From a background of growing up in Port Washington, fishing from the pier in Manhasset Bay and studying art at Stanford, Annie Sessler has found her way to the artistry of Gyotaku –coating a fresh fish and rubbing paper or fabric over the fish to make an impression of it. It was not the usual career path for an art major. Returning to the east coast after graduating,
Annie worked for 15 years in the back office of a Wall Street brokerage firm that specialized in seafood. Her brother brought her to Montauk and introduced her to surfing. Always athletic, she loved it and became hooked on surfing, the lifestyle and Montauk. Her circle of friends expanded to include the Montauk surfers and she eventually married Jim Goldberg, a surfer and commercial fisherman. One day, coming home after a long fishing trip on a dragger, Jim showed Annie the process of inking a fish and rubbing it with paper. Then he went to bed for a nap. When he woke up she had filled the house with printed fish hanging up to dry. With a steady source of interesting fish coming in from her husband, Annie kept at it, printing most every specimen he brought home – fluke, bluefish, squid, striped bass, even sea robins. A tuna he brought home was so big she had to clean it in the shower. An even bigger tuna exceeded the size of the paper and fabric she had and sent her to the store for a king size sheet. She experimented with fabrics. Her mother had a collection of fabrics from around the world for her work as a designer and dressmaker and Annie was able to use the silks from India with the rich colors that were a good background for the fish. The day came when Jim thought she had a product she could sell. As East End Fish Prints they started going to art and craft fairs from the Hamptons to Manhattan. The prints sold. Today, Annie, Jim and their two children all print fish. Annie does more. “Jim is a great printer,” she says, and the children love to print.
Annie’s fish command prices of $2500, selling at fairs and by appointment from her studio collection. Annie and Jim have been featured on CBS, in the New York Times, on the cover of Dan’s Papers, in the East Hampton Star, the Southampton Press and on the Red Lobster Restaurant menus she did. If you’re thinking you might like to try it, doing fish rubbing means planning ahead, having the supplies you need, a place to clean the fish and print, a place to hang wet fish prints, and a place to store them after they dry. You’ll want to think about ultimately framing your fish print. Size matters. Standard size frames are cheaper so you will want to use paper that will fit into a standard size frame suitable for your fish. To be ready when the right fish arrives, you will need paint brushes, non-toxic ink, printing paper or fabric, an apron, paper towels, newspapers to
cover the work surface, cardboard or foamboard to pin the fish, a cleaning agent (kosher salt, lemon juice, vinegar or a detergent) to get the slime off the fish. The easiest fish to do for the first time is a flat fish. A flounder is good. You’re more likely to get the impression of the whole fish if the fish is flat. You want the most perfect fish you can find, with its scales intact and no broken fins. Fresh fish are easier to work with, less likely to leak than a fish that has been frozen and more firm to the touch. When Annie starts working on a fish, she takes its picture. Most fish rubbers take pictures so that the eyes they have to draw will look right. The fish should be room temperature and no longer alive. When Annie cleans the fish she uses kosher salt and is careful not to damage the skin. After cleaning, the fish is thoroughly dried with paper towels. All the fish openings are stuffed with paper towels so there are no leaks. With straight pins, the fins are held out from the body and pinned to the cardboard or foamboard. The fish dries for an hour or so. If you remove the pins and the fins don’t move, the fish is dry and ready to work on. As you paint the fish with the ink, you work from the tail to the head, trying for a balance between not enough paint and too much paint. Too much paint results in a blotchy print. Not enough paint makes an incomplete print. Before you print, look at the fish and try to get excess ink off with a piece of soft cotton or an old tee shirt.
Be sure to change the paper towels under the fish before printing to give your fish an unmarked background. The best, flexible paper that will absorb the ink is rice paper. Lay the paper on the fish. Hold the fish with one hand and rub with the fingers and the palm of your other hand. When you think you have covered all the parts of the fish, lift the paper off the fish. Hang the print to dry. After it dries you can paint the eye and sign your print.