Some people are dedicated to catching fish, while others are dedicated to eating fish. Lower Keys artist Kim Workman, however, has dedicated much of her adult life to rubbing fish to create unique images.
Rubbing fish? Though mind-boggling to most in the Western world, this technique, known as gyotaku, is well known in the Japanese culture. Named combining the words gyo meaning “fish” and taku meaning “rubbing,” the art form originated in the mid-19th century as a way for Japanese fisherman to record the size of their catch.
Typically, the gyotaku process begins with placing the fish on a wooden bench and painting it with black sumi ink. White rice paper is then pressed over the fish and rubbed gently. When the paper is lifted, an exact black ink positive image is revealed. Kim enhances her fish images by adding watercolors.
In fact, Kim and her late husband Ian evolved the traditional art form into a process they called Kimian.
“Although both of us could print and paint, Ian did most of the fish rubbings and I did the paintings in bright bold colors,” Kim explained. “Because we created the art together we signed it combining our first names, Kimian. We called it ‘two arts beating as one’.”
The daughter of a marine conservationist and descendant of pioneer shrimpers, Kim grew up on America’s Gulf Coast.
“That great love of the sea was passed on to me,” she said. “Whether it was from childhood experiences or genetically inherited, the sea flows through my veins as it did my ancestors’.”
Kim discovered her talent for art as a child, but pursued another career as an adult. She owned a health club for 20 years and focused her time and energy on fitness.
Kim’s husband Ian was a marine biologist who shared her love of the sea and fitness. He even proposed to her while they were scuba diving in Cozumel, Mexico.
“Ian drifted past me holding a slate with the written words ‘will you marry me?’” Kim recalled. “Surrounded by beautiful coral and breathtaking tropical fish, I nodded yes.”
The couple married and opened a dive shop adjacent to Kim’s health club, while Ian also worked as a fishery biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Kim rediscovered her love of art in the early 1990s when Ian introduced her to gyotaku, a process he studied in college for scientific purposes. The couple’s gyotaku paintings became so successful that they opened a gallery in 1992.
Subsequently, they began making frequent trips to the Keys — Ian for his work as a marine biologist, and Kim to print and paint fish.
“The Keys are so different from the Gulf Coast,” Kim Workman said. “I had never seen water so beautiful in the U.S. as it is in the Keys.”
The couple bought a home on Cudjoe Key in 2000 and relocated permanently in March 2003. Word quickly spread that they were taking freshly caught fish and making trophy art prints from them. Soon, Kimian art could be found in local galleries among other places, and in private collections.
In 2008, the Workmans were commissioned to create a large piece for the Key West International Airport terminal. It was the last piece they created together, and remains dearest to Kim Workman’s heart. Ian fell ill in October 2008 and died July 4, 2009.
“I took a break from painting and printing for six months and wondered if I could ever paint again. I found I could and I did,” Kim said. “I knew Ian would be angry with me if I didn’t.”
Kim rediscovered her artistic passion in 2010 on a trip to Japan where she studied with master gyotaku artist Mineo Yamamoto. She also taught a gyotaku class to schoolchildren in Singapore and traveled the region with paper and ink.
Since returning home, Kim has expanded beyond prints and says she enjoys creating gyotaku-inspired sculptures and more. Today, her art can be found at several Keys galleries.
“I love traveling, but there is no place like home in the Keys,” she said, “with water that is the color of lime Jello and those beautiful reefs that can only be described as indescribable.”