Adventures in Art

Adventures in Art

Fly-fising artist Vaughn Cochran continues a diversified career, most recently with a lodge project in the Bahamas.

  • By: Mike Conner
  • Photography by: Mike Conner
Vaughn Cochran Painting

After a full day of flats fishing out of Abaco’s Sandy Point, it was time for a much-anticipated Bahamian après-fishing ritual. Our group—Stu and Jeaninne Apte, Jean Cochran, Clint Kemp and me—huddled around the dining-room table and dove into piping-hot conch fritters with tall, chilled Mojitos in hand. Our host, marine artist and Black Fly Lodge Bonefish Club partner Vaughn Cochran, eventually joined us. He cleared off half the table and unrolled a white canvas.

We gazed upon a sea of squiggly gray lines looking like a topo map of mountain country. It was the rough beginning of a human face.

“Now Stu, it may not look like you, or much of anything, right now,” Vaughn said, chuckling, “but it will soon enough.”

“Well, I know I’m in good hands,” Stu said with a wink as he studied the canvas. “Are you sure there is a nose in there somewhere?”

“Yep, a nose, ears, a big smile—it’s all there, trust me,” said Vaughn. “In the morning, before we head out to fish, I’m putting ya’ll to work. I’d like each of you to pick an area of the canvas and start painting. You just have to try to stay within the lines, and then you’ll sign it.” Vaughn read our doubtful expressions and added, “The hard part’s done. Don’t worry. It’ll be like painting by numbers.”

It was a thrill and a privilege to have a little part in honoring Stu Apte, master tarpon angler and all-around fly-fishing guru. We toasted the beginnings of Vaughn’s Stu Apte portrait, and drained our glasses. Bahamian Clint Kemp, Vaughn’s Black Fly Bonefish Club partner and a superb chef and mixologist, asked if anyone cared for a second Mojito before dinner. Without a word, we formed a happy line at the bar. Help with the painting? We’d gladly work for rum.

The Stu Apte portrait is the third of its kind in what Vaughn calls his Bright Series, done with vivid acrylic paints in what he refers to as pop-art style. Vaughn painted nine versions in different color combinations of his popular Lefty Kreh portrait five years ago and donated one to the permanent Lefty Kreh exhibit at the International Game Fish Association Museum in Dania, Florida. He also painted legendary Bahamian bonefish guide Charlie Smith in this medium. Plans are to include other fly-fishing luminaries and guides in the future. The Bright Fish Series includes nine species thus far, the first the front half of a permit he painted in 1995. “I think I was the first to paint half a fish,” said Vaughn. Of course, he’s painted realstic scenes, such as a bonefish done in oil called “Lean Green Fighting Machine.” “That has been my best-selling oil, but if you ask me, that kind of underwater fish scene has been done to death. It was the first and really the last one I did of that style.”

As we enjoyed the breezy May evening after dinner on the Club’s deck, I told Vaughn I particularly like his Bright Series pieces for what I perceive as realism. “Non-anglers might not realize it, but sight-casters know it’s common to see just part of a fish on the flats,” I said. “Sometimes only part of a tail. Maybe just a dark eye. “

“Or those white rubbery lips, like on some of those permit we saw and cast at today,” Stu added.

I told Vaughn I could detect some attitude in the fish’s (if I may) facial expression. “Did you mean to capture that look of indifference that a permit so often displays when you show it your fly?” I asked.

“Well, that is what anglers see and seem to remember, right?” Vaughn said. “The attitude is there for sure, and you might even say the personality. It’s a hard-edge painting style, with sharp borders, creating somewhat optical patterns. Acrylics cannot be mixed in the manner of oils or watercolors. Some artists call it house painting!” Vaughn said with a laugh.

Stu added: “Even Vaughn’s most colorful fish paintings are realistic because his fish are anatomically correct and look the way we see them in the water.”

Vaughn Cochran’s diverse body of work includes general marine settings, traditional fishing scenes and still lifes, and he credits the influence of two painters on his work: “Millard Wells and Andy Warhol,” he says. “I know that’s a heck of a contrast, with Millard being a marine-scene-and-fish painter, and Warhol an international pop-art icon; but when you look at some of my stuff, it’s easy to see how their singular styles inspire me. Many have told me that my Bright Series is ‘Andy Warhol–like’ and I certainly take that as a compliment.”

