From Duncan Berry’s art studio in the United Nations Biosphere Reserve at Cascade Head on the Central Coast, you can see the Salmon River estuary, an ever-changing watercolor scene with shocking shades of blue and green from the shimmering sea to the ripple of woodlands. The estuary is home to a vast array of wildlife, including some of Oregon’s precious salmon species.
Inside the studio there’s salmon, too. Berry carefully cleans and prepares the surface of a Chinook salmon to become art. He gently and evenly rolls and paints ink across its body, applying it heavier in certain segments to capture different nuances. He mists a piece of mulberry paper and then delicately lays it across the fish. With one hand, he holds the fish in place, the other hand alternately taps, pushes and rubs across the surface of the fish like a pianist improvising a tune.
The technique, gyotaku — literally “fish rubbing” in Japanese — reflects a traditional art of pressing rice paper onto the bodies of fish covered with paint or ink. These prints date back to the 18th century with Japanese fishermen memorializing their prized catches.
A former commercial fisherman himself, Berry has found a new calling with this craft.
Learning Gyotaku, the Art of Fish Impressions
Raised in a family of artists, Berry has lived and worked on this rugged stretch of the Coast since 2006. With a background not only in fishing but also concept and product design, Berry practices his art with conservation in mind. He’s launched a nonprofit to preserve over 500 acres of wilderness area, partnering with scientists to create education and outreach programs for the Cascade Head Biosphere Collaborative. He also co-founded Fishpeople, a national sustainable seafood company. “There’s nowhere else I would rather live or be than here,” he says. “We call it the wild edge of a continent.”
Berry first learned about the Japanese technique of gyotaku, or fish printing, at an event for Fishpeople. He was looking for ways to connect the staff to ocean life and was introduced to the work of master mariner and artist Heather Fortner. He was so taken by the technique he apprenticed with her for a year and created his own practice.
When he’s working on a piece with, say, a Columbia River coho, Dungeness crab or giant Pacific octopus, he’s honing in on microscale details, discovering a deeper connection to each creature he prints. “With gyotaku and nature printing, there’s detail that the human eye can’t see that is actually represented when the ink touches the paper,” says Berry. “It’s a very faithful documentation of each creature.”
Connecting Art with Ocean Science
In his work with the Cascade Head Biosphere Collaborative, there’s a phrase Berry uses every day: art illuminating science. The nonprofit brings about 5,000 visitors a year to the Central Coast area, many joining one of the experiential programs led by local naturalists and artists, including Berry, to learn about keystone species and the region’s rich and varied biodiversity.
“I’m seeking to replicate for other people what I’ve gone through myself,” he says. Though he has been a commercial and sport fisherman, he says it wasn’t until pursuing his art that he began to hone in on the intricacies and wonders of each individual fish. “Look at those scales where they turn at the end of the tail — they’re iridescent,” he says. “There’s also an incredible pattern along the side of the fish. What a spectacular example of design.”
Ultimately, Berry wants to share what is possible when we care for what he calls the “other than human.” It’s a practice he embraces daily, when he walks and sketches the waters around him that are teeming with life. He admires, observes and studies with dedication. At low tide he can spy mussels, anemones, whelks and sea stars clinging to rocks in tidal-pool areas, or spot the crest of a magnificent gray whale migrating past the sandy shoreline.
These walks inspired an exhibit at Astoria’s RiverSea Gallery in February and March 2023, which asked how places shape us. Berry’s exhibit included a series of 7-foot-high silhouettes each filled with gyotaku-printed creatures, all found within a mile of his home. His intent was to illustrate how essential these creatures are to his life, and to explore what the world would look like if we treated all the other species living in our habitat as relations rather than things.
As he leads gyotaku activities and exhibits his work, he’s found similar curiosities and conversations emerge with others. Through sharing his art, Berry gets to see countless people — to take one example — sketch a Pacific rockfish, learn that it can live for more than 100 years, then form a deeper connection to the tenacious fish. “After creating beautiful artwork, their relationship changes,” he says. “They became ambassadors for the ocean.”
Exhibits and Gyotaku Classes in Oregon
There are many places to discover Berry’s work and share in his wonder for the sea. Starting in Astoria, you can find permanent collections on display at the RiverSea Gallery and in each of the guest suites at the Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa. He has also created multiple enchanting murals for the recently renovated Stephanie Inn in Cannon Beach.
At Newport’s Oregon Coast Aquarium, a permanent exhibit, “Thanks Be to the Sea,” features over 40 of Berry’s gyotaku prints and a series of coastal photos. Highlights in this collection include prints of a 37-pound Chinook salmon, the pectoral fin of a gray whale and a deep-sea viperfish. You can find the artwork located in the “Passages of the Deep” area of the aquarium, a stunning 1.32-million-gallon exhibit that illuminates three expansive ocean habitats connected by tunnels that stretch underwater for 200 feet.
Interested in creating your own gyotaku prints? Berry offers seasonal workshops through the Cascade Head Biosphere Collaborative and at the Columbia River Maritime Museum during the annual FisherPoets Gathering in Astoria in February, an event that brings hundreds of commercial fishers together to share their spoken-word poetry, stories and song.
Stay tuned for future showings of “Blue Heart: Beauty and Change Along America’s Western Shoreline,” a collaborative exhibit with artist Dwight Hwang that debuted at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. The 25-piece show speaks to the transformative beauty of the Pacific Ocean and climate-driven changes unfurling along the western shoreline.