Seaman Paints the Sea

Chuck Seaman at work. Tom Rickard photo

If you live on the East End, you’ve probably heard of “dock to dish,” which is like the seafood version of the “farm to table” style of local eating. But you’ve probably never heard of “water to wall.”

Okay, maybe that’s not really a thing yet, but Chuck Seaman, an artist from Quogue who makes and sells his Japanese fish rubbing prints across the East End, could very well make it so.

The art of Japanese fish rubbing, or gyotaku, is a lengthy process involving washing, cleaning and drying fish, then applying ink to it, pressing it against rice paper or fabric and using your hands to create an image of the fish. The process takes a whole day to make a couple of paintings, Seaman says. He formally studied the art for nine years, becoming an internationally certified gyotaku master two years ago — one of fewer than a dozen in the United States.

Seaman first saw the art about 20 years ago at a Japanese restaurant in New York City while conducting business for his seafood supply company.

“I fell in love with it. I found out that I couldn’t find it anywhere, so I started trying to do it myself,” Seaman said in an interview. “People who look at my art say it’s really eye-popping. I get a thrill when they tell me, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.’”

Seaman is among the many artists who will be featuring their works at the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce’s Arts and Crafts Fair at Marine Park on Saturday and Sunday during the weekend of HarborFest.

Seaman works mainly out of his studio in Hampton Bays, which he opens to the public by appointment. A recreational fisherman, he catches most of the fish he prints himself — although some people bring their own fish to him as commissioned work, for instance when they’ve reeled in a particularly memorable catch.

“The key is I only usually print one side of the fish,” he said. “I filet one side off so they can eat it, because when I get finished with cleaning it, it’s been sitting at room temperature for 12 hours and it’s not edible.”

Fish with heavy scales make the best prints, Seaman says. “The scalier the fish, the bigger the scales, the better the detail and the more detail you’ll get,” he said. “You can’t add fins, you can’t add scales or any paint to it. We can only go back in and paint the eye with a brush after I’ve pulled the print.”

Once he gets started, he said, “I just can’t stop. I’ll spend 12 to 14 hours in the studio because I’m enjoying it. Every print comes out different. The satisfaction is being able to say I accomplished something, and the compliments I get from people.”

A gyotaku print by Chuck Seaman.