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Alaska Life

Fishy business: Ketchikan artist Ray Troll thrives on creatures of the sea

  • Author: Steve Quinn
  • Updated: December 17, 2016
  • Published May 15, 2016

KETCHIKAN — Something odd is happening in Ketchikan Creek, and Ray Troll needs to check it out. The pink salmon — or humpies — he's accustomed to seeing spawn have been replaced by chum, also known as dogs.

Standing on the banks, Trolls beams as he watches the salmon make their last upstream push, completing their incredible journey home to freshwater either to lay or fertilize eggs.

"Look at this," he says. "How can you not be inspired by this? It's a circle of life. It's love; it's death."

His fascination for this cycle has never waned since he first portrayed it nearly 30 years ago in a breakthrough drawing titled "Spawn Till You Die": a drawing of a skull and crossed salmon flanked by floating humans.

Troll has looked at sea and ancient animal life with humorous irreverence as much as he has reverence. It's his way of translating "this wild, magnificent raw power" on a canvas that could be a T-shirt, his right shoulder, a large mural, a book cover or a sheet of music to accompany one of his songs, "Hey, Fish Face."

"We are related to fish; we are descended from fish," says Troll, an artist who, at 62, remains as driven today as he was the day he arrived in Ketchikan to work at his sister Kate's fish shack in 1983. This came two years after earning his Master of Fine Arts at Washington State University.

Today, he and his wife, Michelle, own Soho Coho gallery, where T-shirts and prints leave by the hundreds during cruise ship season; he's in a band that tours -- "everyone should be in a band; are you in a band?" he says. His projects inspire book collaborations and prompt museum curators to create exhibit space for his work.

He can briefly make you forget about fish with his craving for cheeseburgers at the Burger Queen on Water Street, then bring you back into the world of fish and fossils he makes compelling enough to keep scientists' rapt attention.

"I look at pectoral fins, I see arms. I see pelvic fins, and I see legs," says Troll, who has the genus of an extinct herring bearing his name: Trollychthys. "Then I see some fish who don't have pelvic fins; they are fish without legs. I think, 'What's up with that?' It's what drives me.

"You know what I see? I see our own body plan echoed in their bodies; I see a reflection of the human condition."

On this late summer day, however, Troll's creek visit has an additional purpose. He grabs a fish lying against the bank. Troll wants a closer look at its fangs, for he may need to correct a feature to one of his drawings depicting the sockeye salmon's 5-million-year-old ancestor: the sabertooth salmon, or the Oncorhynchus rastrosus.

This is when Troll's "nerdy sensibility" takes over. Even with the absurd and whimsical approach to his work, underscored by signature puns and aphorisms, Troll says, as much as possible, he must also be respectful to science and as accurate as possible.

He's learned of a fossil discovery in eastern Oregon showing how this species' upper teeth may point sideways. Troll isn't so sure, thinking it may be more of an angle.

So he takes a recently deceased and significantly discolored dog (chum) salmon from the creek. He pushes a stick through the underside of its jaw and pries it open to get a head-on look.

"I know on dog salmon, the teeth point outwards," he says. "I want to look at the upper fangs. They are large ones. It's awesome. I want to see the angle that they are at. They are outward, not down."

"As an artist if I'm going to show off that spiked tooth arrangement, where they are pointing outward, you can't do a profile of the fish. You have to have that fish in a dynamic pose coming at you; otherwise you'll never see the teeth pointing sideways. So I want to understand what that massive salmon looked like 5 million years ago."

Finding the right touch will nag Troll until it's fixed, especially with book deadlines looming. He's still putting the final touches on "The Eternal Coastline: The Best of the Fossil West from Baja to Barrow" with Kirk Johnson, director with the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

It's the follow-up collaboration to "Cruisin' the Fosssil Freeway," published in 2007. Johnson says he grew up a Seattle kid who dreamt of Alaska and had long enjoyed Troll's art. His interest was piqued after reading "Planet Ocean" in the mid-1990s. "I decided that I had to go find this guy," Johnson says. "So I was going fishing in Ketchikan and I cold-called him. We've been friends ever since. I always say I collect artists and Ray collects scientists."

Like the first work with Johnson, Troll plans to create a museum exhibit out of the new book, starting with a show at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center next year.

Now, he must decided whether to replace one version of this fish with another or perhaps include both to illustrate the progressive thought scientists put forth.

"It's not a sabertooth salmon anymore, either, so maybe I'll have to rename it, too," he says. "I don't know. Sometimes I think I'm just spreading myself too thin."

‘Look under your feet’

Ray Troll doesn't wait for inspiration. He pursues it.

Sometimes that means going to the Amazon. Other times, it's a visit to the North Slope or Bristol Bay. It could be a drive through Western states looking for fossils.

Or it might be a ferry ride to the Prince of Wales Island, where trilobite fossils lie in rocks taking this state back to a time before dinosaurs roamed the earth, the Paleozoic era.

(Troll, by the way, has each paleontological period and era committed to memory and willingly can nerd out while effortlessly rattling them off one Latin prefix at a time.)

"The history of the Earth is below us," says Troll, whose love for trilobites becomes move obvious when he reveals the tattoo on his right shoulder. "I've always said, 'Look under your feet. It's right there.' Well, if you start opening up your eyes, you'll see it is right there, and you'll start looking at the world in a different way."

Most of the work takes place in his studio, designed after a cannery. It stands across the driveway from his residence in this coastal community of roughly 12,000 people, who are fiercely proud of their home.

It's a town featuring an eclectic mix of conservative Christians, environmentalists, loggers recalling the good old days, fishermen pining for better market prices and bush pilots waiting for windows of good weather.

Troll loads his five-disc CD player, then lapses into his work, often oblivious to what's happening outside, be it a day of clear skies or, more likely, a stretch of rain that contributes to the town's annual average of 200 inches.

