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The salmon: perfection for the artistic process

Posted: April 19, 2012 - 9:08am

When I pulled out my old watercolor set about five months ago, I didn't have to think twice about it.

What else would I want to paint?

The image of a sockeye with an orange and red Russian River Fly dangling from its snout seemed so natural to visualize, something so burned into my brain. It translated from my brush to the paper without effort.

A few months before, several of my Alaskan coworkers had warned me about the doldrums of winter and the importance of cheechako fishermen finding a hobby that didn't need sun and a river free of ice to enjoy. Painting was what I wanted do in college until my mother kindly convinced me to keep it a hobby and pursue a major in something that would put food on the table. I'm still not sure journalism is what she had in mind.

But any ways, they say the best art comes naturally and I really didn't think about my first few sockeye paintings until I started seeing other similar works. Once I started paying attention, images of the salmon, particularly the sockeye, appeared everywhere. They're on beer cans, t-shirts for marathons, mugs at the gas station, logos for businesses, and, of course, their presence is heavily felt in the art and crafts community.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen something hand-crafted with a salmon on it. Even this winter, during my regular news coverage, I noticed more and more how those who have lived in the area were drawn to the image, artist or not.

But why? Why is it we are painting salmon and not rainbow trout, halibut or, everyone's favorite, the ling cod? For that matter, why not the eagle, the bear or raven? What about our three volcanoes? Why of all these images is the salmon seemingly dominant?

Now as the weather warms and my thoughts turn toward the river, I can't help but remember the feel of the UglyStik in my hand as I lined the Kenai for hours on end, hoping for a new round in the big sockeye fight.

It's an image that's artistic itself -- a pair of brown XtraTufs searching the turquoise Kenai for the chrome sockeye.

I vividly remember the very first time I caught one. It was on the Russian a few years back and I couldn't see anything but its wriggling dark green back. When I hooked up, it flashed out of the water like something out of a well-produced movie. Shimmering all colors mixed with the thrill of the catch. It's pure inspiration really.

So why don't we just stop there? Why are so many of us taken with the salmon's image enough to obsess about it in our creative outlets?

Perhaps it is more about what the salmon represents. It is pure sustenance in every form, a tremendous food source that's as reliable as the sun setting. It's also an economic engine, a source of recreation, a memory-creator, an inspiration-driver and a political tool. Really if one lives on the Peninsula long enough, you realize threads of life's very fabric are woven by salmon.

So what are we really painting, sculpting or recreating when we run the salmon through an artistic filter? The more I painted over the winter the more I thought about it and the less I realized I knew the exact answer. Maybe it's just an individual thing.

But, in the end, I think most would agree the salmon is one of nature's greatest creations -- anyone who has caught a 70-pound King would agree. It's raw, beautiful, and majestic as are all salmon really.

We just can't make it any better than it already exists with all of our modern technology.

It's perfection in nature.

Humans are everything but perfect despite all of our efforts. But, we can see it in silvery flashes.

With salmon we touch it but only for a moment. We net it, hook it, harvest it, but once we do, it loses that perfection by becoming a human object. Such intimacy isn't afforded by many other animals or objects.

I think when we use the salmon's image in the creative process we're honoring that perfection we are allowed to interact with. Honoring it in the same way pilots do when they paint pin-up girls on the sides of airplanes. Maybe when we recreate the salmon's  image we are holding up a mirror to the values we wish we had.

And perhaps, when we fish for salmon, maybe we're hoping to touch perfection for just a fleeting moment. An expensive, obsessive moment.

Brian Smith is a reporter and city editor at the Peninsula Clarion and avid fisherman.

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