Leslie Charleville is, first and foremost, an artist. And she uses her talent in a unique way to preserve Louisiana’s outdoor treasures. She practices gyotaku, an ancient form of Japanese art that began over 100 years ago as a way for fishermen to keep a record of the fish they caught. It combines the Japanese words gyo (fish) and taku (rubbing). It is pronounced gee-oh-tak-oo.
Like her Japanese predecessors, Charleville prints a lot of fish. However, she is probably best-known for her alligators. She prints freshly-harvested gators that are up to four times her height and weight. Her main goal is to preserve that fish or animal so that it lives on. And nothing goes to waste. Once the process is finished, the fish or alligator is totally useable.
The work is physical. Printing an alligator or a 600-pound tuna is just as labor-intensive as it sounds. More physical than even that, though, is the printing process.
“When I print a fish or alligator, I try to document every quality that made that animal unique,” she said. “When I finish, that print contains the animal’s DNA, permanently pressed into the surface and giving the animal new life.”
A collision of two worlds
With degrees in Art History and Painting/Drawing from LSU, Charleville always knew she would find her niche in the art world. In 2012, she started experimenting with this technique after watching an episode of the TV fishing show “Spanish Fly.”
“They had these guys from Jamaica who took a fish, wrapped it in towels and the next thing, there’s a perfect impression of the fish on a piece of canvas,” she said. “I thought that was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I did my homework and came across gyotaku online. The rest is history.”
She got her first fish from Tony’s seafood and things didn’t go very smoothly.
“It was a disaster,” she said. “But I didn’t give up.”
Soon, she had it down and she decided to go after bigger fish. She also decided to do an alligator. The only thing was, she didn’t have one.
“I went to Duffy’s in Pierre Part where the Landry’s bring their gators in to,” she said. “They were so gracious and let me cut my eye teeth on their alligators. After people started seeing them, it just exploded.”
Her family had always hunted and fished and her love for art led to a perfect match, what she calls “a collision of my two worlds.”
You can learn more about the process, pricing and what is involved in gyotaku on her website, lcharlevillestudios.com, or follow L Charlesville Studios on Facebook at facebook.com/lcharlevillestudios.
A great keepsake
She keeps an inventory of prints for people who just want to buy one, but she finds that most of her work is commissioned. People want a print of their fish or their gator when they can get it. Most of the prints are black and white, but she also applies color to the fish on some occasions for the print.
An example of that is with a mahi mahi. She puts blues and greens and yellows on the fish, then prints it in color, looking much like the real fish. She adds finishing touches like the eyes and additional color as needed. Some people also want their alligator done in color. It’s just a matter of using a different color ink to cover the subject of the artwork.
The attraction to gyotaku is easy to understand. For starters, it is much less expensive than full taxidermy and the artwork itself is much more attractive than a mounted fish or alligator. Then there’s the practical side. Not many people have room on their wall for a 12-foot alligator, but a framed piece of artwork fits just fine.
There’s also the fact that once the print is done, the water-based ink can be washed off and the fish or alligator can be used just as if nothing happened.
“That’s the real beauty of the whole process,” she said. “When the art form was developed, it was a means of documentation of the fisherman’s catch. Then, they could also clean and eat the fish, which is why it was caught to begin with.”