The Fish Guy
“What cow skulls are to Georgia O’Keeffe, Alaska salmon are to Ray Troll”
It is a quietly miraculous moment, comparable to being with Claude Monet when he first glimpsed Giverny.
“This,” says Ray Troll, “is where I worked on the slime line.”
Troll and I are at the Silver Lining seafood-processing plant in Ketchikan, Alaska. Here Troll worked gutting salmon, aka “on the slime line.” Here he launched his only-in-Alaska artistic career.
Troll is famous, in a certain way. If you’ve ever visited Alaska, browsed the gift shop at ocean-oriented attractions, or just hung out with fishermen who like T-shirts, you’ve probably seen Troll’s works: brilliant, funny, eerie depictions of the watery natural world.
For the last 21 years, Troll has lived and worked in Ketchikan, which is as sun-soaked as a cruise-ship brochure on the day I visit but gets 200 inches of rain a year. “It’s as close as you can get to actually living underwater,” Troll tells me as we walk along the waterfront. “If you live here long enough, you’ll grow gills.” He arrived in the 1980s, armed with an MFA in drawing and fueled with the artist’s dueling desires for inspiration and income.
“I landed smack in the middle of a society built around fish,” Troll says. “I started doing art that was riffing on them.”
That he has done, in a way that seems particularly Alaskan in its successful embrace of eccentricity. Troll started producing fish riffs on T-shirts and postcards and hasn’t stopped. To date he has sold more than 1 million T-shirts alone. On them, fish reign supreme: What cow skulls are to Georgia O’Keeffe, Alaska salmon are to Ray Troll. In the Troll world, cowering anglers are haunted by the spirits of the fish they’ve caught, and business-suited trout plot deals on Walleye Street. A giant steelhead inspires the epistemological question, fish worship: is it wrong? (A question to which I—note byline above—answer emphatically, No!)
Troll’s watery worldview is so complete that I keep falling in it, the way you stumble into a pond. As I scribble in my notebook, he points out, “You’re writing with your fins.” (I look up with the startled expression customers on the old Palmolive commercial wore after Madge the manicurist announced, “You’re soaking in it.”) “Hands are modified pectoral fins,” Troll explains. “You’re walking around on your pelvic fins. Every living land animal with a backbone is descended from the same group of fish. Everybody is fish.”
Troll works in a hillside studio with a sublime view of Ketchikan and the Tongass Narrows. It is, as you’d expect, quirky, filled with objets d’art, like a pickled ratfish, a small, sharklike fish that is Troll’s personal totem. It’s also the lair of someone who takes his art seriously. The prime habitat of Troll’s steelhead and coho may be the T-shirt and poster, but his original paintings and drawings fetch considerable prices. And Troll depicts his fish with such loving accuracy that he has won numerous fans among marine biologists and paleontologists.
Late in the afternoon, we get in Troll’s station wagon—its license plate reads ratfsh—and head south of town to a salmon hatchery. After all, we’ve spent a day together and haven’t seen any live fish. (The salmon at the seafood plant don’t count.) It’s near the end of the salmon run, and the fish struggle upstream to their demise. We watch them splash; we keep an eye out for black bears, which Troll wants me to see but which I do not. Birth and death, beauty and danger: It’s all here in an Alaskan stream. Or, as Troll reminded me, “Everybody is fish.”
INFO: Visit www.trollart.com for more about Ray Troll and his new book with Brad Matsen, Rapture of the Deep: The Art of Ray Troll (University of California Press, 2004; $30).