The salmon, bass, and other species of fish that swim in the lakes, rivers, and streams of the Great Lakes region provide food for all kinds of creatures, including people. And for the many recreational fishermen, they’re sport. But the life that fish lead is also inspiration for artists. In cooperation with Public Radio International’s program Studio 360, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney paid a visit to artist Ladislav Hanka. His etchings explore cycles of life, death, and regeneration in nature and more often than not, depict fish:
The salmon, bass, and other species of fish that swim in the lakes, rivers, and streams of the Great
Lakes region provide food for all kinds of creatures, including people. And for the many
recreational fisherman, they’re sport. But the life that fish lead is also inspiration for artists. In
cooperation with Public Radio International’s program Studio 360, The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Tamar Charney paid a visit to artist Ladislav Hanka. His etchings explore cycles of
life, death, and regeneration in nature and more often than not, depict fish:
Ladislav Hanka asks people to take a look at life from a different angle. He does this in his art,
and he does this in real life as I found out when I asked him how old he was when he started
“I’ll show you. (footsteps) We’re going to make a little expedition under my kitchen table. So
get on your back, slide under the table with me here, and look up, and there you see some of the
first drawings I ever did. They’re nothing. They are just chicken scratch, but it’s kind of neat.”
Now that he’s an adult, the kitchen is the only room in his house in that isn’t an art studio.
Ladislav Hanka works where you’d expect the living room to be. But there’s no sofa here. Just
lots of counter space, storage drawers, and the press he uses to print his etchings. The corner
where he sketches is cluttered with cans of colored pencils, sheets of paper, and stuff you sure
won’t find at an art supply store.
“Now here is a vat of pickled fish.”
There’s trout, pickerel, a goldfish and other slimy brown creatures in a smelly preservative. He’ll
draw them and at times even dissect them. But when the lakes and streams aren’t frozen, he puts
the bucket away and heads outside for inspiration. He spends a lot of his time hanging out along
rivers fly fishing and sketching.
“I’ll sometimes put on waders, the fishing gear, and take a sketchbook out and just wade around up
to my chest in the water and sit in the lilies on the edge with a sketchbook.”
He uses the sketches as the basis for etchings. They’re inspired by what he observes outside and
from what he learned in school when he studied zoology. Ladislav Hanka’s etchings are very
detailed, but they’re not what you’d see if you just looked outside. There’s very little, if any color,
just warm tones of black ink on creamy paper. Some are landscapes with tangles of tree roots,
dirt, and rocks. Others are underground or underwater scenes with fish, birds, and bugs,
sometimes in various stages of decay.
“It’s a 14-by-18 plate size – it’s an etching. And there’s a moon, a full moon, shining in a very dark
background, very organic sorts of textures with a feeling of some sticks and roots and unclear
exactly what it is.”
At the bottom of the image lurking in the dark quiet shadows are fish called burbots.
“There’s a skeletal element to this burbot. The head is more defined than the rest of the body. And
it’s obviously moving among the sticks and up the light source and through various little bones
and skeletons. The intent is it is something inevitable, that it has to go up to the moon. And the
interesting thing with the burbots are that they do, indeed, spawn at night. They spawn in the
middle of winter. So there’s something I find very compelling about this drama, this ancient
drama, that keeps recurring and happening every year under the ice, in the cold, and under the
moonlit night. There’s a romance about it. I keep going back to spawning cycles.”
Watching salmon spawn has become his yearly ritual. Every fall he sits on the bank of a nearby
creek to watch Great Lakes salmon spawn. Salmon return to the place where they were born to
create the next generation in the moments before they die.
“It’s a forgotten little place that I think once used to be an industrial waste sight almost. A bunch
of 55 gallon drums and tires and poison ivy and all kinds of stuff. There are the salmon coming
up stream, among the logs, and the tires, and spawning. It’s this grotesque and beautiful things all
at once. It’s a spectacle, a ballet, death dancing lightly among them and picking over them, and
there they are, trying to spawn before they die, before the energy seeps out of their system.
Eternal cycles, I guess that’s what it’s about. We’re so used to thinking as in human terms, of a
linear way of thought – you evolve, society evolves, everything goes forward in one direction.
And yet the fact is every one of us lives life much more cyclically than we really admit to
ourselves, and we are disgustingly like our parents and like their parents, and like our great-
grandparents and you repeat the stupid things you can’t stomach in your parents, and there you are
repeating the same things years later. There’s something cyclical about it, but it is also beautiful.”
But why you keep coming back to fish?
“Why do I keep coming back to fish? Well, maybe there is something in all of us that wants to
migrate upstream and return to the source – the going home business, whatever home might ever
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tamar Charney.