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Local artist explores gyotaku art in first solo exhibit
Rachel Walton works on making a gyotaku print of a yellow eye rockfish aboard the fishing vessel Courser in Cordova Bay, west of Prince of Wales Island, in October 2018. Photo by Katie Taylor

Daily News Staff Writer

For local artist Rachel Walton, catching fish is both an occupation and her inspiration.

 On the evening of Jan. 3, Walton’s first solo exhibit, will open at the Main Street Gallery, where her artwork will be displayed for a month.

 “Ocean Imprints” will be solely focused on gyotaku, or the ancient art of Japanese fish printing.

 Gyotaku started as a way for Japanese fishermen to document their catches.

 “It’s basically, I take a fish, clean it up, and I apply a non-toxic, high quality, acrylic ink to it,” Walton, a commercial fisherman, explained to the Daily News. “And then I smash a piece of fabric to it and try to kind of get all the details of it, and then you peel it off the fabric and you’ve got a print.”

 Walton recalled that she was introduced to gyotaku over a decade ago by former Ketchikan resident Lindsay Johnson, as they were fishing for the first time on a boat that Walton had recently purchased.

 “We caught a king salmon before I even had the other half of my boat’s worth of gear in the water, and it was really exciting. … And I think I had some India ink onboard or something, and a privacy curtain for my door to the boat,” Walton explained. “And we printed its (the salmon’s) head and, yeah, that was my first introduction to it.”

 Now, Walton goes fishing prepared with a small kit. Walton’s kit includes pieces of cotton fabric, acrylic ink, sponges, paint, brushes, and gloves.

 After creating fish prints using this kit onboard her boat or in her kitchen for over a decade, Walton was advised by friends to apply for the chance to have an exhibit at the gallery.

 Walton said her favorite part of gyotaku was capturing the small details of a “memorable” fish.

 “And this is what motivated me to do an art show. … I like that you get so much detail in these prints, and you can stare at them a lot longer than you can a fish you’re going to eat,” Walton said. “Because I think most of us just get really caught up in ‘OK, I caught this fish’ – you’re going to clean it and throw it in the freezer.”

 Walton’s gyotaku creations are slightly different than prints that strictly adhere to the traditional standard.

 Instead of using rice paper, she uses cotton or quilter’s fabric.

  “Part of why I print on fabric instead of rice paper is because I think fabric is really forgiving in a lot of ways, and often times I’ll take my ‘reject’ fish prints and then incorporate them into quilts I make.”

 Walton’s quilts have been featured in the annual Rainy Day Quilters’ show.

 Walton also doesn’t touch up her print with extra paint or color after it’s been transferred from the fish to the fabric.

 “I put all the color on the fish itself and just hope it turns out,” Walton explained. “So if I want to accent certain parts of the fish or whatever, I’m doing it on the fish itself, rather than touching up the print afterwards.”

 However, Walton said she has been “experimenting” with different colors for prints of more colorful specimens, such as rockfish.

 Walton said that because she doesn’t have a studio space, getting a clean print can be hard.

 “I think it’s really challenging to get a clean print – especially when I’m not working in a sterile environment, not having a studio – like, being on the back deck of the boat, it’s going to be cold or breezy. … I always see all the flaws in the fish prints, where I could have maybe not smudged one spot or gotten more detail in another spot,” Walton said.

 Walton added that making the prints is a “time investment.”

“Even if you’re not fishing, you’re running somewhere, and sometimes it’s too rough ... sometimes you just want to go fishing just to fish,” she said.

 Additionally, not all fish are easy to use for gyotaku.

 “Yelloweyes are really difficult to print because they’re really rounded and bulbous, … and big fish are difficult to print,” Walton said.

 Walton estimated that a print of a large fish – such as a king salmon – might take anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes. Smaller fish – such as chili pepper rockfish – take less time.

 Walton’s favorite sea creatures to turn into prints are cephalopods, including octopus and sea cucumbers.

 “I think having gratitude for these really beautiful creatures that sustain us. … The ability to just be out in Southeast Alaska – there’s a reason all of us live here,” she said.  And part of that is the fish. So just, I think, more so than just having a ‘fish story,’ it’s just showing gratitude.”