One Fish

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Everyone has a special fish. A favorite. It might be one from childhood or one that is happily discovered farther down the road.

Mine is the striped bass. But having grown up fishing the waters of southern New England, the bluefish has also been a persistent companion, often vying for attention and affection, sometimes without invitation.

Still, the blue has always been a good alter ego to the striped bass. One a boxer, the other a wrestler. Running mates. Complementary but very different.

One of Jim Baker’s series of bluefish drawings.

One of Jim Baker’s series of bluefish drawings.

Beginning with the next issue of The Run, we will publish a new blog that focuses on the one fish that has changed an angler’s life. It might be the largest, or one that got away, or perhaps one caught as a child. The stories will surprise you.

While doing research for a magazine story on bluefish many years ago, I had a conversation with an artist who changed the way I looked at that fish. The painter was Jim Baker, a Rhode Islander who had just completed a series of evocative black-and-white drawings for Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Hersey’s book Blues. In the process, Baker had done an exhaustive study of the fish. And he spoke of the species with a dignity and depth that surprised me.

This Stanley Meltzoff painting captures a wild feeding frenzy.

This Stanley Meltzoff painting captures a wild feeding frenzy.

To the artist, bluefish are poetry — a wild, beautiful and mysterious force of nature. I found my notes from that long-ago interview and called Baker recently to continue the conversation we’d started 22 years ago. “They’re really quite magical,” says Baker, a professor emeritus at Providence College. “Almost a mythic kind of fish.”

He spoke of the beaten-metal quality of the head and body, and the richness and luminosity of its skin. “You almost can’t imagine it being just flesh,” says Baker, who enjoys fishing for blues and striped bass. “It looks like some kind of incredible forged metal.” And the colors? “Greens, blues, turquoise, emerald, cobalt blue. The whole range from blue violet to blue green is there, plus some blacks, grays, silvers, pewter colors. They’re almost prismatic in the way they refract the light. There are certain butterfly wings that are like that, too.”

In preparing for the Hersey book, Baker pored over contemporary and historical drawings, photographs and engravings. He viewed film shot by fisheries scientists conducting research on bluefish. He examined live fish and studied the detailed “scale-by-scale” drawings the U.S. Fish Commission published in the 19th century. When he finally put down his pencils, Baker had made almost 400 drawings.

“I just sort of saturated myself with as many images as I could, and from there I could pretty much draw a bluefish blindfolded,” recalls Baker, 78, of Newport, Rhode Island.

Bluefish feeding beneath a headboat by Stanley Meltzoff.

Bluefish feeding beneath a headboat by Stanley Meltzoff.

After completing the art for Hersey’s book, Baker returned to his studio and produced another series of bluefish drawings, these with the fish set against blackened backgrounds so that your first impression is the flash of the fish in dark waters. These represented something deeper.

“For me, that has a very strong psychological impact, like the flash of inspiration from the subconscious,” says Baker. “It’s like a moment of insight or inspiration. The idea that comes out of nowhere.” Like the fish, he says, “You don’t know where it’s been or where it’s going. I tried to use it symbolically that way, almost mystically.”

Baker’s art reflects his view of nature as a mysterious, spiritual and transformative medium, one that suggests the existence of a higher life force.

“For me — it sounds a little odd — it’s a kind of religion,” he says. “It verifies that there is something beyond our intellectual or rational grasp, and we have to acknowledge it somehow. It’s like the quote [popularized] by Jung: Bidden or unbidden, God will appear. Nature is my way of acknowledging that.”

Not surprisingly, fishing is about more than just catching for the artist. “It’s tossing that line into the unknown,” Baker says. “It’s connecting to another world.”

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