This trip to Black Fly Bonefish Club was Vaughn and Stu’s first opportunity to fish together. Even though both were fixtures in the Florida Keys decades ago, Stu and Vaughn met just a few years back. “I have not known Stu for that long, and not that well until fairly recently. We know so many of the same anglers and people in the sport-fishing business we became friends because there was no way to avoid it,” Vaughn says with a laugh. “Stu’s life is well-chronicled and his accomplishments and contributions to sport fishing are of legend. The world records, fly and light-tackle innovations, the way he pioneered flats fishing—his dedication is mind-boggling, really. So is his knowledge-sharing. I really dug into his memoir Of Wind and Tides. Stu has led such a whirlwind, adventuresome life and even in his 80s he hasn’t slowed a bit!”

Vaughn was born in Atlanta, but his family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, when he was an infant, finally settling in St. Augustine. His boyhood fishing with his dad was mostly for largemouth bass and occasionally for redfish at night in Matanzas Inlet. His first exposure to structured art training was an elective course in high school.

“It was an easy choice—the alternative was home economics, and not many boys wanted to be caught taking that,” says Vaughn. “I had no idea I would really take to it, though like most kids, I guess I drew and doodled on everything in sight.”

After military service, at 20 he moved back to St. Augustine, enrolled in community college and was eventually accepted at the University of South Florida’s prestigious art school in Tampa. He graduated with a degree in fine arts, and also taught art class there but quickly decided that teaching was not his forte.

He worked in many art disciplines—painting, sculpture, photography—and somehow made time for music. “While at the University, I played in a bluegrass band called the Hydraulic Banana Jug and String Band and Kazoo Ensemble. We traveled in an old fire truck, doing charity events, playing for a little door money when we could. We broke up in 1966, but I continued to play music and was with several Florida bands until I started to play with Jimmy Buffett. Growing up in St. Augustine during the transition from the beatnik to the so-called hip generation was amazing. The place was alive with artists, musicians, poets and writers, not unlike Key West in its prime.”

He married a girl from Key West, settling there in 1972. It was the ideal place to hone his talents and careers in art, music and eventually fly-fishing.

“Key West was the wild, wild west in the Seventies,” says Vaughn. “It was pretty much deserted then—eighty percent of Duval Street was shuttered and in general decay. The sport fishing, though fantastic, was untapped in comparison to that out of Islamorada. I fished with my wife’s brother commercially with rod-and-reel for winter kingfish and snapper in the summer. I’ll never forget how the roller-gill-net boats wiped out those kings in just three or four years.” Vaughn recalls.

“I started sport fishing for tarpon in Key West harbor in 1972, right after moving there. We chummed with shrimp-boat trash, so it was like an all-you-can-eat cafeteria, it was so ridiculously easy. There were just a couple of flats-fishing guides. It was Bob Montgomery, Page Brown and Woody Sexton. Stu Apte mentored Sexton and even took him in at his house in the 1960s on Little Torch Key just up the road.

“I eventually got a 17-foot Mako, which was pretty much it for flats skiffs, until Tom McGuane brought down his first Maverick, which, if I recall, was the skiff used for the tarpon fly-fishing scenes in the cult film Tarpon, shot there in 1973. I considered it an art movie about tarpon fishing. I doubt anyone outside family and my closest friends know that I briefly appeared in the film. I am playing the washboard with the other musician in one of the opening scenes depicting the Key West lifestyle. And later, there is a brief scene where I am making a clay pot in my ceramics studio, named Bahama Mamas, which we built in 1974 on a lot on the opposite corner of Sloppy Joe’s Bar on Duval Street.”

The film also had cameos of writers McGuane, Richard Brautigan, Jim Harrison and a young music upstart, Jimmy Buffett.

“When I first arrived in Key West, I met musician Jerry Jeff Walker,” Vaughn says. “We were at the famous Chart Room late one night and Walker’s close friend Jimmy Buffett, whose Miami concert was cancelled that night, came in and joined us,” Vaughn recalls. “We hit it off, and I started playing the washboard, mandolin and some banjo with Jimmy and his harmonica player Fingers Taylor in what was the original Coral Reefers Band. Jimmy took me along on the White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean album tour for six months. I did not take part in the recording of that album because my wife and I had a baby boy at home, so I had to make a choice. Suffice to say, my rock-star days were over. Last time I checked, Jimmy seems to have done okay with it!”

Vaughn concentrated on art and explored more of Key West’s flats fishing. “My first fish was a tarpon on spin gear. I learned to pole my skiff around Ballast Key, and when a friend or two would join me, we would fish all day and party overnight. We really had the waters to ourselves.”

