Some artists turn to beautiful women for their muses. Linda Heath turns to fish.
She loves the scales. The fins. The colors. The eyes. Oh, how she loves the eyes. She spends hours sometimes peering into the glassy pupils of her slippery subjects.
A budding Gyotaku artist and a seasoned angler, Heath always finishes her work by painting a white dot in the center of each fish’s eye, that way, when the piece is up on a wall, its gaze can follow you around the room.
This can be especially disconcerting when you’re in Heath’s studio, where every fish eye appears to be fixed on you.
“Some people believe painting the eye gives the fish its soul back,” Heath says. “Because, as you know, the eyes are the windows to the soul.”
If this is true, then Heath, a commercial and residential real-estate broker by trade, is surrounded by some pretty significant saltwater souls.
There’s the 35-pound black grouper that she caught deep drop-fishing 800 feet over a hole near Key West; the 80-pound Cubera snapper that placed first in this year’s De Soto Fishing Tournament; and, of course, the swallowtail bass that was so rare it was sent off to an ichthyologist to be studied.
“The only known swallowtail is in a jar of formaldehyde somewhere,” Heath says. “When my husband was asked if he would send it in to be studied, he said, ‘Sure, but my wife is an artist and she has to rub it first.’”
Heath is always talking about “rubbing” fish. The first few times you hear her say it, the term sounds sort of peculiar. Like she’s a fish masseuse.
“It’s a happy feel-good thing,” she says of the hobby. “I’m able to integrate art into the one thing I’ve loved to do my whole life: fish.”
A plucky 53-year-old with a Southern drawl, Heath’s earliest memories are of catching bluegill with her father in Kentucky.
She first came across Gyotaku — the Japanese art of making fish rubs — in the 1980s when she was working for the U.S. Department of Commerce and traveling to countries in Asia.
Fish rubbing, which dates back to the mid-19th century, originated as a way for fishermen to record their catches. These days the tradition is regarded as more of an art form than a record-keeping system.
“Fishermen would make impressions of their catches so the fishmongers would pay them,” Heath says. “It was a way to document the actual size of the fish.”
One thing is for sure: It’s not for girlie girls.
In a nutshell, the process involves catching a fish, cleaning it, pinning it, slathering it in sumi ink and rubbing its imprint on rice paper.
It’s a dirty job, and in the case of a monster game fish, such as the 80-pound Cubera snapper, it can require brute strength.
Says Heath: “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Looking around Heath’s studio, you’d never know she has just begun working with Gyotaku. You’d also never know she was entirely self-taught.
In just a year-and-a-half she’s exhibited work in six shows, including last weekend’s Winterfest on Anna Maria Island.
In addition to donating pieces for fundraising events at Mote Marine, the South Florida Museum and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County, Heath is also represented by a gallery in Key West, where she’s generated most of her big-ticket sales.
She recently sold an original rub of a 50-pound tarpon to a couple that runs a bed and breakfast in a castle in England.
“When you hit your mid-50s I think it’s common to ask, ‘What is it that gives me great joy?’” Heath says. “I’m just wondering why this took so long to rattle out of me.”
She works out of a renovated ranch home on a sleepy bayou along the Manatee River. She inherited the property from her mother, whom she says would have been proud to see her develop as an artist.
Her first-floor studio, which occupies the home’s original kitchen, is equipped with easels, movable gallery walls and clotheslines from which rice paper in varying sizes dangles like silent tissue-paper wind chimes.
It is surprisingly odorless. As Heath likes to point out when friends crinkle their nose at her new enterprise: Fresh fish doesn’t smell fishy.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” Heath says of the technique. “Invariably, at the last second I’ll poke a hole through the paper with a fin. It’s delicate tissue. One false move and you smudge the ink everywhere.”
The first fish Heath ever rubbed was a hogfish.
It started off as a dinner table bet. When a friend announced that he intended to catch a hogfish, Heath offered to rub it.
Both parties came through on their promises.
“He’s my favorite so far,” Heath says presenting a to-scale replica of a gnarly-looking orange fish with teeth and a snout. “The details are fantastic.”
The hogfish has become her signature print: Heath’s Mona Lisa pulled from the sea. A bottom-feeder that can only be speared, the hogfish is also her favorite fillet.
That’s right: Heath uses water-soluble ink so she can eat her subjects when she’s done painting them.
She gestures in the direction of a sheepshead. Silver with gray stripes, the sheepshead has a cuter face than the hogfish.
Heath has just finished painting the eye.
“I pan-coated him up with a little Key lime aioli sauce,” she says. “He was delicious.”
Heath’s cool catches
“Mahi-mahi light up when you catch them, but within five minutes their color fades. You have to take a photo right away.”
“The scales are humongous. They’re as big as the palm of my hand.”
“They have no scales. They’re like manatees. You really have to think about how you’re applying the ink to get that Gyotaku impression.”
VIDEO: Linda Heath has created an entire series of fish heads based on the success she had from rubbing this black grouper.
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