Some people snap a photo of their trophy fish. Others call a taxidermist and have the fish mounted. Local artist Sonja Larsen, though, is using trophy fish to make art prints that are not only accurate representations of the angler’s catch, but worthy of gallery wall space.
Sonja, of Lake Shore, likes to say that Mother Nature does the drawing. It’s Sonja, though, who is responsible for capturing what Mother Nature has created. Using historic Japanese methods, she makes prints of fish and plants that last far longer than the organic matter they represent.
Her prints range from ferns to flowers, bluegills to northerns. Sonja’s studio is packed with pressed plants, and home to a freezer filled with vacuum-packed fish awaiting printing.
In addition to selling her prints or taking commissions for prints from anglers, Sonja is also the co-author of Creating Art from Nature, How to Handprint Botanicals, a book on the many methods of making nature prints.
The process of printing fish is delicate and complex. It takes an entire day for Sonja to prepare the fish she’ll print. She then spends three days creating first indirect prints, then direct prints. A direct print involves coating the fish with ink and pressing it onto paper, while an indirect print involves molding a special type of moistened paper to the fish, and applying numerous thin layers of artist ink to the paper over the fish.
The paper Sonja uses is called ramon-sen, and is extremely thin but remains very strong even when it’s wet.
Often Sonja takes commissions for fish prints for anglers and offers the angler first pick of the many prints she’s able to make from a single fish. She then sells the remaining prints she makes in art shows or galleries.
Sonja hadn’t created much art before she started making nature prints.
“I can’t draw, but I’m creative,” she said. When she and her husband, Stan, bought their Minnesota cabin, they enjoyed fishing on the lake.
“Years ago, someone I was working with would make black and white prints of fish. I found it quite fascinating,” Larsen said. She tried her hand at printing but says she made bad print after bad print as she fought to learn the correct techniques of fish printing.
Sonja started to get the hang of printing and created a print of a nice size bass that Stan caught, which still hangs in her home today. When she heard of a nature printing workshop in the Twin Cities, she signed up and spent two days creating nature prints.
What she found was that creating nature prints was an escape from the everyday stresses of her life.
“I was leading a stressful life as an executive in a corporation. This demanded that you eliminate everything and concentrate on what you’re doing. It puts you in the here and now, and it’s good for you,” Sonja said.
A couple years after her first workshop, she was able to spend a week in Hawaii studying fish printing from a Japanese master of indirect fish printing. After attending numerous workshops and making countless prints, Sonja’s built not only a studio where she creates her prints but a name for herself as an artist.
Sonja’s day of preparation for fish printing includes removing every bit of slime from the fish she’s going to print. A gallon of vinegar helps the process, and also helps kill germs that might be on the fish. The fish has to be perfectly clean and dry. She then arranges the fish in the position she wants, such as lifting the tail or arranging the fins to give life to the print. Often she super glues the fins so they hold a life-like position. She admits that after three days of printing the same northern, the smell can get a little funky in her studio.
While the artist’s ink Sonja uses in prints can be expensive, many of her tools are not. She often uses simple makeup sponges for blotting the ink. While she uses ramon-sen paper for many of her indirect fish prints, she also uses rice paper, a much less expensive and more readily-available paper. For her botanical subjects, she often doesn’t look farther than her own garden or roadside ditches.
She said that nature printing has given her a new appreciation of the subjects she prints.
“When you print a leaf, you see things you didn’t see with the naked eye. There’s a lot of detail that just isn’t there otherwise,” she said. After attending many workshops, she’s noticed a theme among those who attend. “People say, after a class, ‘I look at things so differently now.’”
Sonja’s art is often minimalist, with a single fish or single plant. Her work allows the viewer to see the emphasis on the slight details of the plants, the subtle colors on the fish and the patterns of the scales, offering a simple appreciation of nature, captured.
Find Sonja’s book, Creating Art from Nature, as well as wall hangings and blank cards, at Serendipity Art Gallery in the Jack Pine Center in Pequot Lakes.