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‘An active form of reverence’: Gyotaku artist Duncan Berry at Pacific Maritime Heritage Center

Berry says his work, part of the “Animals in Nature” show at the Newport museum, aims to raise awareness of climate degradation and loss of species.

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Duncan Berry works on a gyotaku print, or fish rubbing, in his studio.
Duncan Berry works on a gyotaku print, or fish rubbing, in his studio. “I want people just to join me in the joy of these beautiful creatures and to fall in love with them,” he says. “The rest, I really believe, takes care of itself.”

We all know there’s plenty to worry about these days – gas prices, heat waves, Ukraine. So much so, it might be easy to forget some of the other important matters in our lives, like the environment, nature, and wildlife. And that, says Cascade Head artist Duncan Berry, would not only be a shame, but also dangerous for all of us.

“Let’s not forget the other trillion beings on the planet,” Berry said. “Just because we are so up in our face about being human, we can’t forget, without them, we have nothing to vote on, no climate, no food.”

Berry’s gyotaku prints on wood panels are part of the Animals in Nature/Art & Artifacts: “from the forest, air & sea” exhibit at the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center in Newport. Science illustrator and wildlife artist Nora Sherwood of Lincoln City and McMinnville wildlife artist Andy Kerr are also part of the exhibit, which runs through Oct. 9.

Berry will lead a panel discussion 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21 about how wildlife inspires art and why he focuses on the subject.

Gyotaku, literally “fish rubbing,” is the traditional Japanese art of pressing rice paper onto the bodies of fish covered with paint or ink. Berry takes impressions directly from the bodies of sea life, birds, and wildlife. He’s a fisherman, founder of the sustainable seafood company Fishpeople, and a practicing Buddhist. The latter guides him in his life and art.

“The aspiration of some Buddhists is ahimsa – do no harm to anyone ever,” Berry said. “I remember asking my teacher, ‘If I didn’t do harm to anyone else, I’m going to kill myself. Do not hurt a carrot? Do not hurt a salmon?’ The way I resolve that in my own life is that I eat with great gratitude and awareness.”

Many of the animals he uses in his art are dead when they come to him. Some wash up on shore, some are killed by predators, and others are bycatch from local fishing boats. Recently, the bycatch was a deep-sea chimaera, aka rat fish, with the looks of a Frankenstein fish stitched back together.

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“Death is happening all the time,” Berry said. “I think of this as an active form of reverence. I have a salmon I just returned to the same river I caught it in. That body did not die in vain. I froze and printed it over 100 times. Then it was spent, and I couldn’t print it anymore. I returned it to the same place where I caught it, so it at least the food from the salmon would go back in the system.”

He also donates some of the proceeds from the sale of his art to fund NGOs that do conservation and restoration. “I encourage others to develop a relationship with these wild creatures. Mine is art and food.”

In sharing his art and taking part in presentations about his work, Berry hopes to help change the way others think about wild animals. By doing so, he believes he can help nurture greater awareness about degradation of the climate and loss of species.   

Duncan Berry's gyotaku rubbing "Octopus, Canary Islands" is included in the "Animals in Art/Art & Artifacts" show at the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center.
Duncan Berry’s gyotaku rubbing “Octopus, Canary Islands” is included in the “Animals in Art/Art & Artifacts” show at the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center.

“It all starts in our brain,” he said. “If I can bring awareness to even a small audience around what’s at stake, that we are connected: So goes these wild creatures, so goes us. When people really feel that, it is really motivating.”

In his work with grade-schoolers, Berry encourages students to get to know the local watershed. When they understand how the watershed affects the environment, they learn to care about those connections to nature and wildlife. 

“I want people just to join me in the joy of these beautiful creatures and to fall in love with them. The rest, I really believe, takes care of itself. If we see them as our relations, we’ll treat them as our family. That is a radical shift right there.”

For more on the exhibit, which includes objects from the museum’s collection, taxidermy specimens, including “exquisite” maritime birds, and the chance for kids of all ages to get their hands on wildlife pelts, courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, visit Pacific Maritime Heritage Center. Artwork in the exhibition is for sale, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting museum operations.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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