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Catalina Island Museum Introduces Audiences To ‘Gyotaku’ Through Artist Dwight Hwang

An historic art from learned in the most modern of ways.

“A whole lot of Japanese YouTube because I didn’t have anyone to teach me outright,” Dwight Hwang told Forbes.com about how he learned the process of traditional Japanese gyotaku printmaking. “It was a lot of trial and error.”

The breathtaking results of Hwang’s trial and error can be seen now through November 1 at the Catalina Island Museum during “Soot & Water: Gyotaku Records of Catalina.” The exhibition showcases Hwang’s gyotaku prints representing 23 species from the waters surrounding Catalina Island off the Southern California coast.

The word “gyotaku” breaks down into two parts: ‘gyo’ meaning ‘fish’ and ‘taku’ meaning ‘rubbing’ or ‘impression.’

Obscure in the United States, gyotaku is commonplace in Japan.

“I was working as a storyboard artist in Tokyo and I always loved fishing and any tackle shop you go to in Japan has these sort of artworks, these prints, plastered all over the walls, when I saw that, I was hooked,” Hwang recalls, no pun intended.

He’s been perfecting his skills ever since his introduction to gyotaku 10 years ago.

The gyotaku process involves using a brush to swab calligraphy ink made of pine soot and water, called Sumi, directly onto the surface of the fish. That’s where the title of the show comes from. A sheet of Japanese paper made from mulberry bark, called Washi (Kozo), is then pressed onto the inked surface to produce a print.

“The actual process is very simple, very straightforward, you just brush ink onto a fish and press paper on it, but there’s so much room for refinement and improvement such as grinding your own ink to the consistency to match that particular species, matching the paper, the direction you rub the paper,” Hwang said.

Everything from the girth of the fish to its overall size, scales and fins determines the specifics of the ink and paper Hwang uses on each animal to achieve his dramatic results. Only the eye is painted in later, the eye being too gelatinous to take and transfer ink.

The origins of gyotaku are open for debate. Hwang heard two popular versions when he lived in Japan.

The “highborn” story goes like this: in the early-to-mid 1800’s, a samurai lord enjoyed fishing. Whenever he caught something worthwhile, he would task his court calligrapher to document it. Written documentation eventually became pictographic.

The “lowborn” story involves fishmongers using visuals of the fish they were selling each day to inform illiterate customers about what was available. A gyotaku print “catch of the day” so to speak.

Most traditional gyotaku artists, both historically and today, present a sideways, two-dimensional view of the subject. Hwang puts a modern twist on this presentation.

“Typically, gyotaku is done flat, with a fish on its broad side, that’s normal, we try to take it an extra step further and print these at different angles and have these fish twist and turn,” Hwang said.

Hwang’s subjects are often seen from a three-quarters view or even above. The different angles give his fish a greater sense of motion and animation.

“It gives it a lot of life,” he says.

Hwang also strays from tradition by not only creating prints of fish, but other aquatic animals as well including rays, octopus and lobster.

A one hour ferry ride from numerous Southern California locations–San Pedro, Long Beach, Dana Point, Newport Beach–puts you on 22-mile long Catalina Island which is eight miles wide at its widest and a half mile wide at its narrowest.

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