Sculptures that honor rather than copy.
- By: Bob White
I am drawn to fish, and I look at each one as a precious jewel, so it’s not surprising that I admire Ellen McCaleb’s sculptures. Her carved wooden fish are elegant, subtle, and wondrously beautiful in their execution. They are as lovely as the fish that inspire her… and they seem alive, as if she’s magically breathed life into wood.
McCaleb grew up on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, always fascinated with fish. Each spring she marveled at the number and variety of species that filed past her family’s farm on their way up Craddock Creek to spawn.
“The first to arrive were the red drum,” she recalls, “followed by the blues and stripers, and then the croakers and whatever else got lost. It was all very ecclesiastical.”
Her family ate what they harvested, and the chore of cleaning fish usually resulted in a science lesson taught by her father.
“It was truly remarkable,” she said, “and I was fascinated by each species and the order of its life cycle.” Today, she passes that legacy on to her children, the youngest of whom is five. And she finds inspiration along the banks of the Isinglass River, near Barrington, New Hampshire, where she now lives and works.
McCaleb began this work in 1997, when she stumbled upon an old fish carving at a decoy auction and was inspired to bring the tradition of carving trophy fish into the present. She spent the early years perfecting her craft and educating Midwestern and Western anglers about the history of a lost genre. McCaleb says she’d like to be remembered as someone who saw a beleaguered art form, picked it up, added her own twist to it, and carried it forward.
When asked to describe her art, McCaleb often answers with a tongue-in-cheek reply: “My work is rich man’s taxidermy.” She says this with a chuckle and then becomes serious. “What I really do is take one of Mother Nature’s creatures and create a replica of it that seeks to honor the living creation… I say ‘honor’ and not ‘copy’ because most copies result in a lifeless imitation. Creating a sculpture that honors the inspiration is the definition of my art.”
McCaleb’s life work is as disarmingly honest as she is. I find nothing inevitable or cliché about it; there’s none of the false drama or stamped-out perfection of a painted fiberglass mount. Her fish look real; they have life and weight. And, if I were to hold one of her sculptures, I’d cradle and lift with both hands, as if to support a wild and living thing, which I consider her art to be.
Contributing editor Bob White is a writer, fine artist and fly-fishing guide; go to www.whitefishstudio.com.