Gyotaku: Joe Higgins Turns Fresh-Caught Fish Into Art
October 31, 2013
Joe Higgins' favorite part of practicing Gyotaku, the ancient eastern art of creating a lifelike impression of a just-caught fish using ink and paper, is donating the finished product to a charity auction. Seeing his work, which he humbly calls "just ink and paper," raise money for a worthy cause always makes him smile. Up until this year, Higgins, who has been practicing Gyotaku since 2009, spread his art around. Kayak tournaments, the Boy Scouts, YMCAâ€”they all got a piece of Higgins' artistic pie. Sure, he kept roughly half of his prints in his shop, Tomo's Tackle in Salem, Mass., to sell, but it wasn't as rewarding as giving them to a worthy cause.
I am talking to Higgins about his prints, his interest in the art and his technique, when his 21-year-old daughter Emily calls. He takes a brief moment to speak with her. When he returns to our conversation, there's a lump in his throat and he needs fresh air. It seems that the best of us are willing to help out worthy causes. But I've never understood why the best of us so often have causes come to us.
Emily Higgins was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension this month, a disease that creates high blood pressure in the lungs that can lead to heart failure. She's short of breath after a brisk walk, but Joe says the mental struggle with the diagnosis has been the biggest battle for her at the outset. Following in her father's footsteps, she loves printing fish. Her favorite is the lobster, and lobster prints hang around Joe's art studio, which is set up inside the tackle shop. They adorn T-shirts and posters. Crustaceans, ink and a father's pride all on display. Higgins' charity work is suddenly more focused. "I am going to use my art to raise awareness and money, to bring attention to this rare disease," he says with tears in his eyes. "That's my job now." To understand Joe's dedication, we need to go back to 2009, the first time he saw a fish print hanging in a friend's house.
Higgins, who grew up in Massachusetts and has been a fisherman his whole life, saw a Gyotaku impression hanging on the wall at a friend's house in 2009. From there on out, there was no stopping him. Gyotaku is an ancient eastern art in which a fish is cleaned and covered in ink. Next, the fish is laid on rice paper. The artist applies varying amounts of pressure with his hands to create a lifelike impression of the fish on the paper. It developed when anglers wanted a way to commemorate their catch, long before the days of taxidermy and digital cameras. It sounds simple. It's anything but.
The type of paper, type and amount of ink, pressure applied, and positioning of fins, gills and scales all play a crucial role in how beautiful and realistic the print looks when finished. Higgins cleans the fish with something acidic but edible, like lemon juice (the fish don't go to waste, he's quick to point out), and creates a Styrofoam frame to lay them in. Next, he applies his chosen ink color (which can be anything from plain black to the beautiful shades of blue and green that a fresh sea bass will have). He uses needles and pins to hold the fins in a realistic position, and creates an impression of the fish. His impressions adorn everything from nautical maps to T-shirts to hats.
Higgins began the practice as an amateur in 2009, experimenting mostly with striped bass and improving his technique. A lifelong graphic designer, he had an eye for art and a passion for creating it. When he was granted a free space along Salem's Artists' Row, a section of town where artists can work rent-free to create and sell their products, he shifted into full-gear. He described the awarding of the free space as a "this-is-for-real," moment. His technique improved and his prints began selling. Higgins branched out, printing more and different types of fish. He would print a redfish caught at his parents' home in Florida, a dogfish, a mackerel, an albie, bluefish, lobsters, sea trout, flounder, squid, crabs, bonita, tuna tails and even a monkfish. Nothing was off-limits.
Monkfish, Higgins is quick to admit, are the most difficult because of their odd shape. Tuna tails, one of his most popular prints, are the easiest to work with. Lobsters need to be taken apart and re-assembled on the paper. Dogfish make for a cool print, but a lousy dinner, Higgins says. He eats everything he prints. In only four years, Higgins transformed himself from admirer to expert. "When I get into something, it's kind of an OCD thingâ€¦" he says, struggling to explain. The dozens of prints hanging around his shop, and those adorning restaurants and shops up and down the North Shore that he has provided, do the talking for him. The fifty-year-old resident of Beverly is still burning with ambition for new adventure.
From Artists' Row to Tackle Shop
Artists' Row is a series of "shanties" along a side street in Salem where local artists sell everything from jewelry to paintings. However, because it is an outdoor venue, it is only seasonal. Not wanting to give up his printing when the snow started flying, Higgins dreamed up a partnership. He envisioned his prints for sale in the most logical place: a tackle shop. So it was that Higgins came to share space in Tomo's Tackle Shop, located on Salem's beautiful waterfront along Pickering Wharf. From his years fishing, he knew the owner, and the shared space was a natural fit. He adds as an afterthought that his wife was not-so-subtly suggesting that their home was not the best workspace for art that involved ink, fish scales and guts.
This past year Higgins moved into Tomo's and has been selling his prints there ever since. He prints different species on nautical maps, T-shirts, hats and sweatshirts. He even printed a Tuna Tail in the colors of the American flag and incorporated the text "Wicked Boston." That one, I couldn't leave his shop without. He's constantly experimenting with different fish, and has taken his printing to a new level. Just this past summer, he started a program where he would take a family on a fishing charter, and then bring the children back afterward and show them how to print their catch. Fishing being a fickle beast, Higgins always keeps an extra fish in the freezer, just in case. He said the adventure was a success and he plans to continue it next year.
A Family Affair
His Gyotaku business has become a family affair, too. His father has multiple prints hanging in his home, and his sister's children, in South Carolina, want to take up the art and carry on the family tradition. His daughter stopped by the shop this summer to help pick up the slack when demand was outstripping hours in the day. Her boyfriend made some impressive flounder prints. His fishing family, however, isn't restricted to just blood relatives. Higgins has run workshops and seminars, showing the young fisherman of Salem and visitors alike how to print their fish, sharing his passion.
Prints with a Purpose
Which brings us back to his current situation. "My skills are in marketing and selling a product," Higgins says. "Now my job is to sell awareness, sell the idea that this [pulmonary hypertension] is important, something people need to recognize and care about." Higgins is working to organize kayak tournaments and events to raise money and awareness about the illness. Because the news was so sudden when we spoke, he was only in the initial stages, but his voice is anything but hesitant when he speaks about the cause. "I'm going to go big with this somehow. When I put my mind to somethingâ€¦"
We're sitting outside, but there doesn't seem to be enough fresh air for me either anymore. Joe stares straight ahead, not wiping the tear from his face. I remind myself I have a job to do to, and his story is so much more important than the one I came to collect.
Emily Higgins is taking a semester off from Berkley College in Boston, where she was studying what I thought was the coolest career path I'd ever heard of. Vocal Therapy is a major that focuses on using music and singing to provide relief to those in need. Emily wants to sing to the elderly and the disabled to lift their spirits. "It's kind of an odd program," Joe says.
"It makes a hell of a lot of sense to me," I said. Why a girl with such a beautiful ambition would be stricken with a disease of the lungs is something I hope I never understand.
So for now Joe is focusing on directing his efforts toward the illness, and you can, too. You can learn more about the disease, and about making a contribution, on the Pulmonary Hypertension Association website. As for Joe's art, you can check it out at fishedimpressions.myshopify.com. There you can purchase prints and apparel. I'm saving my money for one of the nautical maps with a striped bass. I can't promise you the tuna-tail hat is good luck, but I did wear it and come out of the surf with two stripers for the cooler this past weekend, so draw your own conclusions.
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