Linda Heath spends her days rubbing fish.
"I'm living the dream," she said.
Heath is an artist, and her medium is something called gyotaku.
She takes a fish or other sea creature, usually one she's caught herself, and rubs it with colored ink, then presses the fish on a piece of paper. The result is a life-sized and realistic, but tantalizingly ethereal image.
"Then I clean the fish and cook it and it's that night's dinner," Heath said. "I use the bones for my crab traps. There's no waste. It's all about sustainability."
Heath used to work for the U.S. Department of Commerce, and would often travel to Japan. There she'd see unusual fish prints on walls of homes and business. She started asking about them and learned about gyotaku. ("gyo" means "fish" in Japanese; "taku" means "rub.")
Many years later -- after she and her husband Read had moved from Washington, D.C., to Tampa, and then back to the riverfront home in Bradenton where she grew up -- she tried her hand at gyotaku.
"And it turned out," Heath said, "that I could do it."
That was about three years ago. Now she spends the weekdays creating art. Most weekends she travels around the state showing and selling her gyotaku art at juried shows.
Even if you're not the kind of person who's likely to go to an art show, there's a good chance you've seen Heath's gyotaku around town. One of her pieces is reproduced on the menu of Riverside Cafe in Palmetto, and another of her works hangs in the dining room of the
Riverside Reef & Grill, also in Palmetto. And her work is on exhibit regularly at the Studio at Gulf and Pine on Anna Maria Island.
There's a lot more to Heath's art than just slathering ink on a fish and then slapping the fish down on a piece of paper.
"It's a 12-step process," she said. She's not going to reveal most of those steps, she said, because she doesn't want a lot of other artists to learn the process and compete with her. Years down the road, when she gets tired of traveling around to art shows, maybe she'll start teaching, she said. But not anytime soon.
Usually, Heath starts her day by going out on her boat and fishing for her next subject. She only uses fish that are plentiful, legal and in season -- nothing endangered, nothing that's too small. Once she catches something that would make for a cool piece of art, she heads back home and gets to work. The fish is almost always fresh out of the water when it is turned into art.
"Sometimes, if the fish is caught late in the day, I'll ice it down in my huge cooler and start the next day," she said.
That's usually true when she has a commissioned piece, from a local fisherman who wants to immortalize a catch he or she is especially proud of. It can be like taxidermy in that way, Heath said.
When she grew up in the house she and her husband live in now, it was a smallish single-story affair. After her mother, Dorothy Odom, passed away, Heath and her husband built a second story onto the house and turned that entire original house into a ground-floor studio. Gyotaku is everywhere.
Heath uses Japanese rice paper for her prints. It's like the stuff you see in sliding doors in Japanese restaurants and old Japanese movies. It's wispy, almost translucent, but strong with a visible texture.
She creates the print -- usually several prints of each fish -- and then paints the eye by hand. She's careful to keep the eyes as realistic as she can, because that's where a lot of the personality of the piece comes through, she said.
She always paints a tiny white dot in the fish's pupil. There's a Japanese tradition about that dot -- it symbolically brings the fish back to life -- that Heath finds intriguing.
These days, gyotaku is an art form, but started out as something more practical.
"It started with fishermen," Heath said. "They'd show the prints to the fishmongers and that's how they would record their catch."
But to the people who buy and love Heath's work and live with it on their walls, the origins of the art form don't matter much.
It really doesn't matter much to Heath, either, as long as she can keep creating it.
"In the morning I tell my husband I have to go to work," she said, "and I get out on my boat and go fishing and catch my art. What a great life."
For more information about Heath's art, visit www.lindaheathfishrubs.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.