Turning fish into art an irresistible lure

OUTDOORS

October 10, 2004|By CANDUS THOMSON

MILLINGTON - It's a beautiful day in early fall. The kind that starts with a tiny shiver and blossoms into a sultry afternoon that whispers, "Play hooky."

Jay Falstad steps from his home. But instead of taking several dozen strides to the shore of Unicorn Lake, he turns his back on a day of fishing and paces an equal number of steps to his new studio.

The former newspaper advertising salesman is in the early stages of a new career, one of those brainstorms that makes you slap your forehead and say, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Well, in addition to having his idea, you'd also have to have Falstad's talent to pull it off.

Because these days, the avid angler doesn't hook fish. He paints them.

Brook trout, redfish, permit or rockfish - if it has fins and scales, Falstad can paint you a watercolor in the exact dimensions of the one you caught. He works from photos provided by customers, most of whom are disciples of the catch-and-release philosophy.

Falstad's work is an alternative to the plastic fish prepared by taxidermists and dreaded nationwide by wives of fishermen. His paintings hang in offices at the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I learned of his work through Lefty Kreh, who in his more than half-century of outdoors writing hadn't come across another business quite like it.

"He does good work and he's a nice guy," Kreh says. "And his prices are reasonable."

Ask Falstad how many he has done since that first four-pound rainbow he painted for himself 14 years ago, and he grins sheepishly.

"Boy, that's a good question. I never thought about it," he says. "Hundreds, I guess."

But most were painted before last October, when Falstad, 38, held a traditional day job and squeezed his artistic endeavors into nights and weekends.

A previous customer had returned from a fishing trip in Russia with clients and wanted Falstad to create paintings for each of them as mementos.

It was time for a family summit conference.

"I said, `It's a point where I can do one or the other, but I have to choose a path to take,' " Falstad recalls telling his wife.

An accountant with a keen eye for business, Christa Falstad didn't hesitate.

"I knew it was a good idea and no one else seemed to be doing it," she says now.

This spring, with the help of his father and an uncle, Falstad converted part of his garage to a bright, airy studio and moved his paints and easels from a dark, dank tool shed. The relocation added about 30 steps to his daily commute and lots to his confidence.

"It's a real studio," he says, "a place where you can bring customers."

The studio's largest wall is covered edge-to-edge with matted and framed works ready to be shipped across the country and around the world. Some are simply a watercolor with the angler's name, the species and the date and location of the catch.

But others have been embellished with a photo of the angler and the catch and the lure used. For example, Falstad just finished a painting of a 19 1/2 -inch striper caught at Kent Narrows by young Ben Hillier of Chestertown. His mother thought the combination of the watercolor and a photo of the happy angler and his first rockfish would be a lasting family keepsake.

Mike Slattery, the assistant secretary of DNR in charge of fishing, wildlife and parks, has been a customer.

He bought watercolors of two huge brook trout caught during a trip to northern Quebec with his father. The men released the fish but because of Falstad's work, they still have mementos.

"We took plenty of pictures, but these paintings are special and they're classy," Slattery says. "They're the kind of thing you're proud to hang on the wall. A lot of guys' wives don't like plastic fish. This is a great alternative."

Turnaround time is eight to 12 weeks, depending on the size of the fish and the number of coats of paint required. Some species, such as tuna and the greenback cutthroat trout, might require as many as 50 almost translucent coats of paint to get the flesh tones correct.

Some of the best-known fish painters, such as James Prosek, work in acrylics or oil paints. But Falstad believes watercolors provide a more lifelike dimension. But there's a downside.

"With watercolors, if you make a mistake, you have to start over. I have drawers full of mistakes," he says, laughing. "I like the challenge of trying to get it right the first time. A brook trout is the most challenging because there's just so much detail."

Another challenge - for both the artist and customer - is the really big fish.

"One man caught a 700-pound blue [marlin] at the White Marlin Open. I probably talked myself out of a sale when I said, `I can do it, but you're going to need a lot of wall space. He said, `Oh yeah, good point," Falstad says. "You've got to have really big walls for really big fish."

Of course, the artist will cut a whopper down to size, if you ask.

Many orders are for retirement presents. About 50 percent of orders are from women seeking unusual birthday or Christmas gifts.

"It's a good preemptive strike," Falstad says.

Prices are based on a formula that takes into account the horizontal and vertical proportions of the fish. A basic unframed painting of a 25-inch fish with an inscription costs $250-$275. Framing and adding photos and lures are extra.

Falstad says he tries to keep his prices below those of taxidermists.

For last-minute shoppers, he creates a personalized card to tell the recipient that his fish is on the way.

"When I do a painting and put the information on it, then it's got a story attached to it," he says. "When the fisherman sees the painting for the first time, you can look in their eyes and see they're living their trip again."

To learn more, call Falstad at 410-928-3505 or visit www.fishpaintings.com.

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