amount of time it would have taken, as well as the Flounder’s high level of eat-ability, Lauren demonstrated on a beautiful Gulf Shrimp instead.
Lauren washes each sea creature or fish with a mild dish soap. After drying the creature as thoroughly as possible, she fills in spaces and gaps with cotton to absorb any remaining moisture.
Once as dry as possible, Lauren begins to paint. In what is the best use of a phone book I’ve ever seen, Lauren uses a palette knife to mix her paints with a slow-drying medium. The slow-dry medium affords her double the precious time to work on each fish.
After her fish is dry and her paint is mixed, Lauren begins the artistic part of the process and paints the creature. This is where her artistic license, as well as bringing color and life and personality to each print, comes in.
Avoiding the eyes (she paints those directly on the canvas last), Lauren paints only one side of each fish. When she encounters a critter with as many legs as a shrimp, she has to get creative. Hence, another use for a phone book cover.
Once painted, Lauren carefully places a square of cotton canvas over the painted creature, pressing firmly and carefully all around. The slightest over-squeeze can create smudging or “squishing” – i.e. water from some unknown crevice in the critter ruining her carefully applied paint.
Once satisfied, Lauren slowly peels the canvas up to reveal her first print.
After some observation and a beer, which Lauren explains is a very important part of the process, she decides what she wants to do differently. Lauren points out that this print had some unacceptable “squishage” around the body plate.
Using rubbing alcohol and more cotton, Lauren cleans the shrimp off for another round of painting and printing.
More drying. More cotton stuffed behind the body plate. This time Lauren applies the paint much more lightly.
The antennae are doing a curly thing they weren’t doing before, but she likes it. She arranges the shrimp on the table and cleans him and the table up for the second print.
I think it’s wonderful, but Lauren declares that it’s time for a beer and more thoughtful consideration on how she wants to proceed. She cleans the shrimp off yet again and mulls over how she wants to go about her third round of printing.
We all enjoy a beer, a few of this guy’s friends, and our freshly caught Trout for supper while Lauren thinks it over. It’s dark now, and Lauren continues the printing process without us. She says she does her best work at night after everyone else has gone to bed, anyway.
THE FINISHED FISH PRINT
I’m so grateful to have gotten to know Lauren and see her process firsthand. She is a self-taught, resourceful artist who is constantly refining her process and her work. Known for “playing with dead fish,” her work is so much more than that.
Thank you, Lauren for showing me how you do what you do, and for taking me along for the ride!