In most years, artist Luke Filmer can trade his labor of love for his passion of fishing for two one-month trips into the backcountry.
With wildfires raging across much of the west this summer, however, the Sequim newcomer had to curb his annual fishing treks.
Though he enjoys being in his workshop with his hands on his handiwork — high-end, custom-designed fish sculptures in their natural habitat — Filmer admits it can be a bit frustrating creating idyllic recreations of fishing moments rather than living them.
“Then I’m reminded of selling shoes,” he says.
Filmer and his wife Carola moved to Sequim about four months ago, trading their home and art gallery in Gig Harbor for a home and home workshop off Old Olympic Highway.
With a view of the Olympic Mountains looming to the south and mostly sunny skies streaming in, Filmer finds inspiration as he turns clients’ fish stories into works of art.
“It’s custom work per the client, per the fish,” Filmer says, carefully painting scales to his newest creation. “It’s kind of like building models as (we did as) kids, but with fish.”
Filmer specializes in salmon, trout and steelhead, but “I’ve done pretty much everything that swims.”
“I know what to do because I’m a fisherman myself,” he says.
Clients are generally those who fish or who appreciate fishing, someone looking to accent their home or place of business.
“The difference between what I do and others in the industry is, it’s at least 50 hours to make one of these,” he says, rather than six to eight hours from another artist.
Though he has an art background, Filmer says he hadn’t planned to become one of the more well-known fish replica artists over the past two decades.
Getting his start
Filmer was fishing by the time he was 6 after learning the ins and outs from his father, who worked for the National Park Service. His childhood playgrounds included Yellowstone, Yosemitie, Rocky Mountain National Park.
Filmer got hooked — so to speak — on the art of fish replicas when he ordered one himself. After a fishing trip to British Columbia in the early 1990s, Filmer sent in his photo to an artist.
“I got the fish (and) I was happy with it, but I saw things in it. … I thought, ‘I could do it better.’”
He made some for friends — he charged a nominal fee for the work — and then took a piece to a sporting goods store in Fife, dropping it off with the owner for some consideration.
“Twenty minutes later I got a call: ‘Can you make more of these? I want to sell them in my store.’”
Filmer sold out his stock of fish within a week. Some promotion later, he added four more stores to his distribution list. Then he added a fly fishing shop in Seattle, and then lodges in Alaska began asking for his work.
By 1998 he had formed Blackwater Fish Replicas and now has more than 700 pieces to his credit.
By day, Filmer — who boasts a formal art background but was selling shoes for Nordstrom when his fish replica art took off — was working full-time and then burning the proverbial midnight oil on his fish replicas.
“I was basically not sleeping for a few years,” he says.
Now clients find him by word-of-mouth and via social media like facebook, with a significant number of work coming from outside the country. Filmer says it’s about 50-50 between local and out-of-regional clients.
“It just kind of snowballs,” he says.
His art has been featured on several television programs in the Pacific Northwest including “Evening Magazine,” King5 TVs’ “Northwest Backroads,” KCTS9’s “Northwest Outdoors” as well as with newspaper and magazine coverage.
“Here I am, 20 years later. I’m booked out for at least a year,” he says. “I’m very pleased and very fortunate.”
In the details
Typically a client will send Filmer a photo and measurements of a particular fish along with some details about their experience. Filmer then orders a fish form and begins work putting on layer upon layer of color and scales.
“I visualize the stream in which the fish was caught,” he says.
Details, he says, are crucial to reliving the experience of catching a specific fish.
“Every scale I paint on a fish I do at least twice,” Filmer says, adding that it gives the piece a valuable depth and shimmer.
He’ll add a stream bed and rock shaped out of foam and, if applicable, a piece of sanded-down freshwater driftwood to round it out.
“It’s not just the fish, but fish in its habitat,” Filmer says. “It’s a museum-quality stream bed display.”
Luke and Carola spent the past 13 years or so in Gig Harbor, the past three running an art gallery (Blackwater Trading Co.) that boasted about 50 artists.
But Luke found he was so busy running the gallery and doing commissioned work that he had no time for fish; his tradition was to take time off in June and September and go to Idaho and Montana. “I’ll be gone the whole month, hiking around,” he says.
That’s part of what prompted the move to Sequim. With Carola doing the marketing for the business, Luke is able to create in a prime scenic spot — and it doesn’t hurt that he’s near some prime fishing spots, too.
“I love Sequim: the Blue Hole, the 16 inches of rain, the trail,” Filmer says.