Louisiana artist preserves alligators with the art of ‘fish rubbing’

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By ROBIN MILLER, the lawyer

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The destination was indicated only by a pin on his GPS map, a pin that landed him on a seawall in the middle of nowhere.

Leslie Charleville glanced behind her, where a bayou flowed toward who knows where. Ahead of her were the murky waters of a Louisiana swamp with no breeze to stir them.

Thoughts swarmed like mosquitoes in the Louisiana heat. Was she in the right place? What was she doing there? Would the alligator hunter find her?

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And the man who came to pick her up was, indeed, a Louisiana alligator hunter, the kind seen in the History Channel’s “Swamp People.” He had heard that Charleville was an artist who made alligator prints and wanted one for himself.

He also knew that the Charleville prints are not studio representations. These are real alligators, which require their creation on the spot.

His medium is called gyotaku, or “fish rub,” an ancient Japanese method of documenting catches at sea. The first gyotaku print was made in the mid-19th century from a red snapper captured by a Japanese emperor.

There was no camera, and printing gyotaku in sumi ink on rice paper was the only way for the emperor to authentically prove that he had caught such a big fish.

Why? Because the print was taken directly from the fish, just as Charleville now makes its prints on alligators. But for her, the process is more than art.

“It’s a tribute to the animal,” she said. “It’s a way of honoring the animal and its creator. Not only does the footprint preserve the animal’s image, it also preserves the animal’s DNA in that footprint.

The process is part of a mission statement on its website, lcharlevillestudios.com.

“If you look at our statement, the studio’s mission is to uplift the natural world and whoever created it,” Charleville said. “And what I set out to do is elevate the natural world. Whether it’s a fish, an alligator, a spider’s web, some kind of plants, a bird, or a feather, I want to look at God’s creation and honor it with the impression.

Charleville is not content to pay lip service to the spiritual side of its mission. She openly pays homage to God for the success of her studio.

“My faith is strong and this road did not start easy,” she said. “I made tons of mistakes and made bad decisions with them. But in those days when it was a little more difficult, I was praying, and God gave me promises and said to me: ‘You know, that’s what I’m going to do, that’s what I’m going to do through your art.’ And that’s what’s happening, and that’s what’s happening now.

That’s why she can’t help but pinch herself when she takes a day off from her full-time job as the Louisiana Art & Science Museum’s special events manager to ride with an alligator hunter.

“I wonder, ‘Is this real? ‘” Charleville said. “And it is. I like to see how these things that I felt were put in my heart play out here and now. It’s almost like I’m watching it happen in real time, because, yeah, I do trust what God says.

That’s why she didn’t panic when the alligator hunter’s GPS location led her to a remote dike. The hunter finally stopped in his boat and told him to load his provisions.

After the hunt, he and two other hunters met on his barge, where Charleville spread out his supplies and made an imprint of one of his catches. The footprint was to be a gift for the hunter’s wife, a keepsake created in the very swamp where he and the alligators thrived.

It was a few years ago. Fast forward to August 31, the first day of alligator season in 2022. Charleville has booked a hunt with hunter Logan Davis, whose camp is along the Chef Menteur Highway as it approaches the Strait of Channels near Slidell.

The arrangement is a win-win for Charleville and Davis. She is given the opportunity to reduce her four-week backlog of alligator orders, after which Davis walks away with a morning catch of tagged reptiles.

And among a 7- and 8-foot pile is a prized monster the crew tagged “Honey,” standing 10 feet 3 inches tall.

The beast reminds Charleville of his first attempt at an alligator print at Duffy’s Market in Pierre Part. This is the place that belongs to Louisiana’s most famous alligator hunter, Troy Landry of “Swamp People” fame. It’s also where Landry and other area hunters bring their tagged alligators each day to be measured, weighed and processed during Louisiana’s month-long alligator season.

Charleville had been making gyotaku prints of Louisiana fish, crabs, and other aquatic creatures since 2012. Her medium had been more traditional brushes and canvas before, after earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2008 from LSU. But her art of choice changed while watching a fishing show on TV.

The setup was familiar. The host was fishing and talking. But his guest picked up the footprints of the host’s catch.

Was Charleville just surfing the canals back then? Maybe not. With her love of the outdoors cultivated by a family of hunters and fishers in Rosedale, fishing shows came naturally to her.

Also, the idea of ​​creating gyotaku footprints in the Louisiana waterways teeming with wildlife, aquatic creatures, and plants was particularly appealing. There was definitely fate in the timing of the show.

Charleville began reading anything she could find and watching YouTube videos about the art form. Then a friend offered to start with a flounder from his recent catch.

“It was my first try,” she said. “The fish was slimy and I realized there was so much to learn.”

The fish are still slimy, but Charleville is now wiping them up with napkins. Her repertoire of prints has grown to include marlons, duckbill catfish, scorpionfish and even an octopus.

Word of his work spread by word of mouth. Anglers across the state started calling, “Hey, can you meet me here?” on-site printing requests.

Then came the alligator hunters.

“I was thinking, ‘I live in Louisiana, so I should do alligators,'” Charleville said.

So she went down to Pierre Part and waited for the hunters to arrive at Duffy’s with their catch. Charleville spotted Landry and asked her if she could try to make a print.

“He was all for it,” Charleville said. “He said, ‘Which one do you want?’ I said, ‘The biggest you got.’ For me, it’s either get big or go broke.

It was 2014, and Charleville soon realized that his first-ever alligator would attract a large following of hunters and “Swamp People” fans. As was the case with the flounder, there was plenty of room for error with the gator.

“I didn’t call them ahead of time, and it was really crazy of me to choose the biggest one,” she said. “I had a lot to learn on that one, because I got what I call the butterfly effect on that print.”

The butterfly effect, she will underline while making the gyokatu prints on Logan Davis’ platform, occurs when she spreads the paint on the entire flanks of the alligator.

Acrylic paint is what she uses to make the prints, by the way. She spreads it out with rollers, painting the alligator’s face, back, tail and legs before covering it with cotton canvas. She rolls the paint only halfway down the sides for a more realistic effect.

Otherwise, the sides will stick out, much like butterfly wings. This is what happened on this first alligator in front of his public at Duffy.

But Charleville didn’t let failure stop him. She continued her visits to Duffy and Landry continued to supply her with alligators. And when she finally mastered the technique, she presented Landry with one of the prints.

Now standing on the dock at Logan Davis with one of the smaller alligators captured earlier in the morning, Charleville wipes the animal with paper towels, wiping the blood from the fatal blow to the head.

“We will make at least two prints of this alligator,” said Cindy Verdin, Charleville’s business partner. “My goal today is to complete commissions.”

Gyotaku prints can be made in different colors. Once the paint is rolled over the animal, Charleville and Verdin cover the alligator. Charleville then presses the thick fabric over the alligator, making sure to slip his fingers into each crevice.

She does the same thing on the bigger alligator, which takes a bit longer. Once the fabric is lifted, the paint is sprinkled on the alligators.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Charleville said, looking at the large alligator’s footprint. “It’s our way of honoring these animals. But by doing this, we are also doing something more: we are preserving a culture.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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