The Artist Who Paints With Dead Fish

Heather Fortner’s Sea Fern Nature Printing Studio in Toledo, Oregon contains the usual artist's implements—brushes, paper, and ink—as well as a less conventional tool of her trade: whole raw fish. The scaly specimens aren’t intended for eating, but for printing. Fortner specializes in a particular style of traditional Japanese art called gyotaku, literally translated as “fish rubbings.” A direct application of the 19th century technique involves coating one side of a dead fish with pigment and taking a mirrored impression on a thin sheet of rice paper, whereas the indirect method dictates that ink should instead be applied to a paper pressed against the fish’s side–more like the way leaf and gravestone rubbings can replicate an image without altering the object itself. Messy as it sounds, the direct method is Fortner’s preferred means of practicing gyotaku.

Fortner encountered her first fish rubbing as a student at the University of Hawai’i on the island of Lana’i, where she was surrounded by the sea and channeled her fascination with marine life into a degree in Natural Sciences. After graduating in 1978, Fortner spent three decades on the water as a commercial fisherman, a deckhand, and an officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine. During her travels, Fortner took the opportunity to study with Japanese gyotaku masters in their studios, as well as to gather odd fish from around the globe.

Despite gyotaku’s contemporary reputation as an art form, it arose from a more pragmatic practice. When Japanese fishermen needed to prove their skill out on the sea before the invention of cameras and the classic “It was THIS big!” pose, they turned to fish rubbings. The direct relationship between the fish’s physical size and its image on the page was considered so reliable in mid-1800s Japan that the resulting prints were often treated as legitimate evidence of a fisherman’s prowess, and occasionally used to judge winners in fishing contests.

Though it seems odd that a fisherman would immediately coat their most prized fish in ink to prove its existence, the Japanese fishermen who documented their most impressive catches of the day using gyotaku didn’t necessarily have to choose between paper and plate. To avoid waste, the fishermen would wash the bodies completely free of ink after printing, then consume them as usual. Fortner employs the same no-waste philosophy, though she keeps art and appetite separate; she now primarily sources fish for gyotaku from the dead specimens that wash up on shore and makes sure to put them to use in multiple works before burying the bodies in her garden as fertilizer.

Fortner employs a variety of nature printing styles in addition to gyotaku. After taking the fish’s imprint, she must paint in the details, particularly the eyes. She may also add in true-to-life detail from rubbings of ferns or various seaweeds—the better to simulate a marine habitat. She applies the final touches in watercolor.

[h/t My Modern Met]

Art
nextArticle.image_alt|e
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
The Covers of Jack Kerouac's Classic Titles Are Getting a Makeover
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press

Readers have been enjoying classic Jack Kerouac books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road for decades, but starting this August the novels will have a new look. Several abstract covers have been unveiled as part of Penguin’s "Great Kerouac" series, according to design website It’s Nice That.

The vibrant covers, designed by Tom Etherington of Penguin Press, feature the works of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. The artwork is intended to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac” rather than illustrating a particular scene or character, Etherington told It’s Nice That. Indeed, abstract styles of artwork seem a fitting match for Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—a writing style that was influenced by improvisational jazz music.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Dharma Bums, which was published just one year after On the Road. The Great Kerouac series will be available for purchase on August 2.

[h/t It's Nice That]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz
Murdered

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios