If you’ve never spoken to local Florida artist, Linda Heath, you’ve never had your eyes opened to the wonderment of the waterways surrounding our great state. One conversation will have you looking at Mother Nature’s underwater world in a new light; one that will surely be shining from her luminous spirit. Though miles and waterways separate us, I couldn’t help but feel completely connected to Heath during our phone call. “Right now, I’m looking over the Manatee River, watching mullet jump. I’m just thinking, why am I not out on the water? What a beautiful day.” It’s a sunny and 70º February morning, one that would have the rest of the USA colored green with envy.
Heath resides in Bradenton, Florida along the Manatee River, in a 1,600 square foot home that used to belong to her mother. The home has since been converted into her very own art studio, taking up every inch of the lower level of the home. For a lady of the water and a dedicated artist, it is the perfect location. “I look out from my studio and wonder, ‘What’s swimming under there?’ I even have a light under my dock that I can use at night. I go sit and just watch the snook swimming. It’s an amazing feeling to know there is a whole other world underwater.” Heath feels blessed to be so close to the water, adding “I get to walk out to my boat, catch my art and start the magic.” A true Pisces who is no stranger to the water, Heath recalls some of her first and fondest memories as a child growing up in Lexington, Kentucky: “Fishing was a big part of our life. We had a family houseboat that we would to take on weekend trips. Going fishing with my Dad, catching bluegill and bass; those are some of my best memories. Being around the water so often and so young, it got me hooked –no pun intended. I moved to Florida over 28 years ago. My husband is from Lakeland and he loves to fish. It seems I have tailored my life around being a water bug. I’m just drawn to it [water]. I have the need to be around it, to be looking at it; it’s very spiritual for me. And isn’t that just the Florida lifestyle?”
If half of Heath’s heart is taken by the water, the other half is taken by her art. “I was a painter when I was a young girl. My mother was an artist and so she started me in classes at a young age. I wanted to major in art, at the University of Kentucky, but I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go with. I painted in oils and acrylics, I loved to study art history. Back then you weren’t encouraged to go for it in the arts. I was told I needed to get a real job, so, I changed my degree to Business and that’s what parlayed to working in Washington, D.C.” Far from the lifestyle she had come to love, Heath began her corporate career working in Washington, D.C. for the International Trade Association. Traveling far and often to her assigned eastern territories (Japan, New China, Taiwan and Hong Kong), Heath found interest in the culture of the cities.
“Traveling for my corporate job was how I discovered Gyotaku. ”Gyotaku, or fish rubbing, is a traditional Japanese art form, using sumi ink and rice paper, originally practiced to record creatures caught by men of the sea. Heath describes the process as, “fabulous.” “I take the fish and pin it down on a cold slab, making sure it is prepped and ready, carefully straightening out all of the fins. I choose the color and begin painting the fish. After it is covered, I take the rice paper and very carefully press it down onto the fish, making sure everything transfers. The last step is the most important, painting the white dot in the eye. The Japanese believe this gives the fish it’s soul back. It brings everything together.” Heath says the thing she loves about Gyotaku is, “It’s your actual fish and all of its personality. I always take a good camera with me to photograph the fish when it is seconds out of the water. I try to match those colors. I want to mimic the fish exactly as it was living. Remember, this was a way to record your catch. Think, Hemingway and The Old Man and The Sea. They didn’t have Yeti coolers or ice machines to preserve their fish. The purpose of Gyotaku is to create an image of the exact fish you’ve caught. It’s an ancient tool in modern application.”
The great thing about Gyotaku, Heath says, “It’s sustainable. Japanese have been doing it for hundreds of years. I get to go out and catch my art, make beautiful pieces, wash it and prepare it for dinner and after, put the bones into my bait trap to catch more art. I’m a real conservationist. I catch fish that are in season and in [the] slot limit. I do what I can to promote awareness and to protect our waterways.” Her conservationist spirit is what lead Heath to produce the rub of a lionfish two years ago. The lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, is known for its highly venomous dorsal and pectoral spines radiating from its body, giving the species its name. In recent years, the lionfish has made its way into Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico waters, wreaking havoc on native fish and the ecosystem. Heath carefully took on the risky challenge in hopes of promoting awareness and educating locals about the danger of the species.
When Heath is not working on her art at her home in Bradenton, she is traveling the state, participating in fine art shows. She and her husband average around 20 shows a season, between October and May. Heath adores presenting her work to faces new and old and says she plans to take her art to shows nationwide when her husband retires. “I would love to expand my prints to northern fish. I get requested all the time. I feel like I am early in my career as an artist. I see nothing but good things for me in the future. I can’t believe this is my life.” Though it took nearly 50 years, Linda Heath’s life circled back around to her first love in the most serendipitous of ways. She says, “I get questions at shows, particularly from women, asking me how I did it. They say, ‘I’ve always wanted to this or that’ and I tell them, to just do it. My mother always said you can reinvent yourself. If you can dream it and are willing to take the risk, you can achieve it; I am a walking testament of that.”
You can find Linda Heath’s artwork and upcoming show dates on her website: www.lindaheathfishrubs.com.