‘Looking inside my brain’: 40 years of Ray Troll’s inspiration and imagination captured in new book

This is part of Alaska Authors, an occasional series about authors and other literary figures with ties to the 49th state.

In the late 1980s, Ray Troll was living in Ketchikan, slowly establishing himself as an artist obsessed with the natural world and possessed with a boundless sense of humor. Inspired by the annual return of salmon to nearby Ketchikan Creek and intrigued by their life cycles, Troll had recently come up with a drawing of two of the fish, coupled with the words “Let’s Spawn.” It was, he said, “a euphemism for the dance of life.”

Around the same time, a Troll friend and fellow artist, Juneau-based William Spear, had begun selling enamel pins of his paintings. He suggested that the two collaborate, with Troll providing a piece that could be sold as wearable art to tourists traveling through Southeast Alaska.

Digging through his work, Troll returned to his salmon drawing, changed the caption to “Spawn Till You Die,” tweaked the image and offered it to Spear. “I did a very reduced version of it for the pin,” he recalled. “But the pen and ink drawing, I made it into a T-shirt. And the rest is kind of history.”

Troll’s T-shirts quickly became popular farther down the coast in Seattle, where musicians in that city’s then-nascent grunge scene started wearing them onstage. From there the shirts and the drawing spread across the country and Troll was on his way to international renown. “If there’s one thing I might be known for when I’m dead and gone,” he said, “it would be that image.”

More than three decades later, that drawing, wildly popular in Alaska, has provided both the title and cover art for a career retrospective recently published by Clover Press. “Spawn Till You Die: The Fin Art of Ray Troll” contains more than 200 examples of his now iconic drawings and paintings, which blend scientifically accurate depictions of living and extinct animals with surreal scenery, pop culture references, psychedelic colors, zany humor and endless puns. “You’re looking inside my brain when you go through this book,” he said.

Troll grew up a self-described Air Force brat, preoccupied by the richly detailed satirical drawings found in Mad and Cracked magazines. He picked up pencils at a very young age and never stopped drawing. As his drawing and painting experiments expanded, his mother exposed him to art history and Renaissance paintings, which further influenced his developing style. He was also fascinated by dinosaurs, an interest that set him on the course toward becoming the biology-centered artist he is today. “By the time I was 10 years old, the die was cast on what I wanted to do,” he said, “and I was very serious about it.”


Troll’s family moved every few years as his father’s career took them around the country and overseas. After high school, he enrolled at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas, where he studied printmaking and immersed himself in Lindsborg’s lively arts community. He said the art department at Bethany College was thriving in the 1970s. “It was just kind of a heyday,” he recalled.

After graduating, Troll lived in Seattle for a few years in the late 1970s, then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Washington State University in Pullman. The real breakthrough came in 1983, however, when his sister Kate Troll, another prominent Alaskan, suggested he come north for the summer. “That’s when the rest of the story really takes off,” he said. “I landed on the shore of Revillagigedo Island in the town of Ketchikan with two art degrees in my back pocket.”

Having stumbled upon and settled into what became his home, Troll’s immediate need was making a living. He did so first by selling fish, and later by teaching community college art classes. He met and married his wife, Michelle, and kids soon followed. Meanwhile, the flora, fauna and lifestyle of Southeast Alaska exploded into his artwork.

The success of “Spawn Till You Die” sent Troll into high gear, and he’s been a full-time artist ever since. His work is dominated by fish, fossils, dinosaurs, invertebrates, bears, coffee, cheeseburgers and, not uncommonly, Troll himself as a befuddled observer. The humorous settings that his creatures are found in are often far from their natural homes. But Troll’s attention to details and insistence that his renderings of the animals themselves be as precise as possible soon attracted the attention of scientists and science educators who found in his work a fun way to interest the public, and especially kids, in the natural world. “I like depicting things as accurately as I possibly can, but not to the insane degree of counting all the scales. But I do try to get the proper number of fin rays and that kind of thing,” he said.

“I’ve become an accidental science communicator,” Troll continued. “I’ve been interested in natural history my entire life. Dinosaurs were a gateway to it, but being around salmon and diving deep into the topic of fish, I just tumbled into it. The science nerd in me took off.”

By the early 1990s, Troll was selling his paintings and drawings on cards, mugs, refrigerator magnets and other inexpensive consumer items. In this he was inspired by the Swedish printmaker Birger Sandzén, who taught at Bethany College before Troll’s time there and who promoted the idea of that art should be accessible for everyone. “I took that same philosophy and tried to do that with T-shirts,” he said.

In 1992 Troll and Michelle opened Soho Coho, their art gallery and store in Ketchikan, and dived into online sales as well. Pieces with titles such as “Octopi Wall Street,” “The Baitful Dead” and the Star Wars spoof “Return of the Sockeye” quickly became bestsellers. These and many other beloved images are wedged into the colorful new book, which of course includes its title painting, the one that started it all.

Troll heaped praise on book designer Robbie Robbins, who turned an assortment of images on a thumb drive into a cohesive collection that presents “the last 40 years of my work.” Thematically arranged, pages of the book spill over with surreal scenes featuring fish, fossils, prehistoric animals, cars, guitars, anglers, skulls, Charles Darwin and more.

“It starts out with a lot of salmon imagery,” Troll said. “The first 20 or 30 pages are salmon and how they’ve inspired me. I moved to Alaska and fish sort of took over my life and my artwork. And from there, (the book) flows into many other topics. It’s weird to look back and see all these themes that run through all my stuff.”

Troll turned 70 this year, and he and Michelle recently closed Soho Coho after a long and successful run; the web store remains open. But he has no plans to retire. Along with producing art, he performs with his band, the Ratfish Wranglers, co-hosts the podcast “Paleo Nerds,” is featured in museums, and continues to share his fish and fossil enthusiasms with kids of all ages.

“I started drawing dinosaurs with crayons when I was 4 years old,” he said. “Now I’m 70 years old and I’m still drawing dinosaurs with crayons. I haven’t gone far in life.”

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David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at