FROM THE SICKLE’S CURVE of Great Abaco Island’s eastern shore, the next piece of solid ground for 3,500 miles is the African continent. Between those shores lies ample room for inspiration. This is perhaps why noted American sporting artist Vaughn Cochran called a summit. “Years ago, when I managed fishing lodges, I had this idea to invite artists to gather and do a symposium,” Cochran said. “I thought to myself, ‘If I ever own a lodge, I’m going to do this.'”
It took a few decades to make it happen, but in partnership with Bahamian fishing guide and entrepreneur Capt. Clint Kemp and Canadian businessman Dave Byler, Blackfly Lodge was opened in 2009. Without big hotels or major cruise ports, Abaco is like many other Out Islands in the Bahamas. It thrives from a highly sustainable form of tourism, and offers some of the most stunning marine resources in the Caribbean.
Blackfly sits about 30 miles south of the town of Marsh Harbour. To stay at the lodge—an elegant veranda house hugged by palm trees—is to catch a glimpse of what drew Hemingway and other legends to the sporting clubs of the Bahamas and Keys decades ago. The space is geared to small groups, hosting no more than a dozen anglers at a time, and it serves traditional Bahamian fare in a family-style dining room. “There’s something magical about small groups,” Kemp said. “There are studies on conversation that show that the intimacy creates dialogue and space for things to happen. That’s why we designed the lodge at this scale.”
In June 2016, Cochran finally brought together the small group that he’d been thinking about for so many years, and the result was his long-anticipated artists’ gathering. The five sporting artists in attendance—Peter Corbin, Bob White, Mike Savlen, Paul Puckett, and host Cochran—run the gamut of genres. “My goal was to engage artists who work and paint differently from each other,” Cochran said. “I wanted variety. It was a mix of super contemporary and super traditional and just about everything in between.”
Afterhours sesh at Blackfly Lodge on Abaco.
During the heady Florida Keys scene of the 1970s, artist-anglers, musician-anglers, writer-anglers, and angler-anglers flocked together. As much as the atmosphere was about chasing big fish and developing saltwater techniques, there was an equally important artistic revolution taking place. These individuals weren’t painting, writing, or fishing to impress or please anyone. They were creating for the sake of creating. It is that kind of unfettered intellectual exchange that Cochran, a participant in that early Keys era, hit on in bringing these artists to Abaco.
During the course of four days there were fishing tales (Corbin landed two permit in a day), cigars, Kemp’s potent mojitos, and even a collective project in which each artist painted a portrait of another member of the group. The crew bent over a canvas stretched the length of a table, carefully filling in penciled lines with acrylic shades. It was a challenge for all of them; having to adopt Cochran’s pop-art style with varying degrees of familiarity and discomfort.
For “traditionalist” Corbin, the exercise was tough, but an enjoyable push beyond his comfort zone: “I’ve studied and practiced the formal stuff for so long that I was frankly blown away and intimidated when we all sat down and were told to adapt to the style. The exercise was much more creative—in a capital ‘C’ sort of sense—than what I normally do.”
Serious discussion over sporting art ensued—how to make the same topics new and interesting every time; which audience to speak to; how to juggle commissions with personal projects; how to market your work; and what the future held for the genre.
The next day I joined White and Savlen in their skiff as they fished the flats of Moore’s Island. For sporting artists, field research is a job perk, but represents a fraction of the time spent actively creating works of fine art. “It’s such an image-rich environment of things to paint,” White told me. “I’d like to do a series just on light hitting the bottom of the flats. I love painting fish, but there’s so much more: reflective surface, texture, color, pattern, all those things.”
Finding new ways to paint game species is one of the greatest challenges. “There are only so many poses and views,” Savlen said. “And there are only so many environments people can relate to. Looking into the water, there are endless planes and levels, but to actually give your work some semblance of that reality is really tough.”
