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]