RAYMOND — Two North County artists keep their supplies in the refrigerator — and eat them afterward.
Vernon and Melissa Vergara are exponents of Gyotaku, a Japanese printing art.
They cover a real fish with non-toxic ink and press it so it prints its scaly image on rice paper. They frame this — Vernon usually without too much adornment and Mellissa more often with an embellished background — then they eat the fish.
During the past couple of years they have been appearing at shows in Tokeland and elsewhere promoting their brand, “Altered Nature.” They will be at the Pacific County Fair in Menlo Aug. 21-24.
They are also open to commissions from fishermen who want an artistic rendering of their catch — which they will even clean and fillet afterward.
“Every fish we have painted has a story — and a recipe,” Vernon said, almost licking his lips. “People always ask, ‘Do you eat the fish? Well, I’m not going to waste a good salmon!”
Growing up in the Philippines before emigrating to Hawaii, Vernon was always around fishers. He first embraced the ancient art Gyotaku as a hobby, although now he is a professional artist.
“It’s traditional Japanese and centuries old,” he said. “The name means, ‘fish print.’ Ever since, well, years and years ago, fishermen lied about how big their fish were.”
Because of this, printing a fish created an indisputable record of their catch. The method, popular during the mid-1800s, fell out of use when cameras were invented.
The couple moved to Raymond from Las Vegas two years ago.
They wanted to escape the Nevada heat and chose western Washington because they love to fish.
Vernon had served in the U.S. Navy as a chaplain and Melissa retired after a 19-year career teaching English, journalism and writing at school and college level.
It’s just a hobby or art therapy for Melissa, and she acknowledged that the pieces she creates are different to those of her husband. She favors crab and octopus, although their lumpy shapes are awkward. “It’s a challenge, because you have to draw in what does not come out using the ink,” she said.
She prefers more pastel shades for backgrounds. In contrast, Vernon likes primary colors, but most often uses black ink without adornment. “The eye is one of the few parts that I paint in,” he said. “It gives it a little bit of its life. Some even look like a fossil.”
They will try all species, like lingcod, squid, blue gill and moon fish. One recent work featured a 36-inch carp. “The scalier the fish the better,” he said.
Techniques for handling sumi ink, a kind used in Asian calligraphy, are refined through experimentation. Some fish absorb ink; other species exude a mucus that has to be wiped away and dried. Not tearing the rice paper, especially when it has to be wrapped around a fish then peeled away, is a delicate skill.
One supporter, Gail Friedlander met them at a Tokeland show and has their artwork in her home east of Raymond. She believes their distinct style resonates with the maritime nature of the region.
“Gyotaku had its beginnings as a way for Japanese fishermen in the 1800s to document their catch by inking it and pressing it onto a wood board,” Friedlander said. “It evolved into an art form, and having local practitioners is pretty special.”
Developing a fan base has been a pleasure, the Vergaras said.
“Gail is very sweet and a great supporter for our art,” Melissa said. “We have been very encouraged by going to shows and meeting people and we have some repeat customers. That means a lot — it kind of validates what we do.”
Print sales have branched out to T-shirts and bags. “We realize that not everybody wants to hang art, so we want different ways for people to have and enjoy it without it hanging on the wall,” Melissa said.
Some art has been sent overseas to friends in Russia and the United Kingdom, including military minister colleagues from Vernon’s service career.
Vernon conceded his wife is the more patient fisher. “I tend to yank on the line and pull the hook out!” he laughed.
As they discuss their art, it becomes clear that catching the fish is a key element of their togetherness.
“It’s a record. We have a lot of memories that were made around fishing,” Vernon said. “We say, ‘Do you remember when we caught this fish?’ and we remember it was a great time. It’s a memory of things that we have done and places, like Lake Mead (east of Vegas) where we have fished.”
“I can say where all the fish come from,” Melissa smiled. “I like the fact that each one has a memory for us.”