Once upon a time, the only craft most kids did at the beach consisted of finding seashells, painting them with watercolors, calling them ashtrays and giving them to tolerant relatives for Christmas. Nowadays, when kids study esoteric foreign arts and crafts even in nursery school, a day at the beach can be fraught with educational purpose.
On a recent trip to Rehoboth Beach, we experimented with gyo-taku , the venerable scene at a riverbank in Japan: A fisherman has hooked a fish. Instead of having it stuffed or something barbaric, he makes a record of his catch by printing an ink impression of it on rice paper. To enhance the memory of the occasion, he might also print some of the leaves of trees along the bank.
Taking out a calligraphy brush, he pens a haiku about the event next to the print. Then he toasts the art with sake , cleans the ink off the fish and takes it home and eats it, cooked or uncooked.
Picture the scene at Rehoboth Beach: Helen, 10; John, 10; Daniel, 8; Selena, 5; Tabitha, 4; and Marisa, 4, stare at two croakers, or hardheads, straight from Brown's Fish Market, and shout in unison, "Yuk!"
We had looked in vain for fish washed up on the beach. I had hoped to find a fish, preferably one that hadn't been dead long enough to attract too many flies, and to print it, perhaps with some interesting seaweed found nearby. Instead, I drove to a Brown's on the main highway and asked for two of the smallest fish they had. Ms. Brown is very savvy about gyo-taku , and if you own up to what you're doing she'll be sure not to scale and clean the fish, which makes them lose both character and firmness.
When the kids had stifled their aversion to the fish, we took one fish and blotted it with paper towels. Then we placed it on a convenient wooden bulkhead for inking. We used water-soluble tubes of ink made for making woodblock or linoleum-block prints. It comes in many colors and is available at art stores. Poster paint or something of that consistency would also work, however. If you use poster paint, you can just brush it on. If you use ink, it's quicker and easier to roll it on with a roller or brayer, another tool used in block printing. Since we had only one brayer, we used one color of ink at a time. Helen squeezed a large glob of brown ink into an aluminum throw-away pie pan and rolled it cut with the brayer. When the ink was all over the brayer, she rolled it over the fish. While she was rolling, Daniel spread out the fins so they would make an impression, too.
Then we moved the fish to a clean place so no extraneous ink would get on the print. Helen took a piece of paper-typewriter bond-pressed it carefully on the linked fish and went over the whole thing with a large metal spoon. The first impression was a little too gloppy, but the second print was just right-except that the paper wasn't quite large enough for the whole fish. To solve that problem, we switched to some long sheets of Japanese rice paper, which is also available at art stores. Legal-size typing paper would probably work also. To get the fish to swim on the paper in the opposite direction-necessary for an artistic composition on the long sheet of paper, Helen thought-we turned the fish over and inked the other side.
The four- and five-year-olds were mainly interested in rolling the ink. But when we washed the roller in the ocean, got out a clean pie plate and a clean fish and squeezed out some bright turquoise ink, the little kids wanted to make some prints, too. Since all three of the little girls had studied printmaking at school, the Smithsonian Associates courses, or the Corcoran, they were able to pull their own prints with very little coaching. They did have to be urged not to move the paper once they had placed it on the fish.
You can, of course, make fish prints right in your own kitchen. The advantage to doing it at the beach is that clean-up is easier.Everyone gets dunked in the ocean, using sand as an abrasive to clean stubborn ink spots.
It's also easy to get rid of the evidence at the beach. I wanted to clean the ink off the fish and grill them for dinner, but the kids drew the line at that and voted unanimously for the local Roy Rogers. So I walked to the end of the jetty and threw the fish back whence they'd come. The eddy of turquoise ink blended with the ocean, and the eddy of brown ink soon disappeared. I tried in vain to compose a haiku.