10,000 FISH UNDER THE SEA
Of course, even some fiberglass fish look dead. Back at New Wave, Kirkhart shows me a competitor's fish. The mouth is just a solid wall of fiberglass, the eyes plain black. And that's not all-this fish's scales are misplaced and the coloration is wrong. All things you might not notice, that is until you put it next to one of Kirkhart's.
Kirkhart became a world taxidermy champ not just by creating anatomically correct fish, but because he started doing things other artists didn't-or couldn't. He created detailed latex mouth molds (one area many artists simply ignore), painted veins in the eyes, made fins translucent, and put the fish in action poses. In the 1970s, these were revolutionary concepts. Today, they're still unique and impressive.
With some 10,000 fish to his credit, Kirkhart has perfected techniques to bring a fish to life. For him, the real artistry begins with the trimming of excess fiberglass. This requires knowing the lines of the fish and the angle of the fins-and of course having a steady hand with the saw. Dust flies everywhere as I grind away, transforming rough edges into smooth fish skin. As the soundtrack moves to Pink Floyd, Kirkhart guides my grinding, showing me where it's okay to take artistic license (around the edges of the dorsal fin) and what would be wrong (not grinding the tailfin deep enough).
We cut holes for the eyes, glass circles handmade in Germany and painted with Kirkhart's special technique. To do it, I airbrush blue paint around the black pupil, then dab on silver with a brush, giving the eye a speckled look, full of depth and expression. Teeth-grains of sand-are held in place with wood glue. We slide in the mouth, glue on additional fins, and sand the entire thing. It's at this point, holding an eye in my hand, that the fumes catch up with me once again and I'm back to the head-this time to revisit lunch.
Painting is, if not the most important, at least the most visible step. A good painter can make a decent fish look like art. I am not a good painter.
After recovering outside, I bring the fish into the paint room. I cover it with silver ("That's $160 a gallon," says Kirkhart. "Don't drop it,"), which will shine through some of the later coats. That is, if someone who knows what he's doing does it. In my hands the acrylic paint goes on gloppy and uneven.
Color is a tricky thing to capture, especially because fish turn their pigments on and off like a light switch, going from bright green to a silvery blue at the drop of a fin. In other words, the replica may not look the way the fish looked when it's caught. "We paint the fish the colors we like them to be," says Kirkhart, "not necessarily the way we found them."