In Portsmouth: He catches fish — and then prints them

Tiny museum aims to celebrate the beauty of local fish

By Jim McGaw
Posted 4/18/23

PORTSMOUTH — Tony Chatowsky knows his fish.

He’ll tell you all about the tarpon, the famous fighting fish of Florida: “When you hook one, you wait for that explosion and they …

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In Portsmouth: He catches fish — and then prints them

Tiny museum aims to celebrate the beauty of local fish


PORTSMOUTH — Tony Chatowsky knows his fish.

He’ll tell you all about the tarpon, the famous fighting fish of Florida: “When you hook one, you wait for that explosion and they come right out to the water like a rocket.”

Or the sharksucker: “It sticks on sharks by a plate, and when the shark is feeding it eats the released food scraps. They go wherever big fish go.”

Or how about the difference between the male and female sea bass? “The male’s fins are pointed, while female fins are rounded.”

Chatowsky will play show and tell with many of the fish he’s caught over the years starting on Saturday, April 22, when he opens his Fish Print Museum at 2772 East Main Road, across from Clements’ Marketplace. The museum will be open from noon to 5 p.m. as part of Aquidneck Island Earth Week. Parking is available behind the building.

His museum takes up one side of the space, while his son, painter David Chatowsky, uses the other side for his gallery. (David also has a gallery on Block Island and hosts a Rhode Island Public Access TV show, “Painting Time with David Chatowsky.”)

So what’s a fish print, you ask? It uses a traditional method of making a print of a fish called Gyotaku (“gyo” is fish, while “taku” roughly translates to “impression”), which dates back to 1862. “Japanese fishermen would go out and they kept this for their own record. On their works, they had the weight and length of the fish, where it was caught, their names — all that,” said the 86-year-old Chatowsky, a retired Navy psychiatrist who’s been making Gyotaku prints for about three decades. 

The first thing you have to do before making a print of a fish is to catch one, of course. Chatowsky has had plenty of “models” over the years, as he grew up in Providence and has been fishing ever since he was a kid. (His favorite fish, if you’re wondering, are bluefish and striped bass.)

Once you have your fish in hand, you clean it, wipe it off, dry it, then pin out the fins. “Then you paint it with acrylic paint. I usually try to paint the fish the color of the fish, but you can paint it any color you want,” he said.

After that he takes either Japanese or Thailand rice paper, places it over the wet, painted fish, and makes a rubbing. “You make sure you get all the fins, the tail and the mouth. Then you lift up the paper and see what you’ve got. It usually takes four or five trials to get it to my satisfaction. Once we get the prints made, then I mount them on acid-free foam board, do a dry press, and then frame them.”

Chatowsky has sold his prints to people all over the country — and beyond. “One person from Istanbul, Turkey, bought a flounder because they have flounder there,” he said.

Caught here and in Florida

The museum is full of original, actual-sized Gyotaku prints of fish he caught in either local waters or when he lived in Florida for 27 years, up until three years ago when he moved back to this area. 

“We lived on both the Atlantic side of Florida and the Gulf side of Florida, so I was fortunate to be able to catch these different fishes.” 

Among them are the barracuda which he printed on Thailand paper, known for its imbedded specks of color. Others include the pompano and groupers, both “very good eating fish”; the king mackerel, which can weigh up to 100 pounds; and the dolphin fish, another strong fighting fish.

Chatowsky points to a print of another fish he caught in Florida. “I like to show people fish they’re not familiar with, like this one: The smooth, butterfly ray. I caught this in the St. Lucy River where we lived. Totally smooth — no spine — and shaped like a butterfly. It’s a learning experience,” he said.

And that’s the point of his museum, in which every print is accompanied by a card with a description of each species. “My interest in doing this is to present these fish to the public as an educational thing, and also so they can see the beauty of fish.”

He’s also injected some of his own experiences into the museum. After all, he caught all these fish himself.

“No one thought you could catch a tautog on a fly,” Chatowsky said, pointing to a display on the wall. “I used to belong to the Rhode Island Fly Fishermen Club. In 1972, fishing the shore at Warwick, I saw a tautog feeding. I cast a shrimp fly, and it grabbed it.” 

There were no world records for tautog flyfishing at the time, so he submitted it to the Salt Water Fly Rodders of America, which recognized it as a world record. “To their knowledge it was the first time a tautog had been caught on a fly.”

The other local fish he’s made prints of include a cod caught at Block Island, a sea robin caught at Third Beach, a clear-nose scape from Fort Adams, a striper caught at Brenton Point, and many more. 

All have their own stories and all look beautiful when printed the right way, said Chatowsky, who hopes his Fish Print Museum will help the public learn more about the fascinating creatures that are swimming all around us.

“The sea is very interesting.”

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