The art of reinvention

Sometime this weekend, I will don a mask and snorkel and quietly prowl the shallow waters off southern Rhode Island, looking for striped bass. If the surf is up, the visibility won’t be great; the water will be sandy and full of tiny bits of pulverized shells and weed, and the fish will be a little harder to spot.

But I am confident I will find a few fish. The great fish painter Stanley Meltzoff — whose work is shown here — years ago taught me the difference between looking and seeing in the underwater world, especially when the visibility is compromised.

With your eye picking up just a blur of stripes or a fleeting glimpse of a pale green tail, the brain, if you let it, fills in the rest of the image, and voilà, you’re able to see fish amid the glare and foam and scattered light of the shallows.

“All of a sudden, a bass leaps into sight,” Stanley told me many years ago, explaining how the process of “seeing” works.

In my mind I can see the pioneering diver and underwater painter today, even though he died in 2006 at age 89. I have spent time recently reviewing dozens and dozens of Stanley’s fish paintings in order to select eight or 10 for a story I am putting together for Anglers Journal, a new publication that will debut later this year. (Anglers Journal is produced by Active Interest Media’s Marine Group, which also owns Soundings Trade Only).

Stanley Meltzoff is considered the first artist to really paint fish as they appear in their underwater environment. What makes him relevant for a marine business blog? In our world today, where industries and individuals are being disrupted by new technologies and forced to reinvent themselves in real time, this painter is also something of a pioneer.

Stanley didn’t become a fish painter until he was in his late 50s. He was a successful magazine illustrator — his 65 covers for Scientific American is a record — until that industry underwent one of its transformative changes. New technology, such as color photography and software that could manipulate photos, spelled the end to Stanley’s career as an illustrator — an end to what he described as “artists working from life … pictures laboriously finished by hand.”

“My wife was ill, my children needed college money and I was almost 60 years old,” Meltzoff writes in the wonderful book “Stanley Meltzoff — Picture Maker” by Silverfish Press. “I stood on the corner of 56th Street and Lexington Avenue in the rain with a soggy portfolio in my hands and improvised a sad little song about defeat, flat feet and flat broke while I tried to think of something to do.”

That low point became a turning point that led Stanley in an entirely new direction, one that would see him become not only a successful fish artist, but also one considered a master. He was able to combine his love for diving with his skill as an artist and reinterpret with brush strokes the undersea world in a fresh, new way.

“There is a lesson there,” says Mike Rivkin, who co-authored, edited and published the seminal book on Meltzoff. “While he was a painter firmly rooted in the old school, he was nothing if not versatile. You can see that in the range of genres he worked in: pencil, charcoal, watercolor and, finally, oils.”

In terms of genre, the artist produced commercial art, illustration, portraiture, science fiction and fantasy, and sport art, says Rivkin, an avid California angler who became good friends with Meltzoff.

“In terms of reinventing himself,” Rivkin continued in an email, “Stanley was able to alter course (from commercial illustrator to fish painter) by utilizing what he already knew and grabbing the opportunity presented to him. If it wasn’t for Dick Gangel (storied art director at Sports Illustrated) giving Stanley his first fish painting commission, things may have turned out differently.

“All the same, Stanley made the most of it and parlayed that early work into a whole new career. If there’s a lesson there, I think it’s to avoid starting from scratch but rather build on what you know.”

And, as Stanley put it when I visited him at his home in New Jersey a number of years back: “You really live off your wits.”

Click here for Rivkin’s Silverfish Press and more of Stanley Meltzoff’s work.

The International Game Fish Association will show the artist’s work, starting early in October, according to Fred Polhemus, a knowledgeable sporting art specialist with the J. Russell Jinishian Gallery, where you can also see examples of Meltzoff’s paintings.


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