Do It! Pittsford artist paints fish at their finest
Growing up in Bonn, Germany, she visited places like France, Austria, Yugoslavia and Spain on family vacations. She can remember salt-water fishing off piers and trout fishing on streams.
As only an artist might, Etter didn’t look at fish as well, fish. She saw amazing subject material, offering shapes, lines and textures. She noticed the tiniest details in a tailfin, a gill, an eye. Of course, she marveled at the rainbow of color, shimmering shades of silver, red, gold, yellow and brown.
“People always think a fish is a fish but they’re not. Every fish is different,” Etter said. “They have details and coloring that you might not see immediately. This is where the painting comes into play.”
This is where the fly angler and the artist swim together.
With the grace of a double haul, Etter uses brushes and pencils to create stunningly realistic and beautiful life-size watercolor paintings of fish. For fishermen who desire to preserve a memory, her 10-year-old Pittsford village home business, Sketch and Release (sketchandrelease.com, (585) 542-8861), offers customers a sophisticated and conservation-minded alternative to traditional taxidermy mounts.
Etter, 44, respects the artistic quality of good taxidermy work, including plastic replica mounts that also promote the catch-and-release ethos so important to sustaining quality fishing for future generations. But by spending an average of 6 to 30 hours per painting, by studying photographs or working off information and descriptions provided by customers, she’s able to capture what she called “the personality of the fish.”
“I used to photograph lots of fish in black and white and you can see enormous differences in each one,” Etter said. “When you get into color photography, you see even more differences. In painting, I like to draw the details.”
Those details leap off a collection of framed prints that hang in her family’s den. The head of a steelhead colored in shades of silver, blue and pink; the distinctive red jaw patch of a westslope cutthroat trout; the fat red belly and steely hooked jaw of a Coho salmon.
With outdoor shows and the Internet her main source of marketing, Etter nets orders from Maine to California. She charges $15 an inch and can add in touches like a rod and reel, the fly or lure used to land the fish or a landmark. She has worked on projects for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Chicago Art Institute and her work appears regularly in Trout Unlimited Magazine. Many pieces hang in Orvis-endorsed fishing lodges.
“What I love is that her work is a very accurate rendering and precise reproduction of your fish. They are beautiful to look at, too,” said Jeff McEvoy, owner of famed Weatherby’s Lodge on Grand Lake Stream, Maine, where Ted Williams stayed.
McEvoy first glimpsed Etter’s work at the Somerset, N.J., Fly Fishing Show. He now proudly hangs a Josi Etter smallmouth bass and landlocked salmon in his lodge’s dining room, right next to some highly valuable skin mounts from the early 1900s. For guests who want the memory of a catch preserved, McEvoy suggests a painting and passes on Etter’s contact information.
“The most obvious benefit of the painting is that the fish is returned to the water it came from to be hopefully caught again next year,” he said. “I also believe the paintings are classier than the mounts and can be tactfully displayed in many more places in a home or business.”
Sure enough, Etter said her paintings lure more hang time in a prominent place than traditional taxidermy mounts.
“I’ve had a lot of customers tell me, ‘My wife wouldn’t let me hang the fish mount, maybe in the garage or basement or the man cave, but not the family room,’ ” Etter said. ” ‘But your painting — we hang that in the living room.’ ”
Etter’s mother worked as a teacher/consultant for the United Nations and her family lived for periods of time in West Africa and the Philippines. Her sense of adventure led Josi to the United States in 1996 to study film preservation at the George Eastman House.
There were three things she heard would indoctrinate her into America culture: baseball, square dancing and fly fishing. The first two she didn’t take to that well. Fly fishing, yes.
That’s how she landed her husband, Calvin Curtice, an Irondequoit native and avid fly angler. They met through friends. He taught her how to cast. It was love at first bite.
In Germany, acquiring a fishing license requires hours of course work and passing a test and it’s very expensive. When Etter learned that a fishing license in New York cost $15 back then no questions asked and the local waters were world class, she was hooked.
“To go to Oatka Creek, the Genesee River, Sandy Creek or the Salmon River, it’s fantastic,” she said. “And the Adirondacks aren’t far away. People talk about out West, but we really have the best fishing right here and so scenic.”
Calvin, who works in the computer field, admitted that helping his wife with her business is a guilty pleasure.
“Selfishly as a fisherman, it’s been awesome,” he said. “We’ve been able to work a lot of shows, like the big one in New Jersey, and just had a fantastic response to her paintings there. We’ve been able to meet a lot of really important people in the fishing world.”
People who walk past their booth always stop in their tracks to admire Josi’s artwork, Calvin said proudly.
“We hear all the time, ‘That painting looks exactly like the fish when I took it from the water,’ ” he said. “As you know, you maybe have a minute before the colors change. That moment when it’s a breathtaking image right before you let it go, that’s what she paints. She’s blended that accuracy of the scientific side with the artistic coloration. … That’s why people relate to her work.”
When too many fish are jumping in her sleep, Etter will paint portraits of people. Her avocation is most definitely her occupation.
“I like painting a lot and it gives me a lot,” she said. “It makes me feel good. So it’s my meditation and my pleasure. Everyone has a talent and that’s mine.”
You catch it, she’ll sketch it. Poetry, art and fly fishing are life itself.
View our previous post about Josi . . .