Vaughn moved to Austin, Texas, in 1980 to help salvage a struggling shop that friends opened, also called Bahama Mamas and modeled after the Key West establishment. “It did not work out financially, so that was the end of that. While out there, I vacationed in Mexico, at Isla Mujeres. Three hours in that paradise, and I knew I had to move there! So I teamed up with a couple of friends and opened Tucan Travel to offer fishing and diving packages. It was a wholesale venture so we sold these to travel agencies.”

He got in on the flats-fishing ground floor in Mexico. There were no sight-fishing guides at Isla Mujeres, so he took up guiding, fishing out of a panga in which he affixed a large bow casting deck. In 1980, Jack Nicklaus and his captain towed a skiff behind his sportfisher and fished the virgin flats there.

“Jack gave me a spare pushpole and I was off and running,” Vaughn remembers. “I would walk through town at night carrying my fly rods and guys would literally run out of the restaurants and bars to ask me about the fishing. I had an instant client base.”

After Mexico, he and his present wife Jean managed Costa Rica’s Parismina Tarpon Rancho in 1990 and 1991. They also managed Turneffe Island Lodge for just over a year in 2000.

When asked why so many fly fishers are marine-art lovers or artists, Vaughn does not hesitate: “I think fly fishers are the most contemplative of anglers. Artists and fly fishers are process-oriented, more interested in ‘getting there’ than with the end result,” he says. “In that realm, fly fishers think about, and are much more connected to, their natural surroundings than the guy looking to fill a cooler or win a tournament. As another example, many golfers enjoy fly-fishing. Again, it’s the technical aspect that’s so appealing.”

For Vaughn, the art process is all-consuming. “My whole day is art and art thoughts, though I do not paint that much due to time constraints of running a retail fly shop and studio, and now planning the new fishing lodge. When I do start on a major painting, I block the time for it, like anglers block time for their fishing,” Vaughn says. “I’ve had a dedicated art studio everywhere I have worked, too.

“Though I don’t travel specifically to paint, I carry a camera everywhere I go. You never know when you’ll catch that next image worth painting. It could be halfway across the world, or right down the street. And I’ve kept a sketchbook and journal over the years, and still tap those resources for ideas for new art. It’s not unlike detailed journals that anglers keep to guide them to future success on the water,” says Vaughn.

He enjoys splitting up the day, painting in the morning and grabbing a fly rod to fish near home in the afternoon. “In my mind, catching bonefish on a fly is Number One. They are hard, but not impossible, to catch. No two fish are alike. I don’t know of anyone who says they have tired of it. For me, bonefishing renews itself with every catch—or just every trip to the flats, fish or no fish. As for other flats fish, tarpon give you everything on a fly, period. Permit, on the other hand, can become kind of a pathetic obsession!”

Today, Vaughn and Jean own Black Fly Oufitters, a full-service fly shop and art studio in Jacksonville, Florida. And he eagerly awaits the opening of his and partner Cliff Kemp’s Black Fly Bonefish Club in the Schooner Bay development on the Atlantic side of Abaco in the Bahamas; right now, the guiding service operates out of an interim beach-house location.

“It’s a total immersion thing,” Vaughn says of his experience managing fishing lodges. “You live the job. The highlight was always the clientele. But I will tell you, when you lose the desire to eat meals with the anglers, you know you are burned out. You just can’t stand to hear one more fishing story! When our new operation opens on Abaco, I will be involved, but my partner Clint Kemp will handle the day-to-day managing.”

Good news for us, as that will leave more time for Vaughn to produce the paintings we anglers so want to see.

About the Lodge

The Black Fly Bonefish Club resides in their “beach club” lodge for the next year as they construct their classic Bahamian lodge home in the new town of Schooner Bay in southern Abaco. Black Fly can accommodate up to six anglers, each in a private room. The guides are seasoned anglers and are experts in fly-fishing the flats. “Because Black Fly covers so much territory in southern Abaco, we use a larger boat than other Bahamian lodges. Our thinking was that big fish live in deeper water,” says Vaughn Cochran. “So that’s where we fish. We use the height advantage of being on the deck of the boats to spot fish and when we find a wading situation we get out and wade. We also target the incredible number of permit in the area so being on the boat allows our anglers to have more shots.” Go to www.blackflyoutfitter.com or www.blackflybonefishclub.com. To visit the Schooner Bay project go to www.schoonerbaybahamas.com.

Mike Conner is a writer, editor and shallow-water fishing guide who lives in Florida.