Fish Puns and Fog Woman: The Indian Influence on Alaskan Artist Ray Troll
You don’t have to actually carry Native blood to think like an Indian…especially when you’ve lived for decades amongst indigenous peoples like Alaska’s Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribal members.
Ray Troll, dubbed the "Artist Laureate of Hallucinatory Fish Images" and proprietor of a Ketchikan art studio called Soho Coho, has lived among, learned from, and collaborated with Alaskan Native artists for 30 years. “Native American art, specifically Alaskan Native artists, is important to me. This is a town where there’s a lot of Native folk art and when I moved here, I began to hang out with Native carvers, incorporating some of their cultural themes into my work and frequently collaborating with someone of Native origin,” he says.
He refers to the amalgam as ‘culture jamming,’ an olio of observations taken from fish, fishermen, seascapes, and Native American imagery. “We’re all drinking from the same water here and the craftsmanship of indigenous peoples can’t help but seep into the creativity found in this place.
“When it comes to art with an indigenous influence, the old logging-fishing village of Ketchikan is the place," he says. "There’s a connection with this creative group, and since my penchant is to iconify fish, that resonates with the form-line design images of Northwest Native American artwork.” When he needs a break from his own creativity, he’ll drive to the Native village of Saxman and hang out at the carving center where coastal clan artists make totem poles out of massive red cedars.
Throughout the years, Troll has collaborated with many tribal artists with one defining project being a Kajuk totem pole near his shop on Ketchikan Creek, a work carved by Tlingit artist Israel Shotridge. The 1989 edifice occupies the spot where the original 1901 carving for the Ganaxadi Tlingit of the Tongass Raven Moiety once stood. The pole and Troll’s companion “Daughter of Fog” artwork tell the story of salmon creation, so important to anyone who lives in Southeast Alaska—Salmon Capitol of the World.
Totem pole figures symbolize the story of Fog Woman whose power and ingenuity produces a salmon run when summertime fog lies at the mouth of the streams and salmon return to the creeks of their birth to assure life and prosperity to the Indians of Alaska.
“I find Native art inspiring with its powerful and beautiful sculptures of larger-than-life animals and supernatural beings doing incredible things. I like to collaborate with Native carvers—I do the artwork, they carve—and we combine our artistic and cultural backgrounds as we blend both cultures to tell the same story from different angles.”
When not collaborating with Alaskan Native artists, the 57-year-old former fishmonger still does what made him famous in the first place, drawing fish and combining the eclectic artwork with puns which will appear on T-shirts. That’s his niche market. He’s come up with 125 bad fish puns over the years, finned groaners that have graced more than 2 million shirts.
“His choice of T-shirts was genius,” according to the forward of his book of artwork, Something Fishy This Way Comes. “Rather than have a few people wander into a gallery where even fewer would buy his paintings, Ray made fine art that could walk around on people’s chests. His images are like his puns—informal naughtiness, slightly crass, erotic, and erudite.”
Arguably his most prominent and controversial work is titled SPAWN TILL YOU DIE with a skull and two mature salmon as crossbones, a reference to the fact that mature salmon return to their place of birth to spawn—and then die.
Other samples from the fish artist and musician with a group called, Ratfish Wranglers (where the fins meet the frets), include:
• "Jammin’ Salmon"
•" The Baitful Dead"
• "Walk Softly and Carry a Big Fish"
• "If You Must Smoke, Smoke Salmon"
• "Death is Certain, Fishing is Not"
• And the ever-popular "Life’s a Fish and Then You Fry"
Troll continues to take what he calls ‘back-of-the-brain stuff’ and massage it into new works. “I have some 5,000 images done, in process, or pending further development,” says the artist who drew his first image, a dinosaur, at age four.
“I think I peaked early, about age seven, although I hope I have another couple of decades of uniqueness in me. I believe in the power of creativity to change the world and I want to do my little bit.”