The artists and the result of their pop-art portrait challenge. you paint me, I paint him, he paints you… Pass the mojitos.
photo by Sarah Grigg
The theme of audience arose several times. At one point, quaffing mojitos in the living room after dinner, I was struck by the spectrum of styles represented by the group. At one end of the room sat Corbin, a master at producing hunting scenes commissioned by billionaires with quail plantations. At the other end sat Paul Puckett, designer of the poster for the 2016 Fly Fishing Film Tour—imagery that speaks to the younger, trucker-hat crowd. “Is there a rift within the audience that you all aim to reach?” I asked the group.
“I hope I have more than one audience,” Puckett said. “I think eighty percent of the people who see my work say, ‘He does those funny little illustrations.’ And that’s fine. But if they realize, ‘Paul can paint a scenic shot of someone fishing in the Bahamas,’ then I’ve reached my goal. I like doing it all and I want people to know that I can do it all.”
“I don’t care who my audience is,” Savlen added. “I can’t get bored with my art or I won’t do it anymore. If I can’t change it constantly and make it exciting to me, then I need to go find another job.”
“I’ve enjoyed all the places commissions have taken me,” said Corbin. “And all the problems they’ve given me to solve, artistically. Commissions have made me think about things that I never would have thought about on my own. Art is all about solving problems. What I love is to find people’s passion. What I always try to paint is whatever makes the painting special to them.”
The sporting-art genre—whether becoming more commercial, acquiring contemporary tastes shaped by a digital audience, or following the vision of the 19th century Hudson River School movement—remains strong within the greater canon of American art. And it likely will remain strong, so long as there are anglers and hunters seeking to commemorate their moments outdoors. Which is good news to these men, who remain in the field—on saltwater flats, in the Alaskan outback, exploring limestone streams of the Northeast—or in the studio, changing our artistic tastes through isolated acts of creativity.
“My goal was to bring these people together to fish and paint and have conversations like the Masters had in Paris, when they got together in coffee shops and bars to talk about art,” Cochran said. “The thing we all have in common is fishing, so this was a natural gathering place. And I’d say it worked out quite well.”
For Kemp, a preacher in Nassau in a past life, the gathering highlighted the very purpose of sporting art. He said that the Celts held to a belief that they called “the thin space.” These were places, they believed, where two worlds meet—the earthly and the divine—and they created monuments to mark the spots.
“I’ve always thought of the flats as the thin space,” Kemp said. “People learn to breathe there, to reconnect their senses. The world is looking for that right now. Sporting art captures that space best.”
Cochran got his start as a professional sporting artist in a way most appropriate to the genre—on a fishing boat. “In 1986, I worked on sportfishing boats in Mexico, where they were developing the first flyfishing for sailfish,” Cochran says. “A guy asked me to paint a sailfish over Isla Mujeres. One of his buddies liked my final product and asked me to do another. And that’s when I realized, ‘Oh, people want to buy this fish stuff.'”
A native Floridian, Cochran received all the classical academic training required to become a fine artist—and then promptly became an itinerant flyfishing guide and lodge manager in Central America instead. He drifted back up to the Florida Keys and played in Jimmy Buffett’s band (you can catch a glimpse of him in the 1973 cult classic, Tarpon), opened Blackfly Outfitters in Jacksonville, and then became co-owner of Blackfly Lodge. Cochran’s 40-year portfolio demonstrates an eclectic range of styles and mediums. He doesn’t paint for any single audience.
Bonefish, 11 O’Clock (2015)
oil on canvas
60″ x 34″
The thing I like about this painting is that it’s very realistic. It looks like an abstract when you first see it, but this is how bonefish appear when the water’s kind of choppy in the back bays. Once I hashed out the basics—line, form, shape, color, texture—I was able to go back in and really have fun with the light on the water. The face of a wave or a ripple always shows the ocean floor and the back of the wave always reflects the sky. There’s a lot of movement going on. Anyone who’s bonefished can’t resist commenting on this, because it’s one of the classic scenes that you often see when you’re out there.