"It's that fertile environment that I love about being here," Troll says while looking out at the predictable Southeast rain that isn't expected to let up anytime soon. "This is a perfect studio day. Perfect. I like it here just for this. What else are you going to do when it's raining or in the winter, man? It's the rain that feeds that artistic soul."

His studio is part drawing board, part archives with rows of sketchbooks that are as much journals as they are drafts of future work, and part laboratory for the fossils and fish preserved in jars -- including the rat fish, which he willingly pulls out of the jar for a closer look.

His connection to the rat fish got stronger when a Millersville University (Pennsylvania) scientist named a species after Troll: Hydrolagus trolli.

"I've always looked for the things, maybe things people aren't paying attention to. I guess I'm drawn to them, the underappreciated," he says. "I guess my sense of humor, too, draws me to that.

"I like the little lumpsuckers; I like the rat fish. I'm drawn to the truly weird. For me, the more unworthy the fish is, the more interesting it is to me."

Shameless self-promoter

Ray Troll will tell you more than once how he's a shameless self-promoter. "Really, I am," he says. "I absolutely am a shameless self-promoter. Come on, let's go for a ride."

Then for the next two hours, the drive in his black Honda CRV -- license plate: RATFSH -- features discussions of artists whose work he's long admired.

The first stop is just off Creek Street to visit the 55-foot-tall Chief Johnson replica totem pole, a red cedar carved by Tlingit artist Israel Shotridge. Johnson was chief of the Tongass tribe's Gaanaxadi clan.

Next stop: the docks where Dave Rubin's sculpture "The Rock" stands. The work portrays people of Ketchikan's rich history: Chief Johnson, a logger, a fisherman, a miner, an aviator, a Native woman drumming and an elegant lady in her 1890s apparel.

One more stop before lunch at The Point: the Ketchikan Indian Community Center. Standing are three poles, carved by Shotridge, Tshimshian artist David Boxley and Haida artist Donny Varnell.

Though he's seen the totems hundreds of times, Troll still marvels at each piece, taking his time to enjoy the designs and detail that have made each carver premier among their peers.

"One of the key things to being an artist is loving art and being moved by art," Troll later says about the visit. "In short, it's recognizing beauty. It's when you see a stunning piece of art work, being blown away by it, having a transformative experience."

Once at The Point, a waterside cafe with views of seaplanes landing and taking off against the backdrop of the Tongass, there is more art: paintings by co-owner Terry Pyles.

Through it all, not a single word about himself or his work — just reverence for artists who, like himself, do things a little differently.

It's become a hallmark of Troll's, says author friend Brad Matsen, with whom Troll collaborated on four books in the 1990s.

"He is so deeply connected with people there," Matsen says. "He's inspired and enabled a lot of art in Alaska. He wants others to see how much art is really around them. It's really the soul of generosity when you consider the fact that he also has to find time in the studio to produce what he does."

Drive time includes talks about retired photojournalist Hall Anderson and his book, "Still Rainin' Still Dreamin'." Or emerging artist Evon Zerbetz, whose stained-glass work will soon be part of the new State Library Archive Museum in downtown Juneau.

"If we've got time, maybe we can go see Evon," he says. "You've really got to see her work."

Zerbetz illustrated the children's book "Ten Rowdy Ravens." She says Troll inspired her to think beyond the book. The work soon became a museum exhibit, "Raucous: Everything Raven," that made stops in Ketchikan; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Juneau.

"Reinventing the exhibit for each space and with each professional crew was one of my favorite things in my career, and it was Ray who nudged me to try it," Zerbetz says. "It was just a couple well-placed words to inspire. He's an idea guy, with ideas spilling out of head, but he doesn't just toss them out to others. He places them well."

Bigger stage

Almost 25 years ago, Troll received the same guidance from longtime friend and arts consultant Claudia Bach in Seattle.

His career was gaining momentum. T-shirts at the Soho Coho shop were taking off; his work found its way into Anchorage, Seattle and Fairbanks galleries; he had just finished his second book with Matsen, "Planet Ocean: A Story of Life, the Sea and Dancing to the Fossil Record." More titles were on the way.

Yet, something was missing. There was still a void.

So he paid Bach a visit and quickly understood why he felt as he did.

"One of the tensions with artists is the idea of being able to make a living off your art work and the issue of validation and recognition for your creative work," she says recalling that visit. "The fact is Ray was finding avenues forward that were taking care of some aspects, but they hadn't necessarily acknowledged the creative artistic aspects.

"He clearly had pursued a path as an artist, not because of its commercial potential but because of the creative drive behind it. There was still the desire that most artists have to show the work in a way he imagined it. "

She recommended extracting his work from the book and seeking a bigger stage.

The next step, Bach said, would be certain museums where she believed his work could pique people's curiosity about the natural world.

He started close to Bach's home with the University of Washington's Burke Museum. For the next five years, Planet Ocean exhibits made stops in Juneau, San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia and Newport, Oregon.

Today, Troll is putting the final touches on the "Cruisin' the Eternal Coastline" with the Smithsonian's Kirk Johnson, with whom Troll has traveled worldwide, as far as the Amazon and as near as Kake, searching for -- and finding -- signs of prehistoric life.

Johnson says Troll fills a void created by scientists who fail to see the how discoveries have broader potential. New discoveries are "grist for Ray's mill."

"Science is about creativity and discovery, and that's what art is about," Johnson says. "I think for Ray, they never split. He is aware of what goes into good science and good images.

"He has a beautiful way of rendering all sorts of natural things. He draws things, and they may look like cartoons, but they are actually quite accurate. It's really amazing. His stuff is in a weird space all of its own."

Steve Quinn is a Juneau-based freelance writer.

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