Lyle Brunson is a professional seaman, a lifetime sailor who has traveled for 40-plus years, visiting and fishing many exotic locations: Florida, the Bahamas, BVI North Drop, Antigua, Montauk, Australia, Wake, Okinawa and of course, the East Cape.
I must mention my dad. He was the inspiration for all things outdoors for me. The man lived to hunt and fish and did it with style.
One afternoon last summer, Mark Rayor and I spotted Lyle Brunson on the Hotel Palmas de Cortez’ pier as he met some of the boats returning with their catches. Later that evening, while having dinner with Mark and his wife, Jennifer at their beautiful beachfront home, Mark asked, “Have you met Lyle Brunson or seen any of his art? He hangs out at the Palmas’ pier, offering to create his Japanese fish prints for the anglers. His fish impressions are called “Gyotaku” (pronounced GHEE-OH-TAH-KOO: Japanese, from gyo fish + taku rubbing.) He sells them to anglers coming off the fishing boats. It’s a great concept. You should talk with him.”
Of course I was interested. I had seen similar prints in Hawaii, but didn’t know they were offered at East Cape.
As it turned out, although I met Lyle Brunson during the Dorado Shootout at Palmas, it was October before I actually had time to sit down with him in the shade of the Palmas’ fuel truck parked at the base of their pier to hear his complete story.
In October, 2000, Lyle and his family, wife Kathy, along with their twin sons Ben and Mac, moved to East Cape in a home on the hill behind the Buena Vista’s Pemex Station, a stone’s throw from the late Jimmy Smith’s home in the Piedras Gordas area.
(Jimmy Smith, an author spawned by the need to tell his exploits in Baja in the early years, wrote a book, “The Grinning Gargoyle Spills the Beans and Other Yarns of Baja California – Paperback” still available on Amazon. If you want to get the feel of East Cape in the ‘60s, you might pick it up.)
Fishing frequently from his small outboard-powered skiff, Brunson was also creating his fish prints which ultimately drew the attention of one of East Cape’s pioneers and visionaries, Robert (Bobby) Van Wormer, Sr. Bobby, Sr., who first visited the East Cape area in 1956, along with his local resident wife Cha Cha, subsequently opened Punta Colorado. He built not only a family dynasty which still exists today, but changed the area known as East Cape from a sleepy community to a thriving sportfishing tourist destination. Always thinking of new ways to add to the community, one of Brunson’s prints was a perfect way for a tourist to take his fish home – no fuss, no bother of mounting, yet the fish remained fresh and good for eating.
Brunson and Van Wormer, Sr., remained friends for the rest of Bobby’s life. Recently Brunson commented, “Don Roberto was the real deal!”
The consummate storyteller, Bobby told Brunson about a Punta Colorado Hotel guest, Pat Snyder, who holds several woman’s world rooster records and was a regular at their hotel. She always stayed in Room 31 and had even decorated the room herself.
Ms. Pat Snyder, Roosterfish W-08 kg (16 lb) 28.6 kg (63 lb 0 oz) 128.27 Punta Colorado, Baja California, Mexico, 04-Jul-1986
On the wall, she had hung a beautiful marlin gyotaku print. She and Bobby, Sr. had many conversations about the process. Bobby decided the novel prints would be a keepsake, a memory of the trip that the anglers staying at Hotel Palmas would appreciate and encouraged Brunson to sell his impressions of the fish from the Palmas’ pier. After Bobby’s death in 2010, the Van Wormer family all agreed that Brunson should continue to offer his art at the pier.
The red stamp, in Asia it’s a signature for Bankbooks, documents, and art. For me it’s gives homage to the other side of the world where this type of printing comes from. I use it to indicate place, East Cape, Baja Mexico. Sun, mountains, cactus, the sea and fish (Couldn’t fit in the beer). Done deal. I sign just below the ventral fin.
Pursuing his passion for gyotaku, Brunson studied the various methods of capturing the impressions of the fish – the Japanese way, the Hawaiian way, and the Pacific Northwest way; he took all that he learned and came up with a method that would work on the East Cape.
Naoki Hayashi, who lives in Hawaii, prints large gamefish on heavy Japanese paper. (www.gyotaku.com) He is a big influence on the techniques Brunson uses in East Cape where the desert heat can be challenge. Brunson uses Mexican manta, a traditional unbleached muslin available in La Paz (most of the time) that is tough enough for this area. Another nice feature of manta is that once printed, the finished product can be folded and will fit in a suitcase.
Brunson imports the finest non-toxic acrylic that meets all of California’s standards for safety … basically children’s water colors. Only black touches the fish, and its pigment comes from burning iron oxide in a vacuum. The old-style Japanese sumi ink is from lamp black and glycerin – all pretty organic, like charcoal. The bright colors are all artist grade, water-based acrylic ink that are painted on later, after the canvas with the black print has been stretched out.
Respect for the fish as food comes first! Because of the need for speed, Brunson works on hands and knees, often in the shade of the fuel truck or right beside the filet house, but definitely not in a studio.
Literally he works between the fishing boat and the frying pan, so to speak.
Brunson discovered the Nature Printing Society, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to the education, the history and practice of the art of nature printing, by way of a leaflet published by Chris Dewees of UC Davis. At the end of the article, NPS and their address were listed. He had been creating prints at Palmas de Cortez since 2002 and for his guide he was relying on the “The Art and Technique of the Japanese Fish Print” by Yoshio Hayama, one of the few books on the subject translated from Japanese.
After contacting NPS, he attended a workshop in 2004 – a Nature Printing Society workshop at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in Charleston, Oregon. It was his first hands-on workshop, conducted by Mineo Ryuka Yamamoto along with an eyeball class. “For that class we were told to bring two printed fish with eyeball sockets empty and we would paint during the class,” Brunson explained. “Upon arrival, everyone was asked to display their work. Most of the students had smaller trout, salmon, small flounder!”
When Brunson spread out his huge sailfish and a 50-pound dorado (mahi-mahi) print, instructor Mineo Ryuka Yamamoto and his other students were delighted with the size and detail of the two prints. The instructor used the Brunson prints to demonstrate his eyeball painting techniques. At the end of the workshop, he asked for permission to keep Brunson’s prints to display in an exhibition that was to be held in his studio in Japan before returning them.
Brunson considers Mineo Ryuka Yamamoto, who has continued to instruct him at his studio in Japan, (Yamamoto lives an hour north of Tokyo on the train) along with NPS founding members, Dewees and Bill Twibill, his mentors.
“I’ve been a life member of the Nature Printing Society since 2005,” Brunson explained. “Everything I have learned came from these wonderful people. Founded by Dewees, Eric Hochberg, Twibill and the late Robert Little in the late 1970s, their mission is to spread the information about printing images of all things from nature, not just fish. I can’t say enough about the members of the Nature Printing Society and their willingness to share their remarkable talent and knowledge with me!”
Billy Pate was also an influence on me; I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. Billy’s family owned Wunda Weave Carpet and I would see him at the gun club almost every Saturday. He was truly an international sportsman and you can imagine the impression he made on me.
Brunson’s remarkable life’s journey on the high seas filled with fishing adventures ultimately led him to Baja’s East Cape and the mighty Sea of Cortez, considered by all to be one of the most prolific bodies of water on the planet.
“I come to this printing as a fisherman, not an artist. The only training I’ve had has come through the NPS members. I consider myself a craftsman, like a plumber or carpenter, not an artist. I don’t even know the vocabulary. Sometimes people ask me questions about the prints and I have no idea what they are talking about.”
This is, of course, one of the most perfect places to practice his gyotaku passion. His work dazzles the lucky anglers who return to the pier in the afternoon with brightly colored samples of his unusual art. His techniques end with prints of their prize catches which can be finished before the anglers’ departure, folded and packed in a suitcase. It is one of those “gotta have it” temptations. They end their fishing trip or tournament with a keepsake of their catch without the mess, expense or bother of a mount, and yet still have the fish itself prepared to eat or take home and share with family and friends.
This was my Swiss Army knife of boats. Powered by a 302 Ford from the junkyard you could pull a shrimp trawl, pull crab traps, dredge clams and fish. Many of the finest sportfishing boats on the East Coast evolved from this simple skiff design.
And, he continues to pursue his other lifelong passion, sportfishing, as often as he chooses. Not aboard a tricked out sportfisher … no, for him it’s a very basic, small outboard-powered skiff with no frills. Nothing complicated for Brunson! It’s just him and the fish and he likes it that way.
Thrusting his opened hands out, he chuckled,
“My work is ‘Real digital … all ten digits.’ I hope that as more of my prints circulate out into the world they will demonstrate the beauty of the denizens of the Sea of Cortez, right here at East Cape.”