72 Maine St., Brunswick, ME  207 798-6888



as featured in Down East Magazine*


More than twenty gyotaku fish monoprints  on exhibit daily all summer through September 2012




 Brunswick:  Gyotaku :   The Ancient Art of Japanese Fish Prints

As featured in Down East Magazaine



An exhibit of Japanese fish prints by Jean Kigel debuts at Little Tokyo in Brunswick this April.  What better place to view gyotaku fish monoprints than at a restaurant with Tokyo-trained chefs and Japanese out-fittings.   Guests may treat themselves to an artistic array of sushi at the table and gyotaku prints on the walls. 


The artist has always loved fish.  As an adult she knew that her life would be incomplete without depicting this precious resource.  She grew up in a family that fished recreationally – both on Moosehead Lake and on Muscongus Bay.  During the Colonial days, her home town of Warren was saved from starvation by a spring run of alewives. 


Already established in her career as a watercolorist and Asian brush painter, Kigel discovered gyotaku after her trip to Japan.  Gyotaku (gee – a – TA – ku), the art of printing fish, originated in Japan centuries ago as a way of documenting the size of a catch.  The walls of Japanese tackle and fish shops once were draped with sumi fish prints.    In modern times gyotaku has evolved into an art form.  Before printing a whole, un-gutted fish, Kigel prepares its scales with salt, and its fins and gills with batten and clay.  Then she applies printers’ ink in varying tones and colors directly onto the fish.  The image of the fish is transferred to paper by using hands as a press.  Depending on the thickness of the inking, every scale, fin, and gill may print.  A single fish can be ghost-printed or re-inked and printed again, often with unexpected effects.  Prints can be as realistic or as abstract as one likes, and each is unique.


Kigel has printed more than twenty species of fish including mackerel, cod, bass, trout, flounder, pollock, skate, John Dory, tilapia, and sculpin.   These have been exhibited at Archipelago Gallery in Rockland, the Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset, Summer Island Studio in Brunswick, and Tidemark Gallery in Waldoboro.  The Down East Magazine and Pacific Fishery Magazine have featured her gyotaku work. 


The manager of Little Tokyo has pledged to give a portion of the gyotaku sales to local charities.  Little Tokyo is open Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 – 9:30 and Friday and Saturday from 11:30 – 10:30.



* Excerpted from:    Down East Magazine  November 2011

Art from the Sea By: Cynthia Anderson

Gyotaku Sturgeon Series: Harlequin by Jean Kigel

Jean Kigel embraces the wabi-sabi nature of her art — of finding beauty in imperfection. But she doesn’t welcome ooze. Ooze has ruined more than a few prints, and it can happen if she fails to prep every orifice of the fish beneath her hands as meticulously as a doctor attending to a surgical site. “You can’t be too careful,” Kigel says.

Hence the cotton batting packed into the twenty-four-inch pollock’s mouth, belly, gills, nostrils, and vent. Clear-eyed and shining, it lies on the business section of yesterday’s New York Times. It’s been cleaned with dish soap and alcohol. Kigel runs her fingers down the pollock’s side, touches the barbel on its chin. “I want to make sure I get this,” she says of the whisker-like structure.

The practice of gyotaku — Japanese fish printing — is as natural in Kigel’s Waldoboro kitchen as the boats that bob in the harbor just yards from the cottage itself. Indeed, there seems affinity between the vivid immediacy of Maine sea life and the traditional art form. Gyotaku now sells briskly at Kigel’s shows, and a number of Maine galleries have begun to include it in their exhibitions. The College of the Atlantic holds gyotaku in its permanent collection, and the University of Maine Museum of Art (UMMA) hosted a 2009 exhibition of fish prints and accompanying demonstrations of the technique…

“I’m thinking purple,” Kigel eventually says, whimsy today trumping realism. She squeezes the color from a tube of block-print ink onto a butcher’s tray. With a palette knife, she mixes in dabs of white and black. The technique for coating the fish with ink looks deceptively simple. Kigel uses a sheep’s hairbrush to apply liberal amounts to its entire side. Then comes the art: extra white on its belly, bits of black, spritzes from a bottle of water to ease hard lines. Deftly, Kigel adds ink here and removes it there. She checks every fin for coverage — dorsal, pectoral, caudal, and gill, seven altogether — then leaves the fish to sit.

In a few minutes, when she presses paper around it to make a print, it can’t be too wet, and it can’t be too dry…

Kigel, already an accomplished artist who’d studied Asian brush painting in Japan, China, and the United States, first attempted gyotaku five years ago after learning about it from a friend. Initially, there were difficulties: torn fins, too-wet paper that ripped, packing that wouldn’t stay lodged. As it happened, that winter she was reading Callum Roberts’ account of the effects of overfishing, The Unnatural History of the Sea. “It really affected me,” she says. “I wanted to intensify public awareness . . . [I wanted my work] to capture dwindling species, both common and exotic…

Thus inspired, Kigel worked through the winter and spring. By summer she had a few prints she felt good enough about to include in a show entitled “Alewives and the Asian Aesthetic.” She’s since exhibited gyotaku at a variety of Maine galleries; characteristic of her work is a “fossilized” look that originated in small holes and depressions in the fish itself — “a happy accident” she now cultivates. Sometimes she ghost-prints or re-inks a single fish to produce an overlapping school. She still welcomes wabi-sabi: “A fold in the paper . . . a surprise blending of tones or colors, something uncentered, uncertain — something like fishing itself”…

There’s also a technical aspect to the work. Reference materials cover the kitchen table: A.J. McClane and Keith Gardner’s Game Fish of North America, an Audubon book on fish, several detailed renderings of haddock and rainbow trout, and pages of fish profiles. From a variety of printing papers, Kigel selects gold-flecked shuen for the pollock. Wetting a brush, she draws a line down the middle of a large sheet then tears it in two…

Kigel smiles. “Getting there,” she says. She has an upstairs studio, but gyotaku commandeers the kitchen because it can be messy.  She begins to press the shuen onto the fish, applying careful pressure to capture every feature. “Like magic,” she says of the process. She checks for slime — none, thankfully — then spreads out a fin that is slightly collapsed.

When the paper is completely fitted around the outer half of the fish (the other side is left un-inked), Kigel starts to peel back the shuen. Here is where disasters are most apt to occur: a major smear, for instance, or a puncture. This time, in spite of her care, the paper tears slightly at the pollock’s mouth. But it’s a small error, one that likely won’t be noticeable when Kigel wet-mounts the piece onto heavier stock. Later she will paint a background for the fish, add an eye and other details. She’ll conclude by signing her name vertically and including her Asian chop in red cinnabar.

The sun has dropped, the wind died. The evening will be fair. But Kigel is not thinking about the weather.  Her gaze is outward, but her focus is inward, she’ll tell you, on the whole haddock and the trout stored in her refrigerator, on tomorrow’s gyotaku and its possibilities.

Return to home page.