I’m a contemporary painter who just happens to paint fish. I took all my training and painting styles that I love—pop art and such—and applied it to game species because nobody had done it. I started out doing very strange stuff and moved to the middle because I wanted to learn how to paint better. I’m also a practical artist. If you’re going to do this professionally, you have to figure out how to make money at it. I recently spoke at my alma mater, and I asked them, “What will you do the day after you graduate? You know how to make art, but how are you going to get rid of it?” An art business course should be mandatory for every young artist. It’s tough because young people walk on pins and needles, worrying about building a reputation and selling work, but if you’ve been doing this for a long time and you’ve reached a certain level, you don’t care what other people think of your work. You trust yourself. Peter, Bob, and I, we’ve been doing this a long time. We dictate how others feel about us. You’re recognized for what you do because you’re stable and mature in what you do. This is a tough world to be in. Either you struggle to be recognized or you don’t. You have to carve out a space where nobody has previously. — Vaughn Cochran
Peter Corbin is a Yankee painter, a conspicuous descendant of the Hudson River School, with the influences of A. B. Frost, Ogden Pleissner, and Winslow Homer clearly conveyed in his work. His father was a collector of Frost’s work, which certainly solidified Peter’s proclivity for classical elements.
He studied painting and sculpture at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, and the California College of Arts and Crafts, and his painted scenes are truly old-school. Without blaze orange, contemporary sun-proofing accessories, or any obvious clues of the 21st Century, they impart a distinct timelessness.
“I have a palette of a warm yellow, a cool yellow, two reds, maybe a few blues. I don’t have any green or purple paint. I mix it all. That makes a harmony in my painting that makes it real. I remember a time I had a show at the American Museum of Fly Fishing,” he says. “I overheard someone viewing one of my paintings say, ‘God, this guy is so classic he must be dead.'”
Upper Falls (1986)
acrylic on canvas
24″ x 36″
This is a painting from the Catskills. And this is one of two falls that are about 25 feet high. What I like about this, and what I feel with a lot of my paintings when they are particularly successful, is that the angler is a minimal part of the painting; he’s a piece in the landscape because of the way the rocks are. There’s a quality of light that is, in this case, filtered through the leaves. And there’s just a movement, a grace and quietness. Even though he’s fighting a fish and there’s a waterfall, it’s still a quiet painting.
It’s what I think most people hunt and fish for—to get away from the everyday bustle, the frantic part of the rest of our lives. This is where I retreat and enjoy. And it’s somewhat timeless, which is another quality that I always try to infuse in my paintings. It’s at the other end of the extreme from a leaping tarpon. It’s really a landscape with a little something happening in it. That’s how I think of my paintings: As landscapes with something happening in them. And it doesn’t have to be highly dramatic or frenetic. I’m looking to create a mood that I hope many people have shared. I hope they see the painting and are taken to that time and space. — Peter Corbin
When most think of Texas native Paul Puckett’s work, it’s often his commercial illustrations: Johnny Cash exuberantly flipping the bird while brandishing a redfish, or the fish frenzy swarming the 2016 Fly Fishing Film Tour poster. Clever, funny, and energetic, his style is popular with anglers of all ages but, perhaps most importantly, builds a bridge for the younger crowd to explore American sporting art across decades and styles.
“I’ll get an email from an 18-year-old who says, ‘I looked at all your work and I want to be a sporting artist,'” Puckett says. “And if that’s how they’re going to discover Winslow Homer or Bob White—through some silly drawing that I did—then that’s great.”
Eleven years in as a full-time artist and now based in Charleston, he’s as focused on commercial work as he is on fine art commissions, demonstrating ingenuity in both.
oil on canvas
This is a different painting for me. A lot of times you have something in your head. This was done from a photo taken by a tarpon guide, Greg Dini. I try not to use photos, but I saw this photo and said, ‘Man, I have got to paint that.’ I made the background how I wanted it to be. If you fish for tarpon, you can feel this—hear the gills rattle, feel the water splashing. I captured this fish exactly how I wanted. I’d say about eighty percent of people think of my illustrations when they think of my work. That’s the more commercial side of it, and I like that. But I want that audience to see the illustrations and then find out that I do more traditional paintings, like the kind that Peter or Bob do. I’m hoping my illustrative work opens the door in a way that might make that audience say, “Wow—he doesn’t just do these action-illustration things.” — Paul Puckett
Things You See Along the Way
Angling art isn’t just about the angler and quarry. It’s also about the things you witness when you’re out there. Bob White has spent more than 30 years guiding fishing and wingshooting in Alaska and Patagonia, taking careful visual notes along the way and expressing them as images that immediately speak to fellow sportsmen.
“I place myself in image-rich environs. That’s my research,” he says. “And then I spend twelve hours a day pushing pigments made from linseed around on paper with a brush made from pig’s hair. It’s hard to explain to people what I do.”
Based in Minnesota, White is a creature of rugged country, and it shows in his work, where terra firma and wildlife other than sporting game often weave their way into the scene. As few artists can, White places the viewer inside the angler’s body in a very visceral way, giving his work an intimate, first-person perspective.
oil on stretched canvas
36″ x 30″
This isn’t the usual scene of a bear fishing or a sow with cub. It ignores romanticism and just talks about the raw energy of the animal. It’s something you’d see if you were a guide, walking along and then having one of those “Oh, shit” moments as you bump into a bear. Suddenly, you’re not at the top of the food chain. It’s humbling.
Big bears lean into their gait when they walk. I tilted the horizon, so it almost seems the weight of the bear putting his foot down is tilting the earth. The fun part for me was painting the water. As an angler, you’ve got this water flowing down the tundra to you. I wanted to paint a visual path from the bear to you, so that there was a subliminal route. I wanted to keep it clean and simple. That’s a hard thing to do. This is one of those rare paintings where I was able to achieve that. I don’t know that I’ll ever do another bear painting or that I could do a better one. — Bob White
“So, you want me to talk about how I got to be all artsy and stuff?” asks Mike Savlen, with a thick Massachusetts accent. Savlen has many past lives—in the military, as a Victorian restoration painter, nightclub owner, and ultimately, as a sportsman and artist who drifted from New England to Key West, where he opened a gallery and lives on a boat. Savlen’s been lots of things, but Bob White put it best: “Mike’s a brawler.”
Watching Mike paint is like watching a heavyweight. The final product of his work is a highly expressive knockout, but he works at a thoughtful pace. He throws a few strokes, ponders the result, and steps outside for a long think. He doesn’t like fancy titles. (“They’re just words so I can identify the painting.”) He produces in his own way and doesn’t care what everyone else is doing.
Trout & Mayfly (2014)
acrylic on canvas
30″ X 30″
I didn’t paint this from a photograph; it was completely out of my head. Looking at trout streams, especially in clear water, is just fascinating to me. I could sit and watch it all day. I love the different planes, the distortions, the ripples.
Loose generates spontaneity. It’s a direct path from your own emotion. You generate a lot of happy accidents that way. A lot of artists say there are no happy accidents in painting, but I don’t believe that at all. I keep things organic with drips and runs. Here, I love how the colors and shapes bend through the water, and you can tell what the subject is, but it becomes very abstract. I like the way light plays through the ripples in the water. I like bright happy colors. A few people have called me a Fauvist. I was insulted at first, but now I kind of dig it.
If people are going to support art, it has to be a broader spectrum than the angling community. We need to stop taking art out of schools. Social media is desensitizing people to visual stimulation, to the point where people will not stop and take ten minutes to lose themselves in a painting. You have to lose yourself in a painting to understand it. We scroll through insta-art. We don’t sit on museum benches. I’m worried it’s killing us. — Mike Savlen