Fish art makes impression at Fort Kent conference

Posted July 08, 2009, at 5:05 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — A crowd gathered around Mitsuyoshi Yabe on Tuesday morning as he bent over a table in front of him and rubbed a piece of paper with his fingers.

He made one more pass with his fingers, and lifted up the piece of paper, holding it up to the 20 people around him. On the paper was a print of a fish. It was blurry and fuzzy, but the scales, tail, fins, eye socket and open mouth were easily identifiable.

The crowd cheered. Yabe didn’t say anything, but smiled and nodded his head. His demonstration of a Japanese fish printing technique called gyotaku had gone well.

Yabe’s presentation was part of the five-day Guild of Natural Science Illustrators annual conference, being held this year at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. More than 50 attendees from around the country and world, including some of the most renowned science illustrators in the field, are participating.

Yabe, 23, is an undergraduate student in a medical illustration program at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Joan Lee, a guild member from St. Francis who organized the conference, said she included the Japan native in the list of GNSI workshops for several reasons, including the fact that he is deaf.

Yabe communicates by using a notebook and pen he carries with him, encouraging people to write out questions or statements. He writes his responses in English.

“This [demonstration] was set up as an experiment to show people that you can work with all students,” said Lee, who was initially contacted by Yabe’s electronic translator. “Behind it all, there’s no such thing as handicap. This is the basic concept. It’s also a great cultural exchange.”

On Tuesday, Yabe had some help from Stephen DiCerbo, a freelance illustrator from Saratoga, N.Y., who has been making gyotaku prints for 20 years. DiCerbo read aloud from the notebook whenever Yabe wanted to say something to the audience, and also provided some play-by-play as he watched Yabe create.

Gyotaku is a technique that came into use in the 1860s, DiCerbo said, and was originally used as a method of record-keeping and species identification. It evolved into a form of trophy art, similar to the practice of taxidermy, and finally into its current form as art technique. The basic method involves brushing ink or colored paint onto the fish, covering it with a piece of Japanese rice paper, and pressing down carefully to imprint the fish on the paper.

“For scientific illustrators who get into this, it’s just a looser style and you wind up having a lot of fun,” DiCerbo said. “It’s like finger painting for adults. And it’s really a variation on traditional printmaking methods. As you develop your technique you try to find ways to control the image so you get a finer piece of artwork at the end.”

Yabe’s technique is the one he learned as a teenager, when he was a fisherman in Japan.

“[Gyotaku is] so popular in Japan that if you go into fishing stores and the tackle stores, it’s all over the walls,” DiCerbo said, reading from statements Yabe wrote in his notebook. “He thinks it’s very beautiful and wonderful, and he’s still practicing and learning, like we all are.”

Thanks to Bryce Carter, a 13-year-old Fort Kent resident, Yabe had some fish with which to work. Carter caught two 5-inch yellow perch Monday evening in St. Froid Lake during a fishing outing with his family and brought them to the gyotaku demonstration Tuesday.

Yabe’s first step on Tuesday after wiping the perch was to pin the fish’s fins so they flared out from the body in preparation for the inking. He placed pieces of plastic foam under the tail and fins to stabilize the perch and used tweezers to poke out the fish’s eye, which would help create a white circle in the print. Some gyotaku artists paint in an eye on the print later in the process.

Yabe began to paint the perch with a small brush and dark India ink diluted with water — the traditional gyotaku ink is sumi, made of soot and water, but Yabe didn’t have any with him — from the head to the tail of the fish. Then, he used a clean paint brush in the opposite direction from which he had painted on the ink. This absorbs excess paint and allows the scales to show up more clearly in the print.

After inking the fish, Yabe covered it with a piece of the traditional rice paper, which is flexible and strong enough to withstand the next step. Yabe began to carefully rub the rice paper over the fish with his fingertip to coax the ink onto the paper.

Finally, Yabe peeled the paper from the fish with an image of the perch printed on the paper.

Carter had a chance to try gyotaku himself, and decided it was something he might work on at home.

“I thought this would be fun,” Carter said. “I like art, and I like to draw with pencil and paper.”

Dwight Gagnon, a conference attendee from Benton, watched part of the demonstration. He wasn’t sure he would include gyotaku in his work, but was interested to watch a technique he first saw in his student teaching days in Waterville.

“I wanted to see where it was, at this level,” said Gagnon, a 1976 UMFK graduate making his first trip to campus since his graduation. “In the labs, we’d take the fish, get a print, and the students would label the different anatomy features. I was fascinated to see what else was being done with it.”

The GNSI conference continues through Saturday. A juried exhibition of illustrators’ work will be on display this month at UMFK’s Acadian Archives.

jbloch@bangordailynews